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  • The DeputyHistory, Morality, Art
  • Stephen J. Whitfield (bio)

The death of Pope Pius XII in the fall of 1958 provoked mourning throughout the world, among the faithful and outsiders alike; and the grief that Jewish groups expressed did not appear to be tinged with ambivalence. The sincerity of the tribute that Jewish spokesmen paid to the deceased is not open to retrospective doubt. They were explicit in conveying gratitude for the Vatican's spiritual leadership during the bleakest episode in the entire span of Jewish history.

Rabbi Maurice N. Eisendrath of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations noted the Pontiff's "rescue of many victims of Nazism" and his "cordiality toward men and women of all faiths."1 According to Rabbi Julius Mark of New York's Temple Emanu-El, Pope Pius XII was "possessed of a brilliant mind, a compassionate heart and a dedicated spirit. His Holiness gave of himself generously and self-sacrificingly to the sacred task of … justice." The praise of papal gallantry even came from a newborn nation that the Vatican did not formally recognize. "In the decade of Nazi terror," Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir asserted, "when our people was subject to terrible martyrdom, the voice of the Pope was raised in compassion for the victims." And before the New York Philharmonic began its performance of October 9, 1958, conductor Leonard Bernstein asked for a moment of silence to honor the Pope's memory.2

Little more than four years later, a thirty-one-year-old German Protestant begged to differ with this consensus. By examining the role of the Roman Catholic Church during the Second World War, Rolf Hochhuth would create a sensation. Der Stellvertreter was the first play that he ever wrote. Directed by Erwin Piscator, it opened at the Freie Volksbühne in Berlin on February 20, 1963. The West German government was not pleased. Chancellor Ludwig Erhard called the playwright "a hooligan and a good-for-nothing," and an official apology was submitted to the Vatican. Chancellor Helmut Kohl reiterated an expression of regret in 1986. A published version of the play nevertheless came out in 1963, and within a year sold nearly 200,000 copies in Germany. Late that year the philosopher Karl Jaspers met Hochhuth and was "delighted to see this … [young] German, self-taught (i.e., without a university education and without a [End Page 153] Gymnasium diploma [i.e., Abitur]), passionately engaged with the question of the Jews," but "not at all fanatical" on the subject.3

At the end of the year, the play hit Paris; the director was Peter Brook. Riots erupted between foes and supporters of Le Vicaire; and the theatre resounded with shouts of "Vive Pie XII!" and "A bas les Juifs!" Actors were assaulted in the theater and sometimes needed police protection to get home safely.4 In Basle, 200 policemen were assigned to provide security on opening night. Seventeen straight performances there were nevertheless interrupted, and The Deputy was shut down. Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. was advised that riots would occur if the play opened in New York; he ignored the warnings. On the opening night on Broadway, the American Nazis who were picketing the theater seemed to pose such a menace that the audience was not permitted to go outside during the intermission. The Deputy also swept its way through Vienna, Stockholm (where the director was Ingmar Bergmann) and London, though not, apparently, Rome. Within a few years, seventy-five different productions were mounted in twenty-seven countries. The published version of the play, which includes a historical appendix that runs fifty pages, was translated into seventeen languages. The impact of Hochhuth's work, the theater scholar Eric Bentley boldly claimed, represented "almost certainly the largest storm ever raised by a play in the whole history of the drama."5 Nor did the controversy entirely abate. As late as 1988, while Pope John Paul II was visiting Austria, fifty protesters denounced as disrespectful a Vienna production of Der Stellvertreter, and disrupted the staging of the play.6

For the nearest precedent in arousing continental controversy, consider the fierce Parisian reaction to Le Sacre du Printemps in 1913. But...


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