- Performing Oblivion / Enacting Remembrance: The Merchant of Venice in West Germany, 1945 to 1961
“After those years, let’s take our hats off to Shylock!”1 This was the heading for a review of Hans Schalla’s widely publicized 1952 production of The Merchant of Venice at the Bochum City Theater. Besides the ominous phrase “those years,” several other passages in the text also offered indirect references to the recent past. Thus, while the scenes dealing with Portia’s suitors were playfully described as “a socially exclusive entertainment of the highest order,” Shylock’s presence on the stage came to be seen as deeply unsettling: “However, the Eternal Jew casts his uneerie, grandiose shadow into this aristocratic, if not to say snobbish, planetarium.”2 As the general tone of the review indicates, this characterization was meant critically: what really seemed to cast its “shadow” over the performance was a murderous past in which stereotypes such as the “Eternal Jew” had played a central role. At the end, the critic expressed his relief that the veiled confrontation with that past in the medium of Shakespeare’s play had gone well: “Justifiably, there was warm applause. Shylock was greeted with ovations. In part, these were in acknowledgement of his task to represent the shivers of history. Hats off!”3
Written only seven years after the unconditional surrender of the German army, the breakdown of National Socialist society, and the liberation of the camps, the review betrays difficulties in finding a critical distance from ingrained [End Page 364] anti-Semitic concepts—concepts Merchant had helped to popularize, most notably with the 1943 production at Vienna’s Burgtheater.4 At the same time, the text manifests the pressing necessity of dealing with the Holocaust. Articulating and simultaneously obscuring persecution and genocide, the review stands as a significant example of the complex combinations of evasion and confrontation that have characterized attitudes toward the Holocaust and the National Socialist past in Germany. Strikingly, it is Shylock to whom the reviewer of Schalla’s Merchant assigned the “task” of solving the knotty problems faced by German society in relating to the past, to the world, and to itself. Shakespeare’s deeply ambivalent Jewish character was expected to negotiate pervasive tensions between absence and presence, silence and confrontation—tensions also between a preoccupation with pains suffered and an acknowledgment of crimes committed.5 Shylock supposedly “represented” or even “stood in for” (vertreten is the German term used in the review) what was vaguely referred to as the “shivers of history.” In other words, he was expected to open up the recent past to discursive treatment without making the events of that past explicit.
It is the purpose of this essay to elucidate the complex and contradictory functions of The Merchant of Venice in West Germany during the immediate postwar period. The focus will be on the play’s reception on the stages and in theater reviews of the 1950s, and thus on a phase in the German history of Merchant that has been largely neglected by scholarship.6 Peter Zadek’s important [End Page 365] 1961 production at Ulm’s City Theater (the first of three productions by Zadek in Germany and Austria7) will provide the end point of the investigation: it stands as an early example of new (and better-researched) approaches to the play and of new relationships to the past, as they would emerge during the following decades. Thus, the time under consideration is the foundational period of the Federal Republic of Germany. This period, which largely corresponds to Konrad Adenauer’s chancellorship (1949–63), was politically and culturally defined by a generation who were already adults when National Socialism rose to power. As many former party members were returning to responsible positions in the administration or in politics and culture, denazification and reeducation gave way to what Norbert Frei has described as a deeply ambivalent strategy of politically managing the past (Vergangenheitspolitik).8 Aiming at the quick rebuilding of an integrated and economically productive society, this strategy combined far-reaching amnesties for former National Socialists with attempts to define a clear normative distance from National Socialism and with compensations for...