Rolf Hochhuth obituary

Michael Coveney
Photograph: Ullstein Bild/Getty Images

It is rare nowadays for a playwright to trigger public controversy and furore to the same extent as did the German writer Rolf Hochhuth in the 1960s, with stage dramas about the alleged indifference of the Catholic church, and specifically Pope Pius XII, to the Holocaust, and an implication that Winston Churchill was behind the 1943 air crash that killed the Polish military leader General Władysław Sikorski.

Hochhuth, who has died aged 89, wrestled the shared guilt of his nation’s commitment to nazism into the public arena and in so doing revealed an ability to dramatise both sides of an argument, while pillorying public figures who perpetrated, or appeared to condone, the death camps and the area bombing of civilian targets.

Both these major plays, about the pope and Churchill, were premiered in Berlin and performed in London. Der Stellvertreter (The Representative), at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1963, with the pope played first by Alan Webb, then by Eric Porter, had a design by Ralph Koltai in which – as in the script – a Nazi gas chamber dissolved into the papal throne room in the Vatican.

Soldaten (Soldiers), in the West End in early 1969, had been the source of a furious backstage row at the National Theatre between its chair, Lord (Oliver) Chandos, who had served in Churchill’s war cabinet, and its artistic director, Laurence Olivier, who defended his right to present it, even though he was a Churchill loyalist. The NT board vetoed the play after the lord chamberlain’s office indicated they might anyway withhold a licence for the play’s performance.

Rolf Hochhuth in 1987. He wrestled the shared guilt of his nation’s commitment to nazism into the public arena. Photograph: Ullstein Bild/Getty Images

A furious Olivier, who always insisted on the importance and theatrical merit of the play, sided with his provocative literary manager, Kenneth Tynan, whom the board mistrusted. Tynan saw Hochhuth’s play as a means of emulating the RSC’s radical strain of work, in their production not only of The Representative but also in Peter Brook’s sensational stagings of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade and of US, a multi-authored play denouncing the war in Vietnam, with the onstage burning of “live” butterflies.

Against this background, Soldiers was deferred by Tynan and the producer Michael White until the inevitable demise of the lord chamberlain in 1968. But it ran for only three months at the New theatre (now the Noël Coward) and the producers suffered a heavy defeat in a libel case brought by the pilot of the plane on which Sikorski was travelling who had, unknown to them, survived the crash. Tynan and White recovered their losses by producing their Broadway nude revue Oh, Calcutta! at the Roundhouse in 1970.

Hochhuth’s plays – verbose and traditional in construction – are written in free verse, with flashes of theatrical fireworks amid swathes of detailed argument. His brand of political theatre, along with the plays of Weiss and Martin Walser, derived from the still influential documentary style of Brecht and Erwin Piscator, has fallen out of fashion, though his work was produced by his English translator, Robert David MacDonald, at the Glasgow Citizens in the 1980s and, more recently, at the little Finborough in Earl’s Court, London.

Hochhuth, an authentic Protestant, as you can tell from the moral flintiness of his plays, was born in the small Hessian city of Eschwege, the son of Friedrich Hochhuth, a shoe factory owner, and his wife, Ilse (nee Holzapfel). As a teenager in the second world war, Rolf was a member of a subdivision of the Hitler Youth, and afterwards attended lectures at Heidelberg and Munich universities.

Alec McCowen as Father Riccardo Fontana in The Representative at the Aldwych theatre, London. Photograph: Reg Lancaster/Getty Images

In the early 50s he edited a book of folk tales which did so well the publishers gave him three months’ paid leave and he went to Rome, where he immersed himself in Vatican history during the war, the seed of his first play.

He married Marianne Heinemann (whose mother had been arrested and decapitated by the Gestapo) in 1957 and eventually gave his play to Piscator, who had taken over the Volksbühne theatre in Berlin in 1962. Piscator agreed to produce Der Stellvertreter if the author would cut it from nine hours to four. He did.

The subject of the play had already been broached on stage by the French dramatist and screenwriter Armand Gatti, but Hochhuth drilled right down to the moral and ethical issues, as he did in all his writing. MacDonald, a friend and colleague of both Piscator and Hochhuth, denied that the latter ever falsified history, although he could, he admitted, be accused of selecting his facts to fit a thesis – “but so can every single historian since Gibbon”.

Among the Hochhuth plays MacDonald translated and directed in Glasgow were Judith, a 1984 world premiere, about the assassination of an American president, in the metaphorical context of a 1943 Nazi censorship of a play about the biblical heroine killing Holofernes; and a glittering conversation piece, Mozart’s Nachtmusik (2002), in which the composer’s death was not attributed to Salieri (as in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus) but to a jealous court official whose wife was Mozart’s last pupil and mistress.

Also in 2002, Costa-Gavras made a powerful film, Amen, based on one strand of Der Stellvertreter, in which a fictional young Jesuit protests against the pope’s silence by donning a yellow star and boarding a train for Auschwitz.

Hochhuth was planning a production of a play about Coco Chanel – and her conduct and allegiances during the occupation of France – to be directed in Berlin by Klaus Maria Brandauer. He remained a controversialist, excoriating his government for bailing out what he called Greece’s “sham” bankruptcy and petitioning Angela Merkel to grant the whistleblower Edward Snowden asylum – it was a moral duty, he said, for Germans to do so “in the light of our shameful past”.

He is survived by his fourth wife, Johanna Binger, whom he married in 2009; and by two sons, Martin and Fritz, from his marriage to Marianne, which ended in 1972 in divorce. He was predeceased by a son, Sasha, from his second marriage, to Dana Pavic, which ended in divorce; and by his third wife, Ursula Euler, who died in 2004.

• Rolf Hochhuth, dramatist, born 1 April 1931; died 13 May 2020