What seethes for a long time - The Passion Play and anti-Semitism

"I felt I had to stand up and explain to the thousands of people gathered in the auditorium that what they heard and saw is unhistorical, misinterpreted and cruel in its conclusions as far as the Jews were depicted or stereotyped." Rabbi Joseph Krauskopf did not stand up during the Passion Play in 1900, but he described the impressions of his trip to Oberammergau in a long essay. That it was in fact no small compliment to Jews that a play full of Jewish characters attracted a quarter of a million visitors from all over the world in one summer. That it would be all the worse if this play reinforced the prejudices already existing against Jews and even stirred up even greater hatred. Krauskopf had been looking forward to the play, but that joy had gone the moment it started. He had imagined that he could come to Oberammergau as a tourist and watch the Passion Play like any other play - but that was not possible. "Once the first lines were spoken, the tourist became a critic; the traveller, the theologian, the cosmopolitan became a Jew."

Poster for the anniversary play of the Passion Play 1934

Also Christian Stückl knows: "There has always been a latent anti-Semitism in the history of all Passion Plays. The Jews were held responsible for Jesus’ death." There were about 400 Passion Plays in Bavaria during the Baroque period; they were always also a means of propaganda in a non-reading society. That did not change for centuries. In 1910, Lion Feuchtwanger came to Oberammergau; he also described the depiction as anti-Semitic: "In Oberammergau, the action of Christ is limited to the fact that he chases the money-changers and merchants from the temple. With admirable clumsiness, the Oberammergau dramaturg made this scene the starting point of Jewish hostilities. The traders are the ones who stir up the people and the priests against Jesus, the traders win Judas for betrayal; that he interrupted the traders in their occupation, this is why Jesus suffers and dies in Oberammergau."

Thus, it is hardly surprising that Adolf Hitler, known to be no friend of the Catholic religion, quickly realised during his visit in 1930 how well this play could be used for anti-Semitic propaganda. He declares Pilate to be the prototype of a "racially and intellectually" superior Roman who "appears like a rock in the midst of Jewish vermin and crowd." Joseph Goebbels took over the propaganda for the Play that took place out of sequence on the occasion of the tercentenary in 1934; on the posters was written: "Germany calls you!" The old, anti-Judaism solidified in the church concurred with a new racist anti-Semitism. The play did not take place in 1940 because of the Second World War, but during preparation, the local council no longer assigned the roles, but the National Socialist German Workers' Party - to staunch party members.

The Play in 1950 was - as the one in 1922 after the First World War - propagated as a peace play. It was referred to the official teaching mission of the church granted by Cardinal Faulhaber in 1934, the "missio canonica". Changes requested by Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Miller and Billy Wilder, among others, were ignored unwaveringly. The director of the Play, Johann Georg Lang, stated: "We have a clear conscience. We must fulfil a vow, and our play contains nothing offensive."

Many saw this differently: The Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee began to write analyses and to suggest changes. However, this did not affect the Play in 1960 either: Lang, who staged the Passion Play for the fifth time, was 72 years old and was not interested in change. Only in the 1960s were there more intensive discussions in the municipality; the relatively young Hans Schwaighofer was elected as director. He made reform proposals - which the municipality again rejected. In 1968, Cardinal Döpfner finally withdrew Oberammergau the "missio canonica" because of the refusal to carry out any reforms. This finally led to a rehearsal play in 1977 based on an older text than the previously used text by Josef Alois Daisenberger from 1860: the version of the Benedictine Father Ferdinand Rosner from Ettal from the year 1750. Although it was well received, the local council decided to do everything as usual in 1980.

"Rosnerprobe"  in 1977 with stage director Hans Schwaighofer

Stage Director Christian Stückl 1990

It was not until 1990, when Christian Stückl staged his first Passion Play at the age of 27, that the reform question was evolving again. Stückl wanted to implement all 18 demands by the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, but was thwarted by the theological adviser who the Catholic Church (which had now become more conservative under Joseph Ratzinger) provided for the municipality. "After such a long time, in which we were immobile, we have to do that now and see that we can eliminate the allegations," Stückl said.

Only with his second Passion Play in 2000 was he able to carry out the fundamental textual reform. Together with his dramaturg Otto Huber, he re-wrote entire scenes and fundamentally changed the view of the Jews’ role. The Passion Play becomes an inner-Jewish conflict, advocates and antagonists can be found in each group, in the high council, among the common people and among the loyal supporters. Jesus is no longer limited to his suffering, but becomes a fighter for his Jewish faith. "The text by Daisenberger was based almost exclusively on the Gospel of John," Stückl said. "There, Jesus is being propagated as the Son of God right from the beginning, while Matthew much stronger sees Jesus the human and Jew. My goal is to bring Jesus down to earth and make him comprehensible." No longer relying on clichés and prejudices, but to fathom a basically all too human story. Finally, according to Feuchtwanger, "the Oberammergauers, as the only ones in the world, have the privilege of staging the wonderful drama material that the gospels offer".

Text: Anne Fritsch
Pictures: Passion Play Oberammergau