“The Hitler in Ourselves”? The Case for Holocaust Theatre
I am a Holocaust theatre historian – I specialise in English-language theatre about the Holocaust. One of the top three responses I get when I tell people what I do is “Oh, is there any?” My usual answer is yes, and then some comment on The Diary of Anne Frank – the most famous piece of Holocaust theatre in the world. But theatre about the Holocaust is much wider than that. In the following, I will be talking about the case for Holocaust theatre and its ability to educate, inform, challenge, provoke, and, ultimately, to ask more questions than it answers. This includes confronting the spectator’s awareness of what psychologist Max Picard called the ‘Hitler in ourselves’ – our ability to perpetrate.
Holocaust theatre constitutes a huge range of performances, from dramas and comedies to verbatim plays and musicals. Most commonly, the experiences of victims/survivors and perpetrators are presented. Theatre is even subtly present in Holocaust exhibitions and museums: for example, the Programme Director of the Core Exhibition at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews (Warsaw) is a theatre and performance scholar; the Content Leader of the Holocaust Galleries at the Imperial War Museum (London) has an extensive background as a theatre producer.
Holocaust-related theatre is not confined to the post-1945 era. The Nazis strictly regulated theatre in Germany and the occupied territories, utilising it to address everything from collective German identity and Nazi ethnic/racial policies to anti-religious campaigns and Nazi propaganda. Scholars such as Markas Petuchauskas, Lisa Peschel, and Rebecca Rovit and Alvin Goldfarb have carefully documented the existence of theatre in the concentration camps and ghettos, performed by the prisoners – most famously (but not limited to) the Vilnius Ghetto (Lithuania), the Warsaw Ghetto (Poland) and Theresienstadt (Czech Republic). At its most fundamental level such theatre afforded prisoners a means of cultural resistance and defiance, as well as a measure of hope.
But what use is Holocaust theatre in the contemporary moment? At the time of writing, it’s extremely relevant. A major refugee crisis is sweeping Europe as people flee civil war in Syria – and, as with the Jews of Germany in the 1930s, many European countries seem extremely reluctant to offer asylum. In the aftermath of a major global financial recession, the popularity of far-right political parties and political figures with extreme views on nationalism, race and religion is on the rise. Notions of the ‘other’, ranging from suspicion to those perceived as being ‘foreign’ to outright xenophobia, racial hatred and physical attacks, are gaining ground. In very simple terms, while Holocaust theatre educates and informs audiences about the Holocaust, it also enables spectators to draw parallels and comparisons between history and the world they live in today, and – it is to be hoped – take action accordingly.
As stated, plays about the Holocaust that have been written post-1945 are usually intended to educate and inform. The most oft-used narrative is that of the victim/survivor, utilising spectator empathy – typically in the most basic form of ‘putting yourself in someone else’s shoes’ – to encourage audience members to engage with the characters and learn some kind of ‘moral lesson’ (although this notion is somewhat problematic). The performance of plays created by those directly caught up in the Holocaust, such as those written by prisoners in Theresienstadt, allows us to ‘experience’ what prisoners saw without attempting the problematic endeavour of ‘putting ourselves in their shoes’ (for example, how are modern spectators supposed to truly imagine themselves as starving, ill and/or incarcerated under fear of death?).
In my opinion, the greatest value of Holocaust theatre is its ability to challenge spectators to confront the “Hitler in ourselves”. In civilised society, we like to assume that we would oppose persecution and oppression if we were faced with it. However, under conditions of war or genocide, most of us would be just as likely to become perpetrators as victims. Plays such as David Edgar’s Albert Speer, examining the life of Hitler’s architect and Minister for Armaments; Jo Davidsmeyer’s Angel: A Nightmare in Two Acts, about infamous concentration camp guard Irma Grese; Gail Louw’s Blonde Poison, about Jewess-turned-Nazi-informer Stella Goldschlag; and even Peter Barnes’ Auschwitz, a provocative comedy about Nazi bureaucrats, challenge us in both subtle and explicit ways to consider how we might behave under similar circumstances.
In these plays, we are faced with myriad choices and justifications for making them: family life, pressures and expectations; a wish to ‘fit in’; a desire to avoid the fate of others; unthinking and unquestioning obedience to authority; both unintentional and wilful ignorance; and so on. These are relatable areas that most, if not all, people can identify with in an everyday context. The case for Holocaust theatre, therefore, rests upon its ability to spur spectators into asking themselves “What would I do?” and, it is to be hoped, begin to look at the world today as critical and critically-thinking citizens.