The cry of the 'Wolves' evokes disturbing emotions

A German World War II-era play, Wölfe, gets postponed after receiving criticism of being 'Nazi legacy'

By Gerhard Stadelmaier
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

Playwright Hans Rehberg lived from 1901 to 1963. He had his creative peak between 1930 and 1943. His favorite themes were the great, lonely, sensitive, tragic aristocratic men who were hard on themselves but more “fate's ball boys“ against the greater totality. People who have been thrown, and who accept being thrown as something terribly impersonal, and suffer and endure. They are, so to speak, in an expressionist-existentialist historicity.

However, Rehberg never wrote about an “Adolf Hitler“ or a “Joseph Goebbels“ or Hitler's “Thousand-Year Empire.“ Nonetheless, he was well liked during the Nazi era, despite being a Nazi Party (NSDAP) member who wrote no Nazi plays, yet was under contract as an author by the Suhrkamp publishing house. Publisher Suhrkamp took over the Jewish-owned S. Fischer publishing house under his own name when its Jewish owners were forced to emigrate. The publishing house was regarded as a distributor of Nazi propaganda during the war years. Admittedly, no one knows Rehberg's plays today any more. Moreover, there is hardly any compelling justification for producing them, for strong men have long since migrated to weak comedies.

Now the Erlangen city theater has announced that it wants to dig up Rehberg's play Wölfe (Wolves) from 1943 again. According to everything that can be read about it - it cannot be read itself, as there are no editions in print - it is a play about a German submarine captain with unconditional powers of endurance against the ghosts of dead seamen, despairing women at home, relentless fates and a hopeless battle. At that time, in 1943, the premiere was in Breslau under the direction of Bernhard Minetti, with Dieter Borsche in one of the leading roles as a commanding officer. The play was a success, but Propaganda Minister Goebbels nonetheless forbade it being staged in the capital of the Reich. He believed it contained too little propaganda and too much pessimism.

It can only be surmised why the Erlangen Theater is now suddenly a fan of submarine atmosphere and the people who were locked into the iron underwater coffin. Moreover, the poor endurance-driven seamen, who would not be able to excite a U-boat dog today, are even less likely to be dramatically appealing. Rather, the attraction will probably lie in the sensationalist coquetry with a non-existent “Nazi dramatist.“

Thus a theater that normally has a low profile in the national arena can really draw attention to itself by playing with taboos and not breaking with taboos and thereby prove a non-existent courage. And instantly, Ralph Giordano the chief federal guardian of correctness, whose wagging finger is known to constantly sing, “My peace has gone,“ has done this small cheeky theater a favor across the Federal Republic by certifying its extreme courage. For Giordano is demanding no less than a ban on the production of the play, which he said constituted an “act of reconciliation with the perpetrators at the expense of the victims“ and again showed, that “our country has not yet come to terms with its Nazi legacy.“ As if Wölfe was pure Nazi legacy and the victims that Rehberg shows were not also victims of Nazi insanity in their turn.

On the other hand, theater historian Günther Rühle was just as quick to speak out in favor of producing the play. In an interview with daily newspaper Die Welt, Rühle said that Rehberg was the only dramatist from the Nazi era who could be discussed and “possibly needs revising.“ The play Wölfe was considered to be a drama about endurance, but in reality was “a play full of terror (sic!) about the huge losses in the submarine war,“ he said. He had read the Rehberg play two years ago and was surprised “how much depression is in it,“ he said. As if we did not have enough depression in the theater already, and as if this bookkeeper's desire for “revision“ was a quality in itself.

The city of Erlangen has now postponed the play, saying the play needed to be flanked by a accompaning program, including a critical exihibition about the Nazi-era. As if politics could interfere in the art of theater in the manner that prevailed in the times from which the incriminated play stems. The art of theater is free and will remain so. However, it is also so free that it does not have to play all the old rotten fish that are still hanging around in the trawl net of time.

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Oct. 10, 2003