February 15, 2021

In light of current social justice movements, we see a renaissance of art allied to political activism—and questions regarding art’s capacity to speak to, even influence, politics. Peter Weiss’s 1965 play The Investigation spoke brutally to its time; does it speak again to ours?


The German-Swedish writer, painter, and filmmaker Peter Weiss is not so well known among the postwar German-speaking playwrights. Yet his essential contributions to a pragmatic, rational reflection on the horrors of the Holocaust and World War II are just as noteworthy as works by Thomas Bernhard, Heiner Müller, and Elfriede Jelinek that cover similar ground. Weiss’s monumental three-volume novel The Aesthetics of Resistance (1975–81) at its core discusses the function of art under political oppression. Over the last five years, in the light of current social justice movements, debate about the role of art in political activism has experienced a renaissance, which makes The Aesthetics of Resistance a timely read. Yet this short proposition will concern itself with another of Weiss’s works, his play The Investigation (1965), which might be even more apt for our moment.

For the last four years, countless journalists, political commentators, and politicians made comparisons between current US events and the Nazi dictatorship in Germany. Donald Trump was frequently called the next Adolf Hitler or Joseph Goebbels; Mike Pence was compared to Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS; ICE was equated with the Gestapo; and detention centers for migrants were repeatedly described as concentration camps. Trump’s fake news was what Goebbels referred to as Lügenpresse (lying press), both terms created to discredit news media offering alternative or opposing points of view. And US conservatives proclaimed that liberals were treating them like Jews in Nazi Germany through othering and public harassment.

But what are the ethics of such comparisons, given the unspeakable horrors the Third Reich committed? Can they be made with a clear conscience? Are there actual parallels between today’s political realities and the Holocaust, or is all of this rhetoric exaggerated, sensationalist, even offensive and distasteful, as if the events of our time, staggering as they may be, need dressing up as another, far more appalling disaster?

The Italian writer and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi declared that the Holocaust “happened, therefore it can happen again. It can happen, and it can happen everywhere.” Yes, there were many parallels between Trump’s administration and Nazi rule: authoritarianism, racism, false propaganda, violent mobs, intimidation of political opponents, ethnic myths, and a lot of dehumanizing language. Yet the United States between 2016 and 2020 was not Germany between 1933 and 1945 for one major reason: there was no Final Solution.

German Audio - Auto-Generated English subtitles under settings

Weiss’s play The Investigation, which could be described as the first docudrama produced for theater, concerns itself with the Final Solution. Its proposal that the politics of its day, namely 1965, were still heavily contaminated with the Nazi past seems to me more compelling than (naive) comparisons of former House majority leader Mitch McConnell to Martin Bormann, head of the Nazi Party Chancellery and Hitler’s private secretary.

The entire text, apart from a very few lines, is directly distilled from testimonies given by former SS men supervising the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. The tribunal became known as the Auschwitz Trial and took place between 1963 and 1965 in Frankfurt. But from a dramaturgical perspective, The Investigation is far more complex than simply a summary restaging of a trial. Out of thousands and thousands of pages of transcripts, Weiss distilled a shocking narrative about the relationships between German industry, the Nazi government, and the concentration camps. He shows that the camps were not just factories of death, but part of Germany’s economic machine. They were a product of capitalism and ultimately a real possibility for every capitalist society, since slave labor guarantees enormous profits. “The camps are still here,” as one survivor put it during the trial. Today they live on in the Xinjiang internment centers in China, in Russian labor camps, or even, many argue, in US prisons.

The majority of the play is about the presentation and remembrance of torture, murder, Zyklon B capsules, crematoria, and specific acts of unimaginable cruelty. Yet no matter how detailed and emotional the testimonies of ghastly atrocities are, we know, as did Weiss, that no actor could truly represent and inhabit the mind and body of a monstrous SS sadist. The actors are always just actors, innocent, acquainted not with death but only with words. One of the key witnesses in the play demands: “We must drop the view that the camp world is incomprehensible to us.” But what could possibly constitute a proper comprehension of such tales of torture, death, and horror? What is the audience supposed to take away other than sorrow, anguish, perhaps guilt? Theatrical acts on stage are not reality; we all know this. The camps were reality; the trial at Frankfurt was a sort of near-reality; but The Investigation is a sublimation, a play within a play. The Investigation brings the limits of our own emotions and the limits of art suddenly into sharp relief. All we have is a miserable feeling of failure and emptiness in the light of our inability to remedy, or go back in time to prevent, what took place in the camps. The play offers no catharsis or resolution of any kind.

Interestingly, the play’s nondramatic style—it renounces the use of dialogue (a traditional dramatic structure) and individually drawn characters (widely used to facilitate audience identification)—exacerbates this effect. A different dramatization of the testimonies might have elicited more affect (if not empathy), but the play as written creates a vast disconnect between the viewer and the events unfolding on stage—an outcome Weiss was clearly going for. His intent was less to represent historical events and more to send out a political warning about Germany’s seeming inability to deal with its gruesome past. As he himself stated, “Let them see it again and again and again.”

Weiss followed the Auschwitz Trials closely. He was likewise well aware of Adolf Eichmann’s 1961 trial in Jerusalem, as it had been televised around the world. Eichmann sat in a glass box surrounded by Israeli prosecutors and Holocaust survivors and gave testimony about the horrors of the Shoah, and it was an uncanny sight full of potential moral and political pitfalls. The Frankfurt defendants, themselves keenly aware of the Eichmann trial, used a number of similar strategies to exonerate themselves, namely minimizing, denying, or justifying their actions. As with Eichmann, the first step was to discredit the witnesses, followed by the suggestion that they themselves were also victims of the Nazi apparatus: “I was only acting within the legal system of Germany at that time.” “I was following the orders of my superiors, as were all of us.” “They would have sent us to the camps as well if we hadn’t done as we were told.” They denied guilt on the basis that there was a lack of knowledge about what exactly took place in the different parts of the camps. They downplayed their roles in and knowledge of the genocide. (Two SS men employed a totally different strategy. They confessed and pleaded guilty, but insisted that they had been successfully rehabilitated thanks to some form of inner purification and should be acquitted.)

The play premiered in 1965 in fifteen theaters simultaneously in West and East Germany. Looking at film recordings and still photography of some of the productions triggers unfortunate associations with today’s crass and voyeuristic courtroom reality TV shows like The People’s Court or the awful Judge Judy. While the play was widely regarded as a milestone in Germany’s coming to terms with its past, many critics asserted that the author had distorted facts and exploited the Holocaust for ideological Cold War purposes. Some complained that he portrayed West Germany as having made far less of an effort than East Germany to eradicate fascist ideology. Several reviews called his play mechanical, lifeless, and without artistic merit. One quite strange criticism was that because Weiss did not include the words “Jews,” “Auschwitz,” or “Germany” in the text, The Investigation was in fact not about Jews at all. But this is absurd; the script makes it abundantly clear that it’s about nothing else than the most heinous atrocity in human history.

Yet, by avoiding these three words, Weiss turned something particular into something greater, perhaps not time and place specific. Genocide can arise surprisingly quickly, as it did under the Nazi regime, and authoritarian leaders can emerge seemingly from nowhere, as the United States saw with Donald Trump. What Weiss’s play does so well is to emphasize that historical analogies must be made with the utmost care and accuracy. This is crucial when we compare modern-day politics with politics of the past, specifically the Third Reich. We must employ lessons of the past in as vigorous but also as nuanced a way as possible to call out distressing and dangerous political developments in our time.

Karol Svoboda is a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at Prague’s Univerzita Karlova. Areas of research include postwar European drama, culture and identity in the literature of the South Pacific, and archaeology on the Indian subcontinent.

Cover photo: The Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, December 30, 1963–August 19, 1965
duchamp's socks title-04.png