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The Passion play and the Führer

by
01 December 2010

Michael Counsell on’30s Oberammergau

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Oberammergau in the Nazi Era: The fate of a Catholic village in Hitler’s Germany
Helena Waddy
OUP £22.50 (978-0-19-537127-7)
Church Times Bookshop £20.25

Helena Waddy, born and educated in England, lectures in an American university on the history of the Nazi period and the Holo­caust. She studied the population of this village, since the lives of many individuals are described in great detail in the village archives. She has written a fascinating book about Oberammergau in the Nazi era, in which anecdotes reveal the charac­ters of many of the villagers.

At the end of the First World War, most of the population were loyal Roman Catholics. They re­sented the reparations that their nation had to pay to its conquerors, and were afraid that a Bolshevic uprising would destroy their German way of life.

The recession of the 1920s, when the German Mark was almost worth­less, caused widespread suffer­ing. When the Nazi Party seized power, some felt that here was a powerful movement that could solve their problems.

The Nazis blamed the Jews, and a number of people in Oberammer­gau swallowed their propaganda. The 300-year-old text of the play, and its 19th-century revision, certainly presented Judas Iscariot as joining with the High Priests in a wicked Jewish conspiracy to make Jesus a scapegoat for their problems. That was how many people thought at the time. But when the Nazis banned those who were even part-Jewish from taking any position in public life, and confiscated their property, many villagers took Jewish friends into their homes and pro­tected them.

But it took courage to resist the ruling party. Whether the people of Oberammergau knew what was happening in the death camps is not certain, but nobody dared speak out against them. Many men from the village died in the Second World War. The survivors underwent a process of “de-Nazification” after­wards, but, even ten years ago, I was aware of hidden tensions among the older people. Now, there can be few people living in the village who were old enough to join the Hitler Youth movement by the time the war ended.

The producers of the Passion Play have rewritten the script, attempting to remove any trace of anti-Semitism. It is made clear that Jesus and his disciples were Jews; Judas is treated with sympathy; and Joseph of Arimathaea, Nicodemus, and others are shown as leading Jews who sided with Jesus and opposed their superiors. The crucifixion is rightly portrayed as a struggle not between Jews and Christians, but between two groups of Jews.

This book raises important questions. Should we blame today’s Jews for what their ancestors did? Should we blame today’s Germans because some of their forebears were anti-Semitic? Or do we share in their guilt, because we all seek out scapegoats, and blame minor­ities, foreigners, or immigrants, for the consequences of our own selfishness? The Oberammergau Passion Play warns us that this must never happen again.

The Revd Michael Counsell is the author of Every Pilgrim’s Guide to Oberammergau and its Passion Play (Canterbury Press, 2008).

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