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Rolf Hochhuth, who challenged a pope’s wartime silence

NEW YORK — Rolf Hochhuth, a firebrand German writer whose play indicting Pope Pius XII for his silence about Nazi crimes led to riots in theaters and an international furor but also greater transparency in the Roman Catholic Church, died May 13 at his home in Berlin. He was 89.

The death was confirmed by his son Martin.

Mr. Hochhuth examined the moral culpability of Pius in “The Deputy,” which had its premiere in West Berlin in 1963. Confronted with evidence of the mass killings of Jews, the pontiff had shrunk from a public condemnation of Hitler, and in a 65-page commentary that was appended to the published play, Mr. Hochhuth wrote: “Perhaps never before in history have so many people paid with their lives for the passivity of one single politician.”

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“The Deputy” energized a generation eager to confront the ethical implications of the Holocaust and forced the church onto the defensive. It also helped establish documentary theater as an artistic form able to shape public discourse. Cultural critic Susan Sontag, writing in The Sunday Herald Tribune’s book review supplement, called the play “extremely important” and compared it to the war-crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann.

“The theater,” she wrote, “is courtroom.”

Many Catholics considered Mr. Hochhuth’s play a calumny. Defenders of Pius argued that a direct confrontation with Hitler by the pope would have led to brutal retribution against Catholics and church institutions across Europe; the Vatican’s cautious stance, they said, allowed it to quietly save thousands of Jews.

In 1965, pressured by the debate ignited by “The Deputy,” the Vatican archives began to release thousands of wartime records. Last year, the Vatican said it would grant full access to the documents.

The Rev. John Pawlikowski, a church historian, said in a phone interview that Mr. Hochhuth’s indictment of Pius XII was a historical pivot point. “He was the first to shape the image of Pius XII with which we are still dealing,” he said.

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“The Deputy” opened on Feb. 20, 1963, at the Freie Volksbühne theater. Its hero is a fictional Jesuit priest modeled after two actual priests who had paid with their lives for condemning Nazi atrocities. (The title of the play refers to the pope’s appellation as Christ’s vicar on earth.)

The priest, armed with information about the concentration camps that had been provided to him by an SS officer turned whistleblower, urges Pius XII to use his moral authority to stop the slaughter. But afraid of Nazi retribution, the pontiff issues only a mild, vaguely worded statement. The play’s final act takes place in Auschwitz: The priest has voluntarily followed Jewish deportees to his death.

Theater historian Louise Kerz Hirschfeld, who was married to the production’s set designer, Leo Kerz, remembered the mood inside the theater on the opening night. “People were weeping,” she said in a phone interview. “At the end there was this deadly silence. Then, people got up and there was a 20-minute applause. For the Germans, it was catharsis.”

Reactions were more extreme outside Germany. In Paris, actors were assaulted onstage. Among Swiss audiences, fist fights broke out. In Rome, the police cut short the play’s run after one night. And in Israel, the foreign ministry temporarily froze plans for a Tel Aviv production out of fear that it would scuttle negotiations for diplomatic recognition by the Holy See.

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“The Deputy” opened on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theater in 1964, produced and directed by Herman Shumlin with a translation by Richard and Clara Winston. Outside, members of the American Nazi party in uniform mingled with Catholics picketing the production. In the news media, German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt defended Mr. Hochhuth. Catholic publications denounced him. Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York called the play “an outrageous desecration.” Life magazine devoted a 12-page spread to the affair.

Rolf Hochhuth was born into a Protestant household on April 1, 1931, in the Hessian town of Eschwege. His father, Walter Hochhuth, had lost his shoe factory in the Depression; his mother was Ilse (Holzapfel) Hochhuth. Like most German boys, Rolf joined a Nazi youth organization.

After graduating from high school in 1948, he apprenticed as a bookseller in Marburg, Heidelberg, and Munich. He attended university lectures on history and philosophy but never earned a degree.

Mr. Hochhuth married Marianne Heinemann, a childhood friend, in 1957. Her mother, Rose Schlösinger, had been executed by the Nazis for her involvement with the Red Orchestra, a resistance group. The marriage ended in divorce, as did a second marriage to Dana Pavic. His third wife, Ursula Euler, died in 2004.

Along with his son, Martin, Mr. Hochhuth leaves his wife, Johanna Binger, a bookseller; another son, Friedrich; and two grandchildren.

Mr. Hochhuth took a position in 1955 as a reader and editor at the Bertelsmann publishing house. A three-month paid leave in Rome in 1959 allowed him to conduct the research that would be the basis for “The Deputy.”

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The finished work was deemed too controversial by his own publishing house. But the manuscript caught the eye of an editor, who showed it to director Erwin Piscator. A veteran of the Weimar era avant-garde, he had recently taken over direction of the Volksbühne theater and was looking for provocative material.

Translated into 20 languages and adapted for the screen in 2002 by Costa Gavras under the title “Amen,” “The Deputy” ensured Mr. Hochhuth’s fame and financial security. He continued to publish plays, essays, and articles at a prodigious rate, though none had the impact of “The Deputy.”

Yet he also smarted at the verdict of some critics, who thought his style dry and his subjects sensationalist. Indeed, “The Deputy” was not his only work to cause a stir. His next play, “Soldiers, an Obituary for Geneva,” was censored in Britain for presenting Winston Churchill as a tragic hero with blood on his hands in the British bombings of German civilians.

The play further accused Churchill of ordering the assassination of the exiled Polish prime minister, Wladyslaw Sikorski, who died in a plane crash in 1943. The pilot, who survived, successfully sued Mr. Hochhuth.

In the mid-1960s, Mr. Hochhuth befriended David Irving, who wrote a book about the bombing of Dresden and who would become a standard-bearer for Holocaust deniers. Mr. Hochhuth drew criticism in 2005 over an interview in which he seemed to make light of Irving’s revision of history.

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Mr. Hochhuth found little critical resonance with later works that skewered the postwar order, such as “Wessis in Weimar,” about privatization in eastern Germany following reunification, or “McKinsey Is Coming,” which to some seemed to endorse the assassination of capitalists. At his death he was at work on a play about the destruction of Native American populations.

The director Peter Sellars said in a phone interview that it was Mr. Hochhuth’s attention to historical source material that had made “The Deputy” such an influential work of documentary theater.

“It moved the work outside a zone of artistic production that you either like or don’t like,” Sellars said. “And the stakes were very high.”