Passion parade

Every ten years, half a million visitors flock to a tiny Bavarian village to watch a medieval myster

Until 8 October, a pretty village in the Bavarian Alps plays host to an extraordinary theatrical event. Every ten years since the 17th century, local villagers have enacted the climax of the Gospels, Christ's Suffering, Crucifixion and Resurrection. It is a breathtaking, six-hour blend of opera, devout ritual and lavish Hollywood epic. You would never guess that this cast of thousands are all amateurs. Yet the Oberammergau Passion play inspires not only intense adoration, but fierce criticism, too.

Oberammergau's Passion play was prompted by the plague of 1633, which ravaged Bavaria after the Thirty Years War. More than a tenth of the population had already died when the survivors made a solemn vow: if God spared them, they would perform the Passion every decade for ever more. Thereafter no one perished, or so the story goes. More than four centuries later, that pledge has become an international spectacle, transforming an obscure outpost into a worldwide point of cultural and religious pilgrimage. First staged in a graveyard, it is now performed on an open-air stage against a beautiful Alpine backdrop. More like a football stadium than a theatre, this huge, raked hall could house Oberammergau's entire population yet, when I went, every seat was taken and there were long queues for returns.

This year, more than 2,000 locals, almost half the village, will give 100-plus performances to half a million visitors. Qualifications for participants are severe. If you weren't born here, you must have lived here for 20 years, or ten if you marry a lifelong resident. Until 1990, rules for women were even more rigid. Actresses had to be unmarried and under 35. In 1880, an actress who had had an affair was banned for life. In 1950, a prospective Virgin Mary was relegated to playing Mary Magdalene after she was spied dancing with American soldiers. In 1990, when a married mother was cast as Mary, some spectators complained.

Sectarianism has also been rife. A fifth of the villagers are Protestant, yet only recently were they allowed speaking roles. This year, for the first time, several Muslims also appear, including the Turkish trainer of the football team, who plays a Roman soldier. But the big sectarian thorn has always been Judaism.

This revenge drama evolved amid the vicious religious strife of the early 1600s, yet its roots lie in more Rabelaisian medieval mystery plays. Earlier versions featured devils devouring Judas's intestines (played by a string of sausages), but the Catholic Church frowned on such comic antics and, in 1770, all Bavarian Passion plays were banned. Out of hundreds, only Oberammergau's prevailed. In this sanitised, Church-sanctioned revival, Jews became the bogeymen.

Nineteenth-century Romanticism transformed Oberammergau into a biblical Shangri-La, especially for people in Britain, where New Testament plays, so popular in the Middle Ages, were now deemed blasphemous. An English cardinal said there were two ways back to Jesus for Christians who had lost their faith: Jerusalem or Oberammergau; the Prince of Wales paid a visit; and Thomas Cook brought his own Baptist package tour.

During the Third Reich, this nostalgic work of folk art was easy prey. The Nazis cut ticket prices; Hitler attended two productions and praised its vivid depiction of "the muck and mire of Jewry". For half a century since, Oberammergau has tried to shake off the Fuhrer's unwelcome patronage, but for many informed, influential outsiders, its reforms seem too little, too late. In 1966, Gunter Grass and Arthur Miller, among others, demanded a boycott. In 1970, Munich's own archbishop called for revision, and the Church withheld its official blessing. For the first time in a century, there were empty seats. In 1984, Rabbi James Rudin of the American Jewish Committee called the play "grotesque".

Faced with such stiff condemnation, the villagers could have staged their play in increasing isolation. But despite its mythic status as the secret custom of a hidden hinterland, Oberammergau's play has always been its window on the outside world. It has lasted so long because it has always adapted to survive. It is a barometer, reflecting Germany's shifting social climate. And since the war, a generational struggle for its style and substance has been played out in the wings.

In 1990, a new generation won this tug of war between reformers and traditionalists. Their bold, liberal remake rescued a reverent dramatic relic from atrophy and decay. The principal actors now make a pilgrimage to Israel, and, in a radical change to the dramaturgy, Jesus is now unmistakably Jewish. He prays in Hebrew. He wears a prayer shawl. His Last Supper is a Passover meal, with a menorah on the table. At his trial, there are Jewish dissenters in the court and in the crowd. Conversely, the rabbis could be any rigid religious hierarchy, even the Vatican. "Jesus is not a man from Rome," says the dynamic young director, Christian Stuckl, who acted in the play as a child, and whose family tree stretches back via virtuoso performances by his father and grandfather to a victim of the plague. "From the first to the last day, he is a Jew."

Christ's relationship with Judas has become a subtle but potent power struggle. Once Judas was the sole archetypal Jew amid a dozen Gentile apostles. Now he is a moral but frustrated fundamentalist militant whose betrayal acquires a dreadful momentum of its own. "Judas is his best friend," says Anton Burkhart, a forester who portrays an explosive, hypnotic Jesus. "He wants to fight for his country." This Judas is a victim, too.

In 1990, Stuckl was tied to the play's older traditions, but now his mesmeric staging has won him the freedom to make significant changes. For the first time in a generation, there are new stage designs and costumes, and a new script, which is nearer to the humanity of Matthew's Gospel than to the abstractions of John. His fellow moderniser is Otto Huber, who first appeared in the play when he was three. Four of his ancestors appeared in the play of 1680. Two perished in the plague. Huber flew to the US to meet Jewish critics, and removed Matthew's fateful line, "His blood be upon us, and upon our children", in which the Jews accept eternal culpability for killing Christ. Huber's children appear in this play, too.

"Former Passion plays, especially those from the medieval time, treated the conflict of Jews and Christians in a very dangerous way," says Huber, speaking in his dressing room, fresh from his performance as the play's narrator. "The idea that the Jews are morally and intellectually inferior to Christians used to be very clear in the play, but that's not the message that we will give to our audience." Huber's liberalism got him thrown out of the 1970 production. In 1982, he staged his own Passion play. In 1990, he returned, bringing shades of grey to a black-and-white morality tale, playing a significant part in shifting its focus from theology to theatre, and tempering its triumphalist Christianity by presenting it as a story of internal Jewish schism.

"Huber and Stuckl did a tremendous job of meeting virtually all the objections of the Jewish groups," says James Shapiro, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, and the author of a book about the play. "They did a very responsible job of trying to address these sensitivities." But some Jewish observers still harbour sincere doubts. In 1999, Rabbi Leon Klenicki of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith claimed that, in its current form, the play would "invite, if not incite, anti-Semitism".

"Leon was very upset," says Shapiro. "He was actually shaking during the production." Yet maybe the play's remaining problems are intrinsic to the Gospels. Nearly 40 years after the Vatican's seminal "Declaration of the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions", the play has finally caught up. "This play accords with official Church position," Shapiro told his fellow Jewish critics. "If you have a problem with it, the right address to take complaints is the Vatican."

"They notice there have been many changes, but for the [most] conservative of them, most of all for those who were in the Holocaust, the changes are not enough," says the Lutheran pastor Carsten Haublein, who appears in the play, of the continual debate with Jewish observers. "I'm happy that there is discussion about this, but for me, there is also a border. There is a line where it should stop. You can come to a point where it's not recognisable as a Christian play."

Ironically, these controversies have forced the village to consider its past in far more detail than many of its neighbours. A Hebrew music festival is planned; visiting speakers have included a concentration camp survivor. As Huber says: "This is a dialogue that cannot be finished." There are apt yet awkward parallels between Matthew's blood curse and the German burden of the Final Solution. Germans have had to ask themselves questions about collective guilt that they once asked, wrongly, of the Jews. "When there was this kind of sin," says Huber, "there is a responsibility to get rid of it."

In the play, old associations persist. When this mob bellows, the English ear hears the breaking glass of Kristallnacht. Yet most scenes recall nobler chapters in German history. When this muscular, angry Christ throws the merchants out of the Temple, he could be a Martin Luther, nailing theses to a church door.

"It's not only acting," explains Burkhart, "it's also a religious experience." But it is not an act of worship. "It's not a church, it's a theatre, and I am not a priest," he says. "You can play the human side of Jesus. You can't play the Son of God." "It's not real," agrees Haublein, of a play that replicates Holy Communion, but does not duplicate it. "It's not a play of the Church. It's a play of the inhabitants." Yet like a religious rite, it has become an integer for their lives. The death rate drops before the play, and rises thereafter. Huber's mother sang her father a Passion song on his deathbed. Oberammergau is a place where religious theatre is uniquely important. The identity of this village has fused with the identity of its play.

And, despite enduring differences with Judaism, for Christians, the play has become a powerful ecumenical force. "We have common ground in the Passion play," says Haublein. "There are Catholic and Protestant people together, playing the same play, on the same basis." This year, for the first time, he blessed the play alongside his Catholic counterpart. Most actors are still Catholic, but most spectators are Protestant. And despite the language barrier, more than half are from English- speaking nations.

"We've always worked to bring the different denominations together," says Michael Counsell, a Church of England vicar who has taken bilingual services with Lutherans throughout the summer. "I have found English visitors who still carry enough baggage from the Second World War to find that actually shaking hands with a German and saying the Lord's Prayer together is a deeply moving and reconciling experience." Counsell first came to Oberammergau shortly after his son was killed by a drunk driver. "It was the last thing I wanted to do," he says, "but our other two children persuaded us to come." He subsequently met the driver who killed his son, and found some sort of forgiveness and reconciliation. "I don't think I could have managed it without the Passion play," he says. "It showed me the lengths to which God was prepared to go to reconcile, to forgive me, and that God, too, had lost a son, and so that God understood what I was going through."

For Christians such as Counsell, this transcendental play is a mystical, emotional adventure, where the biblical narrative rises up from the flat pages of a dusty book to become vivid flesh and blood. Yet, even from a secular perspective, it is still an astonishing metaphysical phenomenon, in which a story so central to our culture lives and breathes anew. Here, art lovers can see their favourite medieval meister-werks come alive, and movie buffs can marvel at a King Of Kings 300 years older than Cecil B De Mille. But this isn't just a theatrical Jurassic Park, a Jacobean play preserved in aspic. Constantly evolving to mirror the spirit of each passing age, it is also a time machine back to a lost era when theatre retained its ancient power to transport you into another world.

Lufthansa flies daily to Munich from Heathrow, Stansted, Birmingham and Manchester. Call 0845 773 7747. For further information about Oberammergau, call the German National Tourist Office on 020 7317 0908, or the Oberammergau Tourist Office direct on 00 49 88 22 92 310

Oberammergau: the troubling story of the world's most famous passion play by James Shapiro is published by Little, Brown (£14.99). Every Pilgrim's Guide to Oberammergau by Michael Counsell is published by Canterbury Press (£6.99)

This article first appeared in the 02 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Nightmare on Downing Street

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What lies beneath: how Europe succumbed to toxic ideology and violence

A review of Ian Kershaw and Heinrich August Winkler’s accounts of Europe’s “age of catastrophe”, 1914-49.

In the current climate of apprehension about what an influx of Muslim immigrants might mean for European values, we should remember what those have included in the past: slavery, serfdom and tyranny, as well as religious wars, violent revolution and rapacious imperialism. And the horrors of earlier centuries pale beside what Europeans did in the 20th century to their own continent and the rest of the world. The titles of two new histories sum up that miserable story, with its ethnic conflicts, industrial-scale warfare, totalitarianism and genocide: “hell”, in the case of Ian Kershaw, and “catastrophe” for Heinrich August Winkler.

Twentieth-century Europe remains such a puzzle for us all. How could a civilisation that produced Shakespeare, Beethoven and Kant, which generated the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, or which formulated and promulgated ideas such as constitutional government and human rights, also have produced such appalling cruelties?

These two vast histories aim to explain why Europe went through such a very bad period between the start of the First World War and the end of the Second World War. Both authors try to find that difficult balance between looking at Europe as a whole and as a set of separate countries. For all that it is admirably researched, Winkler’s is the less satisfying, in part because he fails to define his terms. He talks of something called the west (which at various points seems to include the United States and Japan and at others seems to be only Europe) without ever clearly stating what he means by either definition: is it a set of ideas and values, a collection of nation states, or perhaps a typology of political, economic and social organisation? In this, the second in a projected three-volume history of the west, he starts out by saying that he will examine Europe’s “normative project”, which he defines, very briefly, as putting into effect the ideas and ideals of the American and French Revolutions. But which ones? The Rights of Man or the Terror? In any case, the “normative project” largely vanishes in what is nevertheless a useful and thorough history of Europe. If you want to know about the politics of Luxembourg as well as those of bigger states you will find that here.

Kershaw inevitably goes over much of the same ground but provides the more sustained analysis. In his view, several forces came together in the 20th century to produce a toxic brew of suspicion and hatred among Europe’s people. A new kind of nationalism emerged, driven by the assumption that nations are based on not only shared ethnicity, but blood – inhabitants of another nation were often described as being another “race”. Given the mix of peoples in Europe, demands for territory often led to nations claiming lands inhabited by those of other, supposedly lesser “races”. Class conflict often overlapped with ethnic conflict, so that, for example, Slavic peasants and Polish landowners found even more reason to hate each other. The long crisis of capitalism was undermining the legitimacy of the existing regimes, some of them weak enough to begin with. And caught up in the midst were Europe’s Jews, the unjustified focus for ethnic and class hatreds, blamed for the problems created by capitalism.

Both writers take some pains to look at ideas (fascism, communism, liberalism) or trends, from economic growth to changes in the position of women, that transcended borders. They also point out that Europe contained very different levels of development that were not necessarily coterminous with national borders. Such measures as literacy, standards of living or urbanisation were generally higher in the western parts of Europe. In terms of constitutional and democratic government, the east lagged behind. And while the likes of France and Britain had long since taken diverse peoples and instilled in them a strong sense of shared nationhood (though Britain failed with the Irish, who persisted in seeing themselves as a separate people), the old empires of Russia and Austria-Hungary had failed to do so before the First World War. Indeed, the gradual introduction of representative institutions and a broader franchise in ethnically diverse areas led to an unedifying search for spoils. After 1918 the dominant elites in the successor states often lacked the will to respect their own substantial ethnic minorities. Political leaders all too frequently used demagogic and ethnic appeals to their masses to keep themselves in power.

While there are clearly continuities between the worlds before and after the First World War, that prolonged and costly conflict served to shatter much of the old order and to speed the introduction of certain ideas, attitudes and practices. As Kershaw rightly says of 1914, armies with values belonging to the 19th century or earlier found themselves fighting a 20th-century war as Europe’s organised, industrialised mass societies hurled themselves against each other. In its course, European nations threw away the lives and talents of millions of their men and exhausted their resources. The French coined a new term: total war. For this was not like the wars of the previous century, fought for clear and limited aims, but rather a struggle between peoples for dominance and survival. In the course of the war, racial and national stereotyping entered the public discourse. For Germans it was the barbaric Asiatics; for the French and the British, the brutal Huns. Conflict broadened to include civilians: men, women, children were all part of the war effort. And in the mixed regions of the east and southern Europe and the Ottoman empire the first ethnic cleansings and genocides occurred, though they were not yet called by these names.

Towards the end of the war the US president Woodrow Wilson’s public support for self-determination, inspired by noble sentiments about the rights of peoples to govern themselves, spurred demands in the heart of Europe for ethnically based nations to be established in defined territories. New nations, which might have worked and traded with each other, too often fell out over competing claims to the same pieces of land. And because ethnic nationalisms are generally intolerant of multiple and overlapping identities, those who refused (or were perceived to refuse) to accept a single identity became useful scapegoats. Older traditions of anti-Semitism were now reinforced by the pseudo-sciences of racism and social Darwinism. The pre-war pogroms against Jews expanded with renewed vigour into the war and the postwar years. In Russia’s revolutionary civil war, for instance, up to 60,000 Jews were killed in the Ukraine.

The war made violence normal as a way of settling disputes and carrying out politics. Fighting on a large scale carried on for several years after 1918. In the Russian civil war, which finally ended in 1922, some seven million people died of various causes. In many countries, Italy and Germany among them, politics often took the form of violent street theatre, with opposing factions beating and killing each other. Mussolini rode to power in Italy in 1922 partly because his Fascists intimidated and cowed their opponents, and partly because conservative elites hoped that he could restore order. In Germany, adherents of the right committed 352 political murders between 1919 and 1922. And war retained its glamour and fascination. Despite what we might think, given the popularity of anti-war literature such as All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), many veterans joined paramilitary organisations after the First World War ended, 400,000 of them signing up for the German Freikorps, which fought in the Baltic and along Germany’s eastern borders.

The war also left large numbers of Europeans deracinated: what Winkler describes as “personal shock”. What had seemed solid – whether empires, regimes, their position in society, even their pensions and savings – vanished overnight. Not surprisingly, Oswald Spengler’s deeply pessimistic The Decline of the West (published in German between 1918 and 1922 and in English in 1926), which posited that European civilisation was reaching its end, was very influential and sold thousands of copies, especially in Germany. Many Europeans retreated from engagement in the compromise-heavy sphere of democratic politics because it seemed to provide few solutions in the present and little hope for the future. Outsiders, such as the self-serving Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, who attacked conventional society and expressed nothing but contempt for elected politicians, were dangerously attractive because they somehow sounded more “authentic”. As we look, today, at the antics of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, that seems uncomfortably familiar.

Europe presented unpromising soil for the new democracies in Poland and Yugoslavia, or older, shaky ones in Italy or Spain. The widespread adoption of proportional representation only led to further political fragmentation and made it increasingly difficult to form stable coalitions. While democracy struggled in parts of Europe, its enemies mobilised, often using its own institutions against it. Challenged by new forces from below, the old elites, especially in eastern and southern Europe, drifted into counter-revolution and threw their support behind conservative parties advocating authoritarian governments. On the left, the new communist parties, modelled on Bolshevik lines, appeared to present a credible alternative both to authoritarianism and to “bourgeois” democracy. Under the strict rule of the Communist International, itself a tool of Soviet policy by the late 1920s, communists across Europe obeyed orders to attack and disrupt democracy. In the streets of Germany communists and Nazis sometimes fought together to ­destroy the Weimar Republic.

On the right, fascism in all its varieties was equally appealing to those who had given up on democracy. Across Europe, fascist leaders attacked what they saw as an outmoded and corrupt system, promising national renewal and a bright and bustling future. Here is how Mussolini described fascism in his 1932 article for the Enciclopedia Italiana: “The Fascist state, the synthesis and unity of all values, interprets, develops and gives strength to the whole life of the people.” It is hard today to understand how even intellectuals could take such vacuous rubbish seriously as a coherent doctrine but many did. When Winston Churchill visited Italy in 1927, he wrote approvingly, “this country gives the impression of discipline, order, good will, smiling faces”. Although the impetus behind fascism differed from that behind Soviet-style communism – one was nationalist and racist, the other promised a classless utopia – in method and style both were totalitarian, another new word that had to be coined to describe the 20th century. Unlike older types of authoritarianism (of which there were still many examples), totalitarian regimes, whether in the Soviet Union or in Nazi Germany, sought to possess the souls and innermost thoughts of their subjects. Both types of totalitarianism used modern media and propaganda to mobilise and sway the masses; both had cults of the all-wise, omni-competent leader; both dealt with any dissent by means of intimidation, imprisonment or murder; and both needed enemies, internal or external, to justify their existence.

The First World War helped to create the conditions that made Europe’s descent into the second war and barbarism possible – yet it did not have to end like that. “But we do dance on volcanoes and sometimes the fires below subside,” said Gustav Stresemann, the German statesman. By the mid-1920s there were grounds to hope that he was right. The world had recovered, certainly in economic terms, from the war. Although the United States had failed to join the new League of Nations, it did not disengage itself entirely from Europe. American observers came to League meetings and American diplomats and bankers took the lead in trying to negotiate a more workable set of reparations demands for Germany, first in the Dawes Plan of 1924 and then the Young of 1929. Under Stresemann’s wise leadership, briefly as chancellor and then as foreign minister, Germany became an international player again, settling its outstanding border disputes with its neighbours in the east, joining the League, and working reasonably amicably with its former enemies.

In 1928 Germany, France and the United States signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact, a solemn agreement to renounce war as an instrument of national policy. Ultimately, 63 nations, including Britain, Italy, Japan and the Soviet Union, added their signatures. Three years later Japan invaded Manchuria; in October 1935 Italy invaded Ethiopia; five months later Hitler marched his troops into the Rhineland, which had been demilitarised under the Treaty of Versailles; and in 1939 Europe was at war again. What went wrong can be summed up in two words: “depression” and “Germany”. Without the collapse of much of the world’s economy and the consequent misery and mass unemployment, democracy and capitalism would not have been seen as bankrupt, failed systems. The extremes of fascism and communism would never have gained the traction they did. If the Weimar Republic had managed to survive beyond its first decade it might have struck deeper roots gradually in Germany.

For both Kershaw and Winkler, what happened in Germany was of critical importance to the fate of Europe, given that country’s location at the heart of the continent, its large population, strong economy and powerful military traditions. The Depression had a disastrous impact on an already polarised and resentful nation. The Weimar Republic was tolerated but not loved, even by many of its own supporters. Key elites, whether the military, the civil service or business, had never accepted it.

Weimar also bore the burden of having signed the Treaty of Versailles. Germans had never really absorbed Germany’s military defeat in 1918, a refusal to recognise reality which was endorsed enthusiastically by the High Command, with its irresponsible talk of German forces having been “stabbed in the back” by defeatists at home. As a result, in Germany, the treaty’s terms were widely seen as illegitimate and punitive, a national humiliation. Hitler and the Nazis offered simple solutions for the country’s complex economic and political problems. They promised a prosperous and dynamic nation, restored to its rightful dominance of Europe. Still, Hitler would never have got into power without the folly and blindness of those who should have known better – from the conservatives around the ageing President Hindenburg to the socialists who, at a vital stage, withdrew their support from the last workable coalition of democratic parties.

Not surprisingly, given that both are primarily historians of Germany, Kershaw and Winkler are at their best analysing the Nazi seizure of power and the steps by which Hitler moved inexorably towards war. Their accounts are less satisfactory when it comes to other players such as Britain and France and, later, the United States. It is hard to disagree with the conclusion, however, that Hitler was not to be appeased, no matter how far the democracies were prepared to go. His vision was of a Germany dominating Europe, if not the world, and of the expansion of the German race into territories that were to be cleared of their inhabitants through expulsion, starvation or murder. Europe as a whole was to be cleansed of Jews. For Hitler, genocide was not a by-product of the war but an integral part. And as both accounts make clear, he found many willing accomplices across Europe.

If Europe had been badly shaken by the First World War, it was all but destroyed by the Second. By 1945 millions of its people were dead or barely surviving. The great European empires were crumbling fast, and European nations lay at the mercy of the two new superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union. In eastern Europe the Soviet Union was building its own empire. Yet within four years, Europe, especially the western part, had started to recover; more than that, the foundations for what turned out to be an enduring peace had been laid. Kershaw rightly describes it as “astonishing”, although his account of how it happened is regrettably brief.

We face the danger today of forgetting what Europe did to itself in the 20th century and how that came about. The passage of time has made us complacent and we assure ourselves that we would never make the same mistakes as our forebears did decades ago. Yet not all Europe’s demons have been killed for ever. Intolerant nationalisms are growing again. Let us hope that the fulminations of, say, the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, against the dangers to European society from “outsiders” – whether gypsies or Syrians – are passing froth on the political scene and not signs of something deeper and more sinister happening below the surface.

To Hell and Back: Europe, 1914-1949 by Ian Kershaw is published  by Allen Lane (593pp, £30). The Age of Catastrophe: A History of the West 1914–1945 by Heinrich August Winkler, translated
by Stewart Spencer, is published by Yale University Press (998pp, £35). Margaret MacMillan is Professor of International History at the University of Oxford and Warden of St Antony’s College. Her books include “The War that Ended Peace” (Profile)

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide