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The Passion Play
of Oberammergau

"While Oberammergau became a pilgrimage site every decade for thousands of Christians, the nature of its Passion play and its reputed anti-Semitism have also brought controversy. The accusation stems both from the text of the play and from the manner of presentation. The script included a verse from the Gospel of Matthew about a Jewish mob shouting for Jesus' execution: "His blood be upon us and also upon our children's children." The Jewish high priests, the Temple money-lenders, and the rabble confronting Pontius Pilate were all played as exaggerated stereotypes. The play asserted that the Jews were to blame for the death of Jesus.
        The virulent anti-Semitism of late-medieval Europe was so exacerbated by Passion plays that as far back as 1338 the city of Freiburg forbade the inclusion of anti-Semitic scenes in performances lest they provoke violence against Jews; Rome forbade performances entirely in 1539 because they were regularly followed by attacks on the Jewish ghetto. Jews were advised to stay off the streets during Holy Week.
        In the decades since World War II and the Holocaust, the Oberammergau production has been modified to reduce the play's anti-Semitism. The "His blood be upon us" line has been cut, text has been added to demonstrate Jesus' "Jewishness," and the role of villain has been shifted away from the Jewish priests and mob calling for Christ's Crucifixion, to Pontius Pilate, who instead of being depicted as a troubled man with a conscience, now appears as a cruel agent of an occupying colonial power.
        In 1934, when the village performed a special 300th anniversary production of their Passion play. It was undoubtedly the moment when the play's anti-Semitic trappings were most acutely apparent, for this was Germany just a year and a half into Nazi rule. Adolph Hitler, who first attended the Oberammergau Passion play in 1930, returned on August 13, 1934. It was a critical moment for the German leader. Six weeks earlier, during what came to known as the "Night of the Long Knives," Hitler had violently purged the Nazi ranks of any possible challengers to his authority. He had also just proposed a new law that would name him Fuehrer and Reich Chancellor and give him total control of the armed forces. On August 19, the German people would vote on the constitutional change.
        Upon his election in January 1933 Hitler had announced to the German people his intent to make the country's churches an integral part of his plans for the nation; privately, however, he was intent upon the eradication of Christianity in Germany. "You are either a Christian or a German," he said to his advisers. "You cannot be both." So his well-publicized trip to Oberammergau on the eve of the August elections was an elaborate ruse intended to lull Catholic voters, particularly in Germany's south, into his trust. But his viewing of the Passion play played another, much darker role in his ultimate plans for German society, a role which he described years later, at a 1942 dinner:

        "One of our most important tasks will be to save future generations from a similar political fate and to maintain forever watchful in them a knowledge of the menace of Jewry. For this reason alone it is vital that the Passion play be continued at Oberammergau; for never has the menace been so convincingly portrayed in this presentation of what happened in the times of the Romans. There one sees in Pontius Pilate a Roman racially and intellectually so superior that he stands out like a firm, clean rock in the middle of the whole muck and mire of Jewry."

This xenophobic take on the Oberammergau Passion play was a prime example of Hitler's appropriation of the arts to fulfill his own racist political agenda. Himself a painter of dubious skill, Hitler was fascinated by the arts, both as a diversion (he delighted in lengthy gossip sessions about the worlds of theater and music) and as a bolsterer of his own plans for Germany. He found inspiration in the passionate operas of Wagner, and used his own knowledge of architecture to create a massive plan for the face of a new Berlin. Hitler was also highly aware of his own gifts as a performer, and referred to himself often as "the greatest actor in Europe." He spent hours rehearsing his speeches and the accompanying dramatic gestures, and prided himself on a presentational style that stirred German audiences-not through logical argument, but through theatrically styled passion."

[from http://www.goodmantheatre.org/Season/PassionPlay/CreamerArticle.aspx ]

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