In the library of my boyhood Catholic school, there was a handsome landscape picture book with full-page photographic plates of the famous play at Oberammergau. Oberammergau is a Catholic village in southern Germany where the passion and death of Christ is re-enacted every ten years (with an extra performance each centennial year in remembrance of the first staging in 1634). The parts of Christ and the apostles, the Romans and the Jews were, and are, played in full costume by Oberammergau's inhabitants. People came, and still do, in their thousands from all over the world to attend the performances. The picture book became a favourite read during the school's annual Holy Week retreat when the liturgy re-enacted Matthew's gospel and the role of the Jews as Christ killers who had uttered the curse acknowledging that Christ's blood would be upon themselves and upon their children.
I remember being moved by the vaguely shocking realistic photographs of Christ's crucifixion; even more striking were the ferocious faces and aggressive gestures of the Jewish high priests. These Jews were portrayed in dark, rich clothing and extraordinary hats with horns, as if to emphasise their devilish nature. Christ and his followers, on the other hand, wore lighter robes and went with their heads uncovered. It never occurred to us pious Catholic children back in the 1950s that the Oberammergau play and the splendour and horror of its tableaux were anything but spiritually edifying.
Following the Second Vatican Council, the historic reformist gathering of the pope and bishops in Rome in the mid-1960s, the Catholic church ceased to accuse the Jews of deicide and accordingly altered those Holy Week liturgical texts and ceremonials that harped on Jewish guilt. The play at Oberammergau, however, remained largely unaltered: in fact, its depiction of the Jews as bloodthirsty and treacherous villains stood in new and stark contrast to a more respectful and tolerant Catholic pluralism that sought accommodation with the parent religion of Christianity. The Oberammergau Passion Play became a focus not so much of religious pilgrimage and devotion but of joint Catholic and Jewish denunciation of anti-Semitism. Naturally, the fact that the play was performed in the country responsible for the Holocaust lent special vehemence to the criticisms. Then it began to emerge that the play had been a great favourite of Hitler and that many of the players had been enthusiastic Nazis, some of them working as guards in concentration camps. Finally we learnt that Wernher von Braun, the V2 rocket genius, had hidden rocket-propulsion engines in the huts close to the passion play site to avoid aerial attacks by the allies.
So at last, after many uncomfortable revelations and false starts, the plays' producers decided in the mid-1990s on a complete rewrite of the play. But how could the performance be purged of its innate anti-Semitism without destroying the entire fabric of the drama, which for 400 years had depended on powerful anti-Jewish antagonisms? The fascinating process of transforming Oberammergau's play was followed step by step by a professor of English and drama, James Shapiro, and this book is the result.
At once scholarly and gripping, Shapiro's account is more than a chronicle of the tortuous infighting that produced a fresh text for the famous play. Shapiro has written a fascinating mix of history and social anthropology, exposing the powerful emotions and traditions that underpin this local manifestation of religious psychodrama. At the heart of the book, however, is an account of entrenched Christian antipathy towards the Jews and the painful, often humiliating process involved in encouraging Christians to face up to their prejudices.
A telling example of the complex currents of religious politics, past and present, is revealed in Shapiro's careful reading of Catholic documents that form a crucial background to recent events at Oberammergau. In 1998, the Vatican published a paper "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah". The document attempts to draw a distinction between Christian religious anti-Judaism and Nazi racist anti-Semitism, claiming that in 1933, Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber had excoriated anti-Semitism in his famous Advent sermons. If this were true, it would have crucial implications for the Oberammergau play, which Faulhaber attended (as did Adolf Hitler) in 1934, and the recent history of Catholic-Jewish relations in Germany. Shapiro's scrutiny of Faulhaber's sermons reveals that the cardinal was not criticising Nazi racism, but Hitler's claim for the primacy of race over religion. The cardinal's views on Judaism, moreover, echo the 1934 passion play's ending: "(Israel) had repudiated and rejected," he declared,"the Lord's Anointed, had driven Him out of the city and nailed him to the Cross... The daughter of Sion received the bill of divorce, and from that time forth the Jew wanders, for ever restless, over the face of the earth."
But the same year, 1934, after a genuinely anti-Nazi sermon had been preached in Germany, Faulhaber immediately distanced himself from it, pointing out that he had certainly not "taken a position with regard to the Jewish question of today".
Meanwhile, the 1934 text of the Oberammergau play, which both Faulhaber and Hitler attended, contains language so contemptuous of Judaism that the claimed distinction between theological "anti-Judaism" and racial "anti-Semitism" is not tenable. The tradition that flows from the hideous blood libels of the Middle Ages and the racist-inspired anti-Semitism of Hitler's Germany appear to merge at crucial moments of the play, anticipating the exterminationist attitudes that gave rise to the Holocaust.
Meanwhile, the new text of the play has largely satisfied a new climate of Catholic respect for Jews and has gone a long way towards meeting the criticisms of Jewish groups, although by no means all of them. In a sense, the very fact of the story of the passion and death of Christ is for some a constant rebuke of the Jewish faith. The new play has nevertheless become a symbol of reconciliation between the two faiths, as has Shapiro's book. Interestingly, the author eventually ceased to be a mere onlooker, an impartial anthropologist, recording the play's transformation. In the end, he became a participant, contributing a Hebrew prayer to be uttered by Christ at the Last Supper. So Christ, at a central moment in the play, abandons the German mother tongue to speak the ancient language of the Jews. If there is a powerful message in the new play of Oberammergau, it is that Christ and his mother were Jews and that for Christians to attack Jews is to do violence to themselves and their own patrimony.
John Cornwell is a fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge. He is the author of Hitler's Pope .
Oberammergau: The Troubling History of the World's Most Famous Passion Play
Author - James Shapiro
ISBN - 0 316 85465 4
Publisher - Little, Brown
Price - £0 316 85465 4
Pages - 238