The Investigation (play)

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The Investigation: Oratorio in 11 Cantos
Die Ermittlung Staatstheater Nuernberg 2009.jpg
The Investigation at Staatstheater Nürnberg (2009). Photo by Marion Bührle
Written by Peter Weiss
Characters Judge
Prosecuting Attorney
Counsel for the Defense
Witnesses, numbered 1-9
Adjutant Mulka
Dr. Capesius
Dr. Frank
Dr. Schatz
Dr. Lucas
Medical Orderly Klehr
S. S. Corporal Stark
Date premiered October 19, 1965 (1965-10-19)
Place premiered Simultaneously at 15 theatres (full-scale theatre productions: West Berlin, Cologne, Essen, Munich, Rostock, play readings: East Berlin, Cottbus, Dresden, Gera, Leuna, London, Meiningen, Neustrelitz, Potsdam and Weimar)
Original language German
Subject Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials (1963-65)
Setting Courtroom

The Investigation is a play by Peter Weiss written in 1965 which depicts the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials of 1963-1965. It premiered on October 19, 1965 on stages in fourteen West and East German cities and at the Royal Shakespeare Company in London. It carries the subtitle "Oratorio in 11 Cantos". Weiss was an observer at the trials and developed the play partially from the reports of Bernd Naumann.

The World-Theater Project[edit]

The Investigation was originally supposed to be part of a larger "World-Theater Project" which was to follow the structure of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. The three-part theater project was supposed to include the three realms of Paradise, Hell, and Purgatory. In an inversion of Dante's beliefs, The Investigation was supposed to correspond to the "Paradise" and yet be a place of despair for its victims. Inferno, written in 1964 but first published in 2003 as part of Weiss' estate, described the netherworld in its title. Due to the historical significance of the Auschwitz Trial, the Divine Comedy project was shelved, and the first third was published separately as The Investigation.

Content and Structure[edit]

The Investigation is divided into eleven "cantos". These are arranged by theme and depict the path of the victims from the ramp upon arrival at Auschwitz all the way to the furnaces, so that ever more gruesome aspects of the anonymous genocide are described. Weiss deliberately avoided embellishing elements. The stage is supposed to depict only a bald courtroom and every distraction from the witness reports are to be avoided.

In the cantos, the author lets the fact-rich statements of the anonymous witnesses stand against the named defendants and former SS concentration camp guards. Unlike at the historical trial, only eighteen defendants stand before the court. The statements of several hundred witnesses at the actual trials are summarized in the play in the fictional but representative Witnesses 1-9. Two witnesses stand on the side of the defendants, the others are former prisoners, including two women. By anonymizing the witnesses, Weiss wanted to show that the names of the victims in Auschwitz eventually give way to just a number.

The witnesses explain the atrocities committed at the concentration camp to the audience. Weiss sets the statements of the perpetrators, witnesses, and judges against each other so that the contradictions in the statements of the perpetrators are revealed. The open ending of the play corresponds to the author's intention to focus on the social responsibility of the individual even in a dictatorship.

Linguistic Style and Rhetoric of Exoneration[edit]

The play consists of clear, straightforward sentence structures and a strict parataxical style and has no punctuation at all. The past is recapitulated factually and soberly, without emotion. The alienation effect is used to achieve an intensified dramatic effect on the viewer. The rhythm of the utterances of the figures works towards the same goal. As part of the goal of universalization, the word "Jew" is not used in the entire play.

The defendants use a number of strategies to exonerate themselves by minimizing, denying, or justifying their actions:

  • discrediting the witnesses or prosecutors
  • presenting a self-image as a victim
  • relying on the former legal and value system and the superior orders defense, the general acceptance and similar actions of others
  • denial of guilt and downplaying of their own roles
  • evasive answers, claiming lack of knowledge
  • evidence of "successful rehabilitation" since 1945,
  • pleading the statute of limitations

Few of the defendants acknowledge their guilt. Witnesses 1 and 2 are primarily apologetic. Weiss uses this to illustrate the complex of "second guilt," a concept which Ralph Giordano brought up in his book The Second Guilt and the Burden of Being German. Giordano argued that in their failure to acknowledge and address the collective crimes of the Nazi era, contemporaries of the Third Reich after 1945 brought upon themselves a "second guilt," distinct from the guilt associated with the crimes themselves.[1]

Reception and Criticism[edit]

With twelve productions altogether, The Investigation was the most played contemporary piece in West Germany during the 1965/1966 season. Nevertheless, the script, which had been published in its entirety in the two months prior to the debut, among other places in the theater magazine "Theater heute," attracted multiple attacks. Theater critic Joachim Kaiser criticized the piece for robbing the audience of its freedom of interpretation.[2] The legitimacy of the aesthetic technique chosen by Weiss was debated in the press, on the radio, and in three panel debates in October and November 1965 in Stuttgart, Munich, and East Berlin.[3]

In the debate about a suitable staging concept, two productions in the multiple-stage debut stand out. Erwin Piscator's West Berlin staging at the Freie Volksbühne Berlin used an identification approach where the witness box represented an extension of the auditorium. Piscator let the audience look out at the trial and the defendants from the perspective of the survivors. Peter Palitzsch's production at the Staatstheater Stuttgart pursued an anti-identification conception with regular role-switching by all the actors. The roles of the perpetrators and the victims were thereby depicted as basically the same. From 1965 to 1967 theaters in Amsterdam, Moscow, New York, Prague, Stockholm, and Warsaw added the play to their schedules.

The international productions of The Investigation display a great conceptual diversity, ranging from a representational play to scene reading to concert performances of the oratorios. After a twelve-year break, the play was brought back in 1979 in a provocative comedy-style production authorized by Weiss in the Moers Castle Theater directed by Thomas Schulte-Michels. In 1998, conceptual artist Jochen Gerz staged the play interactively with 500 players on three Berlin stages.[4] The Democratic Republic of Congo-based theater group Urwintore, which is made up of survivors of the 1994 Rwanda genocide, have put on the play in several cities across Africa, Europe, and the United States.[5]


  1. ^ Giordano, Ralph (2000). Die zweite Schuld oder Von der Last Deutscher zu sein. Kiepenheuer & Witsch. ISBN 978-3-462-02943-7. 
  2. ^ Kaiser, Joachim (September 4–5, 1965). "Gegen das Theater-Auschwitz". Sueddeutsche Zeitung (Munich). 
  3. ^ Weiss, Christoph (2000). Auschwitz in der geteilten Welt (Auschwitz in the Divided World). St Ingbert: Röhrig Universitätsverlag. ISBN 978-3-86110-245-8. 
  4. ^ Gerz, Jochen and Ester Shalev-Gerz (2005). "The Investigation". The Berlin Investigation, on an Oratium by Peter Weiss. Retrieved October 20, 2011. 
  5. ^ "Press". Uwintore. Retrieved October 20, 2011. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Cohen, Robert. "The Political Aesthetics of Holocaust Literature: Peter Weiss's The Investigation and Its Critics." History and Memory, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Fall 1998), pp 43–67. Indiana University Press.
  • Schlunk, Jürgen. "Auschwitz and Its Function in Peter Weiss's Search for Identity." German Studies Review, Vol. 10, No. 1 (February 1987), pp. 11–30. German Studies Association.

This article incorporates information from the revision as of October 28, 2011 of the equivalent article on the German Wikipedia.