Move the mouse pointer over a red word in the main text, to view the glossary entry for this word.

The Theater Text Die Ermittlung. Oratorium in 11 Gesängen, by Peter Weiss (1965)

Based on material from the first Frankfurt Auschwitz trial and written while it was still in progress, Peter Weiss’s theater text Die Ermittlung. Oratorium in 11 Gesängen (The Investigation. Oratorio in 11 Cantos) was first performed on October 19, 1965, in 15 simultaneous stage productions and scenic readings in various West and East German theaters.


Peter Weiss himself had repeatedly attended the trial as an observer, and he drew material from Bernd Naumann’s regular reports from the courtroom that appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, as well as from other press coverage and extensive research of the literature on Auschwitz. Weiss had managed to emigrate from the Czechoslovak Republic to Sweden via Switzerland in January 1939, while friends who stayed behind in Prague were later killed at Auschwitz. He felt that he was an escapee who had also been destined for that place, and thus laden with an obligation, a responsibility, to remind people what had happened. “This debt could not be canceled, but it took on another form if one accepted responsibility on the artistic and moral levels.”[1]


Although Die Ermittlung follows the witness statements in the Auschwitz trial in some parts even in the phrasing, it is not bound to a theater tradition that places a kind of forensic investigation on the stage to arrive at a narrative establishment of the truth, ending in the solving of a case, as in Heinrich von Kleist’s Der zerbrochne Krug (The Broken Jug), nor would it be adequately described as documentary theater dealing with the Auschwitz trial. The 11 cantos in the form of testimonies–based on the topography of Auschwitz–describe the path from the ramp through various (killing) stations of the camp to the gas chambers in the concluding “Canto of the Fire Ovens.” All the places in the camp complex that are called to mind by the witnesses are located in the Auschwitz I main camp or in Birkenau (Auschwitz II).[2] The surrounding camps, including the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp, are invoked only as a backdrop where firms such as Krupp, Siemens, or I.G. Farben exploit prisoners as slave laborers; they do not appear as settings upon which the witnesses comment. They develop presence, however, just in the first cantos as one of the reasons for the camp’s existence. This is especially striking as Die Ermittlung to a large extent hides the sociocultural and ideological conditions in which Auschwitz originated, and there is no talk of anti-Semitism. Instead, the victims are referred to only as “the persecuted,” never, for example, as Jews and Jewesses or Sinti and Roma, racially persecuted groups. That could create the impression that they were primarily people who were persecuted for political reasons, who, moreover, would have been interchangeable in their positions as perpetrators and victims, as some lines of the piece suggest.[3] It is astonishing how eagerly this interpretation, only hinted at in the piece, was seized upon in the theater criticism of the day, for example, in the writing of Günther Rühle and Ernst Wendt, while simultaneously also avoiding any reference to Jews, for example. On the other hand, the contrast between perpetrators and victims, appearing in the form of speech acts, contributes structurally to the composition of Die Ermittlung.


Peter Weiss, in his shaping of the Auschwitz trial material with regard to social theory, adheres to an analysis of National Socialism as the ultimate form of capitalist supremacy, an idea dominant in Marxist theory since the 1930s. This lopsided emphasis on the politico-economic aspects of National Socialism results in a certain blindness to the historical distinctiveness of Auschwitz, particularly to the Nazis’ racial ideology and anti-Semitism.[4]


Only the material of the testimonies is drawn from the Auschwitz trial; about the course of the trial, the charges, or the sentencing, Die Ermittlung tells us nothing. The speaking voices are those of a judge, a prosecutor, a defense lawyer, 18 defendants, and 9 witnesses. Neither the members of the jury at the Auschwitz trial nor the public are represented on stage. While the witnesses, of whom two are witnesses for the defense, appear as representatives of the more than 300 witnesses in the trial, and over the course of the cantos each witness states several positions of the testimony, derived from various biographies, the defendants bear the names of 18 actual defendants in the Auschwitz trial. Their behavior, however, is so stereotyped—most notably, they are linked by their collective laughter at what is brought forward in the trial, frequently at the end of a canto—that they seem to be a group, “which knows it is in complete sympathy with the existing circumstances in the Federal Republic and gives assurances of an accounting with the past that really was no accounting at all.”[5]


The legal assessment of the quality of the testimonies, documents, or evidence plays no role in Die Ermittlung. Instead, the different forms of testimony are recast in a uniform, artless blank verse that shows no linguistic differences between the individual speech acts. “In Weiss’s work there is also no stumbling, no hesitating, no weeping, no shouting, no struggling for words. The witnesses who appear here are silent at most; at any rate, they all stick to the facts and keep it quite precise.”[6] What was brought forward in court in different statements and at different times in the trial is arranged thematically in separate cantos. Everything becomes oral testimony, and the witness statement on stage appears to be a concentrate of the varied forms of testimony at the trial. For example, a letter from I.G. Farben management about their good teamwork with the SS when building the plant at Auschwitz and deploying forced laborers appears in the following form:


Prosecuting Attorney:

The court has in its record

a letter which mentions

the happy and prosperous friendship

existing between your firm

and the camp administration

Among other things

the letter goes on to say

At dinner

we made further use of the occasion

to draw up measures

advantageous to the Buna Works

that relate to the merger

of the truly outstanding

operations of the camp[7]


Clearly recognizable is the transformation into a relatively matter-of-fact, uniform language devoid of punctuation marks; new sentences are distinguished only by a capital letter at the start of the line. The uniformity of the language indicates that this is not a documentation of the trial, but an oratorio, which was intended to form the Paradiso portion in Peter Weiss’s plan for a Divine Comedy dealing with this era,[8] thus the place where the decisive philosophical questions about human behavior are posed, albeit a Paradiso without transcendence and hope of redemption. In fact, the possibility of discerning some part of what cannot be represented[9] seems to exist only in the questioning of the witnesses’ memories. Only from the perspective of the survivors, of survival, can something be learned about the events in Auschwitz and about those murdered there. In its form of memory construction, which is also a commemoration of the dead, Die Ermittlung, in Burkhardt Lindner’s words, established a tie “to the tradition of memoria development, [a discipline of rhetoric] in which events are stored in the memory as past happenings. And this memoria development refers not to the trial, at least not primarily, but to Auschwitz itself.”[10]

(MN; transl. KL)


Atze, Marcel: “‚Die Angeklagten lachen.‘ Peter Weiss und sein Theaterstück ‚Die Ermittlung‘.” In: Auschwitz-Prozess  4 Ks 2/63  Frankfurt am Main [exhibition catalogue]. Edited by Irmtrud Wojak for the Fritz Bauer Institut. Cologne: Snoeck, 2004, pp. 782–807.

Lindner, Burkhardt: Im Inferno. „Die Ermittlung“ von Peter Weiss. Auschwitz, der Historikerstreit und „Die Ermittlung“. Frankfurt am Main: Frankfurter Bund für Volksbildung, 1988.

Lindner, Burkhardt: “Protokoll, Memoria, Schattensprache. ‚Die Ermittlung‘ von Peter Weiss ist kein Dokumentartheater.” In: Stephan Braese, ed.: Rechenschaften. Juristischer und literarischer Diskurs in der Auseinandersetzung mit den NS-Massenverbrechen. Göttingen: Wallstein, 2004, pp. 131–145.

Rühle, Günther: “Versuche über eine geschlossene Gesellschaft. Das dokumentarische Drama und die deutsche Gesellschaft.” In: Theater heute, 10/1966, pp. 8–12.

Weiss, Peter: Die Ermittlung. Oratorium in 11 Gesängen [1965]. Including a DVD of the television play (NDR, 1966, directed by Peter Schulze-Rohr). Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2008.

Weiss, Peter: The Investigation. New York: Macmillan, 1996.

Weiss, Peter: “Meine Ortschaft.” In: Rapporte. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1968, pp. 113–24.

Weiss, Peter: Inferno. Stück und Materialien. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2003.

Wendt, Ernst: “Was wird ermittelt?” In: Theater heute, 12/1965, pp. 14–18.

Young, James E.: Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust. Narrative and the Consequences of Interpretation. Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1988, pp. 64–80.

[1] Marcel Atze: “‚Die Angeklagten lachen.‘ Peter Weiss und sein Theaterstück ‚Die Ermittlung‘.” In: Auschwitz-Prozess  4 Ks 2/63  Frankfurt am Main [exhibition catalogue]. Edited by Irmtrud Wojak for the Fritz Bauer Institut (Cologne: Snoeck, 2004), pp. 782–807, here p. 784. (Translated by KL)

[2] Also in Peter Weiss’s text “Meine Ortschaft” (My Town), written after a visit to Auschwitz in December 1964 and based on a walk taken by the author through the topography of the main camp and Birkenau, no role is played by the town of Monowice as the site of the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp and the factory premises, the former I.G. Farben Auschwitz plant. (See: Peter Weiss: “Meine Ortschaft.” In: Rapporte (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1968), pp. 113–24.) On this occasion, Peter Weiss kept to the date and time of the Frankfurt court’s visit, made at the initiative of Henry Ormond, a counsel for civil plaintiffs (accessory prosecution).

[3] However, Peter Weiss himself emphasizes in a conversation that for him, the point was not to name certain groups of victims or perpetrators: “I tried to treat the phenomenon of Auschwitz in a scientific way, as an institution, a death factory, that could have existed anywhere, under certain circumstances. In Die Ermittlung, it is not Jews, but human beings, who are destroyed. The ones who are killed are not, for the main part, better than or different from the others; they are simply selected by an anonymous machinery to assume the role of victim. Another turn of history’s kaleidoscope—and many of them could just as well have been on the side of the Nazis.” (Peter Weiss im Gespräch. Edited by Rainer Gerlach and Matthias Richter (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1986), p. 55, quoted in Atze: „Die Angeklagten lachen“, p. 798.) (Translated by KL)

[4] James E. Young in particular reproached Weiss with this; see James E. Young: Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust. Narrative and the Consequences of Interpretation (Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1988), pp. 64–80.

[5] Burkhardt Lindner: Im Inferno. „Die Ermittlung“ von Peter Weiss. Auschwitz, der Historikerstreit und „Die Ermittlung“ (Frankfurt am Main: Frankfurter Bund für Volksbildung, 1988), p. 44. (Translated by KL)

[6] Atze: „Die Angeklagten lachen,“ p. 795.

[7] Peter Weiss: The Investigation (New York: Macmillan, 1996), pp. 130–31.

[8] The form of the 11 cantos in three parts is based on the 33 cantos of Dante’s Paradiso, though Dante’s complicatedverse scheme of terza rima, with the lines composing tercets, is not echoed in Weiss’s work. The first part of this planned new Divine Comedy, which was never completed, has now been published from Peter Weiss’s legacy of papers: Inferno (premiere: Staatstheater Karlsruhe, 2008, directed by Thomas Krupa). For Weiss’s plan of a new Divine Comedy, see Lindner: Im Inferno, pp. 65–79.

[9] “In the presentation of this play, no attempt should be made to reconstruct the courtroom before which the proceedings of the camp trial were conducted. Any such reconstruction would, in the opinion of the author, be as impossible as trying to present the camp itself on the stage.” Thus Peter Weiss in his preliminary remarks; Weiss: Investigation, p. 1.

[10] Burkhardt Lindner: “Protokoll, Memoria, Schattensprache. ‚Die Ermittlung‘ von Peter Weiss ist kein Dokumentartheater.” In: Stephan Braese, ed.: Rechenschaften. Juristischer und literarischer Diskurs in der Auseinandersetzung mit den NS-Massenverbrechen (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2004), pp. 131–145, here p. 140. (Translated by KL)