Appropriating the closure of Jesuit missions: Fritz Hochwälder's Das heilige Experiment

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Peer-Reviewed Research
  • SDG 16
  • SDG 10
  • Abstract:

    English: Since the eighteenth century the history of the Jesuit missionary endeavours in South America, especially their forced closure in 1760s, has been used rhetorically by writers in several genres, providing them with historical evidence to support a variety of latter-day causes. During the Second World War the Viennese Jewish playwright Fritz Hochwälder, then living in exile in Switzerland, followed in this tradition when he wrote his tragedy, Das heilige Experiment. It was a timely plea for toleration and religious freedom. Though almost completely ignored in histories of the Society of Jesus, this work vividly illustrates how a dramatic event in the history of Christianity can speak to subsequent issues. Since the eighteenth century, Jesuit missions in South America, especially the model communities, or reducciónes, established amongst the Guaraní and their forced closure in the 1760s, have served as an arsenal in which writers in several genres have found evidentiary historical weapons for supporting their con temporary causes.1 As I have pointed out elsewhere, when Voltaire had reason to believe that representatives of the Society of Jesus on that continent as well as in Europe were abusing their power and treating people in a manner which violated his sense of dignity and his understanding of the rise of the human race from barbarism to a cultivated state, he pilloried them mercilessly in Candide (1759). On the other hand, when the Jesuits came under fire as the victims of authoritarianism and were banned from several European countries and their colonies overseas, Voltaire could just as readily dash to their defence and seek to call attention to the discrepancy between their accomplishments and the way in which both secular authorities and the Vatican were handling them.2 Much more recently, the renowned screenwriter Robert Bolt adapted his original script for the film The mission (1986) to bolster the defence of Latin American liberation theology.3 In the present article I shall examine how the renowned Austrian Jewish playwright Fritz Hochwälder, no less than other writers who have exploited the same theme, appropriated the closure of the Jesuit missions in his dramatised plea for toleration and religious freedom during the Second World War. His case adds a particularly significant dimension to the testing of this hypothesis because unlike most of the other littérateurs who have dealt with the Jesuits, he did not emerge from even a nominally Christian family, although as a child and young man in Vienna he unquestionably had considerable exposure to Roman Catho licism in a country where the ties between that ecclesiastical tradition and the state had been strong for many centuries. No less importantly, this author wrote in response to direct ethnic and religious oppression and may therefore have be lieved he could empathise, if only by analogy, with the Guaraní to some extent.