Born at Eschwege near Kassel, Hochhuth first worked as a bookseller and in publishing after leaving school. Since 1963 he has lived in Switzerland. His reputation was firmly established by his first two highly controversial plays, both written in free verse – Der Stellvertreter (1963; translated as The Deputy or The Representative, 1964) and Soldaten (1967; translated as Soldiers, 1968). Both plays deal with issues arising from World War II, have historical figures as protagonists, and were based on meticulous research, which led to Hochhuth's being classified as a ‘documentary dramatist’. The label, though accurately reflecting a careful gathering and presentation of evidence, does not do justice to the dramatic and poetic power of much of Hochhuth's writing, in which the factual or documentary element is secondary to his artistic purpose. Against those playwrights who believe that tragedy in the classical sense is no longer possible in the theatre, Hochhuth has argued that a freedom of choice does exist in times of historical crisis and that tragic errors of judgment occur.
Der Stellvertreter portrayed Pius XII as too concerned with diplomatic manoeuvres to take a decisive stand against the Nazi policy of exterminating the Jews. The pope thus forfeits his role as the deputy, or vicar, of Christ, which is fulfilled instead by the Jesuit priest Riccardo. The violent controversy aroused by this accusation had hardly settled before another arose over Soldaten. In it Churchill is portrayed as arranging the death of General Sikorski for political reasons and backing a brutal policy of bombing German cities despite a forceful argument against it (presented in the play by the Bishop of Chichester). A misinterpretation of evidence may have been involved in the first charge; in any case, Sikorski's Czech pilot brought a libel action and was awarded damages against Hochhuth in 1972.
It is perhaps inevitable that Hochhuth's more recent work has not met with such passionate or anxious responses. It includes Guerrillas (1970), the comedies Die Hebamme (1971; ‘The Midwife’) and Lysistrate oder die NATO (1974), Tod eines Jägers (1976; ‘Death of a Hunter’), on Hemingway's suicide, Judith (1984), and The Immaculate Conception (1989). He has also published a book of essays, Krieg und Klassenkrieg (1971; ‘War and Class War’), two novellas, and a novel, Eine Liebe in Deutschland (1978; translated as German Love Story, 1980).