Nazism versus the Bauhaus School
1933 was a terrible year for democracy, Germany, and the country’s Jewish communities. Having polled more than a third of votes in the 1932 elections, on 30 January 1933 Adolf Hitler, leader of the National Socialist party, was invited by the conservative political establishment of the Weimar Republic to head a new coalition cabinet. Within months from assuming office, the regime banished any form of opposition, embarked on a fierce anti-Jewish campaign that would gather terrifying pace in subsequent years, and initiated a violent campaign of “purification” of German society and culture.
An early target of the Nazi regime was the Bauhaus School, where architecture, design, and crafts had flourished since the school’s foundation in 1919. Initially located in Weimar, it moved to Dessau in 1925 and eventually to Berlin in 1932, before being raided by the Gestapo and dissolved in July 1933. Its internationalist modernist style, infused with a predominantly socialist ideological outlook and a fascination with modern technology were fundamentally at odds with the extreme nationalism of the Nazi party and regime. The school’s dissolution in 1933 was, ironically, the consequence not only of Nazism’s rise but also of the school’s own spectacular success.
In this module we will approach the closing of the Bauhaus school as a defeat of an alternative vision for a new society and a new world - a kind of “escape from history”, a liberation from the weight of tradition, a celebration of international co-operation and social change. By contrast, the Nazi regime came to sponsor a version of history rooted in a deeply exclusive national tradition - a restoration of an idealised national past in opposition to “others”, both within Germany and abroad. We will examine how architecture and design can represent different ideologies and visions of the future; and why they mattered so much to the Nazi regime in 1933 and even to us today.
The introductory lecture (Week 22) will focus on the four main issues:
- The events that led from the rise of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) in the late 1920s to the appointment of Hitler as Chancellor of Germany (January 1933) and to the final closing of the Bauhaus School (August 1933). This short period witnessed the dissolution of what remained of the liberal-democratic order of the Weimar Republic; the passing of the Enabling Act that out a formal end to German democracy; the first wave of attacks on Germany's Jews; and the forced 'co-ordination' of German culture along Nazi ideas of hyper-nationalism and racialism.
- The history of the Bauhaus School from Weimar via Dessau to Berlin, from 1919 to 1933. Bauhaus evangelised a new relation between art, technique, and social life (evident in its motto 'Art and Technique - the New Unity'). It pioneered a new wave of modern design in a broad range of fields from architecture to furniture and typography that was underpinned by a desire to break with the past. Although based in Germany (first in Weimar, then in Dessau, finally in Berlin), it hosted a truly international partnership of modernist artists and practitioners.
- The growing tension between modernist/internationalist ideas (in architecture, culture, society) and the more conservative approach to these issues by the National Socialist movement and regime. This tension had already become evident from the late 1920s but reached its climax in the four turbulent months from January to April 1933.
- The tensions within the National Socialist party itself with regard to 'modern' culture, epitomised by the clash between Alfred Rosenberg and Joseph Goebbels. While by no means a supporter of the Bauhaus School and especially its values (which Nazis attacked as 'socialist' and anti-national), Goebbels had initially professed a preference for a more modern approach to art and culture that clashed with the strict national-racial ideas of other Nazi luminaries like Rosenberg. This highlights that 1933 was crucial also in terms of the definition of the Nazi regime's (initially at least, contradictory) attitude to art and culture.
The introductory lecture will highlight that the clash between the modernist spirit (epitomised by the Bauhaus) and the National Socialist regime cannot be seen as purely a matter of a conflict between modern and anti-modern visions. As Roger Griffin and Jeffrey Herf have argued, National Socialism did not represent a rejection of modernity but a vision of an 'alternative modernity’ - fiercely opposed to the ‘western’ path associated with liberalism, individualism, and democracy but at the same time obsessed with modern notions of efficiency, organisation, communication, and technology. Inside the ranks of the party, there were wildly divergent opinions about the role of 'modern' culture, even if in the end a more 'reactionary' approach won the argument. To gauge the extent of this victory, we will need to fast-forward (and make an excursus) to 1937, when the regime organised two parallel exhibitions in Munich, the first one dedicated to official (and cherished) 'German Art' while the second devoted to 'degenerate art' - i.e. the art that the National Socialist regime had rejected and classified as 'un-Germanic'. It is not a coincidence that the closure of the Bauhaus School soon led to a mass exodus of its practitioners to other parts of the world (mainly the USA but also Switzerland), where they could find a more hospitable environment for their ideas.
1933 is a critical year in the context of this discussion - not only in the domain of art and architecture but also in terms of the ideology. It marked the decisive showdown between two very different concepts of life, the outcome of which (in hindsight) had a profound effect on subsequent developments - in Germany, the whole of Europe, and indeed on a global basis. The closing of the Bauhaus School was also a deeply symbolic act of thwarting the quest for cultural and social transformation that had gathered momentum in the turbulent years following WW1.
In the subsequent two workshops (Weeks 24-25), you will examine the ideas that underpinned the Bauhaus School, focusing on particular examples derived from its manifesto, its exhibitions, and its artefacts. You will also learn more about the contradictory ideas about art and culture that clashed inside the ranks of the Nazi party and regime, leading to the closure of the School and the formal division of cultural production into 'German' and 'degenerate'. More information about the workshops will be distributed immediately after the introductory lecture.
Barry Bergdoll, Leah Dickerman, Bauhaus 1919-1933: workshops for modernity (New York: Museum of Modern Art ; London: Thames & Hudson, 2009)
Magdalena Dorset, Bauhaus, 1919-1933 (Berlin: Bauhaus Archiv, 1990)
Hilde Heynen, Architecture and Modernity: A Critique (Cambridge Mass: MIT, 1999)
Walter Gropius, The new architecture and the Bauhaus (Cambridge, Mass: MIT, 1965)
Barbara Miller Lane, The Architecture and Politics in Germany, 1918-1945 (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1968)
Jonathan Huener, Francis R. Nicosia, The Arts In Nazi Germany: Continuity, Conformity, Change? (New York: Berghahn, 2009)
Roger Griffin, Modernism and Fascism: The Sense of a Beginning under Mussolini and Hitler (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2007)
Roderick Stackelberg, Hitler's Germany: Origins, Interpretations, Legacies (New York / London: Routledge, 2002)
http://www.bauhaus-dessau.de/english/home.html (Bauhaus' years at Dessau)
http://www.bauhaus.de (General information on, and history of, the Bauhaus)
http://bauhaus-online.de (General information on, and history of, the Bauhaus)
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-24819441 ('Why Hitler hated modernism')
Walter Gropius: founder of the Bauhaus
Walter Gropius, architect by profession and already a pioneer of a modernist architecture, was asked in 1919 to head the Grand-Ducal Saxon School of Arts and Crafts in Weimar. It was this traditional school of art and design that he transformed into the famous Bauhaus school, first in Weimar and from 1925 in Dessau. His left-wing sympathies made him an easy target for conservative and later Nazi opponents. Already in 1924, as the Social Democrats lost control of Thuringia, where Weimar was situated, Gropius took the decision to relocate the school to Dessau. In 1928, Gropius decided to step down from the director's chair, replaced by Hannes Meyer (1928-30).
Bauhaus Dessau building
The iconic home of the Bauhaus in Dessau (1926-32) was designed by the School's director, Walter Gropius. It was a ground-breaking design, in terms of materials, organisation of spaces, and facade. The Dessau building epitomised the radical edge of Bauhaus' spirit. It was in Dessau, inside this building, that the School reached its creative peak. By 1931-32, however, increasing pressure from Nazi and conservative figures in the local authority had cast a shadow on the School's future. Faced with hostile scrutiny, the new director of the Bauhaus School, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, decided to abandon the Dessau facilities and relocate to Berlin.
DESSAU BUILDING SLIDESHOW
Margret Kentgens-Craig (ed.), The Dessau Bauhaus Building, 1926-1999 (Basel / Berlin / Boston: Birkhaeuser, 1998)