Art of the Weimar Republic: The German People as Subjects, Part One

PORTRAITURE REBORN

The Likeness as Blank Parody

Portraiture had its greatest days in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries–think of Thomas Gainsborough’s proud aristocrats and of Thomas Romney’s posed nobility–consider the magnificent likenesses by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, whose female sitters wore the most stylish gowns of their time–recall the causal bravura brushwork of John Singer Sargent uplifting the nouveau riche into mortality. One might even consider the merits of a photographic likeness, which, when well done, could be iconic for the subject. But what all these examples have in common is the goal of establishing a place in society. Portraiture was always a joint project, between the artist and the client, in which the pair collaborated on a project of self-fashioning. There was no reason why modern portraiture could not have continued in this vein during the early decades of the twentieth century. In Paris, Tamara de Lempicka, one of the great portrait artists of the century, gave new identities to the displaced aristocrats set adrift by the Great War, living precariously in France. But, in Germany, the question of, indeed, the very need for portraits was in question. After a war which was lost, the nation became a Republic and the long-suppressed demand for socialism emerged and the client base for traditional portraiture, the ruling class, was damaged by defeat and shame. And yet, it was during the Weimar Republic that modern portraiture emerged, shorn of its traditional raison d’être.

Tamara de Lempicka. Portrait Of S.A.I. Grand Duke Gavriil Kostantinovic (1927)

In one of those odd coincidences that remind one of the futility of war, at the Battle of the Somme, there was a gathering of luminous minds and talents, albeit on the opposite sides of no-man’s land. English writers, Siegfried Sassoon, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein faced the German artist, Otto Dix (1891–1969). Another day and another time, these soldiers would have been friends. Dix spent almost ten years after the Great War purging his system of his memories, of his suffering as a soldier while expressing his sympathies towards his fellow veterans. He evolved from the brave patriot who had served his nation honorably to an artist of this new and novel post-war period. The last great painting of his recovery period was Gross Stadt (Metropolis) of 1928 in which Dix shows the Weimar Republic in all of its dubious glories. The work is a triptych, mocking an ecclesiastical altarpiece, which used to reveal religious truths to the illiterate. The truth of Gross Stadt is that life has moved on, leaving the war and its casualties aside. On the left and right panels, the war wounded, still not cared for a decade later, still wearing their uniforms, are begging in the streets. But dogs bark and the crowds pass on with distaste and indifference. The central panel is full of the full-blown cultural explosion that enlivened the dark days of the Republic. One could get lost in the pleasures of a jazz band from America and dance to the music, mingling with an exotic cast of characters. Despite the gravity of his paintings, Dix himself loved to go dancing with his wife and the two were so good with the modern dances that they toyed with the idea of becoming professionals. Clearly, the painting as a whole is an indictment of a careless society which has decided who to throw away–honorable soldiers–and who to celebrate–sexual adventurers and hedonists. The “cast of characters” referred to earlier provide a clue to the future direction of Dix: his self-imposed mission of portraying the new people populating the Weimar Republic.

Otto Dix. Metropolis (1927-28)

In his review of Peter Gay’s seminal book Weimar Culture. The Outsider and Insider, Walter Laquer wrote, “There was no place like Berlin in the 1920’s. The capital of the modern movement in literature and the arts, pioneering in the cinema and theater, in social studies and psychoanalysis, it was the city of “The Threepenny Opera” and “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” the cradle of the youth movement and the haven of unheard-of sexual freedom. The Mecca of a whole generation of Isherwoods, it has entered history as the center of a new Periclean age.” As Laquer noted in his 1968 article “Berlin, Brecht, Bauhaus and a Whole Generation of Isherwoods,” the achievements of the culture was not appreciated by the “ordinary” Germans. “The advocates and the enthusiastic followers of this avant-garde movement came from a small unrepresentative layer of German society; left-wing or liberal, largely Jewish, it was concentrated in Berlin and a few other big cities. It had no popular success at the time; in the list of contemporary best sellers one looks in vain for the famous names of the twenties..” In a memorable sentence opening his book, Peter Gay described the Republic in terms of “Its tormented brief life with its memorable artifacts, and its tragic death–part murder, part wasting sickness, part suicide–have left their imprint on men’s minds, often vague perhaps, but always splendid.” Speaking of the remarkable achievements of this post-war wounded world, Gay stated, “But it was a precarious glory, a dance on the edge of a volcano.”

In other words, the outstanding individuals of the Republic, the artists and writers, who fabricated the post-war society, were new people, who, in earlier years, would have been marginalized and on the fringes or even suppressed and locked away in a closet. With non-traditional ethnicities and origins, these strong-minded highly individualistic Berliners came from the middle class where a nice photograph would serve as a family portrait. Otto Dix seemed to have decided to update portraiture, pulling the practice away from gentle flattery and aggrandizement and pushing the exercise towards the period proclivity for “New Objectivity.” The meaning of this umbrella phrase which covers unrelated but like-mind artists brought together in a 1925 exhibition in Mannheim. The director of the Kunsthall, Gustav F. Hartlaub, coined the term “Neue Sachlichkeit” to describe what he saw as a tendency towards a new modern realism that stressed objectivity. But Felix Roh found a term he thought better fit the disconcerting loss of the familiar when ordinary objects were subjected to prolonged scrutiny: “magic realism.” The term, then, was a curator’s creation, designed more to provide an alternative to Expressionism and to hopefully to call attention to a new movement than an attempt to describe a new era or a new way of thinking. Since then art historians have struggled with the translation and its meaning, and a long list of possibilities unfolded. In her book, All Consuming: The Tiller-Effect and the Aesthetics of Americanization in Weimar Photography 1923-1933, Lisa Jaye Young provided some of the scholarship on this topic, with descriptions of “function,” “thingness,” “practical,” “straightforward,” “conceptual rationalism” or “impartial.” In 1927, George Waldemar linked the movement to a particular kind of modernism: “The Neue Sachlichkeit is Americanism, the cult of the objective, the hard fact, the predilection for functional work, professional, conscientiousness, and usefulness.” A few years later, Fritz Schamlenbach, a contemporary of Hartlaub, insisted that the curator was referring to a “mental attitude.”

Dix was a native of the old Baroque of Dresden, where he spent most of his artistic life. Many of his portraits were of the citizens who were his friends and colleagues. But the artist also went to Berlin and lived there from 1925 and 1927 in the cultural capital of the Weimar Republic. How could he not? It was Berlin, not Dresden, that defined the period. In the exhibition catalog, Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s, Sabine Rewald noted that Dix came to Berlin to paint the Weimar Republic as its people. Upon seeing the journalist Sylvia von Harden “when she left the Fomanisches Café, Berlin’s foremost literary hangout, one night in 1926.” “I must paint you,” he shouted because she “represented their era.” Von Harden, a woman, a lesbian and a journalist, a rather aggressive profession but perfect of the New Woman (with a new name), wrote of the encounter she had with the artist who made her famous in 1959, while she was living in England. Dix was fascinated with what Von Harden described as her “dull eyes, ornately adorned earlobes, long nose, thin mouth, long hands, short legs, and large feet..” In her oddities, Sylvia von Harden represented the Neue Frau simply because, as her monocle implied, she made her way in a world hostile to her through the power of her will and her intelligence. Many Germans disapproved of the New Woman, newly liberated after the War. Already emboldened by wartime work, these women began to push into mainstream society, leaving home and all of its domestic comforts behind and granting herself freedom from marriage by using birth control. Crossing her legs like a man, asserting herself in a red-checked dress, von Harden sports an Eton cropped hair cut (bubikopf) and flaunts her large and handsome hands, one of which is wearing a handsome ruby ring and holds a cigarette. She smokes, she drinks and she hangs out at cafés, wears hard red lipstick, accented by her dress the interior of her cigarette case and the corner walls of the bar. The only relief from the sea of red is the white marble table top and the yellow box of matches. Von Harden’s hose are rolled above the knees, just above her skirt, and would be invisible when she stood up, but Dix reveals her well-groomed and well-dressed knees, with a glimpse of a stocking.

Otto Dix. Sylvia von Harden (1926)

Although this is the most famous portrait that Dix made in his efforts to depict the times in which he lived, von Harden is unique in that she is the only respectable New Woman he painted. More often than not, for Dix, the New Woman inhabits the world’s oldest profession, prostitution. These are the women that fascinate Dix, who, like an early twentieth century Toulouse-Lautrec, must have spent a great deal of time in houses of ill repute. The viewer could be excused for concluding that, for Otto Dix, the New Woman was the prostitute, however, with the exception of his wife, all of the women studied by the artist were, by definition, on the margins and the fringes. In a society that regarded women suspiciously, the line that separated von Harden from prostitutes was a thin one. A professional woman, such as von Harden, were perceived as threats, looked up with resentment, as sources of destabilization. In a country where millions of men died, women filled one-third of the jobs in Germany: she was working, he was dead, she was taking a job that “belonged” to the now absent male. But as Dix recognized, these women were victims of the War as well as the men who would never come home or never recover. Many of these women were prostitutes, walking the streets freely and with great visibility because they had no male protector, no father, no brother, no husband. Fresh out of domesticity, forced on their own devices, without sufficient education to own a livelihood, women were soliciting. Had their lives gone the way they planned, these women would have never become prostitutes. It is with these women that Dix ventured into another phase of portraiture, group portraits, but his series of paintings of women who had fallen on hard times becomes an accumulation that coalesced into a critical mass.

Today Otto Dix’s Three Prostitutes (Drei Dirnen auf der Strasse) (1925) is part of a private collection and rarely on public view. In 2014 the Courtauld Institute of Art posted a short article “The Neue Frau and Fashion in Otto Dix’s Three Prostitutes (1925)”, quoting the distrust with which women were viewed in the Weimar Republic:

Thomas Wehrling, a Weimar cultural critic. His essay ‘Berlin is Becoming a Whore,’ first published in Das Tage-Buch in 1920, explicitly aligns women’s interest in fashion and entertainment with moral debasement: “A generation of females has grown up that has nothing but the merchandising of their physical charms in mind. They sit in the parlors, of which there are a dozen new ones every week; they go to the cinema in the evenings, wear skirts that end above the knees, buy Elegant World and the film magazines…The display windows in the delicatessens are filled for these females; they buy furs and shoes at the most-extravagant prices and stream in herds down the Kurfurstendamm on Sunday mornings.”

Otto Dix. Three Prostitutes (1925)

It has been estimated that, after the War, Berlin had at least twenty thousand female prostitutes, who were a common sight. A contemporary publication put the figure at one hundred thousand, possibly an exaggeration born of the sudden openness with which the women plied their trade. As can be seen in Metropolis, Dix portrayed Berlin as a site of prostitution. Like the wounded and crippled soldiers, the women were the visible signs of the cost of War, and their visible blandishments towards their customers, their blatant immorality all signifiers of a society in shreds. It seemed as if everything was for sale and the “RM” inscribed on the shop window which frames the women, like a splendid portrait, indicated the 1924 introduction of the Reich Mark as the new currency for the Republic. The issuing of a new currency resulted in a re-evaluation of the value of money, and investors and those with savings accounts lost money. The hanging female leg clad in a green high heel shoe is hard to decode but its presence in a shop window almost certainly stressed the theme of commodification, condemning the streets as sites of exchange of flesh. Barbara Hales wrote an interesting article “Blond Satan: Weimar Constructions of the Criminal Femme Fatale” in which she related the way in which the female, both the middle-class shopper (the respectable woman) and the lower class commodity (the prostitute) were both representatives of the Americanized consumer society. “The German press often referred to Berlin as a whore..Berlin as sensual metropolis was a dangerous space where crime and death were associated with the prostitute. It was also a space in which money transactions, political struggles, industrial development, and perceived sexual perversions tore at the fabric of traditional bourgeois German society. The prostitute’s body represented this excess and chaos..” The Glitter and Doom catalog essay on the painting noted that many women dressed in an apparently average fashion in order to avoid being conspicuous but the prostitutes carried and wore recognizable items as codes, conveying specialties and services to their alert customers.

With cheerful vulgarity, Dix seized upon these and other telltale details. The prostitute on the right clutches a large, red phallus like umbrella handle that points to the vulva-shaped ornament on her green hat. Her emaciated colleague in the center trails a long transparent red widow’s veil, an accessory that had become a popular trademark of her profession during World War I, grasps a matching red pocketbook, and cups her hand provocatively on her hip, causing one of the straps of her chemise to slip off her shoulder. The older woman holding a tiny, ugly dog on the left has just passed hem; her disapproving smirk still distorts her sharp features. She is identified as a prostitute by little except her red leather gloves, which perhaps signal some special service.

The portraits by Dix of women have all the signs of a man observing women with fear and loathing, a gaze of the man who is both socially powerful and sexually intimidated. According to all accounts, he was also a man who loved his wife who encouraged his career, despite the controversial topics. If we put Dix in his own cultural context, his portraiture is typical of the period. In Germany, the 1920s was a golden age of portrait painting, as many artists, such as Christian Schad, sought to understand modern life in Europe through studies of those who inhabited the most advanced elements of society. None of the portrait painters of the Weimar period attempted to beautify their subjects. In keeping with the sobriquet “objective,” in all its many meanings, Dix was merciless. In some cases, it is possible to compare contemporary photographs of his subjects with his portraits. Working in tandem the same time as Dix, photographer August Sander also found Sylvia von Harden as an interesting representative of modern Germany. Like Dix, Sander focused on intriguing individuals, mostly of the artistic class, and, like Dix, Sander used the group approach to the lower classes.

August Sander. Sylvia von Harden (1920s)

Dix exaggerated the journalist as a character, a player in the theater that was the Weimar Republic, but, at the same time, as with his prostitutes, he captured the mood and feel of uncertain and disruptive times.Sander makes von Harden seem far less noticeable and far more assimilated into society, calling attention to the many shades and moods of “objectivity” as a mode of expression and examination and as a means of cataloging and classifying the people of Germany. In 1927, Dix was offered a job at the Academy of Fine Arts in Dresden and he returned home, ending his Berlin adventures. Out of an apparently simple genre, portraiture, a number of categories developed in the Weimar Republic. In the next post, the artist George Grosz explored the idea of portraiture as a study of type and as an expression of hate and disgust.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

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Design in the Weimar Republic: Photomontage and Photo Essays

THE CONSTRUCTION OF INFORMATION

The PhotoEssay in the Weimar Republic

In 1919 Austrian artist Raoul Haussmann (1886-1971) found an image in the Berlin Illustrated News (Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung), a seemingly innocuous photographic portrait of the defense minister (Reichswehrminister) of the newly formed Weimar Republic, Gustav Noske. The Noske photograph, a man in a suit seated in an ordinary chair, became the placeholder for Haussmann’s Dada interventions. The head was removed and replaced with an assemblage of machine parts and the torso, the shirt front, was cut away and replaced by an anatomical illustration of the human lungs, covered in brachial tubes circulating air. Noske, himself, was a particularly unsavory character, certainly deserved the dismemberment. On the surface, he was ordinary enough, a man who could vanish into a crowd, anonymous. The jowls of Noske were drooping, his wavy hairline receding, his uninteresting face distinguished by a small short mustache, like the one Hitler grew, and a pair of round spectacles. In other words, his was a face tailor-made for the Dada artist to photomontage into mechanical oblivion.

Gustav Noske (1868-1946)

But Noske was also an excellent target for Haussmann who, like his colleagues was left wing and sympathetic to the causes of socialism and communism. Noske was a member of the Social Democratic Party, the party in power, and he protected the newly formed Republic from an outbreak of rebellions in January of 1919. This month, barely two months after the Armistice was signed was one of unrest, food shortages, deflating currency, lack of food and fuel, and a lively two-day meeting of the Communist Party of Germany ended. But the match that lit the streets on fire was the refusal of the Berlin police chief to resign. His supporters sprang to his defense and the Spartacist Group, rose up to oust the recalcitrant leader of the police. Arising against the government like Spartacus led the slave revolt, battling the Roman Empire, the Spartacist movement, led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, was a workers’ party, dedicated to installing a Russian style revolution in Germany. Starting on January 5th, Bloody Week gravely threatening the future of the Republic and events spiraled out of control. The revolutionaries could not agree as to what to do next, and the government called for volunteer army veterans to defend it. The President of the Republic, Friedrich Ebert, ordered the revolt to be put down and Noske was able to organize a paramilitary right-wing organization called the Freikorps, more soldiers, to quell the unrest in the streets. It is important to note that the Army itself never surrendered, only the German government signed the relevant documents, and, as a result, the military was no friend to the government. In fact, there were mutinies at the sea ports, and sailors and soldiers were a free-ranging danger that also needed to be dealt with. However, the Freikorps was eager and willing to fight for whatever cause or reason that gave it the opportunity to display aggression, and it went about its business with efficient brutality.

Raoul Haussman. Self-Portrait of the Dadasoph (1920)

The leader of the Freikorps was none other than Gustav Noske. Noske installed searchlights and swept the streets of Berlin at night, searching out anyone violating his curfew. Armed with military equipment, field guns, howitzers, machine guns, hand grenades, and trench mortars, the Freikorps retook the buildings seized by the Spartacists and their worker allies, mowed down street demonstrators, ending the Week with the blood that gave the days of rage their definitive name. Noske gave his demobilized “soldiers” equipment for hand-to-hand fighting and positioned his regiments to turn machine guns the protesters on Linden Boulevard. For a left wing inclined artist, such as Haussmann, the defense minister was a particularly unpleasant character–willing to deploy thugs to quash a peoples’ rebellion. By January 13th, the Spartacists and their leaders are in hiding. But the Freikorps tracked down Liebknecht and Luxemburg and dragged them back to the authorities. Somehow they were both murdered. The body of Liebknecht was “delivered” to the morgue with bullet holes in is forehead, and, five months later, the body of Luxemburg surfaced from the Landwehr Canal, where it had been dumped. On the 24th, a public funeral was held for the leaders and the nearly forty other members of the Group. The government moved to Weimar, out of reach of any further uprisings. This horrible ending to a doomed uprising would not be forgotten, either by militant nationalists, like the Freikorps, which would soon be replaced by the Nazis, or the vanquished, the German Communists. The days of Noske were numbered. After another uprising a year later in March of 1920, the Kapp Putsch, the defense minister was removed from power.

George Grosz. In Memory of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht (1919)

In the midst of street protests, the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung or BIZ, as it was known, continued to publish, just as it had since 1892. The publication was the first to inform its readers of current events, not through words, but through pictures, creating the photo-essay. The photo-essay became the standard means of conveying the news to the general public which might want an easier and more legible way to keep up with events, without plowing through rows of gray print, marching up and down tall newspaper pages. The layout was unique for the time, combining photographs and a text which explained the images, foregrounding the picture and its entertainment value over an in-depth study of current events. The editor during the 1920s, Kurt Korff, stated that “Life has become more hectic and the individual has become less prepared to peruse a newspaper in leisurely reflection. Accordingly, it has become necessary to find a keener and more succinct form of pictorial representation that has an effect on readers even if they just skim through the pages. The public has become more and more used to taking in world events through pictures rather than words.”

Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung layout

BIZ remained apolitical, a wise course during the Weimar Republic, but its appearance of normal times in the midst of political and quasi-military demonstrations laid it open to critique. The power of these periodicals–and by the 1920s most of the large German cities had an illustrated news publication during the Weimar Republic–was enormous. The illustrated news outlets were accessible and omnipresent and read by everyone in Germany. This media proved to be a bonanza for German photographers who suddenly had an outlet for work as photojournalists. In the late twenties, Erich Salomon concealed his Ermanox and photographed diplomats conferring and trials deliberating. Felix Man showed a typical day in the life of an up and coming dictator, Benito Mussolini. In his book, The Photography of Crisis: The Photo Essays of Weimar Germany, Daniel H. Magilow noted that the combination of photos and text was not necessarily new in the 1920s but these publications “used photographs in new ways–in novel essayistic forms that did more than just illustrate the text. As sites of political debate changed, so too did the forms in which those struggles unfolded.” The photo essay was, Magilow asserted, characterized by “the sequencing or arrangements of photographs to tell stories, make arguments, communicate ideas, elicit narratives, evoke allegories, and persuade listeners to accept new ways of seeing and thinking had accompanied the medium since its origins in the early nineteenth century.” The photo-essay took a novelistic approach, and, in doing so, assumed a power over the story and over the images, turning the photographs from unique images to “film stills” in the service of the words. Like a mini-novel or short story, the photo essays followed a traditional structure of beginning, middle, and end, or beginning, crisis, and resolution. Life does not wrap itself up in such a neat and convenient fashion and the dramatic format, driven by the need to entertain the reader and to retain her attention could shape the “news” in profound ways.

Raoul Haussmann. Dada Siegt (1920)

This new power for the mass media meant that, for the Dada artists who used photomontage, the illustrated news magazines were ripe targets. The carefully non-political stance during the Weimar Republic maintained by the publications would have been difficult, perhaps shifting the slant, or the kind of stories published, towards the conventional or status quo outcome, while skipping over the unsavory aspects of a Republic under siege by crosswinds. That said, the Dada artists and the illustrated news magazines shared something in common: they both lived in the present, or a mental and cultural phenomenon called “presentism” by Maria Stavrinaki in her book, Dada Presentism: An Essay on Art and History. She quoted Raoul Haussmann saying, “The Dada person recognizes no past which might tie him down. He is held up by the living present, by his existence.” Being published daily, the news magazine, such as BIZ, had to make the most of the present, today. The people of Germany were also forced to live in the present: the past was one one of shame and defeat, the present was unpleasant and uncertain, and the future seemed grim. There was nothing to look back to and little reason to ahead into the future. There was only the present. The Dada artists, reveling in the moment, lacking any interest in making “universal” art or art that would appeal to the ages, pounced upon the pages of BIZ with their scissors and razor blades. Tearing into the neatly arranged layouts, disrupting the flow of the story, removing characters from the novel, excising certain words and phrases, the Dada artists, especially the leading photomontage engineers, Hannah Höch and Raoul Haussmann, dismembered the plot lines as succinctly as a surgeon would carve into a body.

Hannah Höch. Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany (1920)

Dada collages or photomontages are usually assumed to be meaningless or random, but, if as Stavrinaki stated, they are evidence of “presentism” then each melange has a meaning or multiple meanings. True, unlike its arch enemy, the photo-essay, the photomontage has no center or unity or organization, but its copious surplus does not indicate that absence of meaning. Those scholars, who have painstakingly investigated the images used and the words cut out, have uncovered meanings, plural. Hannah Höch, in a neat twist, actually worked for the Ullstein Press, a publishing empire that owned BIZ, and collected photographs from her employer, using them for her photomontages. In The Visual Arts in Germany 1890-1937: Utopia and Despair, Shearer West wrote that Cut with the Kitchen Knife is replete with references to both Wilhelmine Society and Weimar culture, and it includes hundreds of photographs carefully juxtaposed for ironic or satirical effect. To make her satire most effective, Höch included mechanical illustrations, architecture, words cut out from newspapers, animals and photographs of over 50 individuals, many of them recognizable. The odd title of the work outlines its agenda. Höch chose the image of a “kitchen knife” as a way of giving herself, as a woman, the power to expose the male-dominated society of Weimar Germany. She metaphorically used a domestic implement to cut open the ‘beer belly culture’ of Weimar. Beer, both a German drink and an integral part of male society, was chosen as a way of emphasizing the bloated and heavy quality of German militarism; the word ‘culture’ (Kultur) is used in its fullest sense to indicate the society’s whole artistic, political, and educational profile.” West gave a partial list of what was a cast of thousands, divided into “Dada” and “anti-Dada” sections that included Ebert, Hindenberg, Noske, Wilhelm II, Crown Prince William of Prussia, and Haussmann, Grosz, Baader Herzfelde, and herself, also bringing in Marx and Lenin.

Vast, on its own terms, this impressive photomontage dwarfed those of her male counterparts, but its debut in 1920 at the Dada Messe in Berlin was its last appearance for decades. Höch, in her own time, was not considered significant to the movement (she was a woman) and had so little importance in the mind of Richard Huelsenbeck (1892-1974) that he failed to include her in his book on Dada. He declared Dada in Berlin to be “dead” in 1920, and Höch drifted away from the non-movement. Cut with the Kitchen Knife, over-sized and fragile, was kept in her studio, while she showed more up to date photo-collages, in other words, their content was timely and contemporary to the exhibition in question. For her, Cut with the Kitchen Knife was not of the “present.” In Objects as History in Twentieth-century German Art: Beckmann to Beuys, Peter Chametzky wrote of all the exhibitions in which she participated. She sent the photomontage, Cut with the Kitchen Knife, to none of them. As Chametzky said, Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada’s close association with Berlin Dada may have made Höch see it as dated.” By 1961, Chametzky reported, after the photomontage was purchased by the Berlin National Gallery, “she feared people would not spend enough time looking at it or know enough about Berlin in 1919-20 and Berlin Dada’s mission to appreciate its complex references and technique.” It seems clear that the Dada montages were making deliberate political statements about the now, and that their destructive techniques–cutting, disrupting, destroying continuity and flow–were deliberate counter-measures, designed to undercut their sources, the illustrated mass media. As revolutionaries, the Berlin Dada attacked the present, tearing its smug stories into pieces and re-presenting the carefully chosen images and selected words in chaotic anti-compositions without centers. If we accept Richard Huelsenbeck’s claim in his 1920 book, The History of Dadaism, that the movement ended with his book, then Dada in Berlin was part of one of the worst years in the history of Weimar Republic. The photomontages were, in their own way, a form of “news,” always new, always pertinent, but never laid out in easy linear narratives. Parasitic upon the enemy host, illustrated news, the Berlin photomontages robbed photo essays of their claims to truth and exposed the existing turmoil of the real world by a strategy of invade and disarrange.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

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German Artists in the Aftermath of the Great War, Part Three

AFTER THE GREAT WAR

John Heartfield: The Social Critic

One might ask, if there was a Third Reich, when were the first two Reichs and where does the Weimar Republic fit in? It’s an interesting question because in answering it, one comes to realize that the Republic is an odd, and perhaps, doomed interval, wedged in between centuries of absolutist regimes. The First Reich, which was never called the “First Reich,” only the Reich or the kingdom, was the revived Holy Roman Empire, brought back to life first by Charlemagne in 800, according to some. But other historians date the beginning of the First Reich by Otto I. By the middle of the tenth century, Otto had managed to bring much of northern Europe under his control. His military might and territorial domination meant that Otto was the temporal equal to Pope John XII, who needed the King’s protection. In return for the mutually beneficial partnership, the Pope crowned Otto the new Emperor of the now “Holy” Roman Empire in 962. At its peak, Otto’s Empire stretched north to south, from the North Sea, reaching down to absorb all of Italy, with the exception of the Papal States. Setting a precedent that would last for centuries, Otto I was strong enough to later depose John, install his chosen Pope, and take over the “holy” aspect of the Empire by controlling the Papacy. Otto II and Otto III, the son and grandson of the first emperor, used the title “Emperor” and their successors carried on the tradition of deciding who should be Pope for hundreds of years.

The title passed from family to family, through advantageous marriages: the Hohenstaufen and the Habsburg families ruled until modern times. For a thousand years, this Reich, which officially became “German” in 1452 and called the Heiliges Römisches Reich Deutscher Nation. Under this new designation, the Empire continued for four more centuries, only to finally be dissolved during the Napoléonic Wars in 1806. By that time, the capital of the Reich, a shell of its former self, was located south and east of the Germanic states, in Vienna; and out of this dissolution, the embryonic modern Germany began to emerge. It was Napoléon who divided the Germans from the Austrians and turned the Germans into the Confederation of the Rhine, a geographic and governmental creation, later ratified by the congress of Vienna. Emerging from the shards of the long-dead Empire, this Confederation consisted of a cluster of thirty-five monarchies and four free cities. The Deutscher Bund or German Confederation was dominated by Austria and Prussia, and the two powers vied with one another for power well into the nineteenth century. The prolonged struggle between two German-speaking cultures held back both the modernization and the consolidation of both sides. While England and France were building overseas Empires and significant navies, the Germanic factions wrestled with each other, intent on establishing internal European “empires,” to dominate north-eastern Europe. The Seven Weeks War of the mid-1860s ended with Prussia, under the leadership of Otto von Bismarck, vanquishing Austria. Prussia rose out of a long power struggle as threateningly militaristic and ambitious to expand, anxious to catch up with the nations seen as its new rivals. In less than ten years, Prussia subdued France, ending the Napoléon III’s Second Empire with the French surrender in 1871. In an act designed to humiliate France, Germany, the modern state, the Second Reich, was declared in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, the former palace and home of the French kings.

George Grosz. The Engineer Heartfield ()

A united Germany, seeking “living room,” was a danger to Europe and the older powers kept wary eyes on this possible adversary. These mutual animosities almost certainly led to the disastrous Great War, a war into which Russia, Italy, France, and England fell, pulled down by the gravity of German desire to rule. The Second Reich ended when German finally recognized it could fight the Great War no longer and surrendered to the Allies. The Armistice in 1918 and the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm in November was the final and complete end to a short and ill-fated empire. A full thousand years under some form of autocracy and absolute rule had passed and suddenly, by Treaty, Germany was transformed into a Socialist Democratic Republic, an utterly alien political condition for the German people. The Weimar Republic lasted less than two decades and was wiped away by the Third Reich under Adolf Hitler who was “elected” in 1933. Hitler’s dream of another “Thousand Year Reich” was a mirror image of the First Reich, started by Otto I. It is also interesting to note that, less than a century after the Seven Weeks War, an Austrian once again ruled the German speaking people.

The Weimar Republic, a coalition government, was threatened from within and destabilized by the Allied powers from the very beginning. Unused to self-governance, the German people were locked into left-wing and right-wing power struggles politically, while the Treaty of Versailles saddled the nation with crippling reparations that had to be paid back. While the new nation fought to survive frequent incursions from the vengeful French, the sudden freedom from a repressive Empire allowed a surge of creativity in the arts. Under the most unlikely of circumstances, a new and modern cultural blossomed under what was surely a pale and baleful light. Minds now liberated from censorship, lives that had once been stunted by social disapproval enjoyed free reign, as Berlin became the European capital of sexual freedom, open to all tastes and needs and proclivities. Artists were allowed a certain level of freedom of expression, but the insecure Weimar Republic kept a wary eye on restive artists who dared to be too critical. And the most critical artists, whose sharp eyes and cynical minds, honed by a Dada sensibility, were the old friends John Heartfield (1891-1968) and George Grosz (1893-1959). They could not have foreseen the future, a period when the political unrest would prove to be the proving ground for a dangerous group of thugs, who would style themselves in elegant uniforms as “Nazis.” They attacked what was in front of them, not knowing that what lay ahead was much worse. As Patrizia C. McBride explained, the main weapon of Dada art with critical intent, photomontage, took on a different sensibility in Berlin:

While in a German context the initial inspiration for experimentation with visual and verbal collage may well have come from cubism’s “pasted-paper revolution,” it is significant that terms like Klebebilder and geklebte Bilder (pasted images) were soon supplanted by the generic term montage. To the radical artists associated with Dada and Constructivism, montage appeared preferable to the clumsy translations of the French collage because it directly evoked the world of machines, industrial production, and mass consumption, thus emphasizing the constructed quality of artifacts and their reliance on found materials and ready-made parts. The iconoclasm and antiestablishment streak of interwar montage practices have long been associated with an all-out assault on traditional notions of representation and narrative. In undermining the integrity of the artistic object, montage challenges the idealist premises that governed aesthetic dis- course in the nineteenth century, first and foremost the requirement that the artwork display a character of unity and organicity and thus allow for a hermeneuticc mode of reception based on the congruence between the whole and its component parts. Montage hinges on yanking elements out of their trusted environments and inserting them into new contexts.

In her article, “Weimar-Era Montage. Perception, Expression, Storytelling,” McBride stressed the formal impact of photomontage, but, when one is discussing Heartfield especially, it is equally important to establish the political context. The Weimar Republic was rent with competing factions that kept the government from effectively gaining control, and Heartfield was an unrelenting gadfly, stabbing at the heart of the new democratic Germany. During the 1920s, the Weimar Republic seemed a sinking ship run by fools and incompetents and their critical art was aimed towards the government and the favored and corrupt few who were prospering while the rest of the nation could not get out from under the animosity of the victors, especially France. In his book on The Weimar Republic, Stephen J. Lee explained the internal weakness within the government which prevented it from heading off fascism. The SPD was the most powerful of the coalition parties, but deliberately kept its interests narrow, directed to the working class, refusing to expand its appeal to the middle class. According to Lee, the Center Party (Zentrum or Z), mainly a Catholic party was uninterested in a Protestant constituency and would move to the hard right in the 1930s. The liberal parties, the DDP (Democratic party) and the DNVP (German Nationalist Party or the DVP), were “fundamentally divided between its progressive and conservative wings,” but were also not interested in the middle class. As Lee pointed out, “..after 1928, the DDP and DVP lost almost all their electoral support from the Nazis.”

Obviously, the government consisted of a variety of interests, none of which would seek support from the broad middle and build a support system for the Republic, leaving the vast unallied voters open for a hostile takeover. The fact that the Nazis moved into this vacuum of power was perhaps less a factor of political parties that pulled apart instead of pulling together and more about the nation’s lack of experience with self-governance. John Heartfield (once Helmut Hertzfeld) was a bitter opponent of the SPD and much of his work during the 1920s was directed against the Socialists. Like many adherents of the hard-left, he blamed the SPD for betraying the Left by lending a hand in crushing the Revolution in 1919. As a result of what seemed to be a failure of political nerve, Heartfield, along with most artists and intellectuals in the Republic were either sympathizers of or members of the German Communist Party. Lee explained the position of the party of Heartfield, the KPD (Kommunistisch Partei Deutschlands), in relation to the Weimar Republic:

The far left also had a role in the destruction of the Weimar Republic. In the crucial period after 1931, they refused to collaborate with the moderate parties to save the Republic; there was, in other words, no coalition of the left and center to hold back the advancing right. Why did this not happen?..the KPD had strong reasons for not doing this. In addition to their bitter memories of 1919, they had an ideological perception of the future which could not include the Weimar Republic. Stalin instructed the KPD not to collaborate in any way with the rest of the left, regarding the SPD as ‘social fascists,’ who gained ‘the trust of the masses through fraud and treachery.’ In the case of Thälmann, the leader of the KPD, saw Nazism as a catalyst for the eventual triumph of Communism. It would shake up bourgeois capitalism before collapsing in its turn–having cleared the way for a Communist revolution. According to this logic, it made no sense to help prolong the Republic..the KPD were therefore indirectly, but knowingly, involved in the rise of Hitler by 1933.

Heartfield claimed, incorrectly, that he joined the Communist party in 1918 during the founding congress but that congress did not take place until the end of December 1918 and the first of January in 1919. The assertion was one of emphasis–he was a strong and loyal member of the KPD from the start and identified so thoroughly with the working class that he wore overalls, styling himself as a Monteuranzug, an engineer or someone who assembles. As one of the first members of Berlin Dada, Heartfield and Grosz separated themselves and their art from the other members in their insistence that art had to be not only revolutionary as art but revolutionary as political art. The artists Raoul Haussmann and Richard Huelsenbeck and Hannah Höch, according to Dawn Ades in Dada and Surrealism, were more apolitical, focusing on an artistic revolution and steering clear of confrontation. Heartfield and Grosz, in contrast, put their art in the service of Communism and supported the working class and its struggles against the ruling powers.

Rudolf E. Kuenzli’s article, “John Heartfield and the Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung,” noted that “the new photojournalism of illustrated magazines with circulations of up to two million copies greatly determined the interpretation of social reality in Weimar Germany. Although the use of photo-essays was a powerful innovation, it served the interests of the middle and upper classes by never questioning the social and political structures of the Weimar Republic.” In other words, because photography had a claim on the “truth,” that is what the camera’s eye captured, the public would never question the authenticity of the photograph itself. However, this very public, even after decades of manipulation by the Second Reich, still did not understand that the photograph constructed a “reality” that could be completely disconnected from the truth. Coupled with explanatory text, the photo-essay was a powerful new discursive weapon.

Heartfield and his younger brother, Wieland Hertzfelde (the “e” was added when he was an adult) set up a radical press Malik Verlag, which published left-wing literature. They published, for example, the German translations of the novels of American writer Upton Sinclair, another champion of the workers and of the truth from the perspective of socialism. With Heartfield designing the book covers, the press set new standards for artistic designs that not only caught the viewer’s eye but also sent out a political message, even to those who were just passing by a bookseller’s stall on a German street. Even more innovative these book covers were meant to be removed from the book so that the owner could see how the message–words and images–flowed beyond the front cover to the back cover.

John Heartfield. Der 9. Januar (1926)

Once opened flat, a complete picture or message was revealed on the dust jacket. The purpose of these publications, as Kuenzli noted, was to provide a counter-narrative to the mainstream flow of “information.” To that end, many of these covers had an apparently three-dimensional effect. The flat silhouette of George Grosz on the cover of Gesellschaft, Künstler und Kommunismus (1921) by Wieland Herzfelde was unusual. Heartfield turned the rather staid design of paper covers into an art form in their own right in which text played with picture and photography was sliced and diced and redeployed to jolt the passive reader.

In fact, the Weimar Republic was a golden age for book cover design. The back-to-front innovation was used by other artists and strong eye-catching or Blickfang work was not uncommon. However, the cover designs by Heartfield were, for the most part, far more complex and contained a great deal of information, as the artist wasted no opportunity to communicate. Although other designers also used photography, the use of the photograph, cut up and severed from its original context, was hostile and subversive to the status quo. By combining apparently “truthful” segments into a new assemblage (the artist as an engineer), Heartfield literally under-cut the meaning of the photograph by demonstrating just how easily and effectively the “truth” can be manipulated.

John Heartfield. Cover for Franz Jung’s Die Eroberung der Maschinen (1925)

After his early experiments with photomontage for Berlin Dada, Heartfield took his new political weapon, photomontage, and dedicated it to the promotion of the Communist Party and socialist ideals, an unwavering quest that divided his oeuvre during the Republic into two main bodies, one design oriented and the other politically directed. His book covers for Malik were works of layout and design, and although he also created montages for The Red Flag, a communist newspaper, his magazine covers for AIZ, also a communist publication, are more well-known. The next post will discuss Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung in relation to the mainstream photo essay and the work of pioneering editors such as Stefan Lorant and the power of illustrated news.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

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German Artists in the Aftermath of the Great War, Part Two

AFTER THE GREAT WAR

Otto Dix and the Broken Soldiers

To understand the Treaty of Versailles, everyone should read Magaret MacMillian’s Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. If reading a very long book on a treaty written one hundred years ago does not sound tempting, Paris 1919 is not so much about a century old past but about the future and the present. In 2007, MacMillian laid out a road map that explained how we got from there to here. A few years earlier, in 2000, historian David Fromkin published, A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, which focused on the impact of the Treaty of Versailles and how the new world order came into being, and, for better or worse, created the Middle East we are grappling with to this day. In actions reminiscent of the “Scramble for Africa” in the previous century, France and England proceeded to carve the former Ottoman Empire like a great prostrate turkey between them like the practiced empire builder these nations were. The victors also began to slice off pieces of Germany, while hardly as large as the Middle East, was at least the size of a game bird, tracked down and brought to the kitchen table for dismemberment.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that the way in which the Paris Peace Conference mistreated Germany led to the Second World War. The victors, France and England, were in no mood for reason much less mercy; they sought revenge and vengeance. After all, Germany had started the War and after the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, victorious Prussia occupied France and forced it to pay reparations. The same fate was the least Germany deserved. The Great War was fought upon a deliberate German policy of bleeding the enemies–France and England–white, never realizing that that very strategy would also unleash a flow of casualties from its own body, which bleed its way to defeat. As MacMillian pointed out early in her book:

Millions of combatants— for the time of massive killing of civilians had not yet come— died in those four years: 1,800,000 Germans, 1,700,000 Russians, 1,384,000 French, 1,290,000 from Austria-Hungary, 743,000 British (and another 192,000 from the empire) and so on down the list to tiny Montenegro, with 3,000 men. Children lost fathers, wives husbands, young women the chance of marriage. And Europe lost those who might have been its scientists, its poets and its leaders, and the children who might have been born to them. But the tally of deaths does not include those who were left with one leg, one arm or one eye, or those whose lungs had been scarred by poison gas or whose nerves never recovered.

For the combatant nations, “recovery” meant that a generation needed to be replaced. For France and England, the loss of those expected to inherit and built upon the foundations of their parents was a devastating trauma. Revenge was not just about the past but about the lost future as well and in 1940 France preferred surrender to a new Germany rather than re-fight the Great War. But in 1919, France was eager to force Germany to pay reparations—132 billion gold marks–that would cripple the fledgling nation and to recover its “lost” territories of Alsace-Lorraine, the site of significant iron ore deposits. Other sections of Germany went to Poland. It should be noted that one nation was absent during this long Conference, Germany, which was confronted in May by the Treaty only when it was written. The nation reacted with shock over the so-called “War Guilt Clause” or clause 231: “The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.” The next clause, 232, demanded reparations which the Allies recognized in writing that the Germans did not have the resources to pay. These two sections alone, coupled with the Treaty’s insistence that Germany have only a small army and no air force, set the stage for the next war.

There are few heroes in this tangled tale, but the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, might have had the best political instincts about how to conclude the Great War. Another prescient participant, the economist John Maynard Keynes, clearly foresaw the economic consequences. In his 2015 book, Britain, France and Germany and the Treaty of Versailles: The Failure of Long-Term Peace, Nick Shepley quoted Keynes, writing in 1920: “The Treaty includes no provision for the economic rehabilitation of Europe–nothing to make the defeated Central Powers into good neighbours, nothing to stabilize the new States of Europe, nothing to reclaim Russia..It is an extraordinary fact that the fundamental economic problem of a Europe starving and disintegrating before their eyes, was the one question in which it was impossible to arouse the interest of the Four. Reparation was their main excursion into the economic field, and they settled it from every point of view except that of economic future of the States whose destiny they were handling.”

Simplissimus (June 3, 1919) This German cartoon was published a few weeks before the Treaty was signed.

We understand today that Woodrow Wilson, a Southern President, was a racist who resisted what was the first demand of the newly organized NAACP–block the release of The Birth of a Nation. Instead, Wilson, along with his friend, the director, D. W. Griffith, screened the film in the White House and endorsed the inflammatory movie. Once shown in theaters, The Birth of a Nation led to a revival of the Klu Klux Klan and allowed racism, never far below the surface, to rise up and bubble over. But, that said, Wilson, a former President of Princeton, was an intellectual visionary who arrived, as the leader of one of the victorious nations, in Paris with a dream of “self-determination.” There were vast territories unleashed when the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian and the German Empires all fell, and Wilson commendably felt that these fledgling “nations” should have the right to determine their own destinies. However, he faced his allies which would have none of his idealism, took what they wanted, and left the remaining territories to their own devices. But Wilson did little to check the mood of vengeance towards Germany and said, a few weeks before the Treaty was signed, “I have always detested Germany. I have never gone there. But I have read many German books on law. They are so far from our views that they have inspired in me a feeling of aversion.” The League of Nations could be said to be Wilson’s consolation prize, but the American also rejected his hopes for a more peaceful future. The United States had never wanted to become entangled in the dark affairs of Europe and pulled back into isolation, leaving Germany to its fate, betraying Wilson’s Fourteen Principles, his proposal for a lasting peace. The world’s largest creditor nation had exited the global stage.

The postcard shows the territories pared away from Germany and Austria by the Treaty. The title of the card reads, “Lost but not forgotten land,” and the poem vows, What we have lost/Will be regained!

The humiliation of Germany by the Allies was complete down to forcing the German delegation to sign the Treaty in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, paralleling the same shame inflicted upon France by the Germans in 1871. To the French people, which had been invaded, its lands wasted when they became the Western Front, these acts of vengeance were they least they could do to their ancient and prone enemy. To the German people, who had been lied to for four years, the surprise at losing the War was as great as the shock of being blamed for the War. They rejected Clause 231, which had established Germany as the aggressor and allowed the allies to demand land and reparations in return. There were reasons for the Germans to be surprised at their loss, for they had never been invaded. But it was the French command that decided that to invade Germany, as the American general John Pershing suggested, would result in needless loss of further French lives. After all, for all intents and purposes, Germany was soundly defeated, and a solution Wilson called “peace without victory” was more sensible. But from the German perspective, what tipped the scales towards surrender were mutinies in the military and political unrest at home. With the nation spiraling out of control and hurtling towards a Russian type revolution, the next move to conserve Germany was to end the war. The inexplicable surrender was never accepted by the German people, who were forced to accept this unexpected defeat and found themselves struggling to rebuild a nation deliberately disarmed and intentionally humiliated.

The Kaiser abdicated and fled to Holland where he would live long enough to see the rise of Hilter and another World War. A socialist Republic, teetering on warring factions that attempted to be a government, was founded with hopes of a democratic Germany. Psychologically wounded and financially destroyed, this new version of Germany made its way into the modern world. Given the unpromising beginnings of the post-War Republic, the Weimar years were marked by a blossoming of the arts in a nation that was in a constant state of turmoil until the Nazi party seized power and snuffed out the renaissance of creativity out of the ashes. Dada was an important Berlin expression of the collective anger and disgust of the intelligentsia with the German plunge into a destructive war, but, as a viable movement, Dada could not exist for long. Therefore, for the purposes of this series on post-War Germany, it is convenient to divide the post-War art into two parts: the immediate response to the aftermath of the War, Dada, and the art of the very soldiers who had witnessed its horrors; and then, some years later, the art that emerged, called “New Objectivity” or the artistic reaction to the culture of the Weimar Republic.

Stormtroopers during a gas attack, from Der Krieg (1924)

In his book, German Post-Expressionism: The Art of the Great Disorder 1918-1924, Dennis Crockett made something of the same case. There is a short period, coinciding with Dada, in which artists were using the pre-war style of Expressionism. Those Expressionists artists who returned from the War regrouped and, as with Cubism in France, Expressionism went from being a radical challenge to the establishment to a historical and accepted artistic style. Leading artists, Oskar Kokoschka, Otto Mueller, and others, became teachers in German academies and museums began collecting Expressionist works and filmmaker began incorporating the mood and feelings of the artists into their sets and stories. As Crockett noted,

Expressionism seemed to have become fashionable..The debate regarding the vitality of Expressionism reached its peak with the largest Expressionist exhibition to date during the summer of 1920. German Expressionism Darmstadt, arranged by the Darmstadt Secession, included 673 works by artists from all over Germany. In his lecture at the opening of the exhibition, president of the Secession, Kasimir Edschmid..condemned the superficial and commercial aspects of Expressionism: “What once seemed a daring gesture has today become ordinary. The advance of the day before yesterday became the mannerism of yesterday and the yawn of today..In a lecture delivered in Munich in October 1920, Wilhelm Worringer, one of the most distinguished Expressionist theorists before the war, added his voice to the eulogizing of Expressionism. He too criticized the many pseudo-Expressionists, “who know nothing about art.” But he observed a crisis of greater historical importance. According to Worringer, art had lost any sociological function it may have had before the modern era..Expressionism’s loss of vitality, its disintegration into “peaceful wall decorations,” represented for Worringer not only the death of Expressionist art, but the death of art itself.”

The question at the end of a war and the beginning of a peace was one of an appropriate language for the arts. On one hand, Expressionism was understood, quite rightly, to be part of a time that had come and gone. But on the other hand, Expressionism was, perhaps, for a brief time, the best style to explain the war and its consequences.

The constant bombing turned the landscape into lunar craters, from Der Krieg (1924)

One of those soldiers who returned haunted by what he had experienced was Otto Dix (1891-1969) and the series of prints he made of life in the trenches needed the excess that was such an important element of pre-war Expressionism. His memories of his time as a machine gunner during the four years of the war were turned into a Goya-esque sequence of fifty prints, titled The War (Der Krieg). This series is graphic and horrific, without color, drained of life, printed out in the black and white of engrained memory and dark dreams. Dix was an unimpeachable source and entitled to show to the German public that which the authorities were attempting to deny: he had been wounded five times and was awarded the Iron Cross in 1915. His was a voice that could neither be silenced nor denied.

Germany both invented gas warfare and launched the first attacks in 1916, but soon their soldiers also became victims, from Der Krieg (1924)

In writing A War of Images: Otto Dix and the Myth of the War Experience, Ann Murray wrote of how Dix defied the nationalistic ideals for the Germanic male, images that began to emerge as part of a propaganda effort to deny the outcome of the war. As she wrote,

Dix challenged the popular, romanticizing imagery of the heroic, militarized male, his pictures tracking attempts to nullify the mythologizing of the war experience that pervaded popular media..In 1924, Dix exhibited his cycle of etchings, The War, for the first time in Berlin. Based largely on the artist’s numerous wartime drawings..as a unit they form a pictorial record of the daily trials of the frontline soldier, recording the close contact and intimate knowledge of the subject that only one who had experienced war could hope to achieve. The catalogue produced for the launch of the series contained a foreword written by French pacifist writer and fellow veteran, Henri Barbusse, with whose novel, Under Fire (1916), Dix associated his etchings. The historical moment, the tenth anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, the so-called ‘anti-war’ year, when furious debates between Left and Right on social and political issues directly related to the consequences of the war reached a peak, was crucial to the exhibition’s message.

Corpses could not be buried and the dead and the living co-existed in the trenches, from Der Krieg (1924)

Given that Dix was a patriot who volunteered and fought bravely for four years, his series was not necessarily anti-war but it was definitely pro-reality when it came to the actual conditions of the War. As he explained in 1963, “I had to experience how someone beside me suddenly falls over and is dead and the bullet has hit him squarely. I had to experience that quite directly. I wanted it. I’m therefore not a pacifist at all – or am I? Perhaps I was an inquisitive person. I had to see all that myself. I’m such a realist, you know, that I have to see everything with my own eyes in order to confirm that it’s like that. I have to experience all the ghastly, bottomless depths of life for myself.”

An all too common sight made into a still life, from Der Krieg (1924)

War was a testimony of an eye witness, and the viewer should understand each image as the truth, based on sketches the artist had executed in the trenches. As shall be seen in the next post, Dix, a veteran, was disturbed by the way in which the wounded and maimed soldiers were treated in post-war Germany, where they lived, not as heroes, but as pathetic reminders of defeat. The public wanted to look the other way, and it was Dix who made them remember and, perhaps, feel some pity and responsibility. Even though Dix faced an audience increasingly reluctant to recognize the costs of the war and the sufferings of those who had fought, a decade later, these prints were still potent. It had been one hundred years since Goya’s Disasters of War, but in the time of Hitler, Dix’s War was confiscated and not viewed by the public again until 1983.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]

German Artists in the Aftermath of the Great War, Part One

AFTER THE GREAT WAR

Artists in Germany:

George Grosz and John Heartfield in Dada

Georg Groß was so horrified at the idea of doing his patriotic duty for the Kaiser and country that he went quite mad. The idea of descending into the hellish landscape of what would be called “The Great War” was unsupportable and he proved to be a man who could not be turned into a soldier. Faced with the choice of shooting him or releasing him, the German Army eventually released the artist. In his biography, written in the 1950s, the artist, who renamed himself as “George Grosz” to shake off his German identity, recalled his militaristic Prussian upbringing in Pomerania. His school years were laced with beatings, or what Grosz called ‘the approved principles of education,” and, predictably he was expelled from his school. Along the way, he gathered up a catch-as-catch-can education as an artist in Dresden, Berlin, and Paris. These adventures of a young man were interrupted by the War. “..my fate had made an artist of me, not a soldier. The effect the war had on me was totally negative.” Instead of being flooded with the so-called enthusiasm or steeled by a sense of duty, Grosz was filled with disgust. He wrote, “Belief? Ha! In what? In German heavy industry, the great profiteers? In our illustrious generals? Our beloved Fatherland?” He continued, “What I saw filled me with disgust and contempt for people.” These sentiments of distaste for humanity would guide the attitudes and art of George Grosz for the rest of his life.

Like many young men, Grosz had enlisted, but he quickly turned against the War, which, after a promising beginning quickly devolved into a stalemate. Like many of these young men, he had interrupted his new career as an artist, cobbled together from studies in Dresden at the Art Academy, a school that was part of the Museum of Applied Arts in Berlin, and a stay in Paris. From these solid beginnings in art schools, Grosz honed his abilities as an observer, carrying a sketchbook with him, jotting down all that caught his quick eye. As one might expect of a young man, who had been expelled from school, the military life did not agree with him. The tumultuous years in uniform were paused when Grosz was sent on a leave or a furlough in 1916. It is at this time that he met his lifelong friend and artistic collaborator, Helmut Herzfeld who would change his name that year to “John Heartfield” to protest the war machine. Heartfield and his brother Wieland Herzfelde (who later added the letter “e” on the end) were admirers of the left-wing pacifists, Karl Liebknecht, leader of the Spartacus League, and Rosa Luxemburg, political figures, who were later murdered during the uneasy post-war Weimar Republic. As a follower of these leaders, Heartfield also became a pacifist, and he and Grosz were united in their hatred of German nationalism, which was being pushed forward to justify the war and to bolster the “spirit of ’14.” After Georg became “George” and Groß became “Grosz,” both Heartfield and Grosz found new identities as political artists and as social critics. But being against the war did not prevent Grosz being recalled to the Army, and his reactions to confinement within the military structure became more intense. The Army put him in a military mental asylum, but Grosz was rescued from a firing squad by Count Harry Kessler, an important supporter of avant-garde art. The artist was finally discharged in 1917, declared to be “permanently unfit.”

Having seen too much of the War and its grotesque horrors, Grosz was filled with rage. This intense anger permeated his early paintings, which look like circles of Hell as imagined by Dante. The paintings glow as if populated with fiery coals glowing in a swirling darkness of fear. Structures collapse into a reddened center, a glowing vortex that sucks everything into its baleful center. Explosion was typical of the paintings Grosz made during the War depicting cities in chaos, desperate people, running for their lives, as though he fantasized the consequences of the conflict that Germany began being visited upon the people who supported the Kaiser and his aggressive invasion of Belgium and France. Ironically, Germany would never be invaded during the Great War; its capital would remain untouched, and yet the war was lost. The self-imposed task of Grosz was to shake off the remnants of Expressionism and take up a more precise style, devoid of emotion, better suited to the shock of defeat and humiliation and the consequences of ill-starred War.

George Grosz. Explosion (1917)

After the War ended, Grosz who was primarily a drawer, more comfortable with pen and ink than with brush and paint, joined a like-minded group of artists as angry as he, inspired by the Dada phenomenon in Zurich. Berlin Dada, like all of the Dada movements, was short-lived but provided an important post-war outlet that allowed German artists to react to the difficulties of adjusting to being defeated after a long and grinding war. The city had been abandoned by the government, which fled the turmoil of competing factions, from unemployed soldiers, dangerous Freikorps, and Communists seeking their chance to seize control of the vacuum left by the abdication of the Kaiser. The government moved out of range of the street violence and settled into the small town of Weimar, hoping to stabilize a nation stunned and starving. As was pointed out in earlier posts, the Kaiser’s regime had systematically lied to the people, who were convinced, despite the fact that they were beings starved by the blockade of their coast by the Royal Navy, they were winning. Once the truth of the failure of the last-ditch Ludendorff Offensive, thought to be a success, came to light, and the army collapsed and the navy mutinied, the German people were shocked. By the time Berlin Dada came together, the German people were living under the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, a punitive document which would cripple the recovery of the nation. The Weimar government could not cope with the needs of the desperate citizens, and it seemed that the only people who had come out of the war unscathed were the war profiteers.

As Dada artist, Richard Huelsenbeck, pointed out, “There is a difference between sitting quietly in Switzerland and bedding down on a volcano, as we did in Berlin.” John Heartfield and George Grosz had created a unique and potent weapon to critique the failures of Germany–the photomontage–a combination of collaged images and typography, appropriated lettering. Later Grosz said that the pair had “..invented photomontage in my South End studio at five o’clock on a May morning in 1916, neither of us had any inkling of its great possibilities, nor of the thorny yet successful road it was to take. As so often happens in life, we had stumbled across a vein of gold without knowing it.”

Grosz and Heartfield. Page Four from Neue Jugen (New Youth) (June 1917)

There has been a dispute over who “invented” photomontage, Raoul Hausmann and Hannah Höch or Heartfield and Grosz, but the practice of altering photographs had been practiced by the German propaganda machine to falsify information and to mislead the public. The Dada artists were merely taking up a practice of lies and using it to tell unpleasant truths. The mood was anti-personal and anti-expressionist. Cutting and pasting from anonymous sources and turning the media against itself suited the purposes of the Dada artists in Berlin. Heartfield, for example, considered himself to be an engineer and called himself “monteur.” In his 2012 book, John Heartfield and the Agitated Image: Photography, Persuasion, and the Rise of Avant-Garde Photomontage, Andrés Mario Zervigón referred to what he termed the “agitated image” produced by Heartfield in which the photomontages, composed of borrowed photographs, which were assumed to be tellers of the truth, but, under the Kaiser’s government, were forced to tell lies. The collaborations of Heartfield and Grosz produced photomontages as vehicles for a trenchant criticism of a social system in a meltdown. The two years between their collaborative work at their journal and the Dada collage ironically titled “Sunny Land,” shows a significant growth and development of their play with images and text. The early sprawl has coalesced into coherence, which is expressed with a chaotic assemblage.

Grosz and Heartfield. Sonniges Land (1919)

There is an intensity of frantic motion in the joint work of the collaborating artists that was absent from the more structured and legible work of Haussmann and the sense of “agitation” is approached only occasionally by Höch. Life and Times in Universal City at 12.05 Noon, 1919 on the left and Dada-merika on the right are dense and thick with layered dis-ease, symptomatic of a struggling Republic. As Heartfield warned, as a Dada artist, he was prepared to go to war with “..scissors and cut out all that we require from paintings and photographic representations.”

Even though Grosz and Heartfield both worked with photomontage in the early years of the Weimar Republic, their paths would diverge. Heartfield would remain with his collage critiques, becoming the consummate gadfly on the government, and Grosz would torment the authorities with cruel caricatures of a German people at their worst. Violence is always lurking beneath the surface of the works by the Dada artists in the 1920s, and as the installation of the First Dada Messe in Berlin in 1920 suggested, the rage had become an internalized attitude deliberately created by the military which taught its soldiers to kill and maim. No matter how much Grosz and his Dada colleagues mocked the Prussian mentality, the artists who returned from the battlefield had absorbed the lessons provided in the trenches. It is possible that today these suffering souls would be diagnosed as with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, whether or not they had seen active service. The entire nation was reeling from a severe blow and was uncertain of its future, and even the past had suddenly become unknowable. The grounds for truth had been dissolved and with it a possible historical discourse that would allow the country to come to terms with its fate. In light of the condition of Germany in 1920, the use of the word “Fair” to describe the assaulting exhibition in a Berlin gallery owned by Dr. Otto Burchard (an unlikely host, given that he was an expert in Song Chinese ceramics) was entirely mocking. A less joyous environment could hardly be imagined. Despite the obvious rebellious aspects to the exhibition, the show had a very respectable catalog with a cover by John Heartfield and the text written by Heartfield and his brother, Hertzfelde. The introduction named George Grosz as the “Marshal,” Haussmann the “Dadasopher” and Heartfelt the “Monteurdada.”

The invitation to the Messe was hardly welcoming, stating that “The Dadaistic person is the radical opponent of exploitation; the logic of exploitation creates nothing but fools, and the Dadaistic person hates stupidity and loves nonsense! Thus, the Dadaistic person shows himself to be truly real, as opposed to the stinking hypocrisy of the patriarch and to the capitalist perishing in his armchair.”

All of the major artists of Berlin Dada were present at the opening of the provocative Messe. The earlier presentation of Dada works in Cologne, Dada Vorfrühling, which had forced the attendees to step over a urinal placed at the entrance, set the nihilistic tone. The exhibition was a deliberate parody of a decorous academic art salon with the crowded and disorderly dis-arrayed works of art covering walls peppered with phrases about Dada–“Nieder die Kunst,” “Dilettanten, erhebt euch gegen die Kunst.” However, as Weiland Herzfelde explained in his “Introduction to the First International Art Fair,” the show of “Dada products” was also an attack on the art market, with the intent of jolting the public’s idea of “taste” as the reliable guide to purchase, even though all of the “products” (Erzeugnisse)were for sale.

Hausmann and Höch, who is sitting down, chatting with Dr. Burchard, while Baader, Herzfelde, Margarete Herzfelde, Schmallhausen face the opposite direction on the right and George Grosz sits with his with hat and cane near Heartfield

One of the most unexpected “products” was a “sculpture” titled Prussian Archangel, with a placard reading, “I come from Heaven, from Heaven on high.” The “on high” referred not to heaven but to the ceiling and, to the audience, the words would have been familiar, coming from a well-known German Christmas carol. The sign dangling from the Angel’s uniform was a solider’s complaint: “In order to understand this work of art completely, one should drill daily for twelve hours with a heavily packed knapsack in full marching order in the Tempelhof Field,” and the pig’s snout on the face of the officer was an act of contempt by former soldiers. The “sculptors,” John Heartfield and Rudolf Schlichter had succeeded in indicting the Prussian mindset as being responsible for the deliberate slaughter on the battlefields. A recreation of the floating sculpture can only approximate the effect upon the public which had been taught to revere the military. The reverence allowed the leaders themselves to elide the blame for the loss of the Great War and point a finger at those who had stabbed the army in the back–the Jews.

The Weimar authorities, as might be expected, were not amused by the artistic antics, and the artists were charged with defaming one of the few intact institutions left after the War, the German military. The artists were eventually acquitted but they were hardly the only ones to criticize the military and its post-war conduct. After the War, the soldiers, who had fought for their Kaiser and their nation, were abandoned by the people. Disabled veterans, human soldiers who had been changed to cyborgs, could be seen everywhere on the streets, begging. Otto Dix, a decorated soldier, was on hand with a painting that subsequently disappeared, War Cripples (45% Fit for Service) one of four paintings the artist executed featuring newly mechanized bodies in 1920. George Grosz and John Heartfield also contributed their recreation of the new unnatural beings with an assemblage of manufactured parts. The name of this sculpture, reconstructed in 1988 as part of a larger reconstruction of the original Messe is long and arduous: Der wildgewordene Spiesser Heartfield. Elektro-mecanische Tatlin-Plastik (Le Petit Bourgeois Heartfield devenu fou. Sculpture Tatline électro-mécanique). Like the painting by Dix, this object was completed in 1920 and in English means, The Middle-Class Philistine Heartfield Gone Wild (Mechanical Tatlin Sculpture.) In keeping with the primitive means with which wounded men were reconstructed, the humanoid was re-made of a tailor’s dummy, a revolver, a doorbell, a knife, a fork, the letter “C” and the number “27” sign, plaster dentures, an embroidered insignia of the Black Eagle Order on a horse blanket, an Osram light bulb, the Iron Cross, stand or a base for the mannequin, and what is described as “other objects.”

Working alone, Grosz produced a photomontage with a similar theme, a man turned into a mechanical apparatus in the frantic efforts to put the scattered pieces of shattered people together again.

George Grosz. Remember Uncle August, the Unhappy Inventor. Ein Opfer der Gesellschaft (1919)

The “Unhappy Inventor” referred to the defaced oil portrait of Friedrich Ebert, the leader of the Weimar Republic. The reconstruction/deconstruction of the President referred to the impossibility of holding competing factions together. As the head of the Social Democrats under the Kaiser, Ebert attempted to support the government but his party did not have enough power to force Germany to negotiate a peace and avoid a terrible defeat. During the War, the competing parties, including Ebert’s own and the Catholic Center Party and the Democratic (or Progressive) Party joined to form the Black-Red-Gold coalition in reference to the colors of the flag flown during the failed liberal revolutionary uprising of 1848. After the War Ebert established a coalition government of which he was the president, but the foundations of this fragile unity were unstable. The Communists had peeled off years earlier, and Prussia refused to join the new Germany, while the Freikorps organized to defeat the Communists. The Weimar Republic, then, was put together as precariously as a photomontage, without a strong center to hold the factions together. The Black-Red-Gold union was defeated in 1920, a year after Grosz completed the “portrait” that predicted the internal disunion of a collaged and dismembered government. The government, the society and the culture of Germany that gave violent birth to Berlin Dada was chopped up, amputated, and pieced together with tenuous joints.

Otto Dix. War Cripples (45% Fit for Service) (1920)

In examining the complete context of the early years of the Weimar Republic, during which the pieced together soldier now the detritus of a lost War, was all too present, it becomes obvious that there is a connection between the emergence of photomontages and the cyborg that had come to inhabit Berlin. As Matthew Brio pointed out in The Dada Cyborg. Visions of the New Human in Weimar Berlin, the word “cyborg” did not exist in 1920 but the concept of “..the cyborg as a figure of modern hybrid identity, was central to the practices of the Berlin Dada artists.” He continued, “Thus, when the Berlin Dadaists presented the cyborg as representing a new form of hybrid modern “identity,” they were influenced by a wide variety of conceptual systems already in place in their culture that modeled subjectivity as cyborgian, that is, as systematic, constructed, and mutable. Although the theoretical systems that various cultural practitioners cited in their works were different (as were their degrees of access to the same cultural systems), they were all fundamentally engaged with reimagining what it meant to be human in the modern world.” In this new world, a Germany without a modern identity, men without their original bodies, lacking a wholeness and offered only an incomplete hybridity, the bits and pieces of photos, and the montages of words and blizzards of letters were the legible entities of the Weimar Republic.

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German Artists at War, Part Two

GERMAN ARTISTS AT WAR

The Good Soldier, Part Two

A battlefield is not an artist’s natural habitat. Fighting in combat is not an artist’s métier. But Franz Marc (1880-1916) wrote very militant and martial tracts for the Blue Rider Almanac. In 1912 he said stridently and forcefully:

In this time of the great struggle for a new art we fight like disorganized “savages” against an old, established power. The battle seems to be unequal, but spiritual matters are never decided by numbers, only by the power of ideas. The dreaded weapons of the `savages” are their new ideas. New ideas kill better than steel and destroy what was thought to be indestructible. Who are these “savages” in Germany? For the most part they are both well known and widely disparaged: the Brücke in Dresden, the Neue Sezession in Berlin, and the Neue Vereinigung in Munich.

His short essay was bristling with militaristic language and his images were borrowed from the barricades. Marc imagined the young artists with new ideas as “savages,” attacking the hills of old ideas guarded by the older generations, presumably the Munich Secession. The language of the Blue Rider artist, the images he conveyed can be seen as part of a phenomenon, on view mostly in Germany, which could be called portents of a coming war. The most famous writing on the necessity of a cleansing war, of course, came from the Futurist leader and poet, Filippo Tomasso Marinetti, but the Italian desire for a modern war was different from the many paintings that emerged in Germany, picturing a total war, a cultural apocalypse that would leave a wasteland in its wake. The most famous of these visionary artists was Ludwig Meidner, but Franz Marc also seemed to be envisioning the future to come with his 1913 painting, The Unfortunate Land of Tyrol.

Franz Marc. The Unfortunate Land of Tyrol (1913)

Unlike Meidner’s many end-of-the-world paintings, the painting by Marc referenced the war in the Balkans, a skirmish in an uneasy part of Europe that acted like a tinderbox, predicting conflagrations to come. The horses, Marc’s beloved animals, are black and in the middle ground, a red-hilled cemetery is studded with black crosses that will be sprouting across the Western Front in a year. During these pre-war years, with Europe seemingly edging closer and closer to plunging into war, artists veered between metaphorical images and literal responses to actual events. Marinetti also reacted the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 with the poem, Zang Tumb Tumb, recounting in onomatopoeic words the sounds of the Siege of Adrianople during the first phase of these wars. While the Balkan conflicts were troubling, they predicted not so much a European war but were symptoms of the weakness of the Ottoman Empire which was losing pieces as territories were pulling away, seeking independence.

On the home front, in Germany, the nation was rattling sabers, imperial cavalry in full dress marched daily in Berlin, and the threat level seemed to be rising. In retrospect, Marc, like many artists, sensed the coming danger in his painting The Fate of Animals. But only in retrospect. In 1976, Frederick S. Levine investigated the origins of this work, dating it to May 1913, part of a larger group of animal paintings that the artist described as “utterly divergent pictures.” “They reveal nothing, but perhaps they will amuse you,” he wrote to his friend and fellow artist, August Macke. In addition to the reaction to the Balkans war on the Tyrol region, he was discussing The Tower of Blue Horses, The First Animals, The World Cow, and Wolves: Balkan War. The original title of The Fate of Animals was both extreme and poetic: The Trees Show Their Rings, The Animals Their Veins (Die Bäume zeigten ihre Ringe, die Tiere ihre Adern) and on the back of the canvas of a painting that Marc had declared would “reveal nothing,” he wrote, “And All Being is Flaming Suffering” (“Und alles Sein ist flammend Leid“). This complicated verbiage was distilled, on the advice of Paul Klee to Fate of the Animals (Tierschicksale), a more coherent title. The “fate” of animals in a burning forest is that of doom and death. They cannot outrun the flames that slash through the trees; the animals can only stand and wait or fruitlessly run for their lives. Certainly being caught in a blazing wood and being helpless would, in the near future, mirror the fate of the soldiers trapped in a war that would mow them down as ruthlessly as the flames would end the lives of the animals that stand in waiting for their “fate.” The painting was first shown in the Berlin gallery Der Sturm later that year, and its subsequent destiny or fate–of which more will be said later–was as eerie as that painting was as moving and prophetic.

Franz Marc. Fate of the Animals (May 1913)

The intense clashing diagonals and strong and fearless colors that envelop the stalwart beasts are painterly echoes of the writing of the artist penned a year earlier:

The first works of a new era are tremendously difficult to define. Who can see clearly what their aim is and what is to come; But just the fact that they do exist and appear in many places today, sometimes independently of each other, and that they possess inner truth, makes us certain that they are the first signs of the coming new epoch—they are the signal fires for the pathfinders. The hour is unique. Is it too daring to call attention to the small, unique signs of the time?

The question of the meanings of these “signs of the time,” was taken up by Milton A. Cohen in his article “Fatal Symbiosis: Modernism and the First World War.” He wrote,

As anticipations of the First World War, these images of war have been typically treated either as instances of artistic naivety (in glorifying a horror that artists could scarcely imagine) or as artistic prescience in sensing the blood that was already “in the air.” Yet such clichés miss the complexity of modernism’s relations to the First World War..Modernist artists had been at war long before they were mobilized in August 1914. Their primary enemies were the forces of artistic reaction: the hostile press, the conservative academies, the reactionary critics, the smug, self-satisfied bourgeoisie..By the early 1910s, however, as modernist innovation intensified, so did its struggle against reaction, and increasingly, modernists turned to war and violence for the vocabulary to depict it.

The author suggested that these paintings, like the language that accompanied them, were metaphorical and more directed to a desiccated art world than towards an imagined clash in the future. And yet, Marc depicted himself, riding a horse, in full dress uniform, in a 1913 painting that would prove to be a sad prediction of his own death.

Franz Marc. St. Julian the Hospitaler ( St. Julien l’Hospitalier ) (1913)

In another book Movement, Manifesto, Melee: The Modernist Group, 1910-1914, Cohen described the end of all of the bellicose images and manifestos once the War began in August of 1914. Instantaneously, artists flocked to war, acting as patriots for their nations, and ending the international sharing of artistic ideas that had characterized the two decades before the War. Faced with the enormity of actual war, normal artistic life ground to a halt and the militant words of Franz Marc would quickly seem naïve in the face of real battle. Cohen quoted French artist Albert Gleizes, who observed, “The present conflict throws into anarchy all the intellectual paths of the pre-war period, and the reasons are simple; the leaders are in the army and the generation of thirty-year-olds is sparse.” He ended sadly by stating a commonly held sentiment, “The past is finished.”

Franz Marc. Fighting Forms (1913)

To imagine Marc at war was to imagine an apparently gentle and spiritually inclined artist in alien territory, the battlefield. For years he had celebrated animals, considering them to be uncorrupted and closer to the spiritual in the world than humans, who were hopelessly compromised and unable to redeem themselves. The artist imagined nature itself as living and breathing according to hidden mystical laws that people, bent upon disturbing the forests and the fields, could no longer sense. He used color to bring symbolic meaning to his spiritual paintings, attempting to create a new language that would be redemptive for humans and at least bring a soothing balm to benighted beings.

Franz Marc. Animals in Landscape (Painting with Bulls II) (1914)

Marc’s language of colors echoed the ideas borrowed from Theosophy as put forward by his colleague Vassily Kandinsky in Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911). Marc wrote that “Blue is the male principle, astringent and spiritual. Yellow is the female principle, gentle, gay and spiritual. Red is matter, brutal and heavy and always the colour to be opposed and overcome by the other two.” Writing in 2016, Eleni Gemtou noted that Marc projected human feelings of qualities, such as a lost spirituality, once the property of individuals, now found only in animals. In “Art and Science in Franz Marc’s Animal Iconography,” Gemtou discuss the empathy Marc felt for animals, imparting them with anthropomorphic qualities they probably did not possess. As the author explained,

Marc’s particular attitude towards animals must have been developed through many parameters and influences arrived at from both his own life experiences and the proceedings in contemporary science. He was familiar with animal iconography from his childhood up, as his father, Wilhelm Marc, was a professor at the Munich Academy specialized in animal and genre scenes. His approaches though were very different from those of his son, as he used to sentimentalize nature and anthropomorphize animal behavior in a more direct manner.

Despite this uplifting theme that drove his art, Marc, who came from a religious family, dreamed of a cleansing war that would bring about a new beginning. His last paintings of 1914 were marked by restless agitation on the part of animals who were instinctively sensing the dangers to come. In September 1914, the artist, filled with enthusiasm, volunteered and joined the calvary, a part of the military where he could ride a horse, but such units would soon become anachronistic. Romantic notions of a “cleansing” war quickly subsided in the face of reality. Marc’s close friend and fellow artist, August Macke died in October, very early in the war. Sadly, Macke’s wife, Lisbeth, had written, “And it’s wonderful to see how eager they all are to go.” Marc understood the magnitude of the loss of this man, his art and the future of his art. Correctly, Marc recognized the arbitrary nature of wartime death, writing of the “accident of the individual death which, with every fatal bullet, inexorably determines and alters the destiny of a race.” But he believed that this death would contribute to the greater good. “The blood sacrifice which turbrulent nature demands of nations in great wars they offer with tragic enthusiasm, without regret. The whole clasps loyal hands and bears the loss proudly under peals of victory.” Possibly through his own nationalism, Marc came to realize that any war ended globalism and watched the impulses towards a pan-European artistic network dissolve into an extreme nationalism. Instead of rising nobly and heroically to the great occasion, humans, faced with life of death circumstances, quickly descend to animal-like behavoir in order to survive. In his article, “A Murderous Carnival,” Richard Cork quoted Marc, writing in December of 1914, two months after the death of Macke, saying that “the most important lesson and irony of the Great War is certainly this: precisely the great triumph of our ‘technical warfare’ has forced us back into the most primitive age of the cavemen.”

Franz Marc. The Birds (1914)

In writing regularly to his wife and in asking her to make sure that the correspondence would be published, Franz Marc left posterity a remarkable record of a German soldier’s thinking and how his ideas evolved during the two years he served at the front. According to the analysis of Susanna Partsche in her book of his letters, Marc, the artist began with the belief that

Europe was sick and could only be purged through war. He spoke of an interntional blood sacrifice through which the world would be purified. He stricly rejected the view that economice interests had led to the War. He understood this War as a civil war, a “war against the inner, invisible enemy of the European spirit.On the other hand, he also believed that Germany would emerge strengthened from the War, and imagined a Europe under German hegemony. “Germanity will spill across every border after this war. If we want to stay healthy and strong and retain the fruits of our victory, we need..a life-force which penetrates all, without fear..of the unknown..which will bring us to our position of power in Europe..”

Like many artists, Marc tried to find the time to sketch the conflict, mostly in metaphorical rather than in documentary terms. For a brief shining moment, he was assigned to a camouflage unit where he painted “Kandinskys” on canvas, and he wrote of the new function of art in a modern war: “From now on, painting must make the picture that betrays our presence sufficiently blurred and distorted for the position to be unrecognizable. The division is going to provide us with a plane to experiment with some aerial photographs to see how it looks from the air. I’m very interested to see the effect of a Kandinsky from six thousand feet.”

But as the war dragged on, Marc became more and more disillusioned. In the beginning, the artist had believed that “There is something impressive and mystical about the artillery battles… I still do not think differently about the war. It simply seems to me feeble and lifeless to consider it vulgar and dumb. I dream of a new Europe, I … see in this war the healing, if also gruesome, path to our goals; it will purify Europe, and make it ready… Europe is doing the same things to her body France did to hers during the Revolution.” By 1916, he was yearning for an end to his service, and he wrote of the hopelessness of the War itself: “The world is richer by the bloodiest year of its many thousand year history. It is terrible to think of; and all for nothing, for a misunderstanding, for want of being able to make ourselves tolerably understood by our neighbors! And that in Europe!! We must unlearn, rethink absolutely everything in order to come to terms with the monstrous psychology of this deed and not only to hate, revile, deride and bewail it, but to understand its orgins and to form counterthoughts.”

In 1916, the Western Front was mired in the rain and in the endless Battle of Verdun and Franz Marc was but one of the thousands of men fated to meet senseless deaths during a campaign that lasted for months. After two years of being in constant danger, in 1916 he wrote, In this war, you can try it out on yourself- an opportunity life seldom offers one…nothing is more calming than the prospect of the peace of death…the one thing common to all. [it] leads us back into normal “being.” The space between birth and death is an exception, in which there is much to fear and suffer. The only true, constant, philosophical comfort is the awareness that this exceptional condition will pass and that “I-consciousness” which is always restless, always piquant, in all seriousness inaccessible, will again sink back into its wonderful peace before birth…whoever strives for purity and knowledge, to him death always comes as a savior. Marc was now thirty-six years old and, had war not come into his life; Marc would be at the peak of his creative powers, with a long and distinguished career ahead of him. But he was beginning to feel haunted and stalked by death. He wrote to his mother that “death avoided me, not I it; but that is long past. Today I greet it very sadly and bitterly, not out of fear and anxiety about it–nothing is more soothing than the prospect of the stillness of death–but because I have half-finished work to be done that, when completed, will convey the entirety of my feeling. The whole purpose of my life lies hidden in my unpainted pictures.” In 2013, Mark Dober, in his article, “Franz Marc: utopian hopes for art and the Great War,” of the great irony of the artist’s death. On March 2, 1916, Marc wrote to his wife Maria, “For days I have seen nothing but the most awful scenes that the human mind can imagine … Stay calm and don’t worry: I will come back to you – the war will end this year. I must stop; the transport of the wounded, which will take this letter along, is leaving. Stay well and calm as I do.” Then two days later he wrote what would be his final letter to her, saying, “Don’t worry, I will come through, and I’m also fine as far as my health goes. I feel well and watch myself.” According to Dober, Marc was dead two hours later.

Franz Marc. Broken Forms (1914)

But the story is even more horrific than the final poignant letter. In the book, War, Violence, and the Modern Condition, Richard Cork quoted Marc’s commanding officer. The artist and his superior were on a reconnaissance mission, scouting territory during “a radiant early-spring afternoon..At the foot of the hill Marc mounted his horse, a tall chestnut bay, and as long-legged as himself..” The peaceful afternoon was violently interrupted by an exploding shell which burst open, spewing shrapnel. The shards hit the artist in the head so violently that he was nearly decapitated, instantly killing him. It is comforting to think of Franz Marc, living the last moments of his life in the radiant light, riding a horse that we hope was blue.

Franz Marc. Blue Horse I (1911)

In an odd postscript to the painting, Fate of the Animals was in storage at the storage unit for the Der Sturm Gallery, awaiting transport to a memorial exhibition in November. According to Levine’s The Iconography of Franz Marc’s Fate of the Animals, the storage area caught fire and the painting “..subtitled And All Being is Flaming Suffering, was itself consumed by fire. The immense task of restoration was immediately undertaken by Paul Klee who, with the help of Marc’s widow and the artist’s preliminary sketches, was able to reconstruct the structure of the original work..although the original structure remains intact, much of the continuity and much for the dynamism of Marc’s color scheme is gone from what..is one of the most vital sections of the entire work.” The restored ill-fated painting was purchased in a few years later for theMoritzburg Museum in Halle, but in 1936, Fate of the Animals was declared “degenerate art” by the Nazis, whereupon it vanished until 1939. As Levine explained, the painting was found and sent to the infamous Galerie Fischer in Lucerne, a money laundering operation performed by the Swiss for the benefit of the Nazis. The Fate of the Animals finally came to rest when it was purchased by the Basel Kunstmuseum.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

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German Artists at War, Part One

GERMAN ARTISTS AT WAR

Part One

The Art of Lying

In 1928 Edward Bernays, the American nephew of Sigmund Freud, wrote on a newly significant topic–Propaganda. Bernays was well acquainted with his uncle’s theories of human psychology and injected tools of manipulating minds by putting pressure on emotional tender spots into his chosen field public relations. In the early twentieth century, Freud’s theories were new and the idea that the subconscious mind could be prodded by subliminal signals would have been unfamiliar with most people, even the educated. As a nephew, Bernays, however, had a privileged position and used his insider knowledge of the human mind, and, as a young member of the Committee on Public Information, he helped America during the Great War by convincing the population to support the effort. America came into this worldwide conflict late in the game, during the final year in 1917 and set up the CPI in imitation of London’s Wellington House to disseminate controlled information. While working for America, Bernays had ample opportunity to observe the tactics of other nations and how these countries persuaded their people to fight the war. Ten years later, Bernays wrote Propaganda, one of the first books on the subject. Even at that time, Bernays, who had transitioned into advertising, regarded propaganda as a positive. It is surprising to read his opening sentences:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.

Bernays acknowledged that propaganda had acquired a bad reputation, but he also understood that, because of the newly omnipresent mass media, the fine art of persuasion had penetrated and permeated the social fabric:

The minority has discovered a powerful help in influencing majorities. It has been found possible so to mold the mind of the masses that they will throw their newly gained strength in the desired direction. In the present structure of society, this practice is inevitable. Whatever of social importance is done to-day, whether in politics, finance, manufacture, agriculture, charity, education, or other fields, must be done with the help of propaganda. Propaganda is the executive arm of the invisible government.

In the same year, 1920, a Labor member of the British Parliament, Arthur Ponsonby wrote, Falsehood in War-Time, Containing an Assortment of Lies Circulated throughout the Nations during the Great War: Containing an Assortment of Lies Circulated throughout the Nations during the Great War. The strangely long title indicated that, in his opinion, all nations told lies to their people, especially in war-time. He wrote,

Falsehood is a recognized and extremely useful weapon in warfare, and every country uses it quite deliberately to deceive its own people, to attract neutrals, and to mislead the enemy. The ignorant and innocent masses in each country are unaware at the time that they are being misled, and when it is all over only here and there are the falsehoods discovered and exposed. As it is all past history and the desired effect has been produced by the stories and statements, no one troubles to investigate the facts and establish the truth.

He added,

The psychological factor in war is just as important as the military factor. The morale of civilians, as well as of soldiers, must be kept up to the mark. The War Offices, Admiralties, and Air Ministries look after the military side. Departments have to be created to see to the psychological side. People must never be allowed to become despondent; so victories must be exaggerated and defeats, if not concealed, at any rate minimized, and the stimulus of indignation, horror, and hatred must be assiduously and continuously pumped into the public mind by means of “propaganda.”

As previous posts have pointed out, when the Great War began in August of 1914, England had an interesting problem–with only a small professional army and a scattering of territorials, how to fight a war that required millions of men? The answer had to be two-fold, first, shame men into fighting for their country and second, keep the truth of the conditions of the war itself from the public and from future soldiers. The Manchester Guardian newspaper was opposed to the War, but quickly realized the danger posed by German aggression and the editor C. P. Scott wrote, “Once in it, the whole future of our nation is at stake and we have no choice but do the utmost we can to secure success.” Apparently, Prime Minister Lloyd George trusted Scott for in 1916, he confided about printing true accounts of the War, “If people really knew, the war would be stopped tomorrow. But, of course, they don’t know, and can’t know.” England refused to allow journalists report from the battlefields unless they were closely watched and under total government control. Once blanket censorship descended upon the War, the distance from the actual fighting allowed the government and its multiple agencies to suppress dissent and oppress true accounts of trench warfare. While individual soldiers must have confided somewhat with their friends and families, mass media was effectively muzzled. For the good of the nation at war, the state of the psychology of those who must fight had to be maintained. High spirits and high hopes on the home front were as valuable as munitions.

The Great War was unique in its own time–it was the first modern total war, requiring the mobilization of men of military age and the support and participation of the entire public. It was France that began to practice of total mobilization of the army and the public during the French Revolution. The crisis was a very real one–revolutionary France was surrounded by enemies that were hostile and determined to crush the rebellion against the divine rule of monarchs. The entire nation rose to its own defense and the Revolutionary government instituted a novel idea, the levée en masse, referring to a draft or mass conscription and to the rising of the population to fight as a totality. The levée en masse was continued under Napoléon and after the fall of his nephew’s Second Empire, the Third Republic used the idea of total participation as a tool of national honor. After the stinging defeat of the Franco-Prussian War, France kept its national identity intact with the hope of revanche warming the heart of the body politic. Germany, however, emerged from their stunning victory strangely unsatisfied and the two nations crouched into defensive postures that predicted and eventually precipitated a new war. The distinction between Germany and the other European nations was that Germany wanted to go to war, meaning that Germany had to prepare the people for war and that the nation had to give those people a good reason to go to war. Enter propaganda.

All countries go to war with a set of beliefs and an array of assumptions. Germany believed it was directly threatened by enemy nations, mostly France and Russia, now arrayed together into an Entente Cordiale. Germany also believed as a consequence that it was entitled to a preemptive attack and would find any excuse to strike at France. Germany assumed that it could surge towards France through Belgium, which would obligingly lie down and allow the German army to march unmolested through their helpless borders. The Schlieffen Plan had been in place since 1905 and its mastermind, General Count Alfred von Schlieffen himself based the plan upon two major misconceptions: that Russia, France’s ally, Russia, would be slow to mobilize and that Belgium would prove to be no obstacle to its military might. He was convinced that France was Germany’s greatest enemy and that when Germany marched through hapless Belgium and defeated France in about six weeks, England would be cowed into staying out of the fray. The Schlieffen Plan became not just a German strategy but also a mindset upon which all their policies would be built and all the wartime plans would be based. The problem for the Germans was that, under this plan, Germany would appear to be the aggressor and the one condemned for starting a war. In order to seize the first available opportunity to start a war, Germany had to prepare the nation to believe that France was at fault, justifying their role in the conflict. The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajavo on July 28, 1914, provided the long-awaited pretext. Germany goaded the Austro-Hungarian Empire into attacking Serbia, the site of the tragedy. Russia, treaty bound to defend Serbia, sprang into action, and France, treaty bound to aid Russia also declared war. The stage was set and the drama could unscroll, according to the preexisting script.

Everyone involved assumed that the war would be over by Christmas. And of course, regardless of whatever Plans that had been laid, God was on the side of the Germans, a strongly held belief system that could be held only as long as the people believed that right and morality were owned by the Germans.

As Jeffrey Verhey pointed out in his 2000 book The Spirit of 1914: Militarism, Myth, and Mobilization in Germany, the August 1 entry into the war apparently resulted in an overwhelming surge of nationalism on the part of the German people, whose minds were seized with patriotism, the “spirit of 1914,” which had to be harnessed and maintained. Whether or not the entire nation lost itself to this fervor is perhaps beside the point because as Verhey noted it was the myth itself that counted as the six-week war stretched into years. “In German propaganda, the myth of the “spirit of 1914” was a means of mobilizing enthusiasm. The successes of the German army against a numerically superior opponent were interpreted as the product of a greater faith against an over a rational opponent, a victor of “faith over disbelief..As morale declined and “enthusiasm” faded, propagandists repeatedly invoked the “spirit of 1914..”

The Germans feared and envied the British Empire and yet the Kaiser did not expect the English to come to the aid of the French, much less immediately set up a blockade hemming Germany into its own coastline. To the Germans, Great Britain was a bloodthirsty and greedy presence, dominating the globe and was a menace to Germany’s desire to expand its own comparatively small empire. Some of this empire was European, including Silesia, East Prussia, West Prussia, South Prussia, Alsace-Lorriane and a slice of Belgium. The rest of the empire in Africa–Togo, Nambia, Tanzania and territory north of the Congo River–were acquired of the Scramble for Africa. In 1884 through 1885, thirteen nations in Europe and the United States were summoned to a conference in Berlin by Otto von Bismarck. The conference carved up Africa among them and established “rules” for the colonization of an entire continent, deemed to be “Dark.”

Despite a growing economy and a large navy, but the beginning of the War decade, Germany was uneasy and presented to the German people an image of a new and valorous nation beset by ancient enemies whose values were alien to Germanic peoples. Thus, in propagandistic discourse the myth of “Germany” not only described the community that the soldiers were dying for, it also discussed eternal, transcendent, religious questions, offering hope to the believers. In other words, it valorized a mythological as opposed to a critical epistemology. Faith was opposed to rationality, belief to critical thought.” The German artist, Freidrich August von Kaulbach painted this “community,” a nation of people molded together with one spirit as “Germans.” Germania, clad as a valkyrie, one of Odin’s warriors, tapped into the belief that the German tribes were different, holding themselves apart from their Romanized neighboring tribes. This nationalistic purity was the deep bond that held the German people together during the worst of times.

The propaganda posters produced by mostly nameless German illustrators reflected this mystical, magical and religious belief system. An important gear of the propaganda machine was the righteousness of the German cause. Germany was innocent, Germany was provoked, Germany had no recourse but to invade Belgium, which, in fact, did resist, Germany was on the side of all things good and right. In the poster below, the Kaiser himself insists he did not want the war.

The military is always noble and brave and the artists showed the soldiers as clean and strong and idealized, all mud and blood wiped away lest the sights of fighting offended the German people. One of the major purposes of propaganda was to subdue underlying political and social problems with a call to arms that would knit the German people, regardless of class into a “national community” or Volksgemeinschaft. However, as David Welch wrote, that despite the fact that Germany had an early and “sophisticated notion of propaganda,” “..the eventual collapse of Germany was due less to the failure to disseminate propaganda than to the inability of the military authorities and the Kaiser to reinforce this propaganda, and to acknowledge the importance of public opinion in forging an effective link between leadership and the people in conditions of ‘total war.’ Those in power were unable and unwilling to reform German society along the lines demanded by public opinion.

This book, Germany and Propaganda in World War I: Pacifism, Mobilization and Total War, published in 2000, argued that, although the authorities failed to pay heed to public needs, the mere presence of propaganda during the War, acknowledge the need for public support of the War and, at the end of the War, public opinion emerged as an important element in politics. If the Great War was the total war that ended the “cabinet wars” of the previous century, in which war was confined to designated battlefields to be fought by professional soldiers at some distance from civilians, then the public and its reaction to a prolonged struggle became a powerful player to be ignored at the leaders’ peril. The British blockade of German ports meant almost immediate shortages that brought misery and hunger to the German people during the War. While the propaganda poster correctly blamed the British for the starving children but left the question of how patriotism could feed the people unanswered. David A. Janicki described it the blockade was a “Weapon of Deprivation.” “Without it,” he wrote, “the war could have potentially gone on even longer, but because of it, the world’s preeminent land force was left with no other choice than to surrender as the seeds of revolution brewed among its population.”

As Welch wrote, “The duration of the conflict, the Allied blockade, food shortages and the failure to introduce social and political reforms eventually wore down the German people. It is a measure of the effectiveness of the propaganda machinery–which appealed to traditional German values of obedience, duty, and patriotism–that a consensus (of sorts) was maintained for so long.”

To raise the money to fight the War, the Germans had almost ten separate campaigns, more than France or England, but all the money could not help a nation mired down in an apparently endless war. When the Russians pulled out of the War, freeing the German soldiers on the Eastern Front to fight on the Western Front. The German military was deliberately waging a war of attrition, with the intention of bleeding France and England white and now they had the edge in men. Their last push, the “Kaiser’s Battle,” was their last chance. If the Germans lost, there were no reserves to fall back on, while the ranks of the Allies were being swelled by a young, healthy and apparently endless American army, new to the war. The spring offensive of 1918 came within fifty-six miles of Paris but there the Germans were held in place. And then almost exactly four years after the War began, the end came for the German on August 8 when the Allies broke through the German lines in Amiens. The German troops, faced with enemy tanks, their own lack of supplies, the first signs of an influenza epidemic in their ranks, surrendered in the thousands. Without hope, the morale of the German soldiers broke down on “Black Friday.” Despite warnings shouted in posters, such as the one below: ‘This is how it would look in German lands if the French reached the Rhine,” the army and the navy would not and could not fight any longer.

Six weeks later, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff broke the news to the Kaiser that the army could go on no longer. In the confusion that followed until the November Armistice, the German people reacted in shock. Their nation had not been invaded; they had never seen an enemy soldier. The German military, the only intact entity not completely discredited was quick to blame the politicians and later the Jews for the “stab in the back,” never admitting their own responsibility for the disaster. The propaganda machine had been all too successful in creating a myth of rightness and goodness and had shielded the German people from the slow deterioration of the military efforts over the four years of the War. After the War, the German people, duped by the propaganda campaigns, were shocked to learn of their “war guilt,” (“sole guilt” or Alleinschuld) that they had started the War and that, in their name, atrocities had been committed. Fortunately, for Germany, atrocity stories had been so exaggerated, that the defeated nation could hide very real war crime behind the wild stories for the rest of the century. For the German people in 1918, the war ended in a long-awaited revolution that drove the Kaiser from his throne and a swirl of social turmoil, laced with shock and disbelief and bewilderment. This public shock not only leaves the impression of an impressive propaganda campaign but also laid the groundwork for the refusal to accept the loss. Contrary to the advice of the American General John Pershing, France and England did not force Germany to admit to the defeat, leaving the door open for conspiracy theories, namely the Dolchstosslegende–the stab in the back–that, according to David Welch, acquired an “almost mystical power. It is therefore not surprising to discover that when the Nazis came to power in 1933, one of the first government departments to be established was the Ministry for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

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British Posters of the Great War, Part Two

British Propaganda and Women

The Psychology of Posters

Warfare, especially modern war, has had a strange impact upon men. It is assumed that war and combat is the ultimate event of masculinization, completing the identity of the male. Traditionally, the equation of hyper masculinity and the military had been fairly reliable in the nineteenth century. Wars were fought elsewhere, out of the public eye, with the early war correspondents willing to find heroes who were “mentioned in the dispatches,” even in unpopular wars like that in Crimea. Normally this war is thought of as one that limped to an end, while the British government colluded to conceal the military blunders and mismanagement, but, in an interesting article in The Guardian, Orlando Figes, author of The Crimean War: A History, made a case for the Crimean War as a conflict that created new heroes. While Alfred, Lord Tennyson, mourned and celebrated the anachronistic folly of the “Charge of the Light Brigade,” the British press was pointing angrily to the result of the class system. The rigid class system that ruled civilian society also formed the military hierarchies and would continue to do so through the Great War. The privileged ruling class ruled with the second sons of titled nobility crowding the ranks of those in charge whether or not they merited or deserved their elevation to power and responsibility. The men of the growing middle class became more prominent during this war, if only in contrast to the incompetence of the exalted officer corps.

As Figes pointed out, “..the public meaning of the war” was fixed by middle class “journalists and pamphleteers, poets, artists and photographers, orators and priests. This was the first “modern” war in the age of mass communications – the first to be photographed, the first to use the telegraph, the first “newspaper war” – and it shaped our national consciousness.” These observers in the newly emerging mass media took an objective perspective on a war that was being fought for no discernible reason, revealing folly and heroism. Figes continued, “The mismanagement triggered a new assertiveness in the middle classes, which rallied round the principles of professional competence, industry, meritocracy and self-reliance in opposition to the privilege of birth. It was a sign of their triumph that in the decades afterwards, Conservative and Liberal governments alike introduced reforms promoting these ideals (the extension of public schooling, opening of the Civil Service, a new system of merit-based promotion in the armed services, etc). The political scramble for Middle England had begun.” The middle class soldiers shone in comparison to their aristocratic superiors: “..the heroes who returned from Crimea were the common troops. Their deeds were recognised for the first time in 1857, when Queen Victoria instituted the Victoria Cross, awarded to gallant servicemen regardless of class or rank. Among the first recipients of Britain’s highest military honour were 16 privates from the army, five gunners, two seamen and three boatswains.”

The Great War was the first war that impacted upon the consciousness of the British public since the Crimean War and war, over five decades had changed enormously. And so too had the role of women in British society. During the 1850s, it was Florence Nightingale and Mary Jane Seacole, who defined convention and became the women who established military nursing–the care and healing of the wounded soldier. Even in the hands of a woman, the wounded British male retained his masculinity and it was important for the nation to celebrate his heroism, especially in light of the War’s failures reported in excruciating detail by William Howard Russell. The women who nursed the men also became heroes, apparently without threatening the manliness of the men. Writing in 1878, in Heroes of Britain in Peace and War, Edwin Hodder explained, “..in our hospitals there is a noble army of brave women who are devoting themselves the to care of he sick; women, who not finding a sphere for labour in their home circles, and feeling the burden of humanity claiming their sympathy, have gone as heroically and in some instances more so, to labour among the sick in the hospitals of crowded cities as others have gone to tend the wounded and dying on the battlefield..” It can be assumed that nursing as a form of nurturing fell into the bounds of expected and accepted behavior for women, and it is clear that two decades later, the shock of women invading the precincts of medicine had worn off.

But the woman of 1914 was a different social person, living in a British society in which the middle classes were educated and ambitious. As Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (1933) attests, nineteenth century attitudes still prevailed in an increasingly modern world, with the ruling class of males deliberately holding aspiring women back. For decades, after the Crimean War, women had been campaigning for the right to vote. As in America, at the same time, the movement broke into two separate sectors, one conservative and willing to wait patiently, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, and one more militant and more impatient, Women’s Social and Political Union. As in America, the WSPU under the leadership of the Pankhurst women, mother and daughters, women were put in jail and stubbornly refused to eat. As with Alice Paul in America, the British women were force fed, a form of torture in those days. When the Great War began, the suffrage movement redirected its efforts towards working to win the war and thus prove women worthy of being given the right to vote.

It is against this political background that one understands the propagandistic efforts to encourage male enlistment in a deadly war. While at first, outraged by the invasion and “rape” of Belgium, men eagerly signed up, recruitment efforts flagged and atrocity propaganda could not inspire sufficient enlistment. The government embarked on another other approach, which was a play or a variation on the demanding Lord Kirchner poster–public shame. In what might be called the descendant of the “white feather” campaigns, men were shamed into playing a part in the war of attrition. The idea of the white feather can be dated back to the days of cock fighting in the eighteenth century. When a defeated cock “turned tail,” revealing the white feathers beneath his plumage, he was signaling refusal to fight, advertising defeat. The transference of the the meaning of a white feather to the practice of handing out white feathers to men considered cowards was popularized by the English writer A. E. W. Mason in his famous 1902 book, The Four Feathers. Written during the Boer War, this novel was a shameless advertisement for imperialism in which a young military officer who preferred not to serve the Empire was presented by four white feathers from his fiancée and his close friends. The entire novel is an adventure story in which the shamed young man, Harry Faversham, has to redeem himself, save his friends and win back the woman he loves, all while in the service of the Empire. The popular story (which has been made into at least six films) laid the groundwork for the White Feather Campaign during the Great War.

This campaign of public shaming men out of uniform was begun at the end of August 1914 by Admiral Charles Fitzgerald who advocated compulsory military service. He organized the White Feather Campaign in Folkstone and recruited young women to hand out white feathers, also a sign of an inbred cockerel unfit to fight, to young men out of uniform. The timing was fortuitous: the suffrage movement was on hold and young women had high expectations of being of service. At the early stages of the War, women were given nothing of use to do and many, particularly the young ones who had not raised a child, leaped at the chance to participate as patriots. But, in the process, many young men were shamed and suffered for decades over the public humiliation. As Peter J. Hart wrote in “The White Feather Campaign: A Struggle with Masculinity During World War I,”

The Campaign worked fairly well and by shaming Home front men, these women drove many into the army out of dread of receiving a white feather themselves. But an unexpected consequence arose from this attack upon Englishmen’s masculinity, one that these “patriotic” women didn’t foresee. As this campaign became more public and recognized, the community backlash against women who engaged in this practice became increasingly harsh. Englishwomen had been molded into a weapon against the masculine identity through propaganda and promises of patriotism.

There were compelling reasons why women echoed the shaming campaign of the propaganda posters. Given that the War had began during the long and violent Suffragette Campaign during which the British government stalwartly resisted the demand that women be given the right to vote, women would react with alarm to the horrors inflicted on the women of Belgium. The attack of the Germans upon helpless Belgium was the main reason the British entered the War and the women of Belgium had suffered terribly from the German army. The stories that swirled around the atrocities were so graphic and, at times, so exaggerated, that for decades it was thought that the tales could not be true. But revisionist history, searching though German Belgium archives has established that the atrocities committed in Belgium were very real indeed, even accounting for the inevitable tall tales circulated during wartime. For British women, the stories of how the Germans treated the women of Belgium were terrifying and they felt justified in urging men to avenge these female victims. But, perhaps more importantly, the women could take on the role of responsible citizens, doing their part and fighting the War in their own way. Not unexpectedly, the White Feather Campaign, which activated women, resulted in women being criticized for what they were asked to do. The criticism was based, not in the idea that they might be unjustly shaming an undeserving man, but on the grounds of “immodesty,” meaning that women were aggressively approaching men and imputing their masculinity.

Nevertheless, women were merely echoing a broader campaign of shaming, raised repeatedly by the press and mass media, driven by the desperate need for males to fight the long war. Nicoletta F. Gullace wrote that poet John Oxenham wrote a special poem directed to women, calling them to their duty:

O maids, and mothers of the race,
And of the race that is to be
To you is given in these dark days
A vast responsibility….
Remember!—as you bear you now,
So Britain’s future shall be great
—Or small. To your true hearts is
given a sovereign duty to the state.

In her article “White Feathers and Wounded Men: Female Patriotism and the Memory of the Great War,” Gullac quote the approving words of the Mayor of London, directed towards women: “Is your ‘Best Boy’ wearing Khaki?…If not don’t YOU THINK he should be? If he does not think that you and your country are worth fighting for—do you think he is worthy of you? Don’t pity the girl who is alone—her young man is probably a soldier—fighting for her and her country—and for You. If your young man neglects his duty to his King and Country, the time may come when he will Neglect You. Think it over—then ask him to JOIN THE ARMY TO DAY!” The point is that the women who participated in the “Order of the White Feather,” had wide public support and wives and mothers and sweethearts were exhorted by mass media and by propaganda posters to reject men who would not join the military. Men were also directly addressed by the propaganda posters, which also employed a tactic of shame, implying a dereliction of duty and suggesting that their own families would reject them if they did not do their duty.

In his 2012 book Britain and World War One, Alan G. V. Simmonds explained how these shaming tactics were shaped by government propaganda: “..what began as a politicians’ and diplomats’ war declared for reasons of economic security and European hegemony became a struggle for national unity, civilization, liberty and for the protection of Britain’s Empire and her essentially Victorian way of life. The threat of all of this was a powerful reason for men to enlist, but it proved insufficient to satisfy the Army’s ever-growing need for recruits.” One of the earlier attempts at blackmailing men into joining the military was the innocent sounding Pals Battalions, which, as Simmonds expressed it, “successfully embodied powerful forces of peer pressure and civic pride. Groups of men, linked by a common bond of professional, recreational or emotional ties, were encouraged to join up together in units that combined a strong sense of local identity with group solidarity, along with an opportunity to exploit alternative loyalties for which to fight other than ‘King and Country.'” Another way of explaining the Pals’ Battalions was a way to encourage young men who were not necessarily invested in the British Empire to join up. These recruits would more likely be middle class but without the public school privileges enjoyed by the upper ranks and the working classes who owed little to what was a campaign to preserve the power of the upper classes.

Involving women was an ideal way of activating women of all classes who would be encouraged to hand out white feathers to the men they encountered. Lower class men could be directly confronted; middle class men shamed at home. Every woman had a network of male relatives who could not ignore the devices of the White Feather brigades. The result of the campaign in which women were asked to participate directly or indirectly was nothing short of emotional blackmail. The government recruited women, as much as it recruited men, as participants in the War, asking them to send away their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons to a war from which many would not return or would return wounded in body or mind or both. The constant drumbeat of these early posters, issued before the Military Service Act in 1916 started forced conscription, emphasizes the inherent unnaturalness of war. Men and women had to be forcibly manipulated by a constant drumbeat of obligation with an underlying threat of being de-masculinized. This threat manifested itself in reality as conscription resulted in more and more men disappearing from the Home Front and into the military. Women began to take their place everywhere, in the factories, in the offices, in the hospitals, even wearing uniforms as police officers. The wartime posters began to address women, urging them to join the war effort and to take the places of men, whether driving buses or playing football.

The Great War utterly changed women, propelling them headlong into the twentieth century, proving that they could succeed at the very jobs men had insisted they could not do. Of course, when the War was over, the women were sent home to make room for the returning males. But, as with the Second World War, women would not forget their wartime experiences Unlike World War II, an entire generation of men never returned. After the Great War, women were widowed or were nursing men with permanent wounds, and there were those women who would never marry. This new independence was played out by their younger sisters who became “flappers,” who refused to live the lives of their mothers. For men, the Great War had begun as a noble cause, a fight for King and Country of for one’s closest friends; for women the Great War had begun with handing out white feathers and shaming men into enlisting. After the War, many of these men would not come home; others would never recover; others struggled with their traumatic experiences. The aggression and the enthusiasm “immodestly” displayed by women during the war when handing out white feathers was channeled into factory jobs and into college classrooms. One could argue that the generation of men who fought the war lost their place and women suddenly managed to find a purpose for their new lives.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]

British Propaganda Posters of the Great War, Part One

British Propaganda

The Psychology of Posters

When the Great War began in August of 1914, Great Britain was at a distinct disadvantage. Although it was expected that Germany would be aggressive at some point, this was not a war the English wanted. The British Isles were not a military society and the monarchy was not surrounded by a martial presence of sword rattling. Regardless of their individual capabilities, the guards at Buckingham Palace were ceremonial in appearance, appearing publicly in splendid uniforms that dazzled the eye. But behind the diplomacy and the ceremony was a vast Empire that was offshore, so to speak, supported by an extensive professional army stationed in more or less remote outposts, from India to China. The Empire was patrolled by the equally professional Navy, the most powerful in the world, guarding the vast territories that were the foundation of England’s wealth and power. The most dominant Empire, the most important nation on earth, was protected by a military that was voluntary and its members considered their lifetime of service to be a desirable profession. But the role of this military had been limited to fighting small wars, putting down internal rebellions in a colony, not taking part in a “total war,” but the First World War was aptly named and changed everything.

In his 2003 article “War and the Public Sphere. European Examples from the Seven Year’s War to World War I,” Richard Stauber wrote that by the Great War, the press and war correspondents were censored and were considered to be agents of the government, rather than representatives of freedom of speech and information. Because the urgency of selling the war to the public was greater on the German side, Berlin allowed war correspondents to go to the Front/s and then, apparently, lie to their readers back home. France and England eventually followed suit but these nations also controlled content as mass media became part of a vast propaganda campaign designed to justify the war and to keep the spirits of the public high and positive. As Stauber wrote of the German, French, and British press, “They had to prove themselves committed ‘patriots’ before they could be accredited as journalists. They had to allow themselves to be ’embedded’ in the pool system organized by the military. They had to submit to censorship. And they had to accept that in general they would stay on the fringes of the action.” Given those conditions, it was no wonder that one of the main sources of “information” was propaganda posters.

According to Pearl James in the introduction to her book, Picture This: World War I Posters and Visual Culture, posters were everywhere, a vital part of the communication between the press and media and the public. The war, she stated, “..unfolded in an essentially nineteenth-century cultural landscape.” This insight helps explain the shock of citizens in Belgium, France, England and finally American at German tactics in the new modern “total war. Posters were part of the modernization of the Great War, she wrote, “..they reached mass numbers of people in every combatant nation, seeing to unite diverse populations as simultaneous viewers of the same images and to bring them closer, in as imaginary yet powerful way, to the war. Posters nationalized, mobilized, and modernized civilian populations..It was in part by looking at posters that citizens learned to see themselves as members of the home front.”

As early as 1908, the government realized that, faced with constant German bellicosity, the military had to be built up. The male population of Great Britain had always relied upon the Regular Army, but they were suddenly needed to participate in a war that would mobilized millions of men. Alone of all the participating nations in 1914, England relied upon volunteers. Without a compulsory “draft,” the nation had to persuade the eligible young men to serve. After serving for a period of less than ten years, a volunteer for the Regular Army became part of the Army Reserve, where he could be called up when needed, for five years. By 1914, there were some 350,000 men standing by, and, as a result of the changes of 1908, they were joined by the newly established Special Reserve. The Special Reserve was “special” because unlike the Territorials, the local part time forces, they could be sent abroad when needed. But both the Territorials and the Special Reserve could be called upon during time of war. It seemed that England was well prepared for any eventuality but no one could imagine a war that could consume an entire army in a month.

The brutality of the fighting in France and the undeniable carnage on the Western Front meant that whatever enthusiasm might have existed in the late summer had vanished by the winter of 1914. While the conventional wisdom asserted the customary “the troops will be home for Christmas,” Field-Marshal Lord Kitchener, a veteran of wars in Africa, correctly predicted that this would be a long and costly war. When Kitchner became the Secretary of State for War, he urged the male population of Great Britain to volunteer to serve their country. As Peter Simkins noted the high point of volunteerism was September. By the new year, it was evident that mere appeals to patriotism would not be enough. According to Simkins in his article, “Voluntary recruiting in Britain, 1914-1915,” “Though 2,466,719 men joined the British army voluntarily between August 1914 and December 1915, even this enormous total was insufficient to maintain the BEF at a strength which would enable it to fight a modern industrialised war involving mass conscript armies. Declining recruiting totals led to increasing calls for compulsory military service throughout 1915. On 27 January 1916, the first Military Service Act introduced conscription for single men of military age, this being extended to married men by a second Military Service Act on 25 May 1916.” These recruits were required to remain in service until the war was over. Depending upon their individual luck, the recruits would spend years in the trenches.

The first wave of recruits were stirred by the inspiring sight of posters, featuring the imposing Lord Kirchner pointing his finger in their direction, reading “Britons” above the stern faced Lord, beneath which were the words “Wants You.” “Join Your Country’s Army. God Save the King” was printed below. The image was simple and compelling and personal with the military hero directly addressing hopefully patriotic young men. The direct gaze and the pointing finger of a national symbol would be copied in America by James Montgomery Flagg who would change little in his poster of 1917, needing to state only “Uncle Sam Wants You.” Enough said. In England, men joined the army by the hundreds of thousands. But one hundred thousand was not enough. Two hundred thousand was not enough. The maw of war was open wide. By 1915, a vast propaganda machine was beginning to roll and it used, as its first fodder to convince young men of the dangers presented by the Germans, the “atrocities” committed in Belgium and northern France against civilian populations. Previous essays have discuss the way in which the Germany army attacked and massacred peaceful civilian populations in Belgium and have discussed the willful destruction of cultural property and architectural treasures. Rape and looting and atrocities were widely reported by the mass media, by now fully developed and devoured by a largely literate population. Posters of the suffering of Belgium, the nation that angered the Germans by resisting being invaded, focused on the bravery of the nation and of the suffering of the inhabitants at the hands of the “barbarians” and “savages.”

In May 1915, the British government produce the Bryce Report, or The Report of the Committee on Alleged German Atrocities, which was undoubtedly part of a pattern of the government participating in the production of propaganda in its sensationalist description of lurid details. Despite the emotional content, the amounts were accurate and correct and well suited to the public mood during the war, but, after the war, the vividness of the descriptions seemed distasteful and not objective enough in a world that wanted to forget and move forward. Nevertheless, much of the material came from captured diaries belonging to German soldiers. As the Bryce Report stated of these primary documents, “They have been translated with great care. We have inspected them and are absolutely satisfied of their authenticity. They have thrown important light upon the methods followed in the conduct of the war. In one respect indeed, they are the most weighty part of the evidence, because they proceed from a hostile source and are not open to any such criticism on the ground of bias as might be applied to Belgian testimony.” The team of investigators and lawyers who listened to the depositions of eye witnesses went from town to town, chronicling the atrocities at each location. An entire segment of the Report detailed the terrible treatment of women and children, the innocents of war:

The officers ordered the houses to be set on fire, and straw was obtained, and it was done. The man and his wife and the child were thrown on the top of the straw. There were about 40 other peasant prisoners there also, and the officer said: “I am doing this as a lesson and example to you. When a German tells you to do something next time you must move more quickly.” The regiment of Germans as a regiment of Hussars, with cross-bones and a death’s head on the cap. Can anyone think that such acts as these, committed by women in the circumstances created by the invasion of Belgium, were deserving of the extreme form of vengeance attested by these and other depositions?

As has been established in earlier posts, the Germans were waging war for the honor of German Kultur, attacking inferior French Zivilization, and, in doing so, the out of control military played directly into the hands of British propagandists. With atrocity propaganda, convincing the British population of the dangers posed by the “Hun,” Belgium was gendered as female. A helpless woman, Belgium was “raped,” and Germany became a brutal male animalistic rapist, both symbolically and literally. Thus in the space of a few terrible months, Belgium had gone from being the brave David holding off against the German Goliath and had became the helpless maiden ravished by an impeccable and vengeful hyper-masculinized foe. The propaganda posters, however, elided the fact that, once the nation was thoroughly conquered and subdued, it was further raped, plundered for supplies for Germany’s war efforts. Thanks to a stubborn British blockade of German ports, considered an “atrocity” by Germany, the Belgiums starved, so that the Germans could eat. The Belgiums would be fed by an American organization, the Commission for Relief in Belgium, headed by Herbert Hoover, because the British refused to help the Germans by feeding the hungry women and children that appeared in their posters.

Germany replied to the Bryce Report with their own account of the conduct of the Belgiums against the occupying Germans. The White Book, an infamous document not to be confused with the earlier White Book, a justification for starting the War. The new White Book was issued in May 1915, in keeping with the habit of issuing “books” or documents under the title of a color. The White Book was described by Sophie de Schaepdrjver as a compendium of lies and justifications: “At the same time, May 1915, the German government produced its own report (the so-called German White Book) which claimed that the Belgians had conducted a premeditated ‘People’s War’, with sadistic excesses, against its army. This report relied on hearsay and heavy editing, omitted evidence from within the German army that contradicted its claims, and suppressed depositions by civilians for the same reason. In response, the Belgian government-in-exile published a detailed refutation (the so-called Belgian Grey Book) with lists of civilian victims; and the Belgian sociologist Fernand van Langenhove invalidated the ‘People’s War’ thesis in his 1916 study The Growth of a Legend, which proved on the basis of German documents that the franc-tireur story had been a mass delusion, a ‘cycle of myths.'”

The war of words was not just between Germany and England but both salvos from both sides were directed to an American audience, to a neutral nation that must be persuaded to take a side in a conflict a continent away. Accordingly, the White Book reported (totally without fact) on the conduct of the people of Bruges: “Men, women and children opened such a frightful fire on the enemy that the first ranks tumbled one on the other. The Germans nevertheless entered the village streets, cavalry in front, infantry behind, while the exasperated populace did not cease to overwhelm the enemy with its fire. The women poured boiling oil and water on the German soldiers who rolled on the ground howling with the pain.”

It has been established beyond doubt that Belgian civilians plundered, killed and even shockingly mutilated German wounded soldiers in which atrocities even women and children took part. Thus the eyes were gouged out of the German wounded soldiers, their ears, noses and finger-joints were cut off, or they were emasculated or disemboweled. In other cases German soldiers were poisoned or strung up on trees; hot liquid was poured over them, or they were otherwise burned so that they died under terrible tortures.

One of the most important poster campaigns galvanizing the British, the French, and the Americans mourned (in rage) the execution of the British nurse Edith Cavell. A respectable middle aged woman, doing her patriotic duty for her country, Cavell died because she helped British soldiers escape from captivity in Belgium. Following on the heels of countless atrocity stories over an entire year, the tragic death of Cavell on October 12, 1915, shocked the sensibilities of those who considered women the revered and sacred gender. Her death stood for all the other women whose honor had been assaulted by the Germans, daily demonstrating their lack of civilized behavior. The use of women in propaganda as helpless victims, no matter how brave they were in real life, was exaggerated in mass media. from posters to films, all depicting Cavell as much younger than her actual forty-nine years.

From the propaganda posters and the newspaper accounts published by America, it was clear whom the citizens of the United States eventually believed. There were many German Americans very sympathetic to the home country but the sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine in 1915 caused a shift in public opinion. America wanted to remain neutral but its sentiments began to shift towards the beleaguered Belgiums and towards the French and British fighting in the trenches. The attack on the Lusitania, full of innocent civilians, including women and children, many from America, on May 7 caused Americans to develop the British attitude towards the “Huns” and the French contempt for the “Boche” as being “uncivilized” in conducting a stealth war, hidden below the waves. The year 1915 was the year in which Germany with its Zeppelin raids over London fully demonstrated its “frightfulness,” a uniquely British phrase, on the battlefields of the land, sea, and air.

Although the luxury liner, flying a British flag, had been warned that any such ship would be liable to attack by Germany, the attitude was as one survivor stated, “I don’t think anyone took very much notice of this because they thought, well, no nation would dare go to the point of sinking a passenger liner and especially a liner so famous as the Lusitania.” To the German submarine commander, Captain Walther Schwieger, the Lusitania was flying the wrong flag and, in keeping with the German position of “unrestricted submarine warfare,” must be sunk. One hundred twenty-four Americans, including ninety four children, died, dealing a blow to German hopes of American neutrality. As the First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill expressed it, “The poor babies who perished in the ocean struck a blow at German power more deadly than could have been achieved by the sacrifice of 100,000 men.” For decades it was not confirmed what the German knew, that the liner was carrying arms, concealed in its cargo hold and therefore the Lusitania was “fair game.” After the entire “civilized” world expressed outrage and horror, Germany prudently halted “unrestricted” submarine warfare and in 1917, without mentioning the Lusitania, Schwieger received the “Pour Le Merite” medal, or “Blue Max” but six weeks later his ship struck a mine six weeks later and the man who sunk the Lusitania was killed.

William Lionel Wyllie. The Track of the Lusitania (1915)

When America finally joined the Great War in 1917, its own propaganda machine began to print posters. Easily the most famous and most notorious was the “Destroy This Mad Brute” enlistment entreaty by Henry Ryle Hopps. Designed well before the 1933 film, King Kong, the poster depicts the by now well-developed idea of Germany. Wielding club with the word “Kultur” on it, the “mad brute” is carrying a supine and swooning woman, breasts exposed, and is wearing a Pickelhaube or spiked helmet. The ape is sporting the mustache of the Kaiser with the jaunty upturned ends but this civilized style is clearly and pointedly not in keeping with the beastliness of the Germans. Americans had always associated the “savage” with Africa and the inherent racism in the nation and its long struggle with slavery, still a living memory in many of its citizens, makes this poster a racist proposition. Its imagery is drawn directly from Southern attitudes towards black males who were apt to rape white women, a representation that was easily transferred to another uncivilized being, a German ape. It is doubtful that the Americans or the artist understood the complex meaning of “Kultur,” but the main point of the poster was that the Germans were “brutes” who raped women in Belgium and sunk ships carrying babies and fought unfairly with poisoned gas. Their uncivilized behavior had, from the very beginning of the conflict, had stripped the Germans of their most prized possession, “Kultur.”

For the French people, the menacing presence of the Germans at the gate was “frightful.” The French army had fought off the German invasion into France, a thrust inward that came so close to Paris that the Eiffel Tower itself seemed to cower. But then the German army had to pause and regroup, giving the French a chance to push back so that they “won” the Battle of the Marne. But in this first month of the War, the French lost so much of its army that the nation would literally not recover from that blow. Literally on its knees, every day, the army fought in the trenches to keep the “Boche” at bay. For their part, the British realized that the Battle of the Marne had been a close call for the French and thus for the British Empire and brought in the Navy to blockade the German ports as part of what was becoming a war of attrition. The first year of the war had shown the full extent of the German “beastliness,” and the people of the British Isles were well and truly alarmed. The posters depicting Germans as ape-like creatures on the loose echoed the fears of both the French and the British, feelings of terror exacerbated by reports of widespread rapes, looting, massacres, and destruction of property in Belgium. The next post will continue the discussion of the psychology of posters during the Great War in relation to the role of women at War.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

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Dada in Zurich: At War in a Neutral Nation, Part Two

Dada Émigrés in Exile

The Disintegration of Kultur, Part Two

Today the city is called Leuven but one hundred years ago, the university town was called “Louvain,” and it was the site of an atrocity, a war crime against property, against culture, against human beings that attracted international attention. On August 25, on its way to France, the German army angered and delayed by the defiant troops of Belgium, took out its rising wrath on an innocent civilian population, composed of professors and towns people standing between Liege and Brussels, in the way of the imperial progression to victory. In Dynamic of Destruction: Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War, Alan Kramer described the march of Germany through a neutral nation:

The German troops arrived in the town in the morning of Wednesday, 19 August, to find a peaceful population frightened by the news of German cruelties perpetrated along their invasion route since 4 August. In the area around Liège, closest to the German border, some 640 civilians had been killed by 12 August, but no precise numbers were known at the time. The town of Aarschot, only some ten miles north-east of Louvain, was the scene of mass killings on 19 August, with 156 dead; in Ardenne, further south, 262 were killed the next day. The Louvain civic authorities had confiscated all weapons in private hands in early August, to prevent any spontaneous individual acts of resistance the might provoke reprisal, and published warnings that only one regular army was entitled to take military action.

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Propaganda Poster

Louvain had heard of how Germans had treated other cities and had subdued themselves accordingly while the army marched in and the German military itself considered the town sufficiently secure to make it the headquarters of the 1st Army. But something spooked the occupying army on the evening of the 25th sending the German soldiers into a frenzy of of wrath and retribution, seeking mythical French “franc-tireurs” of free shooters, civilian snipers encountered during the Franco-Prussian War, resurrected in Belgium. While assaulting the civilian population, executing and torturing townspeople, setting their houses on fire, damaging a fifteenth century Collegiate Church of Saint Peter in the process. The famed University Library was singled out for special treatment. As Kramer wrote,

Using petrol and inflammable pastilles, they set it on fire. The library burned for several days, but within ten hours, little remained of the building and its collections apart from blackened walls, stone columns, and the glowing embers of books..the killings continued the next day and night, Wednesday 26 August..In all, 248 citizens of Loubain were killed. Some 1,500 inhabitants were deported to Germany on a long journey in railway cattle-wagons, including 100 women and children and were forced to endure the harsh conditions in Munster came until January 1915.. Still the misery was not over. On Thursday, 27 August the German army announced that the town was to be bombarded, because its citizens were allegedly firing at the troops..Most of the destruction had been caused by arson.In a town of 8,928 houses, 1,120 were destroyed, including some of the wealthiest properties, in addition many public buildings and commercial premises. Not only university library and archive also the personal libraries, research papers and professional documents of five notaries, 14 solicitors, 5 judges, 15 medical doctors, and 19 professors were lost..witnesses testified to pillage on a large scale.

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The University Library, Louvain

The town of Louvain was thoroughly sacked. The British press sprang into action. As Troy R. E. Paddock explained in his book A Call to Arms: Propaganda, Public Opinion, and Newspapers in the Great War, what we would consider war crimes today were so novel a hundred years ago that they were hard for the public to believe. Reporters were caution in their account, apparently concerned they would not be believed. Nevertheless from the early weeks of the war, a steady flow of accounts of German “misbehavior” appeared in English and French newspapers. And each atrocity report was countered by the Germans with charges of lies by the enemy and by counter narratives that were falsehoods aimed at neutral nations and at the German public. In the Daily Mail, a journalist Hamilton Fyfe used the terms “Barbarity” and “Sins Against Civilization” and “savage” and “uncivilized” and “barbarous,” terms that had a tendency to sensationalize accounts that were utterly truthful. In the growing accounts of “atrocity propaganda,” Louvain, as the author reported

was significant for two reasons. The first was its particular cultural resonances..Louvain was an undoubted cultural jewel, a perfect site for proposing a powerful thesis that the German army was a real enemy of civilization. The second was that after the German army committed its crime, the town was briefly recaptured, giving a rare opportunity to verify what had occurred..The relative caution of earlier editorializing is being replaced by a certainty of German bestiality. Louvain seems to be a turning point..It seems likely that it was the combination of verifiability and visual impact that made this particular town so important. The physical destruction visited on Louvain was massively emphasized during the final week of September with photographs at the back of the newspaper..It is in this context that the initial use of the word Hun in the Daily Mail needs to be understood. Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “For All We Have and Are”had used the line “The Hun is at the gate,” and its first use in the Daily Mail is a direct echo of this, immediately after the news of Louvain..The use of Hun began to emerge in this very specific context, that of an assault on the physical manifestations of civilization..this was the worst act of cultural destruction in more than a century, involving a university town the equal of Oxford or Heidelburg. For this reason Louvain has been described as the Sarajevo of the European intelligentsia, leading to a widely reprinted exchange between British and German academics.

The first salvo was delivered by the artists mobilized by the well-organized arm of British propaganda, Wellington House, in the form of an “Authors’ Declaration” in September 1914. The fifty-three signatories noted that

We observe that various German apologists, official and semi-official, admit that their country had been false to its pledged word, and dwell almost with pride on the ‘frightfulness’ of the examples by which it has sought to spread terror in Belgium, but they excuse all these proceedings by a strange and novel plea. German culture and civilization are so superior to those of other nations that all steps taken to assert them are more than justified, and the destiny of Germany to be the dominating force in Europe and the world is so manifest that ordinary rules of morality do not hold in her case, but actions are good or bad simply as they help or hinder the accomplishment of that destiny.

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Signatures of British Authors

In response to the denunciation of German “barbarism” in the name of Kultur, ninety-three German intellectuals and artists published the “Manifesto of the Ninety-Three” but first appeared as “Aufruf die Kulturwelt!” a deliberate word choice, no doubt, in all German newspapers. Written in probable good faith, patriotism and complete ignorance of the actual events, the document declared,

It is not true that our troops treated Louvain brutally. Furious inhabitants having treacherously fallen upon them in their quarters, our troops with aching hearts were obliged to fire a part of the town as a punishment. The greatest part of Louvain has been preserved. The famous Town Hall stands quite intact; for at great self-sacrifice our soldiers saved it from destruction by the flames. Every German would of course greatly regret if in the course of this terrible war any works of art should already have been destroyed or be destroyed at some future time, but inasmuch as in our great love for art we cannot be surpassed by any other nation, in the same degree we must decidedly refuse to buy a German defeat at the cost of saving a work of art.”

Historian Stefan Wolff pointed out that the manifesto, translated into ten languages and distributed to neutral nations, was a complete failure and that physicist Wilhelm Wien attempted to provide “the facts in the way he believed to know them” and, disbelieving all accusations against the German military,” writing “None of the accusations our enemies are spreading against us are true.” A month later in November 1914, Thomas Mann, author of Buddenbrooks, published “Gedankem im Kriege” in Neue Rundschau. As Mann pointed out in a letter to Richard Dehmel in December 14, 1914, many manifestos had appeared in Germany defending Kulutr and denying the reports of destruction of cultural monuments and property, and he wrote, “Not that I deluded myself that writing it was any special achievement. I am not one of those who think that the German intelligentsia “failed” in the face of events. On the contrary, it seems to me that some extremely important work is being done in spelling out, ennobling, and giving meaning to events, and I feared that my little piece of journalism would make a miserable showing alongside these other things..” Several important points need to be made: first the German scientists and artists and intellectuals were, with few exceptions, united in their support of Kultur and therefore were defending their nation’s innocence and, sadly, bound together in their completely unquestioned belief in the deliberate lies of their own government, distributed through mass media. Mann, himself, renounced his early naïve patriotism, but not until 1918. The blindness to German behavior during the first months of the War was not universal and surely led to the recoil felt on the part of thoughtful people, from Albert Einstein to the artists who withdrew from the conflict.

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Louvain in 1915

Before the year 1914 was finished, the German military committee and denied war crimes, and the intellectuals of Germany were misled into defending the destruction of cultural property of the enemy, opening themselves to the charge of religious bigotry–Protestants attacking Catholic heritage and sites of learning. In “Kultur and Zivilization,” on the the best extended discussions of the origin and meaning of German Kultur, Arnold Labrie discussed the origin of the dichotomy between German Kultur and French Zivilization in 1784 with Emmanuel Kant, in which “Kultur results from an inner moral necessity; the truly cultivated person behaves in a civilized way, because he can not do otherwise. As Labrie stated, “This negative association between Zivilization and bourgeois society was to become an important part of German ideology, culminating during the First World War..” In order to understand the impact of the disgrace of Kultur it is important to understand to the extent to which Kultur was the “possession” of the class of people represented by the Dada artists who fled to Zürich. Labrie continued,

To a certain extent, this idealized vision of Kultur reflects the social position of the literary elite, the so-called Bildungsbürgertum, which more or less consists of people working in the liberal professions or other positions requiring higher forms of education (gymnasium and university). The Bildungbürgertum may be considered the social group supporting the German idea of Kultur.” According to the author, this class understood the Franco-Prussian war to be one of Kultur against Zivilization. “The same attitude was to return during the First World War,wen almost every intellectual considered it his patriotic duty to contribute to the ideological battle against Western Civilization by writing pamphlets and articles. In 1915, for instance, the prominent sociologist Werner Sombart published his book Helden und Händler. The heroes of this story are German soldiers, dying for the cause of Kultur, which now has found its political expression in the state. These German idealists are opposed against Western merchants, Händler, who was strictly interested in material profit..To a certain extent, Buildung and Kultur served as a surrogate religion which filled the spiritual void that was left when orthodox christianity gradually lost its hold on the literary elite during the nineteenth century..Kultur..originates in religious cultus and it this way refers to eternal, inner values of the individuals’s faith or Weltanschauung..

By the time the Dada artists and writers had arrived in Zürich and gathered together for comfort in the Cabaret Voltaire, German Kultur was under fire, German soldiers were considered “barbarians” and commonly called “Huns,” and in 1916, Germans were convicted of war crimes in the minds of everyone but the German people themselves. The visual and verbal propaganda from the British and French and Americans were both merciless and exaggerated, playing on fears and arousing hatred against the now “frightful” enemy. For an intelligent outsider, who could see the photographs of the smoldering ruins of the university library of Louvain and the bombarded ramparts of the Cathedral of Rheims, Germany stood tried and convicted of the destruction of cultural property, the desecration of literary documents and a lack of reverence for history itself. In addition, norms of civilized behavior, which were universally recognized, had been smashed and left behind in the dust and hysteria of total modern war. Kultur, an entire way of life which had, for two hundred years, had formed the basis for the inner life and for the intellectual raison d’être for an entire class in Germany, was no longer tenable. For any artist, writer or intellectual, especially those of German heritage, the choices were complex: one could defend the indefensible, as Thomas Mann did, or one could take the more difficult path–find a new way to create a new form of culture without the blinding idealism of the past. The Dada artists were of the class of people charged with creating and contributing to Kultur but they had lost Kultur and needed to make statements about their willingness to destroy Kultur the way that Kultur had destroyed Louvain.

The next posts will discuss the visual propaganda that depicted the German people, establishing an image that would lead to the humiliating Treaty of Versailles in 1919. The negative representation of the German people and of German Kultur was part of the back story of Dada, an important component of the anger of the artists against the War and its consequences.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]