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.

[email protected]

Edmund Husserl and Philosophy

EDMUND HUSSERL (1859 – 1938)

It is the dead date of Edmund Husserl that is of great interest. The fact that the philosopher died in the year 1938 speaks volumes of, not just his fate, but the history of the reception of his work. Like the philosophers of the Frankfurt School, Husserl was a Jewish scholar in Hitler’s Germany and was all but doomed. Unlike the theoreticians at the Institute for Social Research, Husserl apparently made no attempt to leave his homeland. The fact that Husserl and his wife, the daughter of a renowned Jewish scholar, had converted to Christianity mattered little to the Nazis who were obsessed with “blood.” Exclusionary laws passed between 1933 and 1937 pushed Jews out of public life and Husserl was pushed out of his home university at Freiberg by the very man he had mentored, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger’s complicity with the Nazi regime was but part of a general eagerness on the part of German intellectuals to make a “Faustian bargain,” as it were with Der Führer. As Robert P. Ericksen wrote in Complicity in the Holocaust: Churches and Universities in Nazi Germany,

the Nazi regime actually found enthusiastic support in German universities during the transition of 1933, from students and faculty alike, and Nazis were effective in weeding out Jews and left-wing critics, thoroughly and without mercy. For the rest of the Nazi period, the atmosphere at German universities seems to have been one of enthusiastic support for the new regime and its politics, rather than resistance or criticism.

For what appear to be historical reasons—the interruption of the free flow of philosophical ideas and writing from Germany during the ten year period of the Third Reich—there was a delay in the reception of the philosophy of Husserl. But one must consider also the fact that the thought of Husserl evolved: from a focus on mathematics to logic to psychology, until after decades of deep and complex meditations on the ontology and then on the epistemology of things, he settled on phenomenology as a means to explicate the foundation of reality. Husserl considered his approach to phenomenon as being akin to the transcendentalism of Kant, with whom he found an affinity, and, in his desire to transcend to a universality for a firmly grounded philosophy, he was also akin to Georg Hegel in his absolutism. Husserl’s longing to construct a philosophy of universality began in earnest after the Great War, a war that killed one son and wounded another. He translated his sentiments into a scientific approach to the problem of who we encounter or perceive objects. By rejecting situational interpretations, Husserl attempted to eliminate relativity. The Nazis also despised relativity, but they interpreted the philosopher as being inclusive, which is somewhat different from universal. In the end it was an epistemological system of the universal that was facing a racist ideology of purity and superiority, and, given that his earlier work was tainted with anti-war sentiments, Husserl was simply could not win such a contest.

As Dermont Moran relates in Edmund Husserl: Founder of Phenomenology, although Husserl was forbidden to publish in Germany, the elderly scholar continued an active lecture schedule and he continued to write until he fell ill and died. His former colleagues at his university refrained from attending his funeral, but those who admired his work, such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, gathered together his unpublished manuscripts, which were salvaged for publication throughout the 1950s. Thus Husserl’s oeuvre gradually became available in English in time to filter into American universities so that by the 1960s, graduate students, even those in the arts, could be come conversant with that aspect of his very varied writings with which the philosopher became most identified: phenomenology. And, in turn, phenomenology provided the language for the artists and critics associated with the Minimalist art movement, who were seeking to provide a philosophical framework for reductive shapes which aspired for “objecthood.” Although there is much in Husserl’s thought that seems to relate to the New York art world, from the materialistic formalism of Clement Greenberg and his followers to the very antithesis of Greenbergian formalism, Minimal Art, it is well to remember that Husserl was not translated into English until the 1960s and 1970s and any art world knowledge of his work would have been second hand.

Husserl’s long search for an unshakable ground for philosophy came to fruition in 1907—the year of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Alfred Stieglitz’s The Steerage—when he gave a series of lectures which were developed later as The Idea of Phenomenology. True to his methodical nature, he was more of a note maker than a manuscript writer, Husserl’s follow up books, Ideen I and Ideen II, evolved slowly during and after the Great War. Although there were treasure troves of unpublished work, these are the seminal works for phenomenology. For Fernand de Saussure and for Ludwig Wittgenstein, the proper study of philosophy was language or Logos, which is fully expressed in speech. However, for Husserl the proper domain of philosophy was a special kind of seeing, called phenomenology or that which is based upon discernible phenomena. Given that this is a philosopher who was trained in mathematics and logic and who swerved towards a neo-Kantian perspective, it is clear that Husserl would examine the relationship between the human subject and the world of material culture or objects in the world.

Phenomenology begins of course, with the dialectical logic of Georg Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit and ends with Husserl who, many will argue, is the end point of Western philosophy. Given that Husserl regarded philosophy as a universal science and sought to uncover an absolute foundation of knowledge, phenomenology is the totality of human objectivity that creates a “transcendental subjectivity” or a universal ego. It is the human mind who not only recognizes the Other—objects, other people—but which also structures these experiences. This is where Husserl is in agreement with Kant but Husserl, the mathematician, the logician, must cordon off these experiences in such as a way to purify them so that these phenomena can truly be known.

A “phenomenon” is an entity as it appears to the unconscious. All being is being for consciousness. In other words, objects exist independently of consciousness. Kant insisted that, even if this were so, these objects were inaccessible except through mediation; but Husserl asserted that it was possible to recover lost origin by disclosing the (Kantian) constructive activity of consciousness. Although neither Friedrich Nietzsche nor Wittgenstein were interested in recovering lost origins, Husserl’s quest is for clarity and “complete clearness” in philosophy. He believed that phenomenology was a special kind of seeing that could be cultivated through an operation called “bracketing.” Bracketing in math is simply a way of setting off or aside a grouping of numbers with parentheses or square, curly or angled brackets. Bracketing is separating a set of numbers in order to act upon them in a certain manner. And thus is a phenomena can be set aside or apart or “bracketed” from its cultural surroundings, it can be “seen” in a more rigorous or universal or essential fashion. This “reduction” of surrounding noise is referred to by Husserl as an “eidetic” reduction that is capable of transcending the relativity of that which lies outside the brackets.

Possibly because of his disillusionment towards the War or more possibly due to his foundation in logic, Husserl was suspicious of early Twentieth Century pragmatism and its relativity. Worse than the turn towards relativity, Kantian “disinterest” had become fatally entangled with “naturalism” which extended knowledge of nature to the psychic processes as thought they, too, were natural objects. In other words, the natural attitude or reaction of humans was to impose their personal (relative) understandings or interpretations upon a circumstance or thing. These mis-directions that had been allowed in philosophy had caused a crisis that Husserl saw as solvable by a return to the ideal of rational certainty, pioneered by the Greeks. Like those philosophers of the nineteenth century, Husserl admired the Greeks and considered them the first Moderns because the Greeks, in contrast to the other cultures of their era, were able to disentangle themselves from the “mythico-religious” and to attend to the theoretical or philosophical aspects of life. To be sure that one would achieve clarity and rationality, one must take what Husserl called the Natural Standpoint or the phenomenological stance. What we experience from this stance is the “fact-world.” But we are then instructed to doubt this fact world, that is, we are asked to suspend “belief” and make more pure “judgments” about this world.

We bracket the object in this fact-world in that we take the object “out of action”, we “disconnect” ourselves from our “interest” in or knowledge of this object, and thus we detach ourselves from the object. From this attitude of Husserlian disinterestedness, we now possess a “unique form of consciousness.” We now see differently and what we see are the “essences” of things. Husserl calls the result of this “transcendentally reduced experience” to be the self-appearance, the self-exhibiting, the self-giveness of objects themselves. We are and have become directly aware of objects, not just their appearances but their thing-ness, their very existence. In other words, we have bracketed out that which is extrinsic to the object and become fully into its presence and reflect upon the way in which the object is present for the consciousness. Husserl was not so much concerned with the meaning of the objects as with their existence as evidence. Husserl considered himself as an “archaeologist” like Freud, but he did not excavate for meaning but for an origin–what the object is in existence: the being of the object. Rather than a unity, according to Husserl, consciousness then is a flow of realizations in experience of the object that allow the object to come into being for the subject.

Within this flow through a process of “unfolding” of layers or strata of consciousness, what is sought is the ‘foundedness” of the object . The result of the stance of phenomenology would be a “rigorous disengagement” and ”systemic neutrality” towards phenomenon. Ultimately, Husserl’s influence expanded and the method of bracketing would hopefully achieve the certainty and clarity in philosophy that he desired. The philosopher was part of a larger group of philosophers concerned with the mechanisms of consciousness—not psychology—from Bergson to Merleau-Ponty. Thanks to their continued interest in his work, Husserl’s Ideas: General Introduction in Pure Phenomenology was eventually published in English in 1931 but the only work he considered as complete at his death, Die Krisis der eruopäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenoligie, delivered as lectures in 1935 and 1936, would not be published until 1954. Although, with hindsight, we can see Husserl as part of a larger phenomenon played out in the arts as the “new objectivity,” Husserl’s philosophy was, like the art of the Thirties, caught up in the rising tide of the next war. Like many creators of his generation, Husserl would have to wait for a new generation, emerging after the Second World War, to appreciate his ideas. Until then, the world would be propelled into catastrophe by belief systems and ideology that shaped a destructive force in Nazi Germany, which resulted in one of the greatest brain drains in modern times as scholars fled to America.

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

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

[email protected]

Dada and the Great War

DADA: 1916 – 1922

History of Dada

“In Zurich in 1915, losing interest in the slaughterhouse of the world war, we turned to the Fine Arts. While the thunder of the batteries rumbled in the distance, we pasted, we recited, we versified, we sang with all out soul, we searched for an elementary art that would, we thought, save mankind from the furious folly of these times.”

Hans (Jean) Arp, from Alsace-Lorraine

Founded the midst of the Great War, Dada was an anti-movement movement dedicated to anti-art. Dada as one of its founders, Tristan Tzara explained, “is nothing, nothing, nothing. Everything is Dada.” He elaborated: “The beginnings of Dada were not the beginnings of art but the beginnings of disgust.” Dada cannot be understood without understanding the context of a war that was destroying the fabric of a social and political system that had existed for hundreds of years. The last of the Empires were disintegrating and an entire generation of young men lay dead on the battlefields of Belgium and France. With the dead lay the end of hope and faith. The disillusioned young generation felt that it had been lied to. They had been promised that war would be a grand and glorious adventure, over in a few months but with ample opportunities for heroism.

But the Great War was a psychological catastrophe. With cultural myths and norms undermined, a certain segment of the population simply refused to participate in what seemed to be a monstrous waste of human beings, all at the the whims of would-be despots. It wasn’t just the entire nation of Russia that dropped out of this War; it was also the intelligentsia. True, some artists and writers served bravely, such as Georges Braque, some even died, like Wilfred Owen, but others went into exile. Dada was composed of artists in exile, in nations that were either safe, like America, or neutral, like Switzerland and Spain. German artists, who were horrified at the slaughter on the Western Front founded Dada in Europe. One by one came to Zurich to express their disgust with the twentieth century and came together by 1916.

The first to arrive in 1915 were the husband and wife theatrical team, Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings. Ball, a German, had worked in the theater in Berlin where he had met Richard Huelsenbeck. In February of 1916, the pianist founded Cabaret Voltaire at No. 1 Spieglgasse, an entertainment district of the city. Although the Russian exile, Vladimir Lenin lived across the street in Number 12, the Swiss authorities were more suspicious of the growing group of anarchic artists, including visual artists, Hans (Jean) Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp, writers Richard Huelsenbeck, Hans Richter, Tristan Tzara, and Marcel Janco, than they were of an exiled Russian rabble-rouser.

In the beginning this group was a literary organization without organization or a leader. Borrowing strategies from the Futurists, the Dadaists provoked and assaulted their bourgeois audience, even copying the idea of Luigi Russolo’s famous noise-organ—make noise, not music. The artists treated their public to a form of bruitism—cow bells, bells, drums, etc. and granted them simultaneous readings of poems “composed” for the noise of multiple voices used as instruments. The writers also borrowed the Futurist concept that language had to be rewritten and literature had to be interrogated to reveal its inherent meaningless. Ball, who had been impacted by the ideas of Kandinsky in Munich, wanted to use his performances to create a total work of art, gesamtkunstwerk, connecting music, literature, and art and, of course, life itself into an overall theatrical experience.

Defining Dada

In its attempt to merge life and art and to dissolve the boundaries that kept art separate, Dada could best be described as a state of mind. The first two years in Zurich were marked by experimentation and play, but the group was altered by the arrival in 1918 of Francis Picabia from New York City. Picabia, who was associated with New York Dada, was far more radical in his complete rejection of the idea of “art” and his dismissal of the Western heritage. Hugo Ball had left Zurich in 1917 and moved on to Bern for a more traditional occupation, editing a newspaper. In response to the absence of the founder and by Picabia’s extreme reductivism, Tristan Tzara (Sami Rosenstock) stepped into the “leadership” position and issued a Manifesto in 1918.

The Dada Manifesto was deliberately nonsensical. Sentences would begin logically enough but would trail off into illogic.

“A work of art should not be beauty in itself, for beauty is dead; it should be neither gay nor sad, neither light nor dark to rejoice or torture the individual by serving him the cakes of sacred aureoles or the sweets of a vaulted race through the atmospheres,” Tzara wrote.

As well as writing the Manifesto, Tzara also edited the group’s periodical, Dada, but Dada had no specific program, no goals, and no aims. Essentially nihilist in intent, Dada writings always begin with what Dada is not, rejecting all that has gone before it. Nothing could rescue the world from bankrupt ideas and nothing was left except for a celebration of buffoonery, blague, and bleeding verse Tzara commented bitterly.

In an age of no sense, Dada presented nonsense and in doing so challenged and subverted the ways in which art and the artist are defined and the way in which art is made. After the War was over in November 1918, the Dada artists scattered and spread the seed of dissent to Berlin and Paris and Hanover. Tzara remained true to Dada and presented a more complete description or definition of Dada (if such a thing is possible) in 1922:

“I destroy the drawers of the brain and of social organization: spread demoralization wherever I go and cast my hand from heaven to hell, my eyes from hell to heaven, restore the fecund wheel of a universal circus to objective forces and the imagination of every individual.”

The Manifesto ends with these sentences,

“The beginnings of Dada were not the beginnings of an art, but of a disgust…as Dada marches it continuously destroys…Dada is a state of mind. That is why it transforms itself according to races and events. Dada applies itself to everything, and yet it is nothing…Like everything in life, Dada is useless.”

Dada strategies included mockery and parody and sarcasm. The artists mocked and rejected the naïve ideas of the old men who led the young men off to a certain death. For the Dada artist, “art” is a metaphor for all that Western civilization has built, so proudly. But a civilization that planted Flanders Fields and that ordered Gallipoli must be rejected. “Art” was a part of the natural order that had to be destroyed and replaced with actual nature which acts for itself, is senseless, indifferent to the plans of humans, and is direct and relentless, a genuine force.

In some ways, the performances of Dada, fleeting and ephemeral, presaged the breaking of the Fourth Wall seen in the Epic Theater of Bertold Brecht a decade later. Like the Dadaists, Brecht the dramatist sought to alienate the audience and used techniques, which distanced the viewer from the play in order to prevent the immersion of identification. The goals of both the Dadaists and of Brecht were similar—to wake up the complacent theater-goers who sought entertainment but who found a political message hurled their direction.

Most important to the Dada artists was the need to start over, to get back to a ground zero or a tabular rasa. If they could re-set society, then perhaps the next world would be better. Laced throughout the anger and pain that characterize Dada was a latent idealism that a regression into infantile behavior would lead to a new adulthood. “Dada wished to destroy the hoaxes of reason and to discover an unreasoned order,” Arp explained.

After the Great War ended in the fall of 1918, the Dada artists scattered and formed Dada colonies at different locations: Hanover, Cologne, New York, Berlin and Paris. Each sub group had its own distinctive group of artists and its own goals and ultimate destiny. Like some of the Dada artists in Paris, Tzara and Arp shifted into Surrealism, which incorporated many Dada principles, particularly chance. Dada was gradually absorbed into New Objectivity in Berlin and was carried on in New York City by the underground artist, Marcel Duchamp. Although the impact upon the visual arts took decades to understand and incorporate, in its refusal to believe that life had a meaning and a purpose, Dada paved the way to Postmodernism in art.

Read more posts on Dada:

“Innovations of Dada: Chance”

“Innovations of Dada: Photomontage.”

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

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

[email protected]