Apocalypse in Germany Between the World Wars (Part II)

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Redemption Through Art

“There are two possibilities: to comment on events with words, and to make events through words.” With this phrase, Kurt Hiller characterized in 1916 the fundamental distinction between the foregoing and current literature. In his view, the foregoing literature and the art of bourgeois society in general had withdrawn into an aesthetic reserve in which they enjoyed the greatest autonomy and could develop the “completeness of their specifically artistic character”—but at the price of being a reflection of reality:

Form, as such, is empty; and projection of the real (even more of something thought up fictitiously) to a peculiar, ‘art-loving’ level beyond the real: a pointless waste of time that only increases the sum of comfort and persistence in the world. If one takes art . . . in the current, narrower meaning: as the specific, formal, even artistic in the works . . . is to say: art is an impotent plagiarism of God, a weak repetition.1

Art for art’s sake did indeed create an independent, aesthetic reality, but this aesthetic reality was for Hiller an anemic world of illusion that actually produced nothing and changed nothing, hence his judgment that it was an “impotent plagiarism of God.” Hiller viewed this art as unprincipled and irresponsible:

“Stuck in one’s ivory tower–and outside everything remained the same. One was irritable, complicated, sensitive, terribly sensitive–finally the World War was permitted. (No ministers, no military persons, no grand princes: L’art pour l’art was responsible for it.)”2

Hiller’s postulate of making events through words reduced the program of the “literary revolution”3 between 1910 and 1925 to the least common denominator.

From his verdict–that the “pure,” “artistic” art, the art of aestheticism as a complete accomplishment of artistic autonomy, merely plagiarizes God and contents itself with mere “copies of existence”4–the basic law of all, not only of German, avant-garde art movements of that time can be deduced. Even if expressionism, activism, futurism, dadaism, surrealism, and formalism in many respects differed and frequently bitterly fought each other, they were all obligated to this basic law: to create a new existence through a new art, not only an aesthetic counterworld.

The Apocalyptic Intentions of the Avant Garde

In his attempt to understand the various avant-garde movements as a uniform phenomenon, Peter Bürger also stressed this commonality:

“European avant-garde movements may be defined as an attack on the status of art in bourgeois society. What is negated is not a foregoing form of art (a style), but rather art as an institution that is separated from the practical sphere of human life.”

The avant-gardists–according to Bürger–intend “a dissolution of art–dissolution in the Hegelian sense of the word; art is not to be simply destroyed, but to be transferred to the practical sphere of life where it would be preserved, even if in a transformed shape.” The avant-gardists, of course, do not wish to integrate art into the practical life of bourgeois society, from which the art of aestheticism had removed itself:

“on the contrary, they share the rejection of the rationally arranged world that the aestheticists formulated. What distinguishes the avant- gardists from the aestheticists is the attempt to organize a new praxis of life originating from art.”5

It was Bürger’s purpose to formulate a “theory of the avant-garde” and thereby to understand “art as an institution” in bourgeois society at a critical point: With the avant-garde, bourgeois art that had achieved its greatest measure of autonomy in aestheticism, but at the price of “societal inconsequentiality,”6 turns back to societal reality with the goal of destroying art as an institution and creating a new reality that unites art and life.

It is my objective to show the apocalyptic character of avant-garde intentions. While apocalyptic features are not reflected in all avant-garde movements to the same extent, and not with every artist, the fundamental impulse that Hiller expressed and Bürger characterized as constitutive of avant-garde elements was apocalyptic: producing a new reality through the practical elimination of the division of art and life, that is, through the destruction of a reality in which this separation consisted.

Thereby the apocalypse, in the garb of aesthetics, gained a new dimension. It was no longer merely a matter of interpreting events apocalyptically with aesthetic means, nor a matter any longer of artistic representation of apocalyptic interpretations of experience, but of the consummation of the apocalypse through art. Art should become an “active form,” as Wilhelm Michel proclaimed, so that it could be said, “Paradise is won in every form.”7

The Expressionists: A Desire to Destroy Reality

How were the apocalyptic intentions of the avant-gardists realized?

First, in programmatic statements that reveal the self-understanding of their authors, despite polemics and intentional contradictions–as, for example, used by the dadaists. In another context I have already discussed Hiller’s activist program of entering “Paradise while still alive.”8 The writer of the “new time” should be “the one who appeals, who fulfills, the prophet, the leader.”9

We were already able to note among other writers this excessive self-consciousness that corresponded to the size of the self-prescribed apocalyptic task. The expressionists, in particular, showed this self-consciousness. Like all avant-gardists–and all apocalypticists–they began with the intention of destroying reality, as it was known before.

For Kurt Pinthus, for example, there was “only one radical means of eluding the determination of reality: eliminating it.” The human spirit creates true reality “directly from himself.” In this connection special meaning is attached to art, “since it grows to become the most radical vanquisher of reality and it achieves the pre-realization of the idea in the material of spirit . . . as preceding the more difficult, more inhibited realization in the material of reality.”

Pinthus ascribed to the spirit of “new art” an apocalyptic function with a precise formula: “Growing stronger, it breaks up the world, in order to create it anew as a redeemer.”10 In a similar manner Alfred Wolfenstein characterized the task of the new art. His program not only betrays the same apocalyptic impetus, but also expresses the objective that Bürger explained as the totality of the avant-garde movements, that is, to organize a new praxis of life in which art and life are one:

“The renewed man will love that art by which he feels himself generated. A new unity of life and art can triumph. This unity will not, as in a bygone era, arise by nature determining art: rather, the creation of art will become the creation of life.”11

But how were the apocalyptic intentions of the avant-gardists expressed outside of this program? Among the expressionists it did not go beyond what Kurt Pinthus had called “Pre-Realization”: the shattering of the world was restricted to the aesthetic realm; it was realized by the shattering of syntax, through destructive images, through a montage of disconnected and contradictory particles of reality, as the above-quoted poems by Licht­enstein or van Hoddis show.

Never Going Beyond a Manifesto

In 1920 Wilhelm Michel drew a parallel be­tween expressionist art and the “universal disaster” of war and the following revolution: “In revolution a new cosmogony was begun as in expressionism a shattered world is newly formed.” But he was able to draw only the parallel between life and art; he could not realize their union.

“Realization” of the new art “in the material of reality” was in fact difficult, as Pinthus had rightly remarked. “In every line there was creation,” Michel stated,12 but creation did not go beyond the poem. Indeed, the expressionists did not even succeed in giving concrete form to the new creation of the world, in complete contrast to the old world that was smashed with eloquence; the new man and the new world remained an abstract vision, an incantation, a manifesto. The new creation was in reality nothing more than the creation of a new aesthetic form.

Dadaism as Pure Destruction

For this reason the dadaists declared themselves resolute opponents of expressionism. In the “Dadaist Manifesto” of 1918, signed by, among others, Tristan Tzara, Franz Jung, George Grosz, Marcel Janco, Richard Huelsenbeck, Raoul Hausmann, Hugo Ball, and Hans Arp, the question was raised: Have the Expressionists fulfilled our expectations of an art that burns the essence of life into our flesh?

And the answer was:

“No! No! No! Under the pretext of internalization the Expressionists have formed a movement in literature and painting that today already longingly awaits its literary and artistic appreciation and is campaigning for an honorable recognition of the bourgeoisie. Under the pretext of advertising the soul they have reestablished themselves in the struggle against naturalism to abstract-pathetic gestures that have an empty, comfortable, and motionless life as a premise.”13

The dadaists undertook a more radical attack on reality than the expressionists, and they explored possibilities of actually translating art into life practice. But they still were not able to eliminate the separation of art and life in a new reality. The paradoxical situation in which such an apocalyptic undertaking results became even clearer in their more radical attempts than in those of the expressionists.

For the dadaists, too, the revolt against the bourgeois world and its culture was decisive; but its destructiveness–and this distinguished them from the expressionists–appeared to be absolute, not compensated by visions of a new paradise, and it expressed itself with a lack of seriousness that questioned again and again the meaning of what was said. Even before the designation “dada” was born in 1916 in the Zurich “Cabaret Voltaire,” its originator, Hugo Ball, together with Richard Huelsenbeck, demonstrated these qualities in a “Literary Manifesto”:

“What we want: to incite, to overturn, to bluff, to torture, to tickle to death, confused, without coherence, to be dare-devils and negationists. . . . We always will be ‘anti-.’. . . We proclaim metabolism, somersault, vampirism, and all kinds of mimicry. . . . We want to spoil the appetite for beauty, culture, poetry, for spirit, taste, socialism, altruism, and synonymism. We are against all ‘isms,’ parties, and ‘opinions.’ We wish to be negationists.”14

A Meaningless War and its Fugitives

The First World War doubtless strengthened this attitude. The literary manifesto that I have cited was printed in the program of a memorial service that Ball and Huelsenbeck had organized in Berlin on February 12, 1915, for the poets Walter Heymann, Hans Leybold, Ernst Wilhelm Lotz, Charles Péguy, and Ernst Stadler, who had fallen in battle.15 The main actors of the Cabaret Voltaire, the godfathers of “dadaism” in 1916–besides Ball and Huelsenbeck, Emmy Hennings, Hans Arp, Tristan Tzara, and Marcel Janco–had all emigrated to Switzerland from belligerent countries.

They experienced the meaninglessness of the war–more exactly, that no mean­ing was to be found in suffering and dying and that this war could be reduced to “blague,” to boasting and “bloody posing” as Ball noted in 191616–and they interpreted this experience in a previously unimagined manner. In 1916 Hugo Ball wrote the following lines under the title “Totenklage” (“Dirge”):





tabla tokta tokta takabla

taka tak

Babula m’balam

tak tru—ü


biba bimbel

o kla ο auw

kla o auwa . . .17

It is not surprising that such a serious political person as Leonhard Frank, similarly an emigrant in Zurich, dismissed such matters as “meaninglessness in power” and viewed the dadaists as “fugitives from a difficult era,” who “modestly fled into cynicism.”13

But that an authentic experience of meaninglessness lay hidden behind Ball’s “meaningless” “Totenklage” and that he took this war, which he had personally seen on the Lorraine front in 1914, very seriously, is attested by his poem “Totentanz” (“Dance of Death”), written in the same year as “Totenklage”:

And so we die, so we die

And die every day,

Because we can die so comfortably.

In the morning still in sleep and dreams

At midday we’re already gone

In the evening deep within our grave.

Battle is our bordello,

Our sun is of blood,

Death is our token and watchword.

Child and wife we leave,

What do they have to do with us!

If only someone can depend on us!

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

We thank you, we thank you,

Herr Kaiser, for the kindness,

Of choosing us to die.

Sleep, sleep gently and still.

Until our poor flesh, covered by grass,

Wakes you up.19

Thus, Ball could do it in a different way. He could protest against the war in a “plain text” like Frank and other “committed” opponents of the war. But the “phonetic poems,” “simultaneous poems,” the “abstract dances” in “cubistic masks” and “ ‘bruitistic’ games” that were staged in the Cabaret Voltaire were for the dadaists a more appropriate and more effective reaction to their experiences.

The Dadaists: Loving the Destruction of War

The dadaist actions responded to the meaninglessness of reality with nonsense; they thus mocked reality and shattered it at the same time more decisively than expressionist poems could ever have done, and thereby raised the sharpest protest imaginable against reality.

In the Cabaret Voltaire the dadaists celebrated “a comedy and a mass for the dead at the same time,” as Ball noted in his journal in 1916; for them this was the most reckless form of struggle “against the agony and the death fever of the era.”20 The dadaist form of resistance against reality was, however, paradoxical in a problematical manner.

The reproduction of experienced meaninglessness in the nonsense of dadaistic actions, in a “game with pathetic remnants” of disintegrating reality, implied agreement with the process of destruction that was taking place in the world outside; indeed, the dadaists attempted to outdo this process, not only by affirming material destruction but also by trying to tear down the facades in front of the disintegrated values, by lining up–thus Ball–for the “execution of posed morals and plenitude.”21

This agreement with the destruction became even more extreme when the leading force in the dadaist movement shifted to Berlin. In his Erste Dadarede in Deutschland (“First Dada Speech in Germany”), in February 1918, when thousands of soldiers were still dying every week all over Europe, Richard Huelsenbeck said:

“We were against the pacifists because war gave us the possibility of existing in our complete glory . . . . We were for war and Dadaism is still for war today. Things have to strike each other: it still isn’t savage enough.”22

Peter Sloterdijk characterized Huelsenbeck’s action as an attempt to try, with an extremely sensitive subject, the new tactic “to declare oneself in agreement with the worst in an ironically dirty manner. With his cynical speeches he engenders an ego beyond good and evil, that wants to be like his insane era.”

Sloterdijk defined the position of the dadaists as “between the mentality of the generals, who were seriously for war, and the mentality of the pacifists, who were seriously against it,” as an “evil sounding third position free of all scruples: being unseriously for it.”23

It is striking how close this position comes to that of Jünger, who, although not sharing the mentality of Wilhelminian generals, to a certain extent was seriously for it, that is, for the same goal as the dadaists: the destruction of the bourgeois world with its “so-called cultural possessions” and “historical fetishism.”

Cynicism as the Common Denominator

Like Jünger, the dadaists accepted the events dominating history, as destructive as they may have been. The difference between serious and unserious agreements with destruction pales vis-à-vis the common feature that Jünger shared with the dadaists.

In the Arbeiter Jünger showed the same cynicism as Huelsenbeck, since cynicism is requi­site as an existential attitude for the acceptance of what dominates history: he even accepted the possibility that the world would be transformed into a state of insects–should that be the objective of history–as a “positive” result of his apocalypse; and “the more cynically, Spartan, Prussian, or Bolshevist life may be lived, the better it will be.”24

But where was the “positive” outcome of the apocalypse for the dadaists? Where was the new world and the new man? The objective of apocalyptic transformation that the dadaists were attempting to actuate with their proclamations and actions is not so easy to determine.

They did not consistently conjure up “redemption” in a new fraternal community of men as the expressionists had done. Only occasionally did they explicitly indicate that they desired a transformation of an apocalyptic nature, a transformation that would produce a fundamentally new reality from the destruction of the old world.

In the “Dadaist Manifesto” of 1918 they stated, for example: “With Dadaism a new reality claims its rights.” And in the same year the “Oberdada” Johannes Baader claimed: “I will take care that men will live on this earth in the future. Men who have command of their spirit and create mankind anew with this spirit.”25

But in content all this remained somewhat vague. In fact, the dadaists explicitly rejected sketching out a picture of the new world, like Kurt Hiller, as “paradise,” in which “everyone feels well.”26 Such a picture and outline of a utopia would have been engendering meaning, and this would have contradicted the central desire of the dadaists to shatter all meaning. In 1919 Raoul Hausmann wrote: “The world has for us today no deeper meaning than that of unfathomable nonsense.”

The Dadaists as Radical Apocalypticists

Dadaists were the most radical apocalypticists imaginable; they refused to put a new meaning in the place of the old one. They were apocalypticists nevertheless: although they refused to give shape to the new reality, they enacted it. The new reality consisted in a changed attitude to the meaninglessness of the old.

Dadaism, according to Huelsenbeck in his Erste Dadarede in Deutschland, “is the transition to new joy in real things.” And the new men “are fellows who have kept getting into fights with life, they are guys, men with fates and the ability to experience. Men with sharpened intellect who understand that they are placed at the turning-point of an era.”

The dadaists enacted the transition to the new reality by developing a technique that was as crazy as the dadaists’ experience of reality, a technique, according to Hausmann, “like life itself: the exact technique of the finally understood nonsense as the meaning of the world!”27 It appears as though the dadaists had realized the avant-garde inten­tion, to lead art to a new praxis of life.

However, the opposite side of relinquishing the autonomy of art was the subjection to the facticity of the given. New praxis of life meant subjecting oneself to meaningless reality with cynical affirmation: “To be a Dadaist means to have oneself thrown around by things, to be against every formation of sediment, a moment seated on a chair means to have brought life into danger”–thus it was written in the “Dadaist Manifesto” in 1918.

Sloterdijk discovered in dadaist cynicism a tendency “to the prefascist aesthetics of destruction that would like to live to the full the intoxication of destruction”; this tendency, however, in his view formed an ambiguous complex with the prevalent antifascist “aesthetics of resistance.”

But, apart from its pleasure in destroying, to an even greater degree its closeness to fascism results from the dadaists’ attempt to absorb art in life and, for this objective, their willingness to accept the predominance of life, as meaningless and savage as it may be. This constitutes the inherent closeness of all avant-garde groups not only to fascism, but also to other totalitarian and terrorist movements of the twentieth century. “It is just one step to politics”–thus Huelsenbeck evaluated the breadth of dadaist life practice: “Tomorrow minister or martyr in the Schlüsselburg.”28

The Futurists, Aragon, and Salvador Dali

While the dadaists stayed away from fascism, the futurists made a deal with the Italian Fascists from the very beginning. Their leader, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, who had since 1909 influenced every avant-garde movement–including dadaism29–with his Futuristisches Manifest (“Manifesto of Futurism”) in 1919 led the Fascist list in the Italian elections behind Mussolini; in Fascist Italy he became, after all, a member of the “Accademia d’ltalia” and president of the Writers’ Association. Even the surrealist Salvador Dali openly showed sympathy for fascism. Most other surrealists, like the dadaists, inclined–at least for a time–to anarchism and communism.

At the end of the twenties Louis Aragon hectically changed fronts several times (something that was defended by André Breton with the surrealist–or dadaist–argument that Aragon was not responsible for his change of mind since the writer was merely the “objective interpreter” of the struggles around him),30 until he finally submitted to the Stalinist party line.

In 1939, Aragon defended the pact between Stalin and Hitler; in 1954, he became a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of France. The Russian formalists, in contrast, had to decide under pressure; they had to obey the dictate of Stalin and convert to “Socialist Realism” or, in fact, became martyrs.

The German Expressionists’ Inclination to Nazism

Most of the German expressionists inclined to the Left–Johannes R. Becher offered the best example of a transformation to a confirmed Stalinist, indeed, he finally became a minister. Some of them, however, were as­sociated with Nazism: Hanns Johst, who became Prussian state councilor, president of the Poets’ Academy, as well as the Reich Writers’ Associ­ation (Reichsschrifttumskammer), and SS brigadeführer; Arnolt Bronnen (although he fell into disfavor in 1937 and converted to Communism after 1945), and Gottfried Benn, who temporarily confessed to Nazism in 1933.

The conversions of so many avant-gardists to totalitarian political movements show no more, but also no less, than the potential openness of avant-garde aesthetics for totalitarian politics. Whether anyone actually became a fascist or Stalinist doubtless depended on additional factors. But there is little doubt that the readiness of the avant-gardists to surrender art to reality for the sake of a new life practice made them susceptible to such political movements that appeared to reconcile art and life in a new totality. Because the avant-gardists accepted the meaninglessness and savagery of reality, they sacrificed criteria of criticism connected to reality and ran the risk of being satisfied with the appearance of the new life practice.

Gottfried Benn and the Nazis

The aporia, in which the avant-garde project resulted, is illuminated from another direction when we consider Gottfried Benn’s temporary association with Nazism. In 1912, Benn had cofounded expressionism with his volume of poetry Morgue; in poems such as “Kleine Aster,” “Schöne Jugend,” or “Mann und Frau gehen durch die Krebsbaracke,” he illustrated the meaninglessness and savagery of life, scorned “the decaying vitiation of corpse-man,” as Pinthus noted,31 and participated in this manner in the “shattering of reality” that he observed in all avant-garde movements as a “uniform basic position.”32

In contrast to the dadaists, however, he drew a sharp distinction between life and art. He developed a new “artistry” that attempted to dissolve everything that belonged to “life,” the material, nature, “contents,” history, even “truth,” and to transform them into “form” and “style.” In 1931 he was still postulating: “Whoever wishes to organize life will never make art,” since making art in his eyes meant to “exclude life, to make it narrower, even to fight it, in order to stylize it.”33

With such an “artist’s gospel” how could Benn declare his support of Nazism only two years later? Benn did not have the ambition, like the dadaists, to organize a new life practice from art, but he shared with them the destructive scorn for everything “real,” which led to a loss of his sense of reality and, paradoxically, to abdication in the face of the real only because it was real and apparently dominated history.

“A genuinely new historical movement is present,” Benn stated in 1933, “it is typologically neither good nor evil, it begins its existence.”34 That was enough for him. He submitted to the new political movement because it appeared to be successful to shape anew this hated reality according to aesthetic laws, according to the principles of his–Benn’s–artistry.

He believed that this was the case. In a speech for Marinetti, who visited Germany in 1934, he formulated his new confession of faith:

“Form–in its name everything was won, as you see about yourself in the renewed Germany; form and discipline: both symbols of the new Reich; discipline and style in the state and in art: the basis of the imperative conception of the world that I see coming. The entire future that we have is this: state and art; you had announced the birth of the centaur in your manifesto: this is it.”35

The Centaur Embodied in the Nazi State

Benn had not considered possible the realization of the apocalyptic objective of the avant-garde, the merging of art and life, the birth of the centaur, but now he saw the centaur embodied in the Nazi state, and he was ready to tip his hat to its creators as the greater artists. Avant-garde art–the art of his expressionist generation, was in his view:

“the final art of Europe, its last ray, while all around the long, magnificent, furrowed era died. The era with art, gone forever! . . . What begins now, what commences now, will no longer be art: it is more, it is less.”

And what would this new phenomenon look like, which Benn was ready to welcome? Not art, ritual will stand around the torches, around the fires. Fused together the architecture of the south and the lyrics of the fogland; the height of the Atlantides; their symbolic works will be great hymns; oratorios in amphistadia.36

Benn’s expectations were altogether accurate. In fact ritual stood around the fires at the midsummer celebrations of the Hitler Youth, the nightly swearings-in of political leaders, but also at book burnings. In fact the models of the Pergamon Altar and of the Bernini colonnades fused together with nebulous romanticism into political places of worship and sacred halls.

The SS presented the bloom of the “new biological type,” the “new vision of the birth of man”37–Benn was not lacking in feeling for the apocalyptic character of the centaur. And the new existence actually was celebrated with oratorios in stadiums, with processions, and with other ritual spectacles.

Yet, Benn was very soon disappointed. But his illusion to a certain extent had been well founded, since Nazism presented a connection of politics and art that appeared to realize the central request of the avant-garde, even if in a different manner, than the avant-gardists had had in mind. The avant-gardists wanted to organize a new life practice from art.

Although art should be dissolved in the new reality, the approach was still aesthetic–the “creation of art” should “become the creation of life,” as Wolfenstein said; ultimately the goal was a “redemption through art.” The Nazis, on the other hand, organized the new life practice on ideological and political principles, but they used aesthetic means that produced the semblance of redemption in this aesthetically mantled praxis of life. It is no coincidence that in 1934 Salvador Dali also praised Hitler as a “surrealist innovator.”38

The Similar Aesthetics of Hitler and Stalin

The apparent realization of the avant-garde project through fascism (in Fascist Italy the same thing happened as in the Third Reich) was more than what Walter Benjamin attempted to define in the phrase “aestheticization of political life” through fascism.39

It was the formally most wide-ranging effort to stage an apocalyptic renewal in reality, that is, to make people participants in the aesthetic celebration of the new reality–through insignia and greetings, flags and uniforms, marches and ritual celebrations, through the formation of work and leisure with aesthetic means.40 And this attempt was not undertaken only by the fascists.

Benjamin claimed that communism answered the fascist “aestheticization of politics” with the “politicization of art.”41 However, the contrast that Benjamin attempted to emphasize through this inversion of concepts did not exist in reality; what Benjamin spoke about were in fact two different things that could be observed in like manner under fascist as well as Stalinist regimes.

Art–that is, traditional literature and the fine arts–was politicized in the Third Reich as much as it was under Stalin. The glorifying poems of Johst or Schumann to Hitler are of the same style as the hymns of Becher, Kurt Barthel, and (naturally) of Soviet authors to Stalin;42 the heroic sculptures by Josef Thorak did not differ greatly from the “heroes of labor” of Socialist Realism.43

But art in the traditional sense was not even that essential. What was really important was the new “art” of organizing life practice in aesthetic form. The place of this “art” was not the museum but everyday reality. And this new “art,” which Benjamin attempted to describe as the “aestheticization of politics,” was also carried on under Stalin. Stagings of the personality cult had the working masses appearing as extras and the newly built monumental structures as wings of a huge play in which Stalin was the main actor.44

In form and function the aesthetic ritual of Stalinism was completely comparable to that of fascism, although it was exceeded by fascism in perfection and variety. In any event, fascism and Stalinism formally realized the intentions of the avant-garde.

For this reason, because the avant-garde appeared as competition in the apocalyptic undertaking of the unification of art and life in a new life practice, it had to give way to the politically initiated project of redemption. Art should again become art in the traditional sense and was forced into a subservient, propagandistic role, be it in the form of “national” or “Socialist Realism.”45

Writers such as Johst, Becher, and Aragon voluntarily broke with their expressionist and surrealist past when they converted to Nazism or Communism. Loyalty to the party line was insufficient. It did not help Gottfried Benn that he declared his loyalty to Nazism in 1933, and Emil Nolde gained no advantage from being a member of the Nazi Party long before 1933, since both remained loyal to their previous work.

The mere expression of loyalty to Communism and Stalin did not help the Russian formalists either–they were forced to practice “Socialist Realism.”46 There had to be only one way to redemption; as a result of that, the avant-garde had to be eradicated.47

Merely the Appearance of Redemption

The organization of the new life practice in aesthetic garb by fascism and Stalinism, in the ritual self-portrayals of the “new community” of the collective and in celebrations of the cult of personality, offered only the semblance of redemption, as I said, and realized the intentions of the avant-garde only in a formal way.

The fact that the unification of art and life was realized only on the surface also explains why the forms developed by fascism and Stalinism could resemble each other, despite considerable ideological differences. Of course, the apocalyptic project, of creating a new reality through the merging of art and life, can produce nothing but the semblance of redemption. To that extent the fascist and Stalinist endeavors presented the historical aporia of the avant-garde at its baldest.

Gottfried Benn was not disappointed by Nazism because it would not have fulfilled his expectations of a new “ritual.” His disillusionment followed the discovery that ritual only feigned the semblance of a new reality and that there was no substance behind this semblance. He now discovered with a critical eye the apocalyptic character of Nazi redemptive ritual and condemned this undertaking–against the principles of his own “artist’s gospel”–on moral grounds:

First they behave themselves like pigs, then they wish to be redeemed, by one ‘higher’ power or another that forgives them their stupid and stubborn vacillations. They never get to maintaining themselves in [a state of ] order through any thought of inner training, by adapting to a moral principle or standards of reason, or to bring themselves into form again; they have their ‘impulses,’ which is Faust-like–and then they want to be redeemed.48

The Apocalyptic Pursuit of the Perfect Society

Peter Bürger identified failure as the historical result of the avant-garde movements: “The dissolution of autonomous art in the sense of a transformation of art into life practice . . . has not taken place and cannot take place within bourgeois society except in the form of the false dissolution of autonomous art.” That there is such a false dissolution he saw attested through trivial literature and commercial design; the aestheticization of life practice through fascism and Stalinism would have provided him even better examples.

Still, was the intended dissolution of the avant-gardists really a “proper” one, which unfortunately happened to fail? Bürger himself probably sensed that something was wrong with his distinction between proper and false dissolution of art into life practice–the final sentence of his summary of the historical findings betrays this:

On the basis of the experience of a false dissolution of autonomy one would have to ask whether a dissolution of the autonomous status can be desirable at all, and if it is not the distance of art to life practice that guarantees freedom to develop alternative concepts.49

This seems to me an important but all too timidly formulated thought that even circumvents the central problem. Whether there is true or false dissolution of art is in any event not the question; instead, one should ask whether apocalyptic intentions are pursued, namely, intentions of destroying the previous reality in order to create a new and perfect one.

Such intentions are condemned to failure because they are apocalyptic. No shape could be given to the new reality and the new man in art that would not have been abstract or boring; so much the less could redemption succeed through art in life practice.

In fact, art requires freedom, in order to develop alternatives to what exists, but it has the chance to enrich and to improve “life practice” only if the alternative to the status quo is not apocalyptic dreams.



1.  Hiller, “Philosophie des Ziels,” 211, 192.

2. Ibid., 201.

3.  See Paul Pörtner, ed., Literaturrevolution 1910-1925: Dokumente, Manifeste, Programme, 2 vols. (Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1960-1961).

4. Hiller, “Philosophie des Ziels,” 193.

5.  Peter Bürger, Theorie der Avantgarde (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1974), 66- 67; see also W. Martin Lüdke, ed., “Theorie der Avantgarde” : Antworten auf Peter Bürgers Bestimmung von Kunst und bürgerlicher Gesellschaft (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1976), particularly the contribution by Burkhardt Lindner, “Aufhebung der Kunst in Lebenspraxis?”’ 72-104.

6.  Bürger, Theorie der Avantgarde, 29.

7.  Wilhelm Michel, “Tathafte Form,” in Die Erhebung, ed. Alfred Wolfenstein, 2:348.

8.  See p. 191 in this book.

9.  Hiller, “Philosophie des Ziels,” 210.

10.  Pinthus, “Rede für die Zukunft,” in Die Erhebung, ed. Wolfenstein, 1:411, 413, 416, 418.

11.  Alfred Wolfenstein, “Der menschliche Kämpfer,” in Die Erhebung, 283.

12. Michel, “Tathafte Form,” 351-52.

13. Cited in Karl Riha, ed., Dada Berlin: Texte, Manifeste, Aktionen (Stuttgart: Reclam, p, 22-23.

14. Cited in Ernst Teubner, ed.,Hugo Ball (1886-1986): Leben und Werk (exhibition catalog) (Berlin: Publica, 1986), 116.

15.See ibid., 115-18; Kurt Hiller also spoke at this memorial service.

16. Hugo Ball, Die Flucht aus der Zeit (Lucerne: Stocker, 1946), 92.

17. Cited in Karl Riha, ed.,113 Dada Gedichte (Berlin: Wagenbach, 1982), 33.

18. Leonhard Frank, Links wo das Herz ist (Munich: Nymphenburger Verlagshandlung, 1967), 13-14.

19. Cited in Teubner, Hugo Ball, 24.

20. Ball, Die Flucht aus der Zeit.78, 92. The verdict that the Zurich dadaists, in contrast to the Berlin dadaists after 1918, were unworldly and unpolitical cannot be maintained. See also Rudolf E. Kuenzli, “Dada gegen den Ersten Weltkrieg: Die Dadaisten in Zürich,” in Sinn aus Unsinn: Dada International, ed. Wolfgang Paulsen and Helmut G. Hermann, 87-100.

21. Ball, Die Flucht aus der Zeit, 91.

22. Cited in Riha, Dada Berlin, 17.

23. Peter Sloterdijk, Kritik der zynischen Vernunft, 2:713, 715.

24. Jünger, Der Arbeiter (1932), 197, 201; see also 228.

25. Cited in Riha, Dada Berlin, 23, 40.

26. See p. 234 in this book.

27.Raoul Hausmann, “Der deutsche Spießer ärgert sich,” cited in Riha, Dada Berlin, 68, 69, 18-19.

28. Ibid., 25; Sloterdijk, Kritik der zynischen Vernunft, 2:717; Huelsenbeck, “Erste Dadarede in Deutschland,” cited in Riha, Dada Berlin, 19.

29. The dadaists, despite borrowings and commonalties, soon distanced themselves from futurism; see Richard Sheppard, “Dada und Futurismus,” in Sinn aus Unsinn, ed. Paulsen and Hermann, 29-70.

30. Maurice Nadeau, The History of Surrealism (New York: Collie Books, 1967), 18 (introduction by Roger Shattuck), also 175-82; see also Robert S. Short, “The Politics of Surrealism, 1920-1936,” in The Left Wing Intellectuals between the Wars, 1919-1939, ed. Walter Laqueur and George L. Mosse, Journal of Contemporary History 2 (1966): 3-25.

31.  Pinthus, Menschheitsdämmerung, introduction, 27.

32. Gottfried Benn, “Expressionismus” (1933), in Gesammelte Werke in vier Bänden, ed. Dieter Wellershoff (Wiesbaden: Limes-Verlag, 1959-1961), 1:243.

33. Gottfried Benn, “Die neue literarische Saison” (radio presentation given on August1931), in Gesammelte Werke,1:426.

34. Gottfried Benn, “Der neue Staat und die Intellektuellen” (radio speech given on April 24, 1933), in Gesammelte Werke, 1:444.

35. Gottfried Benn, “Rede auf Marinetti” (speech given on March 29, 1934), in Gesammelte Werke, 1:481.

36. Benn, “Expressionismus,” in Gesammelte Werke, 1:252, 255.

37. Gottfried Benn, “Antwort an die literarische Emigration,” Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, May 25, 1933, 2.

38. Nadeau, The History of Surrealism, 215; see also 183-90.

39. Walter Benjamin, “Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzier­barkeit,” in Illuminationen: Ausgewählte Schriften (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1961), 175.

40. C. Rainer Stollmann, “Faschistische Politik als Gesamtkunstwerk: Tendenzen zur Ästhetisierung des politischen Lebens im Nationalsozialismus,” in Die deutsche Literatur im Dritten Reich, ed. Horst Denkler and Karl Prümm (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1976); Ralf Schnell, ed., Kunst und Kultur im deutschen Faschismus (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1978). For a discussion of the points of contact between fascism and avant-garde trends, see Reinhold Grimm and Jost Hermand, eds., Faschismus und Avantgarde.

41.Benjamin, “Das Kunstwerk,” in Illuminationen, 176.

42. Examples can be found in Albrecht Schöne, Über politische Lyrik im 20. Jahrhundert: Mit einem Textanhang (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1969); see also Alexander von Bormann, “Politische Dichtung der Weimarer Republik,” in Geschichte der politischen Lyrik in Deutschland, ed. Walter Hinderer (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1978).p

43. See Martin Damus, Sozialistischer Realismus und Kunst im Nationalsozialismus (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1981).

44. I do not share the view of Boris Groys that the art of “Socialist Realism” continued and concluded the avant-garde project, but I do find convincing his interpretation that Stalinist politics included an “aesthetic project” that resulted in the “transfer of the avant-garde impulse from the sphere of artistic form to the sphere of direct reality” (“Kunstwerk Stalin: Zur Ästhetik des Sozialistischen Realismus,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, March 21,1987).

If–in the sense of Bürger’s concept of avant-garde–the designation “formalism” is used for the Russian avant-garde that describes various schools and movements in our context of discussion, Russian cubism and futurism, “proletkul’t” and “lef” are primarily in view, less formalistic literary theory and linguistics; see Victor Ehrlich, Russischer Formalismus (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1973 ), 46-57; and Aage A. Hansen-Löve, Der russische Formalismus (Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1978), 478-509.

In any event, fascism and Stalinism formally realized the intentions of the avant-garde. For this reason, because the avant-garde appeared as competition in the apocalyptic undertaking of the unification of art and life in a new life practice, it had to give way to the politically initiated project of redemption. Art should again become art in the traditional sense and was forced into a subservient, propagandistic role, be it in the form of “national” or “Socialist Realism.” Writers such as Johst, Becher, and Aragon voluntarily broke with their expressionist and surrealist past when they converted to Nazism or Communism. Loyalty to the party line was insufficient. It did not help Gottfried Benn that he declared his loyalty to Nazism in 1933, and Emil Nolde gained no advantage from being a member of the Nazi Party long before 1933, since both remained loyal to their previous work. The mere expression of loyalty to Communism and Stalin did not help the Russian formalists either–they were forced to practice “Socialist Realism.” There had to be only one way to redemption; as a result of that, the avant-garde had to be eradicated.

45. Martin Damus traces the similarity of National Socialist art with that of Socialist Realism back to the fact that in both political systems art was placed in the service of the state and that similar forms of government produced comparable artistic func­tions and manifestations of art (Sozialistischer Realismus und Kunst im Nationalsozialismus, 7-13).

46. At the First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934 “Socialist Realism” was finally declared the sole and obligatory mode of artistic expression; see Hans-Jürgen Schmitt and Godehard Schramm, eds., Sozialistische Realismuskonzeptionen: Dokumente zum I. Allunionskongreß der Sowjetschriftsteller (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1974); and Jochen-Ulrich Peters, Kunst als organisierte Erfahrung: Uber den Zusammenhang von Kunsttheorie, Literaturkritik und Kulturpolitik bei A. V. Lunacarskij (Munich: Fink, 1980), 190-96. On the concept of “formalism,” see note 44.

47. Only futurists enjoyed a certain “fool’s freedom” in Fascist Italy, but they were deprived of power by Mussolini. On the other hand, in 1929 Marinetti accepted member­ship in the same “Accademia d’ltalia” that he had once wished to burn down, which– in the view of Piero Aragno–“amounted to the end of a movement that had begun with the wildest proclamations imaginable” (“Futurismus und Faschismus: Die italienische Avantgarde und die Revolution,” in Faschismus und Avantgarde, ed. Grimm and Hermand, 86).

48. Gottfried Benn, “Zum Thema Geschichte” (written ca. 1943), in Gesammelte Werke,1:376.

49. Bürger, Theorie der Avantgarde, 72-73.


This excerpt is from The Apocalypse in Germany (University of Missouri Press, 2001). This is published in two parts with part one available here; also our review of the book is here.

Klaus Vondung

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Klaus Vondung is Emeritus Professor at the University of Siegen in Germany. He is author and editor of several books, with the latest being Deutsche Wege zur Erlösung (Wilhelm Fink Verlag 2013).