The art school’s brief run in Germany shows not a simple dichotomy, but rather how, to varying degrees of bravery, individuals tried to survive under tyranny.
“Together let us call for, devise, and create the construction of the future, comprising everything in one form: architecture, sculpture and painting,” Walter Gropius declared in the Bauhaus Manifesto of 1919.
There are few symbols of Modernist design and architecture more iconic that his Bauhaus building in Dessau. And the structure did become that future; the epicenter of a design approach, style, and philosophy that permeates so much of the present. And yet, for many years, the building was derelict. The future Gropius had dreamed of seemed to have bitterly failed when the school had been closed by the Nazis in 1932, and turned into a bombed-out husk by 1945.
There is certainly truth in the tale of the Bauhaus’s dissolution and restoration as an example of the forces of good succumbing to, but eventually overcoming, the forces of evil. There are many Bauhaus tales though, and they show not a simple Bauhaus-versus-the-Nazis dichotomy but rather how, to varying degrees of bravery and caprice, individuals try to survive in the face of tyranny.
From the beginning, the German Right had its sights on Gropius and the Bauhaus. Born in the revolutionary year of 1919, with a manifesto emblazoned with an incandescent “cathedral of Socialism,” the Bauhaus appeared to be the breeding ground of radicals. It had been state-funded by a left-wing government. Its teachers were mysterious avant-garde artists from abroad. Some, like Kandinsky, had histories of working with Bolshevik organizations in the Soviet Union (even if the artist had grown tired of Soviet authoritarianism). Its visionary leader Walter Gropius was left-leaning, internationalist, and utopian in a practical sense; he would even design the lightning-bolt “Monument to the March Dead” (1922) in memory of workers killed putting down the right-wing Kapp Putsch.
Yet he was also a German war hero who had somehow survived numerous shattering experiences on the front. And although he was a member of organizations with radical tendencies such as the Novembergruppe and Arbeitsrat für Kunst, Gropius was typically a moderating influence, preferring to achieve his socially conscious progressivism through design rather than politics; creating housing for workers and safe, clean workplaces filled with light and air (like the Fagus Factory) rather than agitating for them. Indeed, artists would be workers and vice versa. “Let us create a new guild of craftsmen, without the class distinctions that raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist,” he encouraged. In the Crystal Chain series of letters, Gropius went under the pseudonym Maß, meaning “balance,” a quality he pursued and which would be challenged as the Weimar Republic drifted into darkness. Gropius’s aim was to introduce soul into the age of the machine. The Nazis’ was to introduce the machine into the soul.
Opposition to the Bauhaus began immediately in Weimar. In certain ways, it represented the traditional opposition between town and gown, only amplified. Locals railed against the strange, androgynous students, their foreign masters, their surreal parties, and the house band that played jazz and Slavic folk music. In the parochial environs, these were not just outsiders, but imposters defiling their precious formerly-traditionalist art academy. It became the focus of puritan disdain and jealousy with prurient rumors of cult-like behavior (especially with Johannes Itten’s pupils) and the adventurous sexuality of the Bauhäuslers, all funded by taxpayers. Newspapers and right-wing political parties cynically tapped into the opposition and fueled it, intensifying its anti-Semitism and emphasizing that the school was a cosmopolitan threat to supposed national purity. Eventually, they were hounded out of the city altogether.
It seems remarkable that the hugely influential design school was only open for 14 years, and yet it is equally remarkable that it lasted that long. This was almost entirely down to the skills and determination of Walter Gropius. Moving to Dessau, Gropius designed its iconic building and the Bauhaus briefly flourished, with alliances forged with left-of-center parties and forward-thinking industrialists like the aviation innovator Hugo Junkers. Yet the right in Germany smelled blood and continued to pursue them. The papers continued with attacks on the “oriental palace” and “synagogue” of the Bauhaus filled, as they claimed, with “Bolshevists” and “cultural Marxists.” The political parties, increasingly the Nazis, came after them with accusations of communist infiltration and financial irregularities, calling on their funding to be cut, their teachers to be deported, and the building to be demolished. Pupils were subjected to searches by the authorities, looking for evidence of sedition.
Satirized in the press and threatened in real life, Gropius worked tirelessly to keep the school alive. Much of this required preventing ammunition being given to its many enemies. He requested that students not be seen at political marches or protests. He gathered up leaflets by Oskar Schlemmer that had emphasized the Bauhaus’s radical origins as a “rallying point for all those who, with faith in the future and willingness to storm the heavens, wish to build the cathedral of socialism.” Eventually, Gropius sacrificed his own position to save the school, stepping down and into the shadows but retained enough authority to have his successor Hannes Meyer removed when it became evident that he was allowing communist elements to thrive in the student populace.
As the region came under Nazi dominance, the Bauhaus was forced out of Dessau, taking refuge, after offers from Leipzig and Magdeburg, as a private school in Berlin under the guidance of its final director Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Though a supreme architect, Mies was a poor fit, being distracted and aloof, and the Bauhaus was no longer the institution it had once been. As the Nazis intensified their pressure, Mies attempted to placate them, sacking the textile master Gunta Stölzl, for instance, but efforts were futile. The Gestapo sealed off the building and after trying to negotiate with future war criminal Alfred Rosenberg, who insisted on the removal of Jewish and foreign teachers and a Nazi control of the syllabus, Mies shut the Bauhaus.
Ultimately, the Bauhaus survived because it left the building. The Bauhäuslers were scattered all around the world in exile. Germany’s loss was as numerous as other countries’ gain as teachers and students took the design ethic with them, to places like Tel Aviv, Chicago, Detroit, Tokyo, and Amsterdam—through architecture, art, and industrial design.
In this centenary year, there’s a temptation to celebrate the long-term victory of the Bauhaus in outliving the Nazis and creating the future. Their attempts to erase its existence, destroying Schlemmer’s staircase mural in the Weimar Bauhaus building and demolishing Gropius’s “Monument to the March Dead,” failed. Yet this was not a singular tale. The Bauhaus was many things, and the fates of the Bauhäuslers were myriad. Established as a professor in Harvard, Walter Gropius worked with immense generosity through his list of contacts, offering jobs to fellow exiles from the school, helping them obtain life-saving visas, and even accommodating them in his home until they found their footing. In one unsuccessful case, Gropius tried petitioning no less than the Pope in order to have the Polish architect Syrkus Szymon released from Auschwitz. Szymon would end up designing greenhouses for an agriculture section of the camp under orders from the SS, Adolf Hitler’s paramilitary organization.
Many of those who remained in Germany, like Georg Muche and Gerhard Marcks, had to enter an internal exile, sacked from teaching positions due to their Bauhaus past, forbidden from painting, and labelled “degenerate artists.” Some like the painter Heinrich Brocksieper and the designer Wilhelm Wagenfeld underwent such treatment and were then conscripted into the German army. Hugo Junkers, the left-wing pacifist aviation boss and benefactor of the Bauhaus, was placed under house arrest for resisting a Nazi takeover and died a broken man shortly thereafter.
Some narrowly made it out. The Hamburg-born and German-Jewish artist Margret Rey fled Paris as it fell to the Nazis on a bicycle built by her husband from a tandem. They cycled to Spain to make their escape, all the time with their manuscript of Curious George in their luggage. Having made it to England, the Jewish Bauhaus alumnus Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack was promptly deported to Australia as a suspect enemy citizen where he lived in a series of internment camps. Sacked for having a Jewish background, the master potter Marguerite Friedlaender escaped to New York, but her husband and fellow Bauhäusler Frans Wildenhain ended up being forced into the German army before going AWOL and surviving the war in hiding.
Resistance came in different forms, often utilizing Bauhaus-honed skills. Photographer Irena Blühová published underground journals in occupied Czechoslovakia, while Moses Bahelfer forged counterfeit papers for the French Resistance. Will Burtin created manuals for the Allied Air Force during World War II. Bruno Adler broadcast anti-Nazi propaganda into the Third Reich via the BBC World Service. Others found a way to carry on, for a time. The creator of the iconic wooden-ship children’s blocks, Alma Siedhoff-Buscher, began to teach kids using forbidden Bauhaus methods until an Allied plane returning from a bombing raid randomly unloaded the last of its cargo onto the building she was working in. Fate was cruel to some, such as the textile artist Otti Berger, who, having initially escaped to Britain, momentarily returned to Croatia to help her sick mother and was killed in the Holocaust. Perhaps the most haunting of all was the fate of the Bauhaus artist, designer, and teacher Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who rejected visas to escape, preferring to stay with her husband. They were both sent to Theresienstadt, where she set up a school for the traumatized children there, encouraging them to express their emotions through artwork. She saved thousands of these works in a pair of suitcases that survived the war and the Holocaust. She, and many if not all of the children who created them, would not.
A minority of Bauhäuslers left a compromised legacy, especially those who collaborated with or joined the Nazis, such as the architect Ernst Neufert and gestalt psychology teacher Karlfried Graf Dürckheim. Others were toyed with, sometimes willingly, such as Herbert Bayer whose initial accommodation with the regime could not last, given he had a Jewish wife and daughter. The troubling complexities of those who tried to survive the times reached its depths with the case of Franz Ehrlich. A communist activist and Bauhäusler, he was arrested by the Nazis and sent to Buchenwald concentration camp. While there, he survived due to his design experience, producing the gates to the camp emblazoned with the slogan Jedem das Seine (“To Each His Own”) rendered in Modernist lettering, either an act of subversion or a profound betrayal. It is a suggestion perhaps of a parallel world where the Bauhaus, following Gropius’s tentative attempts at mediation or Mies’s more enthusiastic efforts to strike an accord, aligned itself with the Third Reich. This would not occur and both went into exile, but their last attempts at commissions before leaving are unsettling reminders that history is contingent.
“Artists are fundamentally unpolitical and must be so, for their kingdom is not of this world,” Oskar Schlemmer declared. It was an approach that his boss Walter Gropius followed, too. In this both were mistaken, and much too utopian, for the real world is inescapable. Gropius was political, however, not in rhetoric or ideology, but in method and practice. He resigned from the Deutscher Werkbund when Jewish members were excluded. He stood up to Nazi thugs who threatened him in his home, declaring that they had no exclusivity on what being German meant. When the manager of his office turned up wearing a Nazi uniform, Gropius sacked him on the spot. This is not to say the “escape from politics” utopianism of Gropius is not an attractive prospect. The director noted that 90 percent of his time was wasted on dealing with intrigues and administration while only 10 percent went into creative work for the Bauhaus. It is worth wondering what was lost, considering what that 10 percent achieved, as well as what was lost by the cruel murders of the likes of Berger and Dicker-Brandeis and her children.
The spirit of the Bauhaus lives on, not just in style and ethos, but in the idea of designing a better future; not just useful and beautiful, but better for all. This task is as open and unaccomplished as ever. If the spirit of the Bauhaus is really still alive, its work has yet to be finished.