Austrian & German Expressionism

The Weimar Era in Germany

A Selective Chronology, 1916-1933


As Germany's military fortunes decline, many artists (as well as other citizens) who had initially supported the World War I grow disillusioned. The Berlin art dealer Paul Cassirer folds his pro-war journal Kriegszeit and founds the pacifistic Der Bildermann. The political periodicals Die Aktion (Action) and Zeit-Echo (Echo of the Times) become more overtly anti-militaristic, and the latter publication is eventually forced into exile in neutral Switzerland.


Switzerland serves as a refuge for the most radical thinkers of the day. Here the founders of the iconoclastic Dada group--among them Hans Arp, Hugo Ball, Richard Huelsenbeck and Tristan Tzara--meet for the first time. The Cabaret Voltaire becomes their forum for a kind of anti-art amalgam of poetry and performance.



Huelsenbeck returns to Berlin, where he joins forces with George Grosz and the brothers Wieland Herzfelde and John Heartfield. The latter three, all veterans of particularly demoralizing army experiences, have transformed a failed youth magazine, Neue Jugend (New Youth), into a vociferous anti-war enterprise. To evade government censors, the group establishes a secondary imprint, the Malik Verlag, which becomes their principal outlet after Neue Jugend is banned.


A series of revolutions in Russia bring the Bolsheviks to power by November; an armistice between Russia and Germany follows in December. Meanwhile, burgeoning discontent in Germany causes the Independent Socialists (USPD) to split from the pro-war Socialist Party (SPD).



On November 9, exactly a year and two days after the Bolshevik Revolution, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicates in Germany. As in Russia, the fall of the existing regime has been hastened by the privations and horrors of World War I. A general armistice in declared on November 11.


Many expect the German revolution to follow the Russian example, but the provisional government remains firmly in the hands of the centrist SPD. When a Soviet delegation is prevented from attending the government's first congress in December, the USPD walks out. Nevertheless, a number of artists harbor idealistic hopes for the new regime. Members of the recently founded Novembergruppe (November Group) create posters promoting the nation's first democratic elections, scheduled for January 19, 1919.



Believing that art can lead the masses to a better world and that the new socialist government is genuinely committed to preserving creative freedom, artists become increasingly politicized. To the extent that they are aware of events in Russia, the Germans are encouraged by the alliance of the Bolshevik regime with the avant-garde.


Both the Novembergruppe and the Arbeitsrat für Kunst (Working Council for Art) issue proclamations intended to shape future cultural policy. An alle Künstler! (To All Artists!), generally perceived as the manifesto of the Novembergruppe, is actually issued under the imprint of the Werbedienst (Publicity Office) of the provisional government. The Arbeitsrat, more oriented to the applied arts than the Novembergruppe, polls its members and publishes selected responses in the book Ja! Stimmen des Arbeitsrates für Kunst (Yes! Voices of the Working Council for Art).


In keeping with the Arbeitsrat's promulgation of building (der Bau) as the parent of all arts, the Weimar School of Applied Art is renamed the Bauhaus by its new director, Walter Gropius. Crafts--seen as leveling the class distinction between artist and artisan--are stressed in the school's program. The staff is dominated by Arbeitsrat members.


In the meantime, however, the rift between the middle-of-the-road socialists and the radical left has already become unbridgeable. The so-called Spartacist wing of the USPD reconstitutes itself as the German Communist Party (KPD) on January 1. A series of riots and strikes erupts and is brutally suppressed by the government in alliance with the right-wing paramilitary Freikorps. Many rebels are murdered outright or, like the Spartacist leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, under crudely veiled pretexts. The government's bond with the right is sealed by the relatively lenient treatment given the various assassins. By the time the newly elected German Constituent Assembly (dominated by the SPD and right-wing nationalists) holds its first meeting in Weimar in February, it is clear that corrupt capitalists and the entrenched military establishment have little to fear from the current regime.


In the light of these developments, the voice of the Berlin Dada group takes on a more strident tone. No longer content merely to deride bourgeois philistinism, Grosz, Herzfelde and Heartfield collaborate on a series of satirical and increasingly revolutionary journals, Jedermann sein eigener Fussball (Everyone is His Own Football) and Die Pleite (Bankruptcy). The Malik Verlag begins a program of forthright political-historical publishing.


Grosz and Heartfield, in keeping with the fluid aesthetic boundaries promulgated by Dada, also execute designs and even perform in local theaters and cabarets, often under the auspices of the impresario Max Reinhardt. Descrying individualism and subjectivity, many of this group--including as well Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann--specialize in photomontage, which effectively obliterates the hand of the creator.



The Nazi party is founded in February. The following month, an attempt by the Freikorps to seize control of the government is thwarted by a general strike. A Red Army forms in the Ruhr valley, but the communists are unable to turn the government's temporary disarray to their advantage.


Many artists, unwilling to back the radical KPD, have already begun to withdraw from overt political involvement. Those who remain active face increasing censorship from the government. In January, Die Pleite is suppressed. Its successor, Der Gegner (The Opposition), survives until September 1922. In June 1920, the Berlin Dada Fair is raided by the police for displaying a pig-faced figure in army uniform; Grosz and Herzfelde are subsequently brought to trial for insulting the military in a defamatory portfolio, Gott mit uns (God on Our Side).


Erwin Piscator opens the Proletarian Theater in Berlin. Grosz and Heartfield are frequent collaborators.



Despite the hostility between the SPD and the KPD, Germany retains cordial relations with Russia. Following a particularly disastrous Russian harvest, many rally behind the Internationale Arbeiterhilfe (International Workers Aid, or IAH), a relief organization that will, in years to come, serve as an ongoing cultural liaison between the two nations. Although the IAH is administered directly by the Soviet Commintern, it is also backed by artists, such as Käthe Kollwitz, who are not party members. Other active supporters of the IAH include Grosz, Piscator and the artist Otto Nagel, one of Kollwitz's eventual biographers.


The Arbeitsrat für Kunst disbands. Grosz, Hausmann, Höch and others withdraw from the Novembergruppe after it permits the Prussian Ministry of Culture to censor paintings by Otto Dix and Rudolf Schlichter. Though the Novembergruppe survives as an exhibiting society until the 1930s, it hereafter abandons all political pretensions.


In October, the USPD is absorbed by the KPD. The Deutschmark begins its inflationary tumble toward the end of the year.



Mussolini establishes a fascist government in Rome.


The IAH sponsors a major exhibition of Russian art in Berlin and also arranges for Grosz to spend five months in Russia. He returns somewhat less enthusiastic about the communist program.


In Germany, the art magazine Das Kunstblatt (The Art Sheet) has already identified a more naturalistic trend in the visual arts. The Bauhaus has similarly adopted a more pragmatic and less utopian stance. Wassily Kandinsky, alienated by the growing factionalism of the Russian avant-garde, moves back to Germany and joins the Bauhaus staff.



Left and right unite behind a common enemy after the French occupy the Ruhr Valley in response to Germany's failure to make war reparation payments. In November, attempted takeovers by both the communists and Adolf Hitler are thwarted. With the stabilization of the Mark, Germany finally seems poised for a return to order.


During this period, the Bauhaus has enjoyed a period of brief success, shifting its focus from traditional crafts to more practical technologies. One of its artists, Herbert Bayer, is commissioned to design currency for the local Thuringian government. However, following the failed communist uprising, the Thuringian assembly is taken over by a right-wing coalition, which gradually cuts off all support of the Bauhaus.


Heartfield edits a new satirical journal, Der Knüppel (The Cudgel) for the KPD. Grosz and Rudolf Schlichter, among others, provide illustrations and cartoons.


G. H Hartlaub, director of the Staatliche Kunsthalle Mannheim, begins soliciting works for a broad-based exhibition of realist art.



The death of Lenin ushers in a period of increased ideological rigidity in Russia. The KPD denounces the SPD as fascists.


A new Rote Gruppe (Red Group) of KPD artists includes Dix, Otto Griebel, Grosz, Heartfield, Nagel and Schlichter. Grosz and Herzfelde are again brought to trial, this time for publishing alleged obscenities in the portfolio Ecce Homo. In November, the IAH publishes the first issue of the Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung (Workers' Illustrated Newspaper, or AIZ), for which Heartfield will design many vivid covers.


The IAH also sponsors an exhibition of German art in Moscow and Leningrad. Russians critics berate the Germans for focusing so exclusively on the evils of capitalism (with seemingly undue emphasis on prostitution), rather than giving inspiration to the proletariat.


The Dawes Plan provides Germany with an international loan, enabling it to meet its war reparation payments and stabilize its economy, as well as making it more attractive to foreign investment.



Hindenburg is elected president. The Nazi SS (Schutz Staffel or Protection Brigade) is founded.


The Weimar Bauhaus, deprived of all government financial support, is forced to close. It reopens later that year in Dessau.


Hartlaub's realism exhibition, under the title "Die neue Sachlichkeit" (The New Objectivity), opens in Mannheim and subsequently travels to Dresden, Chemnitz, Erfurt, Dessau, Halle and Jena. The show, which gives its name to the era, is stylistically surprisingly diverse, comprising a combination of "magic realism," neoclassicism and Dadaesque caricature. Included are works by thirty-two artists, among them Max Beckmann, Dix, Grosz, Karl Hubbuch and Schlichter.


The "new objectivity" is visible also in the theater, where the social commentary of Bertolt Brecht has supplanted the more Expressionistic stance popular earlier in the decade.



The Rote Gruppe issues its last public statement. Grosz returns to the bourgeois art of painting and exhibits at the Flechtheim gallery in Berlin.



Der Knüppel ceases publication. Its successor, Eulenspiegel, fails to attract contributions from either Grosz or Schlichter.



Gropius resigns as director of the Bauhaus and is replaced by Hannes Meyer.


Grosz and Herzfelde are prosecuted for blasphemy in connection with the portfolio Hintergrund (Background), reproducing Grosz's drawings for a Piscator production of The Good Soldier Schweik.


The KPD founds a new artists' group, the German Revolutionary Artists' Association (ARBKD). Griebel and Lea and Hans Grundig are among the few artists of note who join. Even Dix and Grosz are at this point thoroughly disenchanted with political activism.



The Nazi Alfred Rosenberg founds the Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur (Militant League for German Culture) to "purify" the arts. The KPD, formally declaring its enmity to the SPD, forces an ideological split within the trade unions.


The stock market crash in the United States triggers an international financial crisis, causing Germany's loans to be called in.



Wilhelm Frick, the first Nazi to hold such a post, is named education minister in Thuringia and issues an "Ordinance Against Negro Culture" in April. Paul Schultze-Naumburg begins removing works of "degenerate" art from Weimar museums. Meyer is fired as director of the Bauhaus. Fritz Hampl is sentenced to three and a half years in jail for criticizing the Reichswehr (National Army) in the AIZ.


In the September elections, the Nazis gain 95 seats in the Reichstag (parliament), becoming second in strength only to the SPD. A state of emergency is declared on Christmas Day.



Heartfield and Piscator visit Russia.


A number of German banks collapse or cease making payments. In November, the Nazis win control of the Dessau town council.



In the presidential elections, Hitler runs a close second to Hindenburg, but the Nazis win most of the provincial elections, and also claim a majority in parliament.


The Bauhaus is officially dissolved by the Dessau town council. Grosz goes to New York to teach.



Hitler is named chancellor, and the SS and SA (Sturm Abteilungen or Stormtroopers) are officially sanctioned as "auxiliary police." Following a suspicious fire at the Reichstag in February, Hitler assumes dictatorial powers and the KPD is banned.


Purges of academies and museums begin, and the Nazis organize their first exhibition of "degenerate" art. Jewish firms are boycotted, and the Gestapo is established. In March, the Dachau concentration camp opens.