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Hope or Menace?
Communism in Germany Between the World Wars

March 25, 2008 to June 13, 2008

In the years between the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II in November 1918 and Adolf Hitler's ascension to power in January 1933, Germany became a battleground for the most volatile ideologies of the twentieth century. The Social Democratic Party (SPD), which before World War I had been the largest socialist party in Europe, only reluctantly endorsed the Kaiser's abdication and the resultant establishment of Germany's first democratic republic, based in the city of Weimar. Friedrich Ebert, the SPD leader who became the Weimar Republic's first president, was soon accused of betraying socialism because of his alliances with the military/industrial establishment. The German Left fragmented, its most radical members pushing for soviet-style Communism. The threat of Communism, in turn, galvanized the Right. Old-line aristocrats and militarists joined with toxic nationalists, anti-Semites, the frightened bourgeoisie and a growing mass of the unemployed to back Hitler's National Socialist Party. As tensions mounted in the early 1930s, the Communist Party was both the last bulwark against fascism and a cause of its success.

In this turbulent atmosphere, the aesthetic experiments of the prewar Expressionists seemed narcissistically self-indulgent. However, the revolutionary instincts of the Expressionist generation, their disdain for the bourgeoisie and their desire to create new art forms for the modern age, were readily turned to political use by the postwar avant-garde. The majority of these artists backed some form of socialism. The World War had fueled international opposition to capitalism, creating feelings of class solidarity among soldiers who believed they had been sacrificed for the benefit of a safely sequestered ruling class. Harsh conditions on the home front--food shortages, poverty, unemployment, inflation--furthered this sense of class solidarity during and after the war. Artists, such as George Grosz and John Heartfield, who had served in the army were primed to make common cause with the working class. Older artists like Käthe Kollwitz, who had long bemoaned the plight of the poor, welcomed the dawn of a new era. Reflecting optimistically on the Russian revolution of 1917, Kollwitz saw "a hope that from now on people's political development will not be determined only by power, but also by justice."

The early Weimar era was the only period in the history of modern art in which most leading members of the avant-garde sought to engage directly with the broader community. They documented contemporary society in furtherance of a pointed political agenda, believing that the act of bearing witness would inspire constructive change. To this end, they sought to circumvent the conventional means of making and distributing art. Painting was far too bourgeois, too precious, too viscerally marked by the artist's ego. Printmaking, photography and photomechanical reproduction all offered the possibility of reaching a large and ostensibly proletarian audience with inexpensive multiples. The newer techniques, such as photo-montage, also had the advantage of minimizing any traces of the artist's personal touch.

Grosz, Heartfield and Heartfield's brother Wieland Herzfelde, who had met during the war, exploited the latest in typography and graphic design in their collaborative publishing ventures. Their wartime protest magazine Neue Jugend (New Youth) spawned the Malik Verlag in 1917, which in turn published a number of portfolios featuring lithographic reproductions of Grosz's drawings, as well as satirical tabloids such as Jedermann sein eigener Fussball (Everyman His Own Soccer Ball) and Die Pleite (Bankruptcy). Artists' desire to further a leftwing agenda did not escape the notice of actual politicians, who used modern graphics to bring their message to the masses. Kollwitz, Grosz and Heartfield were joined by a retinue of other, often anonymous or pseudonymous, artists who created posters and broadsheets for a variety of causes.

Following the 1918 German revolution, the nation effloresced with a multitude of new artistic and political groups. The Novembergruppe (November Group) and Arbeitsrat für Kunst (Work Council for Art), both in Berlin, and the Dresdner Sezession--Gruppe 19 (Dresden Secession Group 19), in Dresden, were formed to give cultural workers a voice, alongside the more overtly proletarian Workers' and Soldiers' Councils, in shaping the nascent regime's policies. The future direction of the republic would be determined by whether the proletarian councils--fashioned along the lines of Russian soviets--would be allowed to assume direct control of the government. The SPD favored democratic elections with universal suffrage, while the more radical Spartacists believed that "proletarian democracy" was required to wrest control of the nation from the bourgeoisie. To signal their complete break with the SPD, the Spartacists on December 31, 1918, rechristened themselves the Communist Party (KPD). Grosz, Heartfield and Herzfelde were among the first to sign up.

Like their comrades in Russia, the German Communists had difficulty getting Marxist ideology to conform to reality, and vice versa. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had published The Communist Manifesto in 1848, in response to the harsh inequities produced by early nineteenth-century industrialization. Communism, an organic reaction against those inequities, was supposed to follow capitalist industrialization. Communism was not supposed to take root in a backward, largely agrarian country like Russia. Lenin and his Bolshevik supporters worried that their revolution would fail unless it was succeeded and bolstered by revolutions in more industrialized nations, and so they placed great hope in the German Communist Party. However, it turned out that most German workers supported the SPD. The KPD was therefore divided between those who wanted to work within the electoral system and those who wanted to stage an immediate putsch. In January 1919, a poorly organized Communist uprising was brutally suppressed by the Freikorps, a rightwing paramilitary organization brought in by the government. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the leaders of the KPD, were arrested and murdered.

At the request of Liebknecht's family, Kollwitz sketched the slain leader, a martyr not just to the Communist cause but to the idealistic hopes of the Weimar Republic. As she gradually reworked these sketches over the next two years--first as drawings, then as an etching, then a lithograph and finally a woodcut--the focus shifted from Liebknecht himself to the surrounding crowd of mourners. In the final images, the inert corpse is anything but heroic; the woodcut is a memorial to the bereft public and a statement about the futility of violence. Because Kollwitz was not a Communist, the Party objected to the print, which was sold to establish a fund for indigent workers and artists. "I am no revolutionary, but an evolutionary," Kollwitz explained. "If I were young now, I would certainly be a Communist. . . But I am in my fifties. I have lived through the war and seen . . . thousands of youths die. I am horrified and shattered by all the hate in the world. I long for a socialism that would let people live, and believe that the world has seen enough of murder, lies, destruction, perversion, in short, enough of evil. A Communist regime built on such things cannot be God's work."

Attempts to establish Communist regimes aligned with the Moscow government failed, not just in Germany, but also in Hungary and Austria. Weakened by several years of civil war, the Russian Soviets needed to postpone their plans for worldwide revolution and to establish order at home. In 1921, Lenin asked Willi Münzenberg, a self-styled "professional revolutionary," to set up a German organization to solicit Russian famine relief. The Internationale Arbeiter-Hilfe (International Workers' Aid, or IAH) anticipated the sort of broad-based approach that came to characterize Soviet propaganda in the mid 1920s. Directed from Moscow rather than by the KPD, the IAH continued to fund-raise and to organize cultural events long after the famine was over. The idea--formalized as the "United Front" in 1922--was to encourage support for Communist issues from unaffiliated workers and intellectuals. "Fronts" like the IAH prided themselves on the participation of famous non-Communists, such as Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw and Kollwitz. "Friendship societies" were created abroad to foster sympathetic interest in the Soviet Union. Cultural exchanges--like a 1922 exhibition of Russian art in Berlin and a 1924 show of German art in Moscow--followed.

The campaign to win hearts and minds for the Communist cause naturally seeded a new crop of publications and artists' organizations. Some, like the satirical magazine Der Knüppel (The Cudgel, edited by Grosz and Heartfield between 1923 and 1927) had open ties to the KPD. Others, like theArbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung (Workers' Illustrated Newspaper, or AIZ, started by Münzenberg in 1925) did not. The Rote Gruppe (Red Group), of which Grosz was chair and Heartfield secretary, represented leftwing artists and coordinated contributions to the 1924 Moscow exhibition. It was supplanted in 1928 by the Assoziation Revolutionärer Bildender Künstler Deutschlands (Association of Revolutionary German Artists, or ARBKD), often referred to as the ASSO (for Assoziation). Co-founded by Heartfield, the ARBKD was sister to a like-named artists' organization in Moscow. Its mission, mirroring a renewed aggressiveness in Soviet policy, was to "support class war" through the style and content of its members' work.

A zany, almost lighthearted sensibility had distinguished Grosz's and Heartfield's collaborations in the 'teens and early 1920s, when both had been leaders of the iconoclastic Dada movement. Caricature and social commentary were still Grosz's forte, but the exigencies of propaganda demanded a more purposeful, constructive attitude. Grosz was criticized for his negativity, which the Russians considered a reflection of the "sick state of German society," of problems that had (so they claimed) long since vanished in the Soviet Union. However Grosz, who traveled to Russia in 1922, knew the truth. He saw that already the privileges of power were beginning to establish differences in the living standards of Party officials and the average worker. He saw a great artist, Vladimir Tatlin, sharing a squalid apartment with chickens. While Grosz did not expect or demand that utopia should follow immediately on the heels of revolution, he faulted the Soviets for pretending otherwise. Grosz remained loyal to the attempt to realize the Communist dream in Russia and to the cause of social justice at home, but he was constitutionally incapable of lying.

Unlike Grosz, Heartfield continued to enthusiastically champion the Soviets, and his style was somewhat better suited to this purpose. Heartfield was one of the inventors of photomontage, a melding of photography and Cubist collage that proved among the most versatile of the new techniques developed after the First World War. By the late 1920s, with the addition of type, photomontage had become the mainstay of Heartfield's book, magazine and poster designs, as well as a trend in commercial advertising. The AIZ, for which Heartfield designed over 230 photomontages between 1930 and 1938, was one of many popular illustrated magazines that recognized the power of photographs, accompanied by a few well-chosen words, to seduce and convince. Russian artists, searching for the perfect proletarian style, hit upon something they called "polygraphy": a graphic combination of photography and typography. Whereas Heartfield relied on humor and satire like a traditional political cartoonist, the Russians used photomontage more bluntly, to craft grand tributes to Soviet achievement. When he visited the USSR in 1931-32, Heartfield was on the whole well-received by the "polygraphers," though there was some grumbling about whether he or the Russian Gustav Klutsis deserved credit for inventing photomontage. More rigid ideologues, however, pointed to Heartfield's roots in the "decadent" Dada movement and to the obvious similarities between photomontage and bourgeois advertising. As cultural policies hardened under Stalin in the 1930s, the Soviet revolutionaries would increasingly endorse socialist realism--ironically promoting the most retrograde artistic style as the only valid one.

Through the various ups-and-downs and policy shifts that had taken place in the USSR during the 1920s, the Communists had never abandoned hopes of establishing a kindred regime in Germany. The international depression triggered by the American stock-market crash of 1929 seemed to prove Marx's theory that capitalism was destined to self-destruct. At the same time, dire economic conditions--massive unemployment and the curtailment of foreign credit--strengthened the appeal of the Nazi Party.

The early 1930s were punctuated by increasingly severe clashes between the Communists and the Nazis, neither of which had faith in the ability of the elected government to solve Germany's problems. In the 1930 parliamentary elections, both the Nazis and the Communists made enormous gains at the expense of the SPD. The 1932 elections affirmed this trend, and subsequently the politics of proportional representation sealed Germany's fate. The KPD would not countenance a coalition with the SPD, but Hitler was able to obtain the backing of the rightwing National Party and to assume the chancellorship on January 30, 1933.

The fight against fascism now became a cornerstone of Soviet foreign policy, which advocated a "Popular Front" uniting leftwing factions abroad. Heartfield was among those who feared that Nazi Germany would attempt to "save" capitalism by fomenting war, much as had been the case in 1914. He put his abiding faith in the USSR as a bastion of peace and freedom against militaristic totalitarianism. After escaping the SS by jumping from the balcony of his apartment, Heartfield fled to Prague, where he continued to produce photomontages for the AIZ (renamed the Volks-Illustrierte, People's Illustrated, in 1936). When the Nazis began closing in on Prague in 1938, he moved to England. Back in Germany, Hitler quickly shut down all obvious sources of dissident art. The ASSO was dissolved. Avant-garde artists were forbidden to exhibit, and their work was removed from museums. Kollwitz, the first female professor at the Prussian Academy of Art, was stripped of her title and studio. Grosz, who saw the writing on the wall, had accepted a teaching assignment in New York in 1932.

One of the only artists who continued to produce anti-fascist art in Hitler?s Germany was Lea Langer Grundig, a young printmaker who operated in such obscurity that she was, for a time, able to escape notice. Born into a bourgeois Jewish family, she was introduced to radical politics by her future husband, the painter Hans Grundig. In 1926 the couple joined the KPD and in 1928, the same year that they married, the Dresden ASSO chapter. Ironically, it was only after 1933 that Lea came into her own artistically. Hans had somehow acquired an etching press, which she used to create four series of prints documenting conditions in Nazi Germany: Woman's Life, Under the Swastika, The Jew is to Blame and War Threatens! Produced between 1933 and 1937, Grundig's etching cycles gradually take a more polemical approach in their opposition to Hitler. The earlier works, such as the Woman's series, offer blunt social commentary that, while tinged with an intimate feeling for human relationships, can be as harsh as anything penned by Grosz. Some of the strongest works are those in which this sort of acute contextual observation is combined with didactic symbolism. Seen as a group, the prints were both a palpable contradiction of Nazi propaganda and a visceral warning of worse to come. Grundig risked her life to circulate them. In 1938, both she and her husband were arrested. Lea was given permission to emigrate to Palestine, and Hans was sent to a concentration camp.

The Grundigs survived World War II and were reunited in Dresden in 1949. However Hans, riddled with tuberculosis, was a shadow of his former self, and Lea found that the Communist authorities disapproved of her work's "ugliness." Heartfield, too, was viewed with suspicion upon returning to East Germany after the war, both because of his stay in England and because of his ties to Willi Münzenberg, who broke with Stalin over the 1939 Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact. Only after Stalin's death did the climate ease enough for Heartfield and Grundig to be elected to the Academy, in 1956 and 1961 respectively. Grosz, for his part, failed to find happiness in America. His disillusionment with Communism morphed into a more generalized misanthropy, but no matter how shrilly he voiced his complaints, he could not rouse the Americans from their comfortable torpor. Grosz returned to Germany in 1959 and died almost immediately thereafter from a drunken fall. Kollwitz had succumbed to old age in 1945, just a few weeks before the armistice.

Marx believed that in a true Communist society, complete equality would prevail, and everyone would be free to develop to his or her fullest capacities. The realities of Soviet Communism, of course, belied this utopian fantasy. Nevertheless, some of Marx's observations about capitalism were accurate. Capitalism can be enormously destructive. In creating new markets, products and jobs, it annihilates the old; capitalism is inherently unstable, thriving on chaos and change. And insofar as capitalists calculate success in purely monetary terms, they are oblivious to human well-being, values and the environment. The Great Depression was widely taken as a call to balance capitalism's destructive excesses. The New Deal in the U.S. before World War II, and Social Democratic legislation in Europe thereafter, were attempts to temper the harshness inherent in the capitalist system. Today, free-market capitalism is generally considered inseparable from democracy. We are only beginning to recognize that free-market capitalism eventually fosters inequality, and inequality eventually kills democracy. Marx grasped this paradox, but he was no more capable than we are of resolving it.

We would like to convey our warmest thanks to Merrill C. Berman and Richard Simms, whose generous cooperation made this exhibition possible. Checklist entries include catalogue raisonné numbers, where applicable. Unless otherwise indicated, image dimensions are given for the prints and full dimensions for all other works, including the posters.