Some Members Of The Bauhaus Were Nazis – And One Designed The Auschwitz Crematoriums

If the day of Otti Berger’s death is not known, its place and cause are. In April 1944, Berger – part deaf, Jewish, a communist – was arrested in her home town of Zmajevac, in German-occupied Yugoslavia. On 29 May, she was put on a transport to Auschwitz. After that, nothing.

Of the eight Bauhaus students to die at Auschwitz – half the number murdered in other camps and ghettoes – Berger was the best known. With Anni Albers and Gunta Stölzl, she had revolutionised weaving, turning it from a craft into an art. She had come to Dessau – the iteration of the school most of us think of as the Bauhaus – in 1927, when she was 28. That same year, belatedly, the school had opened a department of architecture. A few months later, a young Austrian called Fritz Ertl signed up to study at it.

The Bauhaus was always small, its student numbers barely passing 200. It is likely that Berger and Ertl would have known each other, at least by sight. In 1944, the trajectories of their lives would cross again, if for a last time. Ertl, by then a Nazi party member and SS Untersturmführer, had designed what were marked on architectural plans as Badeanstaltenswimming baths – for Auschwitz. They were the crematoriums in which what remained of Otti Berger would be burned.

On trial … Bauhausler Fritz Ertl. Photograph: VGA

In December 1938, a show called Bauhaus 1919-1928 opened at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. It was curated by Herbert Bayer, its catalogue also written by him. Bayer, who designed the Bauhaus’ celebrated sans serif typeface, had been invited to America by MoMA’s director, Alfred Barr.

Bayer was the last of the school’s masters to arrive. Already there were two of its ex-directors, Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, the architect Marcel Breuer, weaver Albers, her artist husband Josef and László Moholy-Nagy. Berger had tried to join them, but only got as far as London. Finding her designs too radical for British tastes, and English incomprehensible to her deaf ears, she had gone home to Zmajevac the next year.

By then, it was clear what National Socialism was about. Bauhauslers had had first-hand experience of Nazi methods, their school being hounded out of Dessau in 1932 by the city’s new NSDAP government and finally closed under Gestapo pressure in Berlin the following year. Now, the MoMA show would define the Bauhaus as everything that Nazism was not: democratic where it was tyrannical, rational where it was obscurantist; high minded where it was brutish.

It was a partial view but it was the view that stuck. When Germany began to reconstruct its modern history after 1945, angels were needed to replace the recent legions of devils. The Bauhaus, in its American imagining, became a place of heroism, even martyrdom. Nazism was, by definition, something done to the school, not by it.

As a trio of exhibitions in Weimar this summer sets out to show, this was less than the truth. Eighty years after Berger’s murder, the city that was home to both Germany’s post-1918 government and the first of three Bauhauses has taken the courageous step of re-examining the school’s relationship to National Socialism. If Bayer’s story was told in black and white at MoMA, Weimar tells it in shades of grey.

Turning craft into art … one of Berger’s textile designs c1935. Photograph: Alamy

Over each exhibition – The Bauhaus As a Site of Political Contest; Removed – Confiscated – Assimilated; and Living in the Dictatorship – hangs the same question: what would we now think of the school had Mies van der Rohe not closed it in 1933? The Bauhaus’s early death meant it never had to deal with the dilemmas faced in the succeeding 12 years by the vast majority of its students who didn’t go into exile.

Ninety years after its end, the school remains defined by the clean lines of its designs – Breuer’s Wassily Chair, Marianne Brandt’s silver teapot – many of them still in production. The Bauhaus sold modernity as unfussy, democratic, mass-produced (although its products were always expensive). Bauhauslers were liberal, liberated, with a kooky taste for dressing-up parties. But what if it had struggled on until 1938, the year Bayer left for America?

Re-examined … the Bauhaus was hounded out of Weimar. Photograph: Peter Horree/Alamy

His case suggests an answer: the Nazis may have hated the Bauhaus, but they knew good design when they saw it. Commissioned by intermediaries, rather than directly by Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda, Bayer spent the years after Hitler came to power making advertising posters for Nazi campaigns. One, The Miracle of Life, sold the compulsory sterilisation of Erbkranken (“the feeble-minded”, a category that included epileptic, gay and congenitally deaf people) to the German population.

After the war, living in Aspen, Colorado, Bayer refused to discuss this time, referring to it only as his “advertising purgatory”. Was he a collaborator? There is nothing to suggest that he had National Socialist sympathies; his wife, daughter and many Berlin friends were Jews. And yet. If the show he curated at MoMA in 1938 had seen the relationship between the Bauhaus and Nazism as one of angels and devils, his own story suggested the need for a more nuanced view.

The same is true of most of the Bauhauslers, their names now largely forgotten, whose stories are told in the Weimar exhibitions. The photographer and communist Willi Jungmittag was one of only two Dessau students to be executed by the Nazis for political resistance. His entry in the shows’ catalogue begins not with his hanging in Brandenburg-Gorden prison in 1944 though, but with two photographs he had taken in the mid-1930s, of a little boy with a model aeroplane and a girl with a toy bear, Mädchen mit Teddy.

Both children are Teutonically blond, each fitting the gender stereotypes – boyish boys, girlish girls – promoted by National Socialism. The photos might have been meant as Nazi propaganda, although, given Jungmittag’s murder, they were actually made by one of the few Bauhaus students whose anti-Nazi credentials are beyond question. One must beware of jumping to conclusions.

Like most Germans, Bauhauslers largely seem to have kept their heads down and waited for the horrors to pass. The painter Wilhelm Imkamp gave up abstraction to work as a war artist, adopting the kind of schmaltzy realism approved of by the Führer. Posted to Paris in early 1944, Imkamp looked up his old Bauhaus teacher, in exile in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Wassily Kandinsky. Once the war was over, he quietly went back to abstraction.

Wilhelm Wagenfeld, designer of the famous Bauhaus WG 24 lamp, was classed as a “political pest” for refusing to join the Nazi party and sent to the eastern front. Before that, though, he had taken part in high-profile Nazi exhibitions, providing the glassware for the bar of the German Pavilion at the 1937 International Exposition in Paris.

If few heroes emerge from the Weimar shows, there are few obvious villains. Ernst Neufert had taken the Fordist assembly-line teachings of Walter Gropius to heart, inventing a standard architectural unit he called the octameter, seen by Hitler’s pet architect, Albert Speer, as key to the winning of total war. In 1944, Neufert asked that his book on the subject be shown “to Reichsleiter [Martin] Bormann, who could perhaps show it to the Führer”. Whether this happened is not known; nor whether Gropius replied to the cheery letter Neufert sent him at Harvard in 1947, reminding him of the work they had done on the subject together back in Dessau.

Famous lamp … the WG 24 by Wilhelm Wagenfeld, who did the glassware for a high-profile Nazi exhibition. Photograph: Ulf Wittrock/Alamy

Unexpectedly absent from the Weimar shows is Theodor Bogler, a ceramicist who left the Bauhaus to become a monk at the Benedictine abbey of Maria Laach in the Rhineland. In the years after 1933, Bogler married making modernist pots with publishing venomously antisemitic tracts.

Bogler’s absence notwithstanding, the Weimar shows do not pull their punches. In a quote from the catalogue of a 2016 exhibition in Paris, Auschwitz is described as “an architectural achievement of the Bauhaus movement”. The school’s motto – Kunst und Technik: eine Neue Einheit! (Art and Technology: a New Unity!) – had meant one thing to Berger, quite another to Ertl. When Ertl was finally tried in 1972 for his role in designing the crematorium in which his fellow Bauhausler’s gassed body had been burned, he argued that he had had no idea of the use to which they would be put. He had, he said, merely been an architect, putting into practice the things he had learned back in Dessau. He was found not guilty.

The Bauhaus As a Site of Political Contest, 1919-1933, will be at the Museum Neues Weimar; Removed – Confiscated – Assimilated, 1930/37 at the Bauhaus Museum; and Living in the Dictatorship, 1933 -1945 at the Schiller Museum. All are organised by the Klassic Stiftung Weimar and run from 9 May to 15 September.

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