The Dada Movement’s Political Turn

Born in Zurich in 1916, Dada is famed for its antiwar, anti-bourgeois, and anti-art antics. But in Berlin after the Bolshevik Revolution, the movement took a sharp political turn, merging anti-fascist propaganda with leftist organizing.

Theo van Doesburg and Kurt Schwitters, Small Dada Evening (1922). (Wikimedia Commons)

Few art movements have taken as sharp of a leftward turn as the Dadaists in Berlin during the Weimar Republic. Emerging from the global shock of World War I, the antiestablishment “disgust” that embodied Dada’s conception in Zürich quickly transformed into an expression of proletarian struggle after the Bolshevik Revolution. German artists like Hannah Höch, Raoul Hausmann, Georg Grosz, Richard Huelsenbeck, brothers John Heartfield and Wieland Herzfelde, and Johannes Baader developed sharp criticisms of capitalist revisionism in their expressive paintings, collages, and publications. They were such effective propagandists that their work was banned from public exhibition.

As the Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, or SPD) sought to manufacture consent around reformism, the Berlin Dadaists organized with the Communist Party (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands, or KPD), elevating their work from conceptual plaything to defined political commentary. The origins of the word “Dada” remain contested — some say it’s a nonsensical term, others point to a chance discovery in a French-German dictionary — but its political awakening reveals art’s potential for disrupting liberal malaise during times of crisis.

Swiss Apolitik

Dada initially grew out of the horrors of the Great War, which saw imperial powers unleashing new industrial technologies on millions of young volunteers and draftees. European social democracy was in shambles by 1914, leading to widespread support for the interimperial conflict — including the SPD’s voting for war credits — in spite of working-class opposition. With the bourgeoisie rallying around the last gasp of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s rule, draft-dodging artists felt that the war represented the decay of Enlightenment ideals. As such, their flight to Switzerland marked a decisive break with the traditional artforms of the preceding century, as a method of taking back art from the bourgeoisie.

Portrait of Tristan Tzara by Robert Delaunay, 1923. (Wikimedia Commons)

In Zürich, these expat artists gathered at a short-lived nightclub named Cabaret Voltaire, which was founded by poets Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings in 1916. Located near Vladimir Lenin’s residence at the time, the nightclub developed a reputation for irreverence and absurdity, and became an incubator for deconstructing the symbols of European liberalism.

Tristan Tzara, a Romanian Jew and informal leader of Zürich Dada, gave readings of his own dissociative poetry, which stated that Dada could mean everything or nothing, and declared a total assault on “official” culture. In his 1918 Dada Manifesto, Tzara spoke of “Dada disgust” in creating art for bourgeois culture:

We’ve had enough of the cubist and futurist academies: laboratories of formal ideas. Do we make art in order to earn money and keep the dear bourgeois happy? Rhymes have the smack of money, and inflexion slides along the line of the stomach in profile. Every group of artists has ended up at this bank, straddling various comets. Leaving the door open to the possibility of wallowing in comfort and food.

While not overtly political, an anarchic energy in Tzara’s writings rejected the “academies” of cubism and futurism, which were quickly being absorbed by state institutions. Other Zürich Dadaists like Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber ventured into abstract collages, costume design, and marionettes, as well as “sound poetry” that predated the invention of noise music. On any given night, a performance at Cabaret Voltaire would entail multiple speakers reading their work simultaneously, with others banging random piano keys, dancing in papier-mâché masks, and handing out illegible flyers to spectators.

Jean Arp, woodcut and collage for the cover of Dada 4-5, 1919. (Wikimedia Commons)

“At the Cabaret Voltaire we began by shocking common sense, public opinion, education, institutions, museums, good taste, in short, the whole prevailing order,” said Marcel Janco, whose 1916 painting preserves its raucous legacy in shades of yellow and blue. Along with Arp, Janco experimented with typography by cutting up old pieces of newsprint and pasting them together to appear as propaganda filled with gibberish. From these works emerged one of the earliest Dada motifs, the manicule — a hand arbitrarily pointing at random letters and symbols, mimicking the senseless rhetoric of industrial capitalism.

Despite Dada’s antiwar position, Tzara was opposed to the group’s direct involvement in politics, favoring instead a broader form of cultural criticism: “Every man must shout: there is great destructive, negative work to be done.” Without an explicit political message or target, however, this critique was easily branded as nihilism. When Cabaret Voltaire closed its doors in 1917, however, the movement would expand as the Bolshevik and German Revolutions unfolded.

Dada Migration

After the war, Zürich Dadaists either returned to their home countries or ventured to city centers like Paris and New York. Tzara and Ball opened the Salon Dada exhibition in the Champs-Elysées, garnering international acclaim. In Manhattan, Marcel Duchamp debuted his infamous urinal at the Society of Independent Artists, which accepted the piece but refused to put it on display. In Cologne and Hannover, Max Ernst and Kurt Schwitters put on controversial shows that were attacked by the press, and they collaborated on magazines with Russian avant-garde artist El Lissitzky.

Chafing against Dada’s early apolitical elements, Richard Huelsenbeck aimed to radicalize the movement. Returning to Berlin during the October Revolution gave him a sense of possibility, and he began referring to Berlin Dada as “German Bolshevism.”

Indeed, Germany was in turmoil in those days. A series of mass strikes overtook the country in 1918, beginning at the Kiel Harbor and progressing inland, resulting in Wilhelm’s abdication. In the aftermath, worker councils modeled themselves after the Soviets and ran the city as the military sought peaceful resolution. Attempts to restore capitalism through minor social reforms eventually led the new Weimar government to set the Freikorps loose on workers striking for a higher wage, all while the bourgeoisie’s wealth ballooned.

In his 1920 book En Avant Dada, Huelsenbeck argued that Dadaists should channel their artistic energies to confront the reality of postwar Germany, in particular a Berlin that was teetering on the verge of economic collapse. Dadaists who “spoke of energy and will and assured the world that they had amazing plans,” yet failed to produce them, he wrote, were inadequate for the times.

George Grosz, The Funeral (To Oskar Panizza) (1917–18), oil on canvas. (Wikimedia Commons)

While in 1920, Tzara was still touting the notion that “Dada ne signifie rien,” Dadaists in Berlin rejected the art for art’s sake attitude in favor of a directly confrontational form of agitprop. In his own manifesto from 1918, Huelsenbeck argues that the “highest art” addresses the “thousandfold problems of the day, the art which has been visibly shattered by the explosions of the last week, which is forever trying to collect its limbs after yesterday’s crash.” He criticizes the complacency of the Expressionists, who “banded together into a generation which [was] already looking forward to honorable mention in the histories of literature and art and aspiring to the most respectable civic distinctions.”

This manifesto proved inspirational for German artists who were critical of the mainstream press yet, unlike liberal artists, wanted to engage with it — as well as advertising and street life. In founding Club Dada — loosely modeled after Cabaret Voltaire — they merged anti-fascist propaganda with communist organizing to transform Dada disgust into a rhetorical device for social change.

Communist Art

The Berlin Dadaists established their political position through the formation of the Dadaistischen Zentralrat der Weltrevolution (Central Council of Dada for World Revolution), an activist organization that supported the Spartacist Uprising led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. In their list of demands published in the magazine Der Dada 1, they called first and foremost for the “international revolutionary union of all creative and intellectual men and women on the basis of radical Communism.” Additional demands included automated labor to free up time for art, expropriation of private property, mutual aid, and community ownership over public space.

In the summer of 1920, the Berlin Dadaists hosted the Erste Internationale Dada-Messe (First International Dada Fair), which brought together more than a hundred seventy works from twenty-seven artists at Otto Burchard Gallery. Garnering mainstream press coverage in New York, London, Paris, and Milan, the exhibition proudly announced that “Dada is political.” A life-sized dummy of a pig-faced German officer, titled “Prussian Archangel,” hung from the ceiling as an effigy. Constructed by Heartfield and Rudolf Schlichter, the irreverent piece of assemblage led the military to denounce the exhibition.

Hannah Höch, Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Last Epoch of Weimar
Beer-Belly Culture in Germany
(1919), collage of pasted papers. (Wikimedia Commons)

Photomontage brought out illusory and satirical contradictions of life under Weimar by juxtaposing caricatures of government officials with cartoonish cutouts of oversized machinery and newspaper headlines. Hannah Höch’s “Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany” (1919) scatters the disembodied heads of Weimar officials and Albert Einstein alongside a map of Europe, pinpointing countries with suffragette rights and highlighting words like “Dada” and “Anti.” Dancers, nude women, metal cogs, and wild animals fill the frame, but the artist leaves patches of empty space across the vertical composition to mimic the visual rhetoric of a newspaper — resembling a ransom note to the corrupt republic.

John Heartfield’s photomontages mocked Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels during their rise to power. His cover designs for the communist weekly Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (Workers Illustrated Newspaper) exposed the vulgar Nazi appropriation of Marxism for profit. Heartfield’s “The Meaning of the Hitler Salute” depicts a towering businessman handing Hitler cash from behind his back, while another shows Goebbels placing a fake Karl Marx beard over the führer’s chin. Heartfield’s campaign posters were more subtle, as in “The Hand Has Five Fingers.” A disembodied hand, representing five KPD candidates running for office, reaches from the depths of a blank poster to grab the enemy.

For George Grosz, who along with Heartfield was a member of the KPD, Dadaist painting reflected what they viewed as the twilight of the bourgeoisie. Jagged, angular cityscapes like “The Funeral” (1917–18) portray balding men lurched over crowds of warped faces, with shades of deep red and blue-green resembling a macabre form of stained glass. Others like “Republican Automatons” depict liberal Weimar supporters as faceless robots carrying German flags. Grosz and fellow painter Otto Dix often leaned toward the grotesque, preceding the New Objectivity movement that would carry Dada’s legacy.

John Heartfield’s The Hand Has Five Fingers poster on display in Berlin before
the 1928 Reichstag elections. (Wikimedia Commons)

Like in Zürich, Berlin Dadaists published their own magazines and pamphlets, extending printed collage into propaganda. These publications were short-lived, such as the widely distributed Die Pleite (The Bankrupt) and Jedermann sein eigener Fussball (Everyone Their Own Football). The latter referenced French King Henry IV’s claims that peasants would enjoy “a chicken in the pot every Sunday,” criticizing meager reforms from the SPD. Dadaists frequently showed up at government meetings to disseminate their literature, as when Baader dropped “Dadaists Against Weimar” flyers from the rafters during a National Assembly meeting.

Despite its radical origins, the SPD — which by that point represented the interests of the capitalist class — took offense to the Dadaists and banned their publications. Renowned German artists like Oskar Kokoshka condemned the Spartacist Uprising by blaming both sides for the violence, arguing that artworks in nearby galleries could be damaged. In response, Heartfield and Grosz penned an essay titled “The Art Scab.” As they write,

We welcome it when open struggle between capital and labor takes place where culture and art feel at home — the art and culture that gag the poor, that delight the bourgeois on Sunday and accommodate oppression on Monday.

Postwar Ambivalence

Berlin Dada had great political ambitions that ultimately never materialized. Their aesthetic critiques of capitalism and the military-industrial complex were apt, yet without a coherent strategy for building opposition, they were left with no option but to gradually increase the shock value of their propaganda. They were also losing money, selling only one piece from the 1920 Dada Fair. The final nail in the coffin came with the failure of the 1924 Hamburg Uprising, which resulted in the police killings of several KPD organizers and a broader anti-communist sentiment at the ballot box. Poignantly, Weimar censorship of Dada precipitated Hitler’s own disdain for the Dadaists and subsequent restoration of “official” art.

Many of the German Dadaists returned to West Berlin after Hitler’s death, but their collaborative spirit would not survive the war. In the late 1960s, filmmaker Helmut Herbst directed a documentary on the movement, with interviews featuring a very disillusioned Huelsenbeck, who refused to speak English on camera. “We wanted to change the world, but without any particular idea,” Huelsenbeck insists in German.

At the height of the Cold War, his candor spoke to the tensions that remained unresolved between the Cabaret Voltaire and Club Dada, as well as the suppression of communist art by liberal and fascist governments. In our present era of neoliberal decadence and rising neofascism, artists are likewise experiencing a political awakening, and we are faced now with the hefty task of articulating its purpose.