At the site pictured above, on Wilhelmstraße in Berlin’s government district, once stood the Architektenhaus. It had been the headquarters of the capital’s architects’ association since 1875, however its public spaces were put to numerous different purposes: Edvard Munch staged his first German exhibition here in 1892 – a hugely important event for the reception of contemporary art in Berlin -, Rudolf Steiner shared his vision of a new society in a series of lectures at the dawn of the 20th century, Alfred Döblin gave a reading of his work in 1911. And it was here, one hundred years ago today, that Hugo Ball and Richard Huelsenbeck fired one of the first warning shots ahead of the Dada offensive.
On February 12, 1915, Ball, Huelsenbeck and associates honoured the lives of five fellow writers who had died in the early stages of the First World War with a “Gedächtnisfeier für gefallene Dichter” – a commemoration, or memorial service, for fallen poets. The eulogies and readings remembered four Germans – Ernst Stadler, Hans Leybold, Walter Heymann and Ernst Wilhelm Lotz – and, pointedly, the Frenchman Charles Péguy. At 41 Péguy was the most senior of the five, and already had a respectable career behind him.
The youngest, Hans Leybold, was just 22 when he died by his own hand following a serious injury. Ball’s eulogy for Leybold was the incendiary highlight of the evening. The transcription reads like the speech of a drunken, irate best man, peppered with ribaldry, cutting asides and the righteous fervour of youth. However it is not matrimony which had consumed the promising young writer but eternity, and Ball’s bitterness is vivid. This was not a generalised lament for heroic sacrifice in far-off fields, but a howl of acrid, sarcastic rage for a departed friend, collaborator, drinking partner. At the climax of his speech, Ball accused his audience of complicity in the poet’s death. The charge was met with sniggers, and one old lady made for the exit.
Ball, by now a committed pacifist, openly declared his disgust with the war. Unlike the Dadaist developments which began in earnest in 1916, this declaration wasn’t delivered in neutral Switzerland or the (still) neutral US, but in the administrative heart of the decidedly belligerent Germany. A stone’s throw, in fact, from the Prussian War Ministry.
The frigid tone of the evening was much commented upon in press reports. One journalist hilariously criticised the absence of “the laughing, warming sunshine of true German poetry” (because who doesn’t associate German poetry with laughter, warmth and sunshine?). Another dismissed Ball’s address as a “schoolboy prank”. However there was also sympathetic commentary, one writer stating that the “words, phrases, scraps of conversation, snippets of poetry, anecdotes, mockery, hatred, doubt, compulsion” which made up Ball’s eulogy were “the only way to talk about Leybold”. The poet later found a place in the diverse pantheon of Dada’s antecedents, from Arthur Cravan right back to the Marquis de Sade.
The evening’s most significant outcome was Ball and Huelsenbeck’s “Literary Manifesto” which was included with the programme. Spitting with derision, provocation, neologisms, this is a rallying cry for Dada in all but name. It lashes out at numerous literary notables of the day, even Kurt Hiller, who was on the same bill (incidentally also an early gay rights activist). The manifesto is filled with the type of terse, caustic statements of intent which would later define Dada:
We want: to provoke, to overturn, to bluff, to torment, to tickle to death, confused, without context, to be daredevils and negationists.
We will always be “anti”.
We are not naive enough to believe in progress.
We want to ruin the appetite for any type of beauty, culture, poetry, all intellect, taste, socialism, altruism and synonymism.
We will rip into all “ism” parties and “beliefs”.
In Zurich, the following year, Ball and Huelsenbeck furthered these themes with, respectively, the “Opening Manifesto” and the “Declaration”, and Dada was born. In that same year, 1916, the Architektenhaus was taken over by the War Ministry. This shift from construction to destruction was just the first of the successive ironies by which each era left its mark on the site, paradoxes so crass, so copious that it requires the architectonic colossus which now stands here to bear them all.
That building arose in 1935 after the original Architektenhaus and all of its neighbours were demolished to make way for Hermann Göring’s Reich Air Ministry. At well over 100,000 square metres it was the largest office building in Berlin at the time and designed – like Berlin’s other monument to Nazi aviation, Tempelhof Airport – by Ernst Sagebiel. Here the Luftwaffe’s aerial assaults on Europe from Guernica onward were planned, but at the end of the Second World War it was one of the few buildings in central Berlin left largely untouched by the Allies’ retaliatory bombing.
In 1949 one of the building’s halls was used to proclaim the establishment of the German Democratic Republic, a polity which stopped at the building’s southern edge, while the enormous office space was used for various ministries. The building was the target of rebellion against the Communist regime in 1953 and sealed off by the Berlin Wall in 1961. After reunification it was occupied by the “Treuhand”, the body tasked with reassigning the assets of the GDR’s state-run economy. It did a far more effective job of undoing the work of the East German state than the souvenir hunters picking away at the remnants of the Wall outside. It was also highly controversial, and the building now bears the name of Detlev Rohwedder, the head of the Treuhand who was assassinated in one of the last waves of post-war domestic terrorism in Germany. The building now houses the German Finance Ministry and remains the largest architectural reminder of the Third Reich in central Berlin.