The first Documenta took place in 1955 in the ruins of Kassel in northern Hesse. The art exhibition was supposed to be a new beginning and a radical break with the ethno-nationalist, essentialist and antisemitic ideology of the National Socialists.
What’s this break all about?
Coming to terms with the Shoah has always taken detours in both successor states to Nazi Germany. They either re-direct the question of WHY away from antisemitism, or they reshape antisemitism in such a way that it no longer has anything to do with Jews and their culture as the central enemy construct and ideological basis of National Socialism. Without antisemitism, there would have been no Shoah. The Shoah remains incomprehensible, but antisemitism has a socio-cultural function that has, through the changing zeitgeist over the centuries, only evolved aesthetically and formally. On the level of culture, Jews specifically and Jewishness more abstractly remain a globally cultivated instrument of relief and redemption.
Antisemitism can therefore be described as a cultural technique.
Fritz Stern, a historian who fled to the USA with his family when he was twelve years old, describes in his book The Politics of Cultural Despair how hostility towards modernity, democracy and Judaism was significantly popularised by three writers: Paul de Lagarde, Moeller van den Bruck and Julius Langbehn. Fritz Stern wrote about Langbehn, who wrote the bestseller Rembrandt as Educator, which was published in 60 editions:
“Everywhere, and not only in Germany, there was a call for more freedom, for self-realisation, for more practice and less theory. The intensity of this awakening in Germany can be gauged from the enormous success of the Rembrandt book. This confused book, a rhapsody of irrationalism, stood at the beginning of a decade that ended with the enthusiastic upsurge of the German youth movement.”
A youth movement from which National Socialism was constituted ideologically, culturally and in terms of personnel. A youth movement that saw its commitment to antisemitism as proof of its progressiveness.
“Rembrandt, who was celebrated as a German, was to educate the German people to a new, final reformation. Art was the highest value, the true source of knowledge and virtue – and not science or religion. And the old German virtues that had been lost were childlike simplicity, subjectivity and individuality. Rembrandt as Educator was the piercing outcry against the intellectualism of modern Germany that threatened to stifle all creative life; it was the call to the irrational forces of the people that had been buried under the layers of civilisation for so long.”
In Langbehn’s work, a sacrificial narrative is tied to a desire for redemption. Freeing the Germans from the constraints of modernity means freeing art, because the power to redeem the German people lies solely in art. The enemies of this redemption are equally the enemies of art and ultimately the enemies of the people.
For the National Socialists, it is no longer Rembrandt who is to educate the Germans to become a Volk, a people. When Adolf Hitler stood at Richard Wagner’s grave, he was said to have understood – like a divine inspiration – his life’s goal. Like Langbehn, Wagner was also a cultural critic.
Richard Wagner’s antisemitism is undisputed today. He became known through his antisemitic manifesto “Judaism in Music”, which he published in 1950 under the pseudonym Karl Freigedank and republished in 1869 in an expanded version as Richard Wagner. In the new publication, he reflects on the past 19 years and sees himself as the victim of a reverse persecution of the Jews by his mostly Jewish critics. He emphasises that the supposed anti-Judaism directed here by Jews against a German is particularly foolish and pre-modern for these enlightened times.
What “the educated Jew” has to say “when he wants to express himself artistically” can only be “the indifferent and trivial, because his whole drive to create art is only a luxurious, unnecessary one”.
As the title “Judaism in Music” suggests, it is the Jews who, with their supposed luxury, modernity, intellectuality and rootlessness, weaken the German people in the same way that they have weakened themselves over the centuries. But Wagner sees hope for humanity.
“Richard Wagner, once said: the Jew is the tangible demon of the decay of humanity and these images confirm the accuracy of his remark.” – (The Eternal Jew (Ahasver))
So reads a quote from his essay in the 1940 Nazi propaganda film The Eternal Jew. The cultural-critical content of his antisemitic essay indulges in the question of who stands in the way of the fusion of the German and his respective redemption. In the same year, Wagner publishes his book The Artwork of the Future, in which he outlines a utopia.
“In the work of art we will be one. Flesh and blood – the Volk will no longer be a distinct, special thing. Bearers and sages of necessity, knowers of the unconscious, willers of unwillfulness, witnesses of nature – happy people.”
Here, too, he describes in detail the enemies of his utopia without naming them specifically.
“Luxury (...) lives on the unsatisfied hunger of thousands and thousands of poor people without being able to satisfy its own hunger for a single moment; it keeps a whole world in the iron chains of despotism without being able to break for an instance the golden chains of the tyrant which it itself is.”
Although the imagery in this quote is unambiguous, the question still remains whether one would speak about his antisemitism with the same clarity today without the knowledge of his two antisemitic essays.
Wagner outlines a worldview which Fritz Stern also describes on the basis of his protagonists as THE cultural basis for the enthusiastic upsurge of the German youth movement. It is no coincidence that his description of this movement has a progressive ring to it. That was part of its self-image. Modernity was seen as the shackles against which one went into an anti-modern, ethno-nationalist resistance. From this idea of redemption, the National Socialists developed a political programme that declared the industrial extermination of Jews as its ultimate goal.
The Nazis lost the war, but what about their worldview? What has happened to cultural pessimism and cultural heritage? What happened to antisemitism and the perception of Jewish art and culture? Let’s recall the first Documenta in 1955. The art historian Werner Haftmann was the intellectual head of the first Documenta exhibitions.During the National Socialist era, he was a member of the NSDAP and the SA. After the war, he was wanted as a war criminal in Italy.
With the first Documenta, he claimed to break with the art of National Socialism’s ethno-nationalist conception of culture. With this break, a continuity was constituted. He showed modern art which had been banned by the Nazis, in the name of a new beginning and cosmopolitanism in order to simultaneously purge this very art of the Jews.
“Modern art was declared to be a Jewish invention to subvert the ‘Nordic spirit’, although not a single modern German painter was Jewish.” – Werner Haftmann, 1954
In the context of this historical inversion, Werner Haftmann’s first Documenta is a masterstroke in the narrative of exoneration. And it is the Documenta’s first antisemitism scandal, which however did not actually become a scandal until 2022.
For this lack of coming to terms with the past was not remedied by Documenta itself, but was made known to a broad public through the exhibition “Documenta. Politics and Art” at the German Historical Museum. This is an example of how a professed new start buries the reappraisal of one’s own history. Here, too, the aim was to liberate art. This time from the constraints of a culturally antisemitic National Socialism. The price for this new beginning was the Jews, and thus an actual coming to terms with one’s own past.
Fritz Stern was not the only one who was aware early on of a continuity from the cultural concept of Richard Wagner to the post-war present. The Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers criticised Joseph Beuys as early as 1972, claiming in a letter to Beuys to have found a critical letter by the composer Jaques Offenbach to Richard Wagner. Offenbach’s criticism of Wagner corresponded to his criticism of Beuys.
“How far away I am from Tristan and Isolde. And I know that I will be even further away.”
“I hardly agree with the position you take, and in any case I declare my disagreement if you wish to include, in a definition of art, that of politics. Magic?”
About 50 years later, Germany celebrated the 100th anniversary of what is probably the most famous Documenta artist. On Beuys’ centenary, the German cultural landscape fell into a festival mood. Magazines ran headlines reading “THE LIBERATOR” and described him as a saviour.
But what did he liberate from and who did he save?
To this day, Beuys is cited as an example of an early (artistic) engagement with one’s own biography under National Socialism. What is not seen is how much this “pursuit” was in line with the canon of a non-reappraisal of the post-war period. Beuys, like millions of other Germans, took refuge in the anecdotal. By lying about being anointed by Crimean Tartars after a crash, he staged his rebirth and established his myth as the shaman of art.
For Beuys, the Holocaust was the abyss of Western materialism. In Moses, he saw an early materialist. According to this line of thought, similar to Wagner, the Jews themselves are the creators of a culture that found its deepest point in the Shoah. A fundamental distortion of Nazi ideology. Instead, Beuys wants the freedom of Völker, of peoples; the freedom of all humanity. He sees their salvation in his expanded concept of art.
Like Wagner, he divides the world into good and evil. What Beuys calls the Western Man is for him the materialist who is dominated by intellectualism and rationality, and whose thinking kills off the power of the soul. The Eastern Man, on the other hand, is intuitive and connected to the spiritual world. He possesses superior knowledge, supernatural truth, a delicate approach to nature and the native soil. He has not lost touch with the mythical gods who embody supernatural truth.
Beuys took these simplistic stereotypes from Rudolf Steiner, whom he considers the greatest thinker of the past century. The Nordic German is the highest level in Steiner’s racial doctrine, the Jew is the lowest. Intellectualising thought is for Beuys the principle of death. Mystical feeling, on the other hand, is the principle of living. Beuys wants spirituality, which he sees realised in cultures of the East. These, he says, are archetypal with an overall spiritual culture.He sees the world as doomed either way, and all that still counts is the salvation of the soul. For him, helping this profoundly culturally pessimistic worldview to take hold means liberating art and thus saving humanity.
A few months after the Beuys anniversary, another Documenta takes place, loaded up with everything that sounds good and right. Solidarity, collectivity, the liberation of oppressed peoples and generally a better and happier future in the face of a modern world that is on a steep path to the abyss.
All this is represented on the large banner “People’s Justice”, which stands like a large map on the Friedrichsplatz in Kassel. The shock is huge when some typically antisemitic caricatures are found on the banner. It is described as a “wimmel” picture with myriad hidden elements, into which said caricatures seem to have crept by chance. Since the piece was collectively created, it is allegedly not known who actually painted them there.
But it is not a hidden object picture and the representations are not coincidental. It is a very typical and rather closed worldview. What we see is a Manichean world divided into exactly what Beuys describes as East and West. Easterners threatened by Westerners, corrupted by the profiteer of this struggle between the peoples, the Jew. Even without concrete depiction, the cultural pessimism can be clearly seen, as in Wagner’s Artwork of the Future. The apocalyptic scenario of a Jewish-influenced culture of materialism remains.
As with the first Documenta, the price for a liberated, better world is the Jew. The art world closes its eyes to the obvious visual language of socialist realism. In line with a Beuysian interpretation of the Holocaust, it sees National Socialism as the highest form of finance capitalism. In former East Germany, for example, the fight against the class enemy replaced the acceptance of one’s own responsibility and guilt.
Even the clearly self-contained worldview of the Banner of Taring Padi, which has been part of the anti-modern canon in Europe for centuries and in which Jews always have the same role, is ignored by most recipients. Instead, the problem is externalised. It is rather an imported conflict, a completely different perspective of the global South treated with contempt in Germany, which must be learned and which therefore has nothing to do with oneself and one’s own German cultural history. This paternalistic interpretation of cosmopolitanism kills two birds with one stone. It undercuts the fact that antisemitism has spread across the world in the wake of colonialism, Christianisation, Islamisation, the world wars and the Cold War, and thus also that Germany has a disproportionately large stake in this history.
On the other hand, it allows, via the detour of re-importation, access to worldviews that cannot themselves be separated from German history. A wedge is thus pushed into the lessons learned from the rather fragile process of coming to terms with the past. It opens the gap for a final break with the past in the name of progressiveness and cosmopolitanism.The fact that Germany is debating the cultural dimensions of antisemitism and its relevance even into the field of contemporary art is relatively new. The closer this realisation gets to current debates and self-images, the more defensive it becomes.
Whether it’s Wagner, Beuys or documenta fifteen, everything can be relativised in the context of its time. And every criticism, no matter how well-founded, is met with derision. Criticism, on the contrary, always provides material for new victim narratives.
In Germany, artists have merged Volk and art into one concept. For these artists, this utopian unity means cultural emancipation from everything perceived as Jewish. Accordingly, Jews and Jewish culture have always represented a threat to them. Antisemitism has become an integral part of their vision of a free world. To this day, the relevance of these artists and their worldviews has not suffered as a result. Today, no one seems to know exactly what antisemitism actually is. Rather, art and its freedom are seen as threatened by the unjust accusation of hostility towards Jews as soon as the antisemitic core of these worldviews is criticised.
The fight for German artistic freedom is existential!
- The text ist originally from Forum DCCA's video "The Salvation Complex".
- Translation by Nicholas Potter