According to a story on the ABC, in the 1930s, while the outward tension between modernism and the Nazis was always risible, that didn’t stop those in the precursor to modernism, especially those in the Bauhaus School, to try and accommodate the movement within more sinister endeavours.
For their part, the Nazis whole-heartedly condemned the design movement calling it symptomatic of the disease “spread by Jews and communists that was contaminating the German body politic”, says the ABC story, adding that they [the Nazis] derided it as being led by "degenerate" artists like Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. Both were teachers at the Bauhaus, the influential German art, architecture and design school founded in Weimar Republic in 1919.
Some 100 years on from the small city near the centre of Germany called Weimar where it was founded, today Bauhaus is still celebrated as a progressive modern culture, while the “barbaric and crushing uniformity at the heart of Nazi ideology is condemned as its antithesis,” notes the ABC.
But, this clash of philosophies (and style) between Nazis and Bauhaus was not simply black-and-white.
According to the ABC, Franz Ehrlich, a former Bauhaus student who was arrested as a communist by the Nazis and sent to Buchenwald, survived in part, because of his design expertise. In fact he was commissioned to design parts of the concentration camp such as the gates to the camp itself.
Emblazoned on the gates was Ehrlich's rendering of the slogan "Jedem das Seine", translated as "to each his own", notes the ABC.
Fritz Ertl, another former Bauhaus student went on to become the architect largely responsible for the expansion of Auschwitz.
For his collaboration, Ertl was tried after the war for the famous shower rooms at Auschwitz which he had designed.
Then there was Herbert Bayer, a graphic designer who was responsible for the Bauhaus' iconic typography where he applied his training to help design Nazi propaganda.
While Bayer fled Germany just prior to the outbreak of World War 2 and ended up in America, he never let it be known that he worked with the German Nazi regime.
While it was founded 100 years ago by Walter Gropius, the story of the Bauhaus School was in many ways quintessentially German with its celebration of mass production while also honouring craftsmanship as process.
According to the New Republic, “the Bauhaus brought together competing strains of early–twentieth-century art and architecture, acknowledging the new importance of mass production while also celebrating craftsmanship as process.”
“The aesthetic was defined by simplicity: the use of primary colours, elemental shapes resembling children’s building blocks, and charmingly unadorned and chunky lowercase typography,” it notes.
Although as a design academy that lasted less than 14 years and taught less than 1300 students, the story of the Bauhaus school is also very much a German story for many other reasons.
While the Nazis may have wished to emulate some of its design elements - like with the Gauforum, a complex of administrative buildings the Nazis constructed in Weimar with their own type of modernist design, the Bauhaus School was the very antithesis of the evils of Nazism.
Which was one reason why it withered during World War Two. As the Jewish Journal notes, “the future Gropius had dreamed of seemed to have bitterly failed when the school had been closed by the Nazis in 1932, and turned into a bombed-out husk by 1945.”
There is, it says a “…truth in the tale of the Bauhaus’ dissolution and restoration as an example of the forces of good succumbing to, but eventually overcoming, the forces of evil. There are many Bauhaus tales though, and they show not a simple Bauhaus-versus-the-Nazis dichotomy but rather how, to varying degrees of bravery and caprice, individuals try to survive in the face of tyranny.”
One way to describe how the Bauhaus School in time had its own revenge on the Nazi horror is with a quote from Marlene Dietrich from her role in the 1961 movie, Judgment at Nuremburg.
“We must forget if we want to go on living.”
And as Conde Naste’s Traveller magazine notes, “Paradoxically, the school owes its lasting success in great part to the fact that it was shut down. Driven away by the Nazis, many of the Bauhaus’s architects and artists settled around the world and continued to propagate its ideals…”