Jakob Van Hoddis and The Neu Club Revolution
Jakob Van Hoddis and the Neu Club Revolution.
German Expressionism was one of the most incendiary and imaginative cultural movements of the 20th century, awash with dark forests, clay figures that come to life, men who wake to find they’ve turned into giant cockroaches, cities that are washed away by storms. There were many precursors: the fairytales of the Brothers Grimm, the Hebrew stories of floods and Golems, The Book of Revelations, the paintings of Edvard Munch, Bosch, Durer and Grunewald but the real birthplace of the movement was amidst a group of friends and poets in the bars of Berlin in 1909. Christened the Neu Club the prophet of the group was the young poet Jakob Van Hoddis. Tragically by the time Expressionism took hold just ten years later many members of this group were dead and Jakob, who kick-started it all with his short masterpiece Weltende (End Of The World), had already slipped into a spiral of madness and persecution that would end in the Nazi extermination camp Sobibor.
Doris Kempner, a teacher from Silesia, gave birth to two twin boys in Berlin, 1887. One was pronounced stillborn. The other survived. He was named Hans Davidsohn. His family were respectable, Jewish, left-leaning liberals. His father Hermann Davidsohn was a doctor, who had volunteered to treat German soldiers in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and had run a clinic for treating down and outs. The oldest child in the family Hans was extremely intelligent but his academic studies were adversely affected by a rebellious temperament. Forced to leave Freidrich Wilhelm High School in 1905 after continual conflicts with his teachers he broke off his architecture studies to study philosophy. While studying he began to write poetry influenced, at first, by Stefan George and the Art Nouveau movement, which had flourished in Vienna, Paris and Barcelona at the turn of the century. It was there he met the activist Kurt Hiller. Together they set up the Neu Club in 1909, an underground literary group who socialised in the Café des Westerns, Berlin. The finest emerging talents of European poetry were members or affiliates of the collective including Hiller, Davidson, Georg Heym, Ernst Blass, Alfred Lichenstein, Ernst Balcke and Erin Loewenson (who went under the pseudonym Golo Gangi).
The abundant ideas of the Neu Club would find expression in the Neopathetic Cabaret. What would begin as an informal gathering of like-minded spirits would become the epicentre of an artistic revolution with hundreds of spectators assembling at each successive meeting. It was baptised by Hiller after the Ancient Greek concept of “pathos, not as a grave gesture of suffering prophet’s sons but as universal celebration, a Pan-like laughter.” Influenced by Nietzsche’s attacks on morality and Rimbaud’s calls for the intensification of life and the rational derangement of the senses the Neopathetic Cabaret was the first blossoming of Expressionist ideas and talent. Through a combination of poetry readings, acting, music and drinking they expounded their philosophies.
Industrial civilisation was seen as having become something corrupt and decaying and decadent. To create a new world the old one would have to be destroyed a sentiment embodied by the anarchist Bakunin’s phrase, “The urge to destroy is a creative passion.” Combined with alienation was a sense of spiritual destitution in a world where, as Nietzsche had declared, God was dead. Only through a new way of thinking, even a shared suffering, could society be levelled and a brotherhood of man established. These were the concerns that fuelled the Expressionists disruption of established values, their rebellion against everything they saw as belonging to the old, corrupt order. The revolt against timid impressionism, the inhumanity of materialism, militarism, even civilisation itself reached apocalyptic levels in their work.
The Neopathetic Cabaret only existed for nine evenings in a two year period but by the end it had developed into a cultural spectacle that articulated the thoughts of, and influenced, an entire generation. In 1910 at the age of 23 Hans Davidsohn produced what was later called the anthem of the Neopathetic Cabaret. It was called Weltende meaning “End Of The World.” First published in the magazine The Democrat Weltende came to encapsulate all that was wonderful about the Neu Club. In a mere eight lines the poem manages to be a vision of the apocalypse and an attack on respectable bourgeois society. It is written in a strangely calm, passive way, as if the narrator is witnessing the end of everything but doesn’t seem to mind. The effect is at once amusing and haunting, like a newspaper account of Munch’s The Scream. It reflected the ominous signs and portents of that year. Halley’s Comet had appeared in the skies. Einstein had begun shattering Newton’s laws, the very foundation of physics. The Seine had flooded through Paris, filling all but one line of the Metro with water. The Titanic sank. When Hans read Weltende in the cabaret the effect was electrifying, capturing the imagination of those assembled, a soon-to-be lost generation who stood at the brink of annihilation in the First World War. This was no ordinary poetry reading. It was the bridge between Rimbaud and John Lydon roaring Anarchy in the UK. It was a call to arms and a declaration of war.
Weltende (End of the World)
The hat flies off the bourgeois’ pointed head.
There is a sound that shrieks through all the air.
Tiles tumble from rooftops and shatter in two.
And on the coasts, we read, the tide is rising.
The storm has come, the wild seas lurch ashore
to crush the bloated dams.
Most people have colds, their noses running.
The trains plunge off the bridges.
Hans’ dedication to his writing had its price. In 1911 he was unceremoniously kicked out of university due to “laziness.” His fortunes took another, more dramatic, turn for the worse with the death shortly after of his father. Understandably devastated he reacted by changing his name, creating the vaguely aristocratic-sounding pseudonym Jakob Van Hoddis, an anagram of Hans Davidsohn (and possibly a tribute to the Expressionist pioneer Vincent Van Gogh). On a literary level his reputation had soared. Many of his poems (“The Death Angel,” “Aurora,” “The Dreaming”) had been published by the new rival groups to the Neu Club: the experimental Sturm, Revolution and the politically radical Aktion. His vaudeville cycle of the time Varietezyklus is the earliest recorded poem to praise the emerging artform that would become Cinema. Ironically the popularity of the Neopathetic Cabaret had ensured the downfall of the Neu Club. Tensions and rivalries began to overcome the group and their notoriety had ensured that soon there were similar cabarets springing up all over the country. Less than two years after its creation the Neu Club was capsizing.
The last act came on the 16th of January 1912. Georg Heym was one of the most prodigious talents of the group, having published The Eternal Day the previous year. Sharing a similar respectable but rebellious background he and Van Hoddis had become close friends, a year earlier Heym had dedicated his poem Those to Jakob. Aside from a promising literary career Heym was learning Chinese for planned diplomatic service in the Far East. He had also fallen in love with Hildegard Krohn, to whom he dedicated what would turn out to be his final poems. Then on January 16th Heym and, fellow Neu Club poet, Ernst Balcke went ice-skating on the frozen lake The Havel in Berlin. At some point the ice broke and Balcke fell into the freezing water becoming trapped under the ice. In a vain attempt to save his friend’s life Heym too was killed.
Shortly after being informed of the death of his friends Van Hoddis suffered his first breakdown, voluntarily admitting himself to a psychiatric nursing centre in Wolbeck. He returned briefly to Berlin but was sectioned after threatening his mother during a psychotic episode. He was taken, against his will, to the mental hospital Waldhaus Nikolasse while his friend the poet Erwin Loewenson petitioned psychiatrists for help. Such was his following that his forcible hospitalisation (“Gewaltsam ins Irrenhaus”) appeared as a headline in the latest issue of Aktion. A month later, on the 7th of December he escaped from the hospital with the police and his family reportedly in pursuit. Travelling extensively to Berlin, Paris and Heidelberg he returned to Berlin in the spring, filled bizarrely with a religious fervour for Catholicism. During that time he visited Munich, his effective second home and the radical, avant-garde capital of Germany at the time. It is likely he was drawn to the city by Lotte Pritzel (an artist, maker of small wax dolls and the subject of a poem by Rilke) and Emmy Hennings (poet, musician, writer, founder of the Cabaret Voltaire and later wife of the Dadaist Hugo Ball) both of whom were talented beautiful women who he had been infatuated with since the beginning of the Neu Club. Sadly in both cases his love was unrequited.
It was at this time he developed a friendship with the painter Ludwig Meidner. Both were Jewish, relative outsiders and crucially both were haunted with thoughts of the impending apocalypse. A notoriously eccentric individual Meidner had been friends with Modigliani whilst living in Paris and had returned to Berlin to provide illustrations for the Aktion publication. His own paintings, for example The Burning City which was painted around that time, were like visual incarnations of Van Hoddis’ verse: urban days of reckoning filled with collapsing buildings and writhing civil servants and skies bursting into flame above cobbled streets. “Sometimes I feel like hopping out of the fourth floor window,” he once wrote offering a glimpse into his psyche. Van Hoddis found in him a like-minded soul, a person who could look out the window and see not a summer’s day in Berlin “but a thousand skeletons jigging in a row. Many graves and incinerated cities writhing across the plains.” He was perhaps not the most conducive company for Van Hoddis’ unstable mental state but he was fascinating and inspiring. A brief period of activity followed with Van Hoddis’ work appearing in Aktion, Sturm and a host of other journals. His appearance reading poetry at an Aktion evening resulted in his dismissal from the Neu Club, a largely symbolic act considering the group was effectively defunct by then. Heym and Balcke were dead whilst Hiller was preoccupied with his emergent left wing political activism, which would result in the creation of the Linkspazifismus– the Leftist Pacifist movement against imperialist wars. Yet the symbolic exile no doubt affected the sensitive Van Hoddis and could only have made him feel increasingly paranoid and isolated.
All the intrigues of the left-field artistic cabarets of Germany were drowned out by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Nations on both sides of the conflict were seized by waves of populist pro-war hysteria. Germany was no exception. The desire for a share of imperialist plunder and the mistaken belief that war would be over by Christmas fuelled the frenzy. As the various armies of Europe mobilised to commit collective suicide the artistic underground was thrown into chaos, the young talents of a generation were conscripted and thrown into the threshing machines for the benefit of a handful of businessmen and aristocrats. Avoiding conscription and having lost touch with his friends Van Hoddis wandered aimlessly around Munich before his family had him moved to private care in Thuringia. He led a quiet life there: walking in the forests, playing with schoolchildren, sketching and writing. At the same time all across Europe the initial successes of the German Schlieffen Plan had faltered and the hostile armies faced each other in the stalemate of trench warfare. Between them stretched the hell of No Man’s Land.
It was in such a location, at Vermandovillers on the Somme, that the poet and the Neu Club associate Alfred Lichtenstein was killed shortly into the war. He was 25. In his poetry he shared Van Hoddis’ sense of approaching catastrophe but the end of the world would come sooner for Lichenstein. Heavily inspired by Weltende his poem Prophecy foretold the horrors of the First World War that would consume him and millions of others, “Sometimes I have premonitions/a deathstorm advancing from the distant north…the walls of all the buildings crack/fish are rotting in the streams/everything comes to its own sticky end/screeching buses are overturned.”
The spot where he lost his life was retaken four years later by an English regiment commanded by the poet Wilfred Owen who was killed shortly afterwards just one week before the war ended. That same location is the final resting place for 26,000 German soldiers alone. Though sheltered from the war Van Hoddis could not remain immune from its effects. Almost every family in Europe was affected and the Davidsons were no exception. A world away from the flooded trenches, the rats and the shell-shocked in his beautiful wooded surroundings Van Hoddis received news that his younger brother Ludwig had been killed whilst serving at the Front.
A curious aspect of the war that would decimate the Neu Club’s generation is that it was sparked off by one of their contemporaries. On the 28th of June 1914, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia were shot to death by a Serbian revolutionary on the streets of Sarajevo giving the competing empires of Europe an excuse to go to war. The young assassin was Gavrilo Princip. Calling themselves The Black Hand he and his fellow conspirators were the same age as Von Hoddis and the members of the Neu Club. Similarly both groups were doomed: The Black Hand conspirators were all dying of TB when they acted while the fate of the Neu Club members came in many tragic forms. And both groups were apostles of Nietzsche, that great disruptor of order. Princip and Van Hoddis both recited and ultimately lived out Nietzsche’s poem Ecce Homo with its lines “Insatiable as a flame I burn and consume myself.”