Jakob Van Hoddis - Part Two
From 1915 to 1922 Jakob was accepted into the family of the rector Emil Siegling and was privately cared for in Frankenheim village at the edge of Thueringer Forest. He avoided conscription and spent the duration of the war here and it is likely at this stage his mental illness actually saved his life just as later it would seal his fate. After many peaceful years here his mental health deteriorated further, it is said he became known for running at high speed through the town and became noisy and disruptive at night. After a disturbed episode he was moved away, leaving one last poem as a gift for Elizabeth Siegling, the rector’s daughter.
In the cities of Germany following the cessation of the war Expressionism was finally exploding into mainstream culture. While Van Hoddis and the Neu Club had been influential in artistic circles they remained a purely underground phenomenon. A new form of Expressionism, known as Die Neue Sachlichkeit (The New Objectivity), had seized the imagination of those who had seen hell in the war and for whom all the old ideas, for which they were suffered, appeared fraudulent and in need of demolition. With the abdication of the Kaiser the Weimar Republic was formed, a state haunted by the deaths and defeat of the war and yet a place paradoxically where everything appeared possible.
In 1918 the sailors mutinied forcing the beleagured Kaiser to abdicate and flee to Holland. In Bavaria the aged left-wing editor and theatre critic Kurt Eisner organised the overthrow of the government declaring the region a socialist republic. After bringing in relatively moderate socialist policies Eisner was assassinated by a fanatical right wing extremist Anton Count Arco-Valley, who was linked to the faux-mystical sect The Thule Society.
A brief period ensued when the region was headed by a group of “coffee-house intellectual” socialists including the Expressionist playwright Ernst Toller, the anarchist poet Erich Muhsam and the translator of Shakespeare Gustav Landauer. Perhaps the most refreshingly insane government of all time they included a Finance Minister who believed money should be free and a Minister for Education who opened the universities to everyone. The new Foreign Minister Dr Lipp had been brought straight from an asylum. Filling his offices with red carnations he dispatched telegrams to the Pope and Lenin complaining that the keys to his ministerial toilet had been stolen. The final straw came when he announced, “I have declared war on Wurrtemburg and Switzerland because these dogs have not at once loaned me sixty locomotives. I am certain we will be victorious. Furthermore I will ask the Pope with whom I am well acquainted to grant his blessing for this victory.”
Lipp was promptly sent back to the asylum. After a brave and successful defence against a right-wing insurrection, in which Toller personally lead his troops into battle, communist rivals conspired to overthrow the government.
The professional revolutionary Eugen Levine assumed leadership, ordering luxury apartments to be given to the homeless and seizing control of factories. He also ordered the assassination of many of Munich’s former aristocratic leaders. With the aid of the proto-fascist ex-soldiers militia the Freikorps and the self styled “White Guards of Capitalism” the Weimar government brutally suppressed the Bavarian Soviet Republic. Such were the amassed numbers and firepower of the invading troops that the streets were already deserted as they entered. Everyone had gone into hiding. A few hundred die-hard Reds made a last stand at the central railway station but they didn’t stand a chance. Having massacred them the Freikorps then went on a killing spree leaving 1000 dead in their wake and 800 awaiting execution. Landauer was taken to Stadelheim Prison where he was tortured and shot, his body left to rot in the prison courtyard. Levine was executed by a firing squad his last words, “Long live the world revolution!” Toller was sentenced to death but the firing squad refused to fire. His sentence was commuted to five years which he spent producing plays like the Man and The Masses. Years later he escaped Germany via Republican Spain and crossed the path of the young William S Burroughs before hanging himself with his bathrobe cord in a New York bathroom.
Other horrors abounded in the fledgling state. Pieter Kurten, the vampire of Dusseldorf, preyed on his child victims, the cannibal Karl Denke sold smoked human flesh as goat meat while a failed postcard painter called Adolf Hitler would soon begin agitating in the beerhalls and offices of Munich.
Into this chaotic climate came the only book of Van Hoddis’ to be published during his lifetime. Compiled from various readings and journal contributions the collection Weltende had an inspirational effect on post-war poets and artists. Van Hoddis was hailed as a prophet of the World War and a genius by the poets of the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich who read his works in tribute at their gatherings. Georg Heym even had a resurgence with the release of his novella The Thief and the poetry collection Marathon, an unlikely feat considering he’d been dead for half a dozen years.
It was in 1920 however that the real impact of Van Hoddis’ work was felt. Weltende and four other poems appeared in Kurt Pinthus’ seminal Expressionist anthology Menscheitdammerung which, in trademark Expressionist fashion, could be translated as either the Twilight of Mankind or the ironic Dawn of Humanity. The collection was indisputably brilliant and became an instant classic. It contained a wealth of fantastic poetry but the real praise came for the two lost heroes of the movement: Georg Heym for his Umbra Vitae, in which people stare up at comets then commit suicide as the seas and trees die around them, and Van Hoddis for his five poems.
It was the first time thousands of people had access to the work and the effect was electrifying. They burst into a world their creators could only have dreamt about all those years earlier. Expressionism was everywhere. In the cinema you could watch the beautiful lunacy of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Fritz Lang’s tale of terror and hysteria M, you could listen to the distorted dissonant polyphonics of the composers Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, at theatres and galleries you could see the plays of the newly released Ernst Toller (such as Transfiguration with its Dance Of The Skeletons), the wood carvings and bronze sculptures of Ernst Barlach, the haunting paintings and woodcuts of Kathe Kollwitz, Oskar Kokoschka’s The Bride of The Wind, Conrad Felixmuller’s Death of the Poet Walter Rheiner or the paintings of Die Brucke (The Bridge) and Die Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). You could even see it in the streets in buildings such as the remarkable Einstein Tower designed by Eric Mendelsohn. And there was an immense beauty in it all. It is often thought that Expressionism was anti-beauty but it was not. Rather it was against false beauty, against sentimental picture postcard fabrications that hide the harshness of life, against beauty that only a few rich and privileged individuals can really enjoy. As Bertolt Brecht asked back then, “What times are these when to talk about trees is almost a crime because it implies silence on so many things?”
The distortion and criticism of reality, which Expressionism had initiated, continued further into the abstractions and chaos of Dadaism, a subversive half-lunatic artform. Dada was the mad unruly stepchild of Expressionism. Artists from John Heartfield to Georg Grosz employed various techniques from collages to painting to word cut-ups to expose the corruption and hypocrisy of the old order. Their works often portrayed bloated businessmen and generals feasting on banquets and prostitutes while mutilated limbless veterans begged on the streets. It was all about confronting the whole rotten regimented edifice that was this post-war German society. This implicitly involved attacking the institutions of Church and State. During a religious service in Berlin Cathedral the pastor asked rhetorically, “What does Jesus Christ mean to us today?”
To which the head Dadaist Johannes Baader stood up and shouted, “To your sort, he doesn’t mean a damned thing!”
While the country was in the throes of a cultural renaissance socially and politically Weimar Germany was terminally ill from its birth. The leaders of the revolutionary Sparkatist movement Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were captured by the Freikorps whilst planning the overthrow of the government. Liebknecht was tortured, shot through the head and dumped at a mortuary. Luxemburg, one of the finest Marxist thinkers and a tireless advocate for social change, was raped, tortured and then battered to death with rifle butts. Her body was thrown off Lichenstein Bridge into Landwehr Canal. It was washed up days later. In dealing with the threat of revolution the Weimar government had alienated itself from the left and allied itself with barbaric elements of the right wing, the precise elements that were constantly seeking the Republic’s destruction. It was a Faustian pact and they had sold their souls to the devil. Further disasters followed. Hyperinflation had meant that by 1923 German money was becoming useless. Prices could double in the space of an hour. Eventually it cost 200 billion marks to buy a loaf of bread and beggars threw 100, 000 mark notes into the gutter. A period of prosperity eventually returned in the later years of the twenties. But it was illusory and ended dramatically with the domino effects of the Wall Street Crash.
A sign of the times was the opening of a cabaret in Berlin in 1929 called the Katakombe an admission that, from now on, artists and radicals would be like the Christians in Rome. As Georg Grosz foretold, “Dusk falls on liberalism.”
For various reasons (fear of inflation or economic depression, bitterness at the arguably unfair Versailles Diktats, the fear of Bolshevism, hatred of socialism and anything liberal, latent anti-Semitism, the desire to plunder Eastern Europe, the promise of “living space” to the east of a new Third Reich) the middle classes were embracing the Nazis. It was explicitly clear to anyone, from his speeches and his book Mein Kampf, what Hitler intended to do should he gain power. And yet they were beginning to vote for him in their millions.
Van Hoddis sat out the beginning of the end of the world in some comfort. From 1922 he had been staying in private care with the restaurant and bar owner Julius Dieterle in Tubingen. After an incident with his neighbours, on the 15th June 1927, he was brought by the police to be treated at the local University. There he was noted as a jovial patient who spent his time playing chess and writing poetry. He was also diagnosed as schizophrenic with the words “final condition” added to his report. His move to the Christophsbad Clinic in Goeppingen marked the date of his permanent institutionalisation in mental hospitals. His mother had lost all the money she had inherited from her husband during the hyperinflation and effectively penniless she was forced to live with her daughters. Thus she was in no position to care for Jakob and so was forced to have her oldest surviving son sectioned.
Within six years the Nazis were voted into power. Though they never received an electoral majority on their own they came within a hairs breadth of it and seized power aided by conservative and catholic parties. In the same year Jakob was transferred to the nursing home sanctuary of Israelitische Heil-und Pflegeanstalten in Bendorf -Sayn near Koblenz. Almost immediately the Nazis began to implement their persecution of Jewish Germans. With Van Hoddis in the apparent safety of an isolated Jewish care home his family were forced to flee to Palestine. His mother never recovered from the experience and died several months later in Tel Aviv.
Jakob Van Hoddis was a radical poet, he was Jewish and he suffered from mental illness. Just one of these factors would have almost certainly guaranteed his death at the hands of the Nazis. Jakob’s fate was sealed threefold.
At the beginning of 1939 the Nazis officially initiated the murder of “mentally deficient,” “racially valueless” and handicapped children. Operated by the Reich Committee For Scientific Research Into Hereditary And Severe Constitutional Diseases under the codename “T4” children and adults suffering from mental illness were subjected to “mercy killings” which initially involved being herded into sealed trucks and poisoned with carbon monoxide. It was effectively a trial run for Auschwitz.
The Nazi treatment of the Jews had incrementally descended from boycotting Jewish businesses to stealing Jewish property, forcing Jews into ghettos and finally sending millions of Jewish men, women and children to the concentration camps and the gas chambers.
Writers and artists suffered individual fates. The Nazis believed that Expressionism was part of Kulturbolschewismus or Bolshevik culture. For the philistine Nazis Expressionism was treasonous due to its anti-war, humanist message, its acceptance of the Jews and its association with the decadence of Weimar. Many artists were targeted though the persecutions varied. Some were blacklisted from employment or forbidden to paint, some had their works paraded for derision in Degenerate Art (Entartete Kunst) exhibitions (one visitor suggested placing the artists next to their work so the public could spit in their faces) or incinerated in mass burnings such as the one, which took place in Berlin’s Opernplatz. Some of the figures on the Nazi hitlist made it into hiding or escaped before it was too late. Einstein, Bertolt Brecht, Sigmund Freud got out while the going was good.
Jakob’s friend the painter Ludwig Meidner made it to England in 1939. The rest of his life was lived in varying degrees of poverty. His rediscovery by the art world occurred decades later. At an arts festival in Germany in the 60s a debate took place over the work of the late artist when suddenly an old man with a white moustache announced his existence by shouting from the back of the hall, “I’m still alive, I’m Meidner!”
Kurt Hiller, the activist and founder of the Neu Club, was high up the Nazi’s hit list of “subversives” the very first group to be targeted due to his left-wing activism and his founding of the German gay liberation movement. In the very year they took power he was sent to a concentration camp. Miraculously he was released by mistake and escaped to London. He lived until 1972.
Less fortunate was the poet Ernst Blass, “the German Verlaine” as Hiller had called him, a founding member of the Neu Club and a Jew, who died in a Jewish sanatorium of a lung disease shortly before the Holocaust. Others such as the writers Walter Benjamin, Walter Hasenclever, Stefan Zweig and the painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner took their own lives rather than be captured.
Many artists were murdered in the concentration camps: the writer Josef Capek, the playwright Jura Soyfer, the composer Gideon Klein, the surrealist poet Robert Desnos, the painter Felix Nussbaum, the poet and critic Max Jacob, the actress Dora Gerson, the writer Milena Jesenska, the anarchist poet Erich Muhsam, the novelist and painter Bruno Schulz, the painter Charlotte Salomon… to name but a few of the thousands.
They came for Jakob on the 30th of April 1942. He was deported along with 500 fellow patients and nursing staff of the Jewish care home. None of them were ever seen again. It is thought they were taken to the ghetto of Krasnystaw near Lublin, a tiny sector of the town known as Grobla where Jewish families were crammed into small wooden houses with no electricity, the only water being that of the river. From there they were transported, almost immediately, to Sobibor extermination camp. The camp functioned primarily to kill as many Jewish men, women and children as possible. It is thought that he and all the staff and inmates of the hospital were murdered in the following weeks. The horrors of Sobibor, and the other concentration camps, defy description. Aside from the gas chambers reported deaths in Sobibor included stabbings, forcing inmates off rooftops, sewing people up with starved rats, using human beings as target practise. Whipping and burning inmates to death was not uncommon while babies were pulled apart and thrown onto rubbish pits. A year after the last sighting of Jakob there was a rebellion by Jews in the camp. The prisoners lured individual members of the SS guard to the tailor and cobbler areas and split their skulls, one by one, with an axe. When the alarm was tripped they forced their way through the wire and escaped into the surrounding forest. They killed twenty guards in the uprising. Eighty prisoners immediately lost their lives as snipers in the watchtowers opened fire and as they ran the hundred yards through the adjacent minefield. Of those who escaped one hundred and seventy prisoners were hunted down and executed. Some of the escapees, having got lost in the forest, walked in circles and inadvertently returned to the camp and their tormentors. Shortly after reinforcements arrived and liquidated the camp, murdering all the inmates that remained. Of the three hundred and twenty people who escaped only fifty-three survived. Jakob was not one of them. Nor were any of his transport. (For more information on the holocaust including refutations of the cretins who deny that it happened see http://www.holocaust-history.org/).
Today, outside Germany, Jakob Van Hoddis is barely remembered. He appears on rare occasions only in the appendices, footnotes or the indexes of reference books. His poetry is out of print and untranslated in English. There are various reasons why such an important poet and cultural figure is so neglected today. Much of his work was lost or destroyed during the years of Nazi rule, the Second World War and the Holocaust. But there is also a sense of wilful neglect, perhaps not a deliberate exclusion but certainly a tendency to put the more traumatic details of the past to sleep. If we forget Van Hoddis he may as well cease to have ever existed. This will mean the Nazis have achieved their goal of wiping him from existence.
Thankfully there are many people who are skilled in the art of remembrance. The New Synagogue in Berlin (run by the Centrum Judaicum Foundation) ran a major retrospective of his life and work in 2001 featuring photos, drawings, paintings and poems. To accompany the exhibition a catalogue and CD of his life and work, conceived by Irene Stratenwerth and accompanied by music composed by Vlatko Kucan, were released.
The theatrical reading with cello accompaniment Jakob Van Hoddis- A German Fate has been recently arranged and performed by Antonin Dick and Sonny Thet while in Achim von Borries’ 2003 film Love In Thoughts the poetry of Van Hoddis and Heym serves as inspiration for the tragic protagonists.
There is something Expressionist about the post 9 11 world. The resurgence of religious fundamentalism, in its Islamic and Christian forms, has made the Expressionist’s assertion that god is dead as shocking and revolutionary as ever. And with the daily appearance of tsunamis, pandemics, biological and nuclear weapons, “the war on terror,” institutionalised torture, fish speaking of the end of the world in Hebrew, the Virgin Mary appearing on fajitas the time is right for resurrecting the work of Van Hoddis and the Neu Club. For the apocalypse, it appears, has returned.
- Darran Anderson
The above article has been compiled from a variety of sources. Much was obtained by trawling through German documents, a task made infinitely more difficult by the fact I do not speak a word of German. Anyone with any corrections, feedback or information on Van Hoddis or on anyone mentioned here feel free to contact email@example.com