After World War II, and until the very end of the 1960s, European-inspired modernism as an architectural and design style flourished in America. It suited the times — a clean, forward look, not quite streamlined, but definitely, well, modern. As James Lileks wrote in 2013, “modern architecture is the break from the past that everyone experienced….A skyscraper of the past had fizzy Gothic tracery unraveling in the clouds; the [new] buildings ended with a fist. And it fit. The new world was corporate, technocratic, computerized, arranged on our behalf by minders and betters, and all this would take us to the moon and make us live for a hundred years. Science!”
It didn’t hurt modernism’s reputation that Hitler hated this stuff, and if Hitler didn’t like it, it had to have something going for it, right? And it also helped that Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus, and Mies van der Rohe, its last director and the best of the German modernist architects, were living and teaching in America starting in the late 1930s, until their deaths in 1969. Gropius at Harvard, and Mies at Chicago’s Illinois Institute of Technology, whose campus he designed. And not just teaching — as Tom Wolfe memorably put it in From Bauhaus to Our House, both were viewed by American intellectuals of the time as “The White Gods! Come from the skies at last!”, despite the paucity of buildings they actually completed in Germany before emigrating, especially when compared to the literally hundreds built by Frank Lloyd Wright, who was immediately viewed as a dinosaur once the White Gods parachuted in, largely because he was American and familiar, and thus not European and exotic.
But both Weimar-era socialists also airbrushed much of their last years in Germany out of their backgrounds, in much the same way that, as Ann Coulter once joked, “The French Resistance acquired most of its members after 1945.” In the Weekly Standard, Andrew Nagorski reviews Artists Under Hitler: Collaboration and Survival in Nazi Germany by Jonathan Petropoulos. As Nagorski writes:
To be sure, there were artists, such as the composer Kurt Weill and the playwright Bertolt Brecht, who fled Germany as soon as Hitler took power, both for personal and political reasons (Weill was Jewish, Brecht was a Marxist). Marlene Dietrich, who had already launched her career in Hollywood, famously and contemptuously rebuffed efforts by the Nazis to lure her back. She chose, instead, to become an American citizen, and during the war she made anti-Nazi broadcasts and offered memorable performances for American troops in North Africa and Europe.
But Petropoulos, who has written extensively about the cultural scene in the Nazi era, focuses on the prominent artists who stayed behind—at least for as long as they could. Although a few tried to help Jews and others who were targets of the new regime, there are no profiles in courage here. Most of the artists desperately sought to continue their careers at any price, which meant serving the Nazis and constantly seeking to prove their loyalty. In the land of Faust, they eagerly followed a Faustian script.
Nagorski notes that composer Paul Hindemith was especially eager to work with the Nazis, “despite the fact that his wife was half-Jewish and he was friends with Jewish musicians.” As for Gropius:
Like the Bauhaus founder and famed architect Walter Gropius, who left Germany in 1934 for Great Britain and later ended up teaching at Harvard, Hindemith and other artists in this group were not driven into exile by opposition to Hitler. As Petropoulos repeatedly points out, it was not for a lack of trying that they were not accepted by the Nazis; far from it. And like Hindemith, Gropius held out the hope that he might return to Germany, in his case as late as 1939.
Similarly, as Elaine S. Hochman wrote in her 1989 book, Architects of Fortune: Mies Van Der Rohe and the Third Reich, Mies left Germany in 1937 with great reluctance. He had arrived in Berlin in 1905 an unknown 19-year-old apprentice draftsman. After World War I, he embraced modernism with a fervor, initially via a series of visionary skyscraper illustrations, and then his landmark Barcelona Pavilion, built as part of Germany’s role the 1929 International Exposition, and similarly designed residence for the wealthy Tugendhat family of Brno, Czechoslovakia. The following year, he was the last director of the Bauhaus, despite having an uneasy reputation with Gropius, who he considered to be an inferior architect. (I agree.)
By this time, Mies was a cultural star in Weimar’s hothouse intellectual atmosphere. “To be ‘Herr Professor,'” Hochman wrote, “marked the epitome of German aspirations: the artist/intellectual was king. Within the rigid, stratified atmosphere of German society, no one else was permitted the same privileges.” Mies saw those privileges violated when the Nazis shuttered the Bauhaus in 1933, but even so, he was still willing to work with them, until his design for a textile exhibition in Berlin was dramatically compromised by Nazi intervention, with ultimately Mies replaced by a Nazi-approved designer, and Mies himself being casually threatened with worse to come.
And even after that, Mies left Germany in 1937 with great reluctance. Using his brother’s passport, Mies left for Holland, and ultimately, Chicago:
Mies walked on. Holland lay only a few paces ahead. Behind him, growing distant and faint lay everything: his land, his art, his Berlin–his Heimatstadt [hometown], with its “dreadful tastelessness” (as Brecht had called it) that he had come to love; its tumult and sly humor, its challenge and caustic edge, its comforting familiarity.
With a dreadful crunch, the steel lever slammed down behind Mies.
“I felt,” he later said, “like a flower plucked from its plant.”
As Nagorski notes, “Those who were driven into exile early also benefited from the popular misconception that they had been ardent opponents of Hitler. On the centenary of Gropius’s birth, for example, the Bauhaus-Archive in Berlin described him as a ‘declared enemy of Fascism.'”
But ultimately, only for aesthetic reasons; both Gropius and Mies would have been as happy to design for National Socialism as they did for socialist Weimar. And as for the worldview that succeeded modernism — well, the Nazis had that base covered as well.
In Artists Under Hitler, Petropoulos quotes architectural historian Richard Pommer, who dubbed Mies “the Talleyrand of modern architecture”; a similar passage is referenced in this 2001 New Republic article on Mies:
In his remarkable essay “Mies van der Rohe and the Political Ideology of the Modern Movement in Architecture,” the most important of the studies in the Schulze collection, the late architectural historian Richard Pommer mordantly observed that “politically, Mies was the Talleyrand of modern architecture.” And he explained: “In less than ten years, he designed the Karl Liebknecht-Rosa Luxemburg Monument for the Communist Party in Germany, the Barcelona Pavilion for the Weimar Republic, a monument to the war dead for the Socialist-led government of Prussia, and a competition for the German Pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair of 1935, which, had it been built, would have been the first Nazi monument of international significance.” In addition, just weeks after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Mies participated in an invitational competition for an addition to the Berlin headquarters of the Reichsbank, the country’s central financial institution. [As did Gropius — Ed]
To see the photographs and the drawings of two of the designs that Pommer mentions — the Liebknecht-Luxemburg Monument with its Red star and its hammer and sickle, the Brussels Pavilion with its swastika — is to realize that the chillingly opportunistic Mies would change party symbols as insouciantly as switching boutonnieres.
But then, as we noted yesterday, during World War II and its run-up, he and Gropius were far from alone in that department amongst their fellow socialists.