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Dada Against WWI

Hugo Ball wrote in his diary: 1915 New Year.

“On the balcony belonging to Marinetti’s translator we demonstrate in our own way against the war. We shout ‘Down with war!’ into the silent night of big-city balconies and telegraph wires. Some passers-by stop. A few lighted windows are opened. ‘Here’s to the New Year!’ someone shouts. The merciless Moloch Berlin raises its concrete head.” (Flight Out of Time, a Dada Diary by Hugo Ball, edited by John Elderfield)

Hugo Ball

Hugo Ball

What was the twenty-eight year old, writer and dramaturg Hugo Ball doing protesting the war on New Year’s Eve in Berlin? It might not be surprising to people now, as Hugo Ball went on to be one of the founders of the anti-war anti-art movement, Dada. However, only a few months earlier in 1914 Ball had been an enthusiastic supporter of the war. He had volunteered three time for war service but had been refused on medical grounds. What had turned an idealistic patriot into an anti-war protester?

In late August 1914, shortly after the Germans had taken the Liége forts Ball was still an enthusiastic civilian who had boarding a German troop train as it crossed into Belgium. He was taken off the train and arrested by the German military as a spy in Liége but released when the authorities realised that he was only an idealist.

It certainly wasn’t an uninformed change of mind as Hugo Ball appears to have been a bit of an early battle field tourists. He wasn’t arrested as a spy again, perhaps had some kind of press credentials from the Berlin paper Zeit im Bild.

There are many reasons and influences that might explain Hugo Ball’s reversal of opinion on the ‘Great War’. Was it in September seeing soldiers graves in Dieuze, the headquarters for the German 6th Army? Finding a copy of Rabelias in the rubble Fort Manonvillers, one of the permanent fortifications of the “Verdun Fortified Region”? Or, reading lots of philosophy, the first couple of pages of his diary are full of notes on who is reading? Or, was it the influence of his girlfriend, Emmy Hennings?

If there needed to be a single cause for Ball’s reversal of opinion then it was the death of his friend, Hans Leybold who was, with Ball, the co-publisher of the journal, Revolution. The last issue of Revolution appeared in September 1914, after that Leybold was drafted into the German army and was killed shortly after in Belgium. For Leybold the war was all over by Christmas.

John Elderfield speculates that it was Leybold’s military decorations that Ball dumped into Lake Zurich on 20th of October, 1915. However, the list of medals that Ball gives, “the Black Order of the German Eagle, the Medal of Bravery, the Cross of Merit First, Second and Third Class” appear to be more imaginary rather than actual. The Order of the Black Eagle was the highest order of chivalry in the Kingdom of Prussia and, although Prussia did have a Military Merit Cross, there was no “Medal of Bravery”.

On 26/6/1915 Ball wrote: “The war is based on a crass error. Men have been mistaken for machines. Machines, not men, should be decimated. At some future date when only the machines march, things will be better. Then everyone will be right to rejoice when they demolish each other.”

(See my post: Dada and the start of WWI)

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About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

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