At Large  January 18, 2023  Rebecca Schiffman

Considering Hugo Ball's Anti-Semitism

Courtesy Wikimedia

Hugo Ball, detail, reading "Karawane", Club Voltaire, 1916

The Hugo Ball Prize is awarded once every three years by the German city of Pirmasens and can be given to writers, artists, and publishers. This year, it was awarded to filmmaker and video artist, Hito Steyerl. But Steyerl, aware of the award’s namesake Hugo Ball’s deep routed anti-Semitism, has declined the award along with fellow awardee Olivia Werzel. Instead of giving out the prize upon Steyerl’s request, the city of Pirmasens will examine Ball’s anti-Semitic legacy in a panel discussion next week. Steyerl’s initiative has prompted a reexamination of Ball's life and publications, which has some wondering why this reexamination has taken so long.

Courtesy Wikimedia

Portrait of Hugo Ball, 1916, Anonymous. 

Hugo Ball (1886-1927) was a founder and critical theorist of the Dada movement in Zurich. He opened the Cabaret Voltaire, the mythologized birthplace of Dada in February 1916 while living in Swiss exile during the First World War. Only six months later, Ball renounced the emerging movement for believing it to be an art form for the “worst kind of bourgeoise.” His fellow Dadaist, Tristan Tzara persuaded him back, but in May 1917 Ball broke definitively with the movement after only being involved in Dadaism for two years. Ball’s relationship to Dadaism during his lifetime was short-lived, but it plays a significant role in the history of the movement to scholars today. 

After his break from Dadaism, Ball worked for a short time as a journalist for the Swiss publication, Die Freie Zeitung. In 1919, he met German political philosopher, Professor Carl Schmitt. Schmitt would later become a key legal adviser to the Nazis. At the time of their short but powerful friendship, Schmitt and Ball worked together on a number of texts, including his controversial publication On the Critique of the German Intelligensia. In a 1923 letter to his wife Emmy Hennings, Ball says that Schmitt was “more important for Germany than the entirety of the Rhineland,” and a “great triumph for the German language and for legality.”

Courtesy Wallstein Verlag

A Critique of the German Intelligentsia by Hugo Ball cover

In 1919, he published On the Critique of the German Intelligentsia, a book with long-winded and extreme passages that critique the German intelligentsia and blame the German philosophers for the First World War. This text attempts to establish Germany’s guilt for the devastation of the Great War, ranging from anti-bourgeois sentiment to anti-Semitic tirades. In one chapter, titled “The German-Jewish Conspiracy to Destroy Morality,” Ball bases his analysis on a presumed existence of a secret alignment of Prussian militarism, Protestantism, Jewish theology, and German Idealistic philosophies. 

Ball traces the German contemporary crisis and downfall back to the Protestant Reformation, claiming that Jewish theology has remained a driving force of negativity in both the Reformation and then-present-day Germany. Bizarrely executed with examples of Saint Paul, Christian rebels, and a German-Jewish conspiracy to destroy morality, it is clear that the figure of the Jew was the overarching enemy in Ball’s entire political theory. Through the book, Ball constructs “the Jew” in a way that allows him to project any negative or harmful tendency onto Jews as a whole. In his point of view, all Jews are capable of these harmful traits and they work together as a “Jewish race” to accomplish their wrongdoings. He writes, “Not to be underestimated either is the broader view of the Jewish race, wherein it is not the achievement of the individual that is decisive but the result to which his conspiratorial work often leads generations later. The individual sacrifices himself for the Jewish ideal.” And though it seems quite apparent that Ball held these views personally, he made sure to pepper the text with denials of personal anti-Semitism.

Over the years, the book was edited to remove certain anti-Semitic sections, particularly after World War II. And in art history courses all over the world, Ball is recognized for his pioneering Dada Manifesto and contributions to Dadaism, without so much as a footnote on his troubling anti-Semitic viewpoints. Though it is true that we can applaud and appreciate Ball’s artistic inventions, shouldn’t we also keep his personal anti-Semitic ideology in mind?

Courtesy Wikimedia

Paul Gauguin, Nevermore, 1897, oil on canvas, Courtauld Gallery London

Today, for example, we hail Gauguin for his brilliant painting but take them with a grain of salt, knowing that he marginalized the women of French Polynesia as exotic, battered his wife, and exploited his friends. Gauguin’s work is still in museums, but there are now many texts and exhibitions that divulge his brutal history. The same can be said for Pablo Picasso, Chuck Close, and any other artist who has been at the forefront of misogyny, sexual assault, racism, or any host of problematic behavior. So why have we essentially stripped away Ball’s anti-Semitism? When doing research for this article, it was difficult to find any other piece that discussed his anti-Jewish beliefs, except for a few academic journals. 

Hito Steyerl’s declination and declaration against receiving the Hugo Ball Prize because of Ball’s anti-Semitism will be a huge step for opening up this history and getting us to start talking about it.

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