“In 1932,” Mies van der Rohe said, “the Nazis came.
“In 1933,” he continued, “I closed the Bauhaus.”
Mies van der Rohe, the final director of Germany’s Bauhaus, closed the influential design school in the face of Nazi harassment, but as he told the story to a small group of students in 1948, he did it with a wonderful “Fuck you” to the fascist party.
The school had already looked finished two years earlier in 1931. The Bauhaus had grown political while residing in Dessau under its previous director Hannes Meyer: A tenth of the student body had formed a communist cell; its faculty, most famously the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, was accused of harboring Communist ties.
The increasingly-powerful Nazi party didn’t demand that the Bauhaus be shut down for only its un-German politics, however. The Gestapo attacked the institution for its modernist, international style. As one Harvard history professor noted, the Nazis attacked Bauhaus art for how it “reduced man to a ‘geometrical animal’ and was utterly incapable of capturing the ‘German essence.’” 1
During one exhibition in Dessau, Mies warily guided his Nazi visitors away from any of Kandinsky’s geometric works so that they’d remain unseen. “It was then I knew it was absolutely hopeless,” Mies told his students years later. “It was a political movement. It has nothing to do with reality and nothing to do with art.”2
When the Nazis won a majority in the Dessau city parliament in 1931, they forced the Bauhaus to close, but not forever. With Mies as its new---apolitical---director, the institution sought refuge in the more progressive Berlin. “I rented a [telephone] factory in Berlin,” he said, “that was terrible, black… We cleaned it all up and painted everything white… And just on the outside, on the street, there was a broken down wooden fence, closed. You couldn’t see the building. And I can assure you there were a lot of people when they came there and they saw this fence and went home. But the good ones, they came through and stayed. They didn’t care about the fence. We had a wonderful group of students.”3
Though it couldn’t last.
Authorities back in Dessau ordered an investigation of the Berlin factory, claiming that the school was hiding documents linking it to the Communist party. Arriving at the Bauhaus on April 11, 1933, Mies found it locked down. “Our wonderful building was surrounded by Gestapo---black uniforms, with bayonets,” he later told his students. “I ran to be there. And a sentry said, ‘Stop here.’ I said, ‘What? This is my factory. I rented it. I have the right to see it.’”
A search of the building lasted hours. As one student later noted with incredulity: “Bauhaus members without proper identification (and who had this?) were loaded on the trucks and taken away.”4 But the Gestapo ultimately grew tired, hungry, and bored after failing to turn up any documents linking the school to the Communist party. Nonetheless, they shut the Bauhaus down.
Immediately afterwards, Mies contacted the Gestapo’s minister of culture, Alfred Rosenberg, pleading for the school to be reopened.
“I am very busy,” Rosenberg told him on the phone.
“I understand that,” Mies said, “but even so, at any time you tell me I will be there.”
“Could you be here at eleven o’clock tonight?”
Mies’s friends didn’t want him to go.
“You will not be so stupid as to go there at eleven o’clock?” they said to him, fearing he’d be killed.
“I am not afraid,” he responded. “I have nothing.”
Nearing midnight, Mies’s friends waited for him in a café across the street from Gestapo headquarters, hoping he’d walk out alive.
“You know,” Mies said as his meeting with Rosenberg began, “the Bauhaus has a certain idea and I think it is important. It has nothing to do with politics or anything. It has something to do with technology.”
Then Rosenberg said something that seemed to take Mies by surprise.
“I am a trained architect from the Baltic States,” Rosenberg said, “from Riga.”
Suddenly hopeful, Mies said, “Then we certainly will understand each other.”
“Never!” Rosenberg exclaimed. “What do you expect me to do? You know the Bauhaus is supported by forces that are fighting our forces. It is only one army against another, only in the spiritual field.”
As Mies recounted it to his students, Rosenberg asked, “What is it you want to do at the Bauhaus?”
Mies stared back and firmly replied, “Listen, you are sitting here in an important position. And look at your writing table, this shabby writing table. Do you like it? I would throw it out of the window. That is what we want to do. We want to have good objects that we have not to throw out of the window.”5
Other sources say the exchange may have been less confrontational: “For any cultural effort,” Mies said, “one needs peace, and I would like to know whether we will have that peace.”6
“Are you hampered in your work?” Rosenberg asked.
“Hampered is not the correct term,” Mies replied. “Our house has been sealed, and I would be grateful to you if you could look into this matter.”
Temperamental or not, the meeting went nowhere. That didn’t stop Mies from persisting, however. Almost daily, he pestered the Gestapo until he was granted a meeting with a senior leader, often waiting outside his door on a bench that he complained was “not wider than four inches, to make you tired so that you would go home again.”7
The meeting finally arrived three months later.
“Come in,” the Gestapo chief said. “What do you want?”
“I would like to talk to you about the Bauhaus. What is going on? You have closed the Bauhaus. It is a private property, and I want to know for what reason. We didn’t steal anything. We didn’t make a revolution. I’d like to know how can that be.”
“Oh,” Mies remembered the chief saying, “I am very interested in the movement, the Bauhaus movement, and so on, but we don’t know what is with Kandinsky.” (Again, with Kandinsky.)
“I make all the guarantees about Kandinsky,” Mies replied. He said Kandinsky was “an absolutely normal Russian---White Russian, too. He isn’t a Communist or anything like that.”8
“We don’t know anything about him,” the Gestapo chief said, “but if you want to have him it is O.K. with us. But if something happens, we pick up you.”
“That is all right,” he replied. “Do that.”
“Don’t be so eager,” the chief said. “They are the worst people.”
Any assurances about keeping Kandinsky on the faculty, however, turned out to be hollow.
Out of money, and with many of its students deciding to leave that summer, the Bauhaus faculty penned a letter to the Gestapo saying they were going to dissolve the institution. Another letter, however, was already on its way to the Bauhaus.
The institution could reopen, the Gestapo wrote them, but Kandinsky and the architect Ludwig Hilberseimer must be replaced “by individuals who guarantee to support the principles of the National Socialist ideology.” Not only that, but the Bauhaus needed to create a new curriculum that satisfied “the demands of the new State.”9
This was too much. And with it being too much, Mies decided to order champagne.
“What for?” another Bauhaus teacher said. “We don’t have money.”
“Order champagne,” he repeated.
“I called the faculty together,” Mies later told his students, “and I said, ‘Here is the letter from the Gestapo that we can open the Bauhaus again.’”
“That is wonderful,” they exclaimed.
But Mies countered: “I went [to the Gestapo headquarters] for three months every second day just to get this letter. I was anxious to get this letter. I wanted to have the permission to go ahead. And now I make a proposition, and I hope you will agree with me. I will write them a letter back: ‘Thank you very much for the permission to open the school again, but the faculty has decided to close it!’” 10
The faculty agreed. The letter was sent.
And that was how the Bauhaus told the Nazis, No, no, no. Fuck you.
Eric Magnuson is a freelance writer. His journalism has appeared in numerous publications, including Rolling Stone, The Nation, and Spin.com. His fiction has appeared in The Los Angeles Review.