The thin new line

 

MEDIA:The German magazine ‘Die neue linie’set itself up as ‘a line in the sand against the dictatorship of empty heads and empty hearts’ in the Weimar Republic. A new exhibition shows its enduring influence on magazines from the ‘New Yorker’ to ‘Wallpaper*’, writes DEREK SCALLY

FOR JUST 14 years in the early 20th century, Germany was the most exciting, modern and daring place in the world. With the kaiser in exile and politicians fighting for the spoils of power, the racy, vital Weimar Republic sprang into life in 1919.

After a few frenzied circuits around the smouldering volcano of inter-war Europe, total economic collapse tipped the scorched republic into the hell of dictatorship.

Over as suddenly as it began, only a few novels, newsreels and the famous films from UFA studios survive as vivid documents of life in Weimar Germany. Of the surviving documents, fewer still survived the subsequent Nazi takeover to document the changes wrought by fascism. For all these reasons, the die neue linie (the new line) is nothing less than miraculous.

Founded in 1929, it was the New Yorkerand Voguewith a dose of Wallpaper* magazine thrown in – and with more thought-provoking style than anything else on the market.

Between its elegant covers, the magazine recorded the transition from the edgy Weimar era to the regimented Nazi dictatorship until it ceased publication in 1943. After slipping into post-war obscurity, an exhibition, Die Neue Linie: Bauhaus at the Kioskat Bauhaus Museum in Weimar, has given new life to the former house journal of the Weimar Republic.

The magazine was not short of material in 1920s Berlin, the undisputed financial, fashion and cultural capital of the new democracy. While Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill were sharpening their satirical knives in The Threepenny Opera, Franz Kafka was living here in terminal, tubercular obscurity; director Fritz Lang showed the world what cinema could do in his expressionist masterpiece Metropolis, while, in nightly variety shows, the “tingel-tangel” chorus girls pushed the boundaries of decency.

Far away from political dramas and the running street battles between Nazis and communists, this new publication made its way into middle-class living rooms. It appeared in September 1929, a relaunch of Frauen Mode (Women’s Fashion), which for 20 years had been the cash cow of the Beyer publishing empire.

From the outset, die neue linie mocked the matrons who wanted magazines with recipes and dress patterns. It poked fun, too, at flappers who felt that “Gloria Swanson must be everyone’s role model”. Like few publications of its day, die neue linie captured the zeitgeist of a nation of increasingly well-off, city-dwelling young women carving out a new role for themselves in post-monarchy Germany.

“Women are no longer prisoners of the home, no longer caged in the family,” the magazine instructed its readers. “Women no longer need to wait for a man to liberate them from the close ties of home into the wider bonds of marriage.” Strong stuff for 1929. Even now, 80 years after it first appeared, the magazine’s editorial concept is startlingly modern. Behind an elegant painted cover, readers were presented with a sizeable fashion section of “refinement and elegance”; there was a travel section focused on absorbing articles to allow readers to “explore the world”; there were novellas, short stories and poems by “the most forward-looking writers” in the entertainment section. There was also wider coverage of inter-war Germany’s buzzing arts scene.

Two things set die neue linie apart from its news-stand rivals. Firstly, it was produced by two men: Arndt Beyer, son of the publishing group founder, and Bruno Werner, a leading critic and journalist of the day and father of one of Ireland’s leading sculptors, Imogen Stuart. The second point was its wide range of interests, crowned by an interior decor and design section closely tied to the Bauhaus school of art and design.

Even today, the magazine is fresh and modern, with radical layouts and bold typography, a lower case masthead and a clever use of white space. Bauhaus artists Herbert Bayer and László Moholy-Nagy understood the opportunity to produce monthly works of art with a huge target audience in their monthly cover-design commissions. To convince readers that it was more than a fashion monthly, it commissioned the leading photographers of the day, from Cecil Beaton to Erich Salomon. Even Thomas Mann, himself an occasional contributor, praised the magazine’s “formidable literary standards”.

There were profiles of women scientists and politicians and editorials on “domesticated modernism” – women confident enough to hold their own and celebrate their femininity.

Granted, its message had a limited range: with a cover price of one reichsmark, at a time when the average German monthly salary was RM179, die neue linie could only be afforded by a young bourgeois intelligentsia.

Its message could easily have been stifled after Hitler’s rise to power in January 1933 had the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels not had other ideas. His Reich Culture Law had dramatic consequences for the German media, closing hostile newspapers and imprisoning editors. Magazine chiefs such as Bruno Werner expected a similar fate as, under the new law, all journalism was regarded as political and thus a legitimate target for Nazi Gleichschaltung or enforced conformity.

Many magazines, including die neue linie, were permitted to keep publishing to maintain the facade of media diversity – what Goebbels dubbed “propagandistic differentiation”. Thus began a nervous co-existence between the conformism demanded by the Nazi propagandists and the modernism propagated by Werner’s magazine. Concessions were made: Goebbels penned editorials and articles praising the “new German style”; one 1936 Olympics issue was, readers learned, “regarded approvingly by the Reich authorities”.

Yet, at a time when the Nazis closed down the Bauhaus school and trashed modern art, die neue linie under Bruno Werner held on to to its daring design and its unashamedly cosmopolitan concept.

Werner’s own survival was less than certain: his Jewish mother made him, in the objectionable language of the Nuremberg Laws, a “first-degree Jewish crossbreed”.

Born in Leipzig in 1896, Werner studied in Munich and Berlin and divided his time between two jobs: afternoons at the die neue linie office after mornings as arts editor of the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, a leading newspaper.

Although he was a veteran of the Somme, the Nazis decided his Jewish mother made him “unworthy” of military service. This did not mean a quiet civilian life: he was repeatedly hauled in for interrogation at the Gestapo’s notorious headquarters on Berlin’s Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse. His crimes were, among other things, a stout defence in print of artists such as Lyonel Feininger and Paul Klee, dubbed “degenerate” by the regime.

The Nazis watched everything Werner did, said and wrote, describing him in their files as an “artistic reactionary who is still championing Jewish-Bolshevist artistic personalities”. According to his daughters, Werner’s continued survival in Third Reich Berlin was largely down to his boss and guardian angel, Arndt Beyer.

“Beyer was twice able to protect our father and, indirectly, us too,” says Sibylle May, Werner’s younger daughter and Imogen Stuart’s sister. “And this was despite Beyer himself being a [Nazi] party member. He had to be, in his position, but he could use that to help others. That’s something one shouldn’t forget.” In its early years, politics and current events occupied a marginal position in die neue linie but, in the lead-up to war, the growing “Führer cult” was unmistakable. First came photo features showing busts of “the men around Adolf Hitler”; then came a piece on the SS, dubbed the “revolutionary elite”, and illustrated by a chiselled, blonde SS officer.

Unlike its competition, however, the magazine never touched on the so-called “race problem” nor did it take part in the Jew-baiting common in the rest of the German media.

Less easy to justify are the magazine’s occasional excursions into world politics: General Franco’s victory in Spain’s bloody civil war was portrayed as the country’s “re-entry into history”. The snatching of Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia was dubbed a foreign policy “triumph”.

Although Werner refused to fall into the restrictive line set by the Nazi cultural authorities, he was haunted for years by his role, and that of all artists and journalists, in the Third Reich dictatorship.

In his 1949 novel The Slave Galley, he describes his semi-autobiographical protagonist, also a journalist, as “neither martyr nor resistance fighter . . . incapable of evil and not strong enough to do good”.

Patrick Rössler, curator of the Weimar exhibition, delivers a mixed verdict on die neue linie’s legacy in the Nazi dictatorship. “It shouldn’t be forgotten that ‘apolitical spheres’ did not exist in the media system of the time,” he says. “Die neue linie also reinforced the established value judgments, contributing directly to stabilising the structure of domination.” Werner’s balancing act at die neue linie came to an end in April 1943, not because of ideological differences but for a more banal reason: wartime paper shortages.

With the end of the magazine, and the protection it offered, Werner’s position became precarious. After evacuating his family to Bavaria, he went into hiding. With false papers and the help of friends, he survived, barely, until the end of the war. In the 1950s, he continued working as a respected journalist and as West Germany’s first cultural attaché to the US.

After his death in 1964, aged just 67, an obituary praised die neue linie as “one of the few journalistic islands of good taste in the midst of a cultural life otherwise ‘aligned’ by the Nazis”.

After that, the memory of his magazine faded from view. For that reason, the exhibition in Weimar (and its beautiful, bilingual catalogue) provides long-overdue recognition of a landmark magazine and a man who steered it through the moral minefield of dictatorship.

Some 66 years after this ambitious magazine ceased publishing, die neue linie poses a provocative question: why do so many modern magazines aimed at women assume, in their content and language, that their readers are vacuous twits interested only in frivolous nonsense? As conceived by its editor Bruno Werner, die neue linie sold itself as a “line in the sand against the dictatorship of empty heads and empty hearts”. Take that, Heat magazine.

Die Neue Linie: Bauhaus at the Kiosk is at Bauhaus Museum Weimar until November 8th. 00-49-3643-545400, www.das-bauhaus-kommt.de