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Bauhaus and the Nazis: The Politics of Collaboration

The case of an avant-garde architect, who defied then assisted the Nazi machine, makes hard and fast judgments difficult.

The trial of the Ukrainian John Demjanjuk in Germany has brought the question of Nazi collaboration back to the daily news. If you were a victim of the Nazis and decided to help them — rather than suffer or starve — how guilty are you?

Demjanjuk's apparent cruelty as a camp guard darkens his case. Not only did he sign up for the job all those years ago; he allegedly liked leading Jews to the gas chamber. No one accuses Franz Ehrlich, a German Bauhaus architect who spent two years at Buchenwald, of the same sadism. But recent research by the Buchenwald historical institute has found evidence that Ehrlich designed parts of the concentration camp.

In particular, he designed the motto on the prison gate, which reads Jedem das Seine, or "To each his own." The phrase is as bitterly sarcastic — and almost as famous — as the "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign at Auschwitz.

The story is surprising. Bauhaus became the 20th century's essential "forward-looking" modern style, opposed in spirit to fascist pomp; after the war it would shape the look of secular intellectual cities like Berlin, Los Angeles and Tel Aviv.

"The story of what happened after the Gestapo padlocked the last Bauhaus facility, in Berlin," wrote The New York Timeslast month, "has always been about flight and persecution. Most of the school's artists and artisans left the country, many for America; the few who remained, it has been thought, were Jews who did not get out in time."

Ehrlich wasn't Jewish. When Hitler came to power he was a young, avant-garde architect in Leipzig. Most Bauhaus architects had progressive ideas, but few of them joined the political resistance against the Nazis: Ehrlich did, with fellow Communists, which got him arrested in 1935. He was transferred to the new camp at Buchenwald in 1937. To avoid hard labor, writes the Times, "he walked into the joinery workshop, declared himself an architect ... and began to draw at a drafting table."

The Nazis freed him early, in 1939, on condition that he continue to work for the SS. He lived off Nazi commissions for the next four years, designing officers' barracks, prison barracks, a weapons factory and even the "zoo" at Buchenwald — a small menagerie just outside the prison gate. He also worked on elements of the Sachsenhausen camp near Berlin.

He was apparently too questionable a citizen to be given security clearance to work on the most lethal parts of the Buchenwald camp, the crematorium or the "medical" section. Still, he collaborated. He earned a good living as a tool of the Nazi machine.

No one believes he became a committed Nazi, and some argue that he worked subversively. A fellow prisoner named Fritz Männchen said Ehrlich had provided the resistance movement in 1941 with plans for the concentration camp at Auschwitz. But the story "is impossible to corroborate," writes the Times.

Weimar's Neues Museum hosted an exhibit about Ehrlich last summer, and its organizers emphasized his acts of resistance. "The SS construction supervisor ordered him to create the typographic design for the motto 'Jedem das Seine,'" reads a program note. "It was to be mounted above the camp gate, legible from the inside, it was to emphasize the right of the SS to brutally sort out and murder [the prisoners]. Ehrlich designed the letters to reflect the [style of] Bauhaus and his teacher, Joost Schmidt. The typography thus becomes a subtle intervention in contrast to the spirit of the words."

Perhaps. The letters are (still) a surprising instance of grace on the grim prison yard at Buchenwald. But Ehrlich died in 1984, in East Germany, and these details rose to the surface only five years ago. He never talked about his SS commissions.

One lesson from the story might be that modernism can be easily corrupted. The sleek, secular spirit of Bauhaus hasn't turned Berlin, Los Angeles or Tel Aviv into beautiful towns. But the style can be degraded by simpler forces than Nazism. The Bauhaus movement led to mass-produced buildings in the West after the war as well as notorious pre-fab Plattenbau in the Communist East. Minimalism, after all, is cheap, and the Nazis had budgets like everyone else.

The real point of Ehrlich's story is that Nazi collaboration was a survival tactic for all sorts of people under a brutal regime. Some defenders of Demjanjuk would call this a good reason to let the old man go. But the logic may point to the much tougher, plainer conclusion. Maybe survival, under any system, is morally incomplete. "There is an opportunism here in which [the collaborators] did not care who was heading the regime," said David Bankier, head of the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, to Ha'aretz, "as long as they were allowed to work."

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