11 min read

Many gaps, little context: Daniel Hornuff’s book “Keine Kompromisse? Wilhelm Wagenfeld und der Nationalsozialismus” looks at the life and work of the influential designer during the National Socialist era.

Review by Thomas Edelmann

Relevant presentations on design during the Nazi era are still rare. In this respect, a research work that deals critically and unreservedly with this period and the work of Wilhelm Wagenfeld, this luminary of “artistic collaboration in industry”, as he himself described his activity, would be most welcome. Unfortunately, Daniel Hornuff’s book with the somewhat awkward title ” Keine Kompromisse? Wilhelm Wagenfeld und der Nationalsozialismus” leaves many aspects concerning the prominent case open.

Wilhelm Wagenfeld (1900 to 1990) © Wagenfeld Stiftung

With the question “Wilhelm who?” the author tries to introduce his protagonist to a supposedly unsuspecting readership. “Even if the name doesn’t mean anything to you,” he addresses the reader directly, “you have certainly come into contact with Wagenfeld at some point. This refers to objects that Wagenfeld created. Hornuff describes a very well-known one – the Bauhaus lamp designed in 1924 – as a “table lamp that, depending on the version, emerges from a metal or glass shaft into a matt-glowing opal glass sphere”. Soon the tone changes to the soberly objective. But it quickly becomes clear that someone is writing here who has little interest in product design and the conditions of its creation.

Commentator on Contemporary Aesthetics

When Hornuff talks about design, he is not referring to the industrial production of times gone by. Media theory, aesthetic plastic surgery or climate change have occupied him so far. The contrast could not be greater: Wilhelm Wagenfeld, born in Bremen in 1900 shortly after the turn of the century and who died in Stuttgart a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, was in many respects a man of the 20th century. He tried to bring handcrafted objects into industry, to make them usable for modern production processes together with experienced factory staff. He is one of the formative figures of design, even if he rejected the term designer for his activity throughout his life.

Hornuff’s book is about a time when the “shadows of design, the dark side of design” (a book title by Michael Erlhoff) dominated. If you wanted to stay in the game, you had to reckon with these shadows. Wagenfeld was successful during the Nazi era. He evaded membership of the NSDAP, accepting disadvantages in return. Karl Mey, chairman of the supervisory board of the Vereinigte Lausitzer Glaswerke VLG, made him “artistic director” of what was then the largest factory of its kind in Europe in 1935. The most important production site was Weißwasser in Upper Lusatia, where Wagenfeld set up a development laboratory to work directly with the glassmakers.

Wandering Years with Metal and Glass

Barely nine years earlier, in 1924, he had completed his training at the Bauhaus with the journeyman’s examination as a silversmith and chaser. When the Bauhaus in Weimar moved to Dessau under political pressure, Wagenfeld stayed in Weimar. There he taught in the metal workshop at the successor institution, the Bauhochschule Weimar, from 1925 to 1930, until nationalists and Nazis dissolved the college.

Industry does not cooperate sufficiently with artists, he said in a speech at the Kunstverein Jena in 1925. The criticised head of the Jena glassworks Schott & Comrades was sitting in the audience, who then engaged Wagenfeld. In this cooperation, the designer became aware of essential aspects of glass production and created inexpensive icons for mass production. VLG marked the beginning of a new, formative period for him: “After the war, however, I have never again been able to have so much approval and so much free decision-making as I have in my work in Weißwasser,” Wagenfeld summed up in a letter to Walter Gropius in July 1960. Compromises? The time there, in the ” horrible Weißwasser”, was “immensely difficult” for him. “I had to be careful, manoeuvre, keep rejecting memberships,” he recalls. No compromises?

One special feature of the book is only revealed on its last page. In the acknowledgements Hornuff discloses: Meike Noll-Wagenfeld, daughter and sole heir to Wilhelm Wagenfeld’s rights, entrusted him “with the task of investigating her father’s work during the National Socialist era.” The contract concluded for this purpose guaranteed “the independent scientific development of the subject. I was given access to the sources presented to me from the private archive (…) and thus to previously unknown correspondence.” The only problem is that the author hardly ever compares sources that were made exclusively accessible to him with published, freely accessible publications.

Wagenfeld’s best-known design: the Bauhaus lamp from the 1920s in the form produced today. © Tecnolumen

Guilt for Hitler’s Survival

At first glance, depictions of a plan to assassinate Hitler and Ludendorff, which Wagenfeld discussed together with his Bauhaus fellow student Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack in Weimar in 1925, are surprising. The friends agreed that Wagenfeld should be the shooter. But things turned out differently: the night before, “Hirschfeld refused to give me the pistol,” Wagenfeld recalled. “He thought we should not make martyrs of Hitler and Ludendorff. They would have to be brought down by their actions.” The quotes come from a long letter to Walter Gropius that Hornuff found in the Wagenfeld Foundation. The document has been known since 1987, printed in the catalogue “Täglich in der Hand – Industrieformen von Wilhelm Wagenfeld aus sechs Jahrzehnten” (pp. 64 – 67). Hornuff does not mention the publication, but considers it likely that Wagenfeld never sent his multi-page letter of 4 August 1964. The assassination failed to take place and in the letter (or draft letter) Wagenfeld also presents his recurring feelings of guilt over the failure to act: He saw in himself “the murderer of the millions killed by the SS and the rest of the soldateska”, felt “guilty for all those killed in this war that went through Europe.” From this Hornuff, who briefly quotes excerpts, deduces self-aggrandisement and a “double distancing” from his own guilt.

Hornuff has discovered another version of the story: “I know someone who was supposed to shoot Hitler in Weimar around 1925”, Wagenfeld wrote to his close friend Gotthold Schneider in 1946, which moves Hornuff to far-reaching speculations and theses. He presents the addressee as a key employee of the Protestant Art Service, one who not only participated in the “activities of National Socialist cultural and art institutions”, but was also one of their “important and literally decisive actors”, according to Hornuff. The fact that the Kunstdienst honoured Wagenfeld’s work in 1940 with a “workshop exhibition” is only touched upon in the book. Not a word about the fact that the Kunstdienst organised Wagenfeld’s first monographic show, with stops in Berlin, Görlitz, Bautzen and Breslau, along with a catalogue.

Much of what the author retells has been known for a long time without him making this clear – for example, through appropriate annotations. He rarely succeeds in meaningfully rearranging and reassessing what is known. Apart from the appreciation of previously inaccessible private letters, especially to Erika Paulus, whom Wagenfeld married in 1942, the yield of Hornuff’s account is rather low. This is also due to the fact that the cultural scientist leaves out or does not seem to know important things.

Wagenfeld’s Turnaround

Hornuff accurately describes the history of that inglorious board and committee meeting of the Deutscher Werkbund in Berlin in June 1933. The supporting forces of the association hoped to be able to save Werkbund content in cooperation with the Nazi state. Wagenfeld sent two extremely critical letters in advance, addressed to the Werkbund’s office and board. In the first letter, dated 14 May 1933, he criticised the Werkbund’s attitude “towards the present Reich government and its reactionary tendencies”, which contradicted the association’s earlier stance and gave the impression of “undignified conformity”. After the Werkbund’s managing director responded in a tone of denial, Wagenfeld became clear: “The board claims that the Reich government is not pursuing any reactionary tendencies. How does the board reconcile this assertion with the anti-Semitic actions, the ‘purges’ of the universities and museums and the effects of the censorship of writing, music, stage and film? Who instigated or condoned the closure of the Bauhaus in Steglitz? Who covered up the actions and statements of the Kampfbund für Deutsche Kultur?” When the vote was taken in Berlin on 10 June, Stadtbaurat Martin Wagner, Walter Gropius and Wagenfeld voted No. The overwhelming majority – 27 of the 31 voting members (including Hans Poelzig, Bruno Paul, Lilly Reich, Ludwig Hilberseimer, Theodor Heuss and many others) – wanted the merger with the Nazi Kampfbund für Deutsche Kultur, made Nazi members and architects Carl Ch. Lörcher and Winfried Wendland “leaders” of the Werkbund. Wagner and Gropius resigned from the board, Wagner resigned from the Werkbund. Both emigrated later.

Surprising Transformation

Wagenfeld, on the other hand, underwent a transformation – unnoticed by Hornuff. He did not remain a simple member like Gropius, but expanded his activities in the association. This was despite the fact that the Werkbund now sent out a questionnaire to all members to exclude Jews and Marxists. Wagenfeld, who had just been a vehement critic, published several articles in the Werkbund journal. Only in part do they conform to the new Nazi line; but they demonstrate loyalty. One example may suffice: In issue 8/1933 of the Werkbund “Form” – i.e. already under the new association regime – Wagenfeld reported on “Neues Thüringer Glas”, his project with the glassblowers of the cottage industry in the Thuringian Forest, commissioned by the Thuringian Ministry of Economics. Thuringia had already had a state government with Nazi participation since 1930. In the last paragraph, he mentions the “brown fair in Erfurt” as well as the “NSBO’s art glassblowers’ workshop in Lauscha”, which showed the new glasses discussed earlier for the first time. He thus refers to a Nazi fair for products of “purely German origin” as well as to the “National Socialist Workers’ Cell Organisation”, the grouping with whose help the SA and SS stormed and occupied trade union buildings on 2 May 1933. Should this be in a book about Wagenfeld and the Nazis? – It isn’t.

Departure under different Auspices

In December 1933, Wagenfeld gave his insightful lecture on “Quality and Economy” in Berlin. Hornuff pays tribute to it, as it has been preserved as a copy in the Wagenfeld Archive in Bremen. The fact that this contribution opens the first issue of the 1934 edition of the Werkbund “Form” goes unnoticed. The text celebrates a supposed new beginning for the Werkbund. Did Wagenfeld believe what he postulates here? “We have to penetrate more and more into the economy, we have to get to know its complicated structure if we want to have an effect on industry and trade. For us, there must be no separation between culture and economy. No compromises are necessary. Compromises disintegrate. Classification is our duty! Only in this way does the path lead to the goal for which all of us are in the profession.”

The responsible editor of the journal “Die Form” was the art historian Wilhelm Lotz. Since 1927, he had been a close colleague of the liberal editor Walter Riezler. When he became the responsible editor after Riezler’s forced retirement in 1933, Lotz made the change in tone, writing style and project selection. Trivial early architectural works by Albert Speer moved into the journal, as did third-rate buildings by the new Werkbund leaders. Later Lotz was an author for the “Amt Schönheit der Arbeit”, praised Nuremberg party productions and the new Reich Chancellery. For Wagenfeld, Lotz was a significant journalistic supporter, producing relevant VLG publications in 1936 and 1938. Daniel Hornuff mentions Wilhelm Lotz only as the author of an article on the “City of Glassmakers”, which appeared in the NS weekly newspaper “Das Reich” in September 1940.

The gaps or omissions in Hornuff’s book cannot all be listed here, for example concerning Wagenfeld’s teaching activities in Berlin before and after 1933 or his collaboration with the porcelain manufacturer Fürstenberg, for whom Wagenfeld developed “Form 639” in 1934. Wagenfeld’s products received the highest awards at the Paris World’s Fair, and they also proved themselves in practical use in the rooftop restaurant of the German Pavilion. Were they perfectly in tune with the spirit of the times? Are they still timelessly beautiful?

Source: Heidelberg University Library, “Die Form”, January 1934
Source: Heidelberg University Library, “Die Form”, January 1934
Source: Heidelberg University Library, “Die Form”, January 1934

The Contract and the Note

Finally, there is the cooperation with the porcelain factory Allach (PMA) and the porcelain factory Bohemia. Both belonged to the SS economic enterprises, were subordinate to Himmler, and used forced labourers. It has been known for decades that Wagenfeld designed for the PMA, but that the products were not manufactured due to the war. Plaster models and drawings, originally designed for Bohemia, later further worked on for Hutschenreuther, but ultimately unrealised, are shown in the catalogue “100 Years of Wagenfeld”. A document on the PMA commission that Hornuff introduces raises new questions. In 1997, Erika Wagenfeld had given the Wagenfeld Foundation a “memorial note” signed by her as “proof of knowledge”, but at the same time she had issued a publication ban. Now Hornuff quotes excerpts from what he calls the “barely one-page text”. It shows how Wagenfeld had to struggle to get rid of the threatening PMA order in 1943. How should this document be interpreted?

The author does not ask such obvious questions. Wagenfeld’s companions do not form a context for him, relevant actors make guest appearances without further classification. A critical vita of Wagenfeld from the period between 1933 and 1945 is missing. Likewise a cursory account of the changes in Nazi cultural policy, insofar as they relate to what we today collectively call design. Wagenfeld’s exhibition practice during the Nazi period is touched upon, but without an in-depth account. That his protagonist wrote “letters with high intensity” is shared by the author. Astonishing or not, these served him “as a means of forming professional networks, conducting professional disputes, engaging in aesthetic and historical reflections, regulating institutional concerns, developing private life and weighing political consequences.” Hornuff fills the pages with such findings and lets us know that he sees Wagenfeld’s “public writings from and after the National Socialist era as (consciously) designed ‘products'”. What an insight!

Moods and Sensitivities

Wagenfeld, although more politically reflective than many of his contemporaries, was apparently afraid to make facts public and discuss them himself after 1945. Who did he fear more? Critics of his all in all restrained NS commitment? Or the post-war elite of the Federal Republic of Germany, from which the clients and buyers of his products were recruited? What does all this do to the things that Wagenfeld helped to develop in order to give pleasure, because they were needed and useful? Is this approach still relevant? Perhaps more than ever?

It may already be too late for a debate on the design of the Nazi era, independent of accusations of guilt or moral judgements. Who should lead it? To what end? His book, says Daniel Hornuff, is intended “neither as an indictment nor as a verdict”, “nor as a sweeping defence speech”; instead, it attempts “a historical reconstruction.” In the end, however, it is nothing more than an evaluation of private letters and communications, along with an analysis of moods and sensitivities.

Daniel Hornuff: Keine Kompromisse?

Wilhelm Wagenfeld und der Nationalsozialismus,

Kulturverlag Kadmos, Berlin 2022,

ISBN 978-3-86599-524-7

29,80 Euro, as E-Book 24,99 Euro

More on ndion

More articles on the topic of reviews.

Share this page on social media:

Print Friendly, PDF & Email