Spiegelgasse (Zurich)

The Spiegelgasse, a narrow street in the Old Town of Zurich, has been home to a number of fascinating figures – most of them immigrants. Switzerland is the last country one would associate with revolutionary thinking, but this street proves differently.

‘Die Revolution muss aufhören, und die Republik muss anfangen’ (The revolution must cease and the republic must begin), is a famous sentence taken from Georg Büchner’s 1835 political play Dantons Tod (act i, sc. i). Büchner, a young German doctor and dramatist with revolutionary sentiments who had made a spectacular appearance on the literary scene, is often viewed as a sort of proto-Marxist. His writings are filled with premonitions of class struggle. Late 1836, the author was appointed as a lecturer in anatomy at the University of Zurich. He settled at no. 12 Spiegelgasse where he spent his final months writing and teaching until, in 1837, he died of typhus aged just twenty-four. In 1916/17 the house next door (no. 14, second floor) was home to Vladimir Iljitsch Uljanow, better known as Lenin. The authorities were not particularly concerned about the Russian refugee and allowed him to read, write, and speak (in good German) unhindered. They did not consider him a threat.

In London, printers Francis Meynell and Stanley Morison established the Guild of the Pope’s Peace in 1916. Pius X had died in 1914 and was succeeded by Benedict XV. The latter was apalled by the war and condemned the continuation of the slaughter. The Guild was set up to print and distribute Benedict’s political appeals and his attempts to end the bloodshed. The world, including the Catholic world, did not listen. People preferred to lend their ear to the jingoïsm of Lloyd George Kitchener or the Kaiser. The situation was symptomatic for the rest of Europe. Sensitive minds tried to escape from the collective madness. Zurich was a gathering place for European refugees, a place where people came to find peace and stability. It was also a relatively permissive environment that enjoyed a history of allowing the expression of revolutionary ideas by Europe’s disillusioned intellectuals. Artists, activists, intellectuals, and other refugees swarmed to Zurich and met in bars and cafés, discussing the precarious future of Europe, and planning political or artistic revolutions. Romanian Jews escaping ultra-nationalist and anti-Semitic tendencies, German and French citizens escaping conscription, they all gathered in neutral Switzerland. Pacifist poets such as Schickele, Leonhard Frank, and Franz Werfel lived in the city. Among the refugees were German poets Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings, Romanian poet Tristan Tzara and painter Marcel Janco, the Alsiatian painter Jean Arp.

Repelled by the utter madness with which the young were rushed to trenches of senseless slaughter, these artists had lost their faith in European bourgeois culture. The copying of external reality and the creation of a self-contained work of beauty no longer seemed to make sense to them. They were united by a conviction that the horrors around them were rooted in outdated morals and values. Throwing overboard all conventions and traditional sentimentalities, they sought an alternative unity of art and life. In order to do so, they aimed at establishing – in the words of Hugo Ball – a ‘playground of crazy emotions’. With that ambition in mind, Hugo Ball contacted Jan Ephraim, an elderly Dutch sailor and patron of the Holländische Meierei (Dutch dairy inn) who made a backroom available for a cabaret with singing, theatrics, music, visual art exhibitions, and all sorts of other performances that would disturb bourgeois feelings.

On 15 February 1916 Cabaret Voltaire opened its doors for the first time at no.1 Spiegelgasse. The press release – dated 2 February 1916 – which announced the opening of the nightclub is rather tame. It reads: ‘Cabaret Voltaire. Under this name a group of young artists and writers has formed with the object of becoming a centre for artistic entertainment. In principle, the Cabaret will be run by artists, permanent guests, who, following their daily reunions, will give musical or literary performances. Young Zurich artists, of all tendencies, are invited to join us with suggestions and proposals’. Ball took as his model the cabaret tradition of Paris and Berlin before the war. Voltaire, the philosopher who in his time was at war with the ‘spirit of the age’, was chosen as the godfather for the new movement. Refugee artists from all over Europe quickly besieged the new establishment.

Emmy Hennings, Hugo Ball’s partner, sang her own songs as well as many from the repertoires of cabaret legends such as Aristide Bruant, Erich Mühsam, and Frank Wedekind. A spirit of mockery soon took over. Each evening at the Cabaret included a succession of spectacles, dance, song, plays, a balalaika orchestra, etc. The French or Russian evenings were occasions for readings of poems by Max Jacob and Jules Laforgue, of extracts of Ubu Roi, as well as texts by Ivan Turgenev and Anton Chekhov. This was the age of manifestos – at times some twenty people read out declarations of various sorts simultaneously.

All visitors were welcome to take part in the performances which were presented to a noisy, mainly young audience. On 15 June 1916, with a print run of 500 copies, the only edition of the magazine Cabaret Voltaire appeared, edited both in French and German. In thirty-two pages, it included a poem by Guillaume Apollinaire, texts by Kandinsky, ‘Parole in libertà’ by Marinetti, the reproduction of a poster by Marcel Janco and a drawing by Arp (on the cover). Ball and Tzara took the opportunity to announce the future publication of a magazine entitled Dada. Thus the word Dada appeared here for the very first time in print.


The Cabaret closed in June 1916, but Dadaïsm was just beginning. The Dadaists rented a room for one night at a guildhall named Zunfthaus zur Waag where they held their celebrated 14 July Dada Soirée which officially launched the movement with Ball’s now famous manifesto. In French, he explained, dada means hobby horse. What the poet did not mention is the fact that the word dada appears in a bawdy French song performed on various occasions by Eça de Queiroz’s marvellous creation of the shameless concubine Genoveva in his novel A tragédia da rua das Flores (The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers; written between 1877 and 1878, but published many years after the author’s death). All three nouns here are synonyms, although dada in this context would be best translated as stud-horse or stallion:

Chaque femme a sa toquade,
Sa marotte et son dada.

In German dada means good-bye, be seeing you sometime. In Romanian: yes indeed, you are right. With that declaration Hugo Ball launched Dadaïsm. The legend goes that the name was adopted by randomly sticking a knife into a dictionary and finding under the blade the noun dada. That night, Tzara read aloud his own first manifesto, Richard Huelsenbeck performed a phonetic poem, there were absurdist literary readings, works of art on display, and general chaos. Every gesture and every move was calculated to shock the audience with the aim of destroying traditional understanding of art and aesthetics. Dada was anti-art, and these performances were meant to be hideous, like horrors of war.

That same year, Tristan Tzara’s La première aventure céleste de M. Antipyrine, with coloured wood-cuts by Marcel Janco, was published in the ‘Collection Dada’. By 1917 the excitement generated by the Cabaret Voltaire had fizzled out and artists moved on to other places in Zurich such as the Galerie Dada at no. 19 Bahnhofstrasse (an initiative by Tzara), then later to Paris and Berlin. Politically, many of the personalities involved, and Ball in particular, were admirers of Russian radical Mikhail Bakunin who, in 1843, had also spent time in Zurich. Bakunin’s anarchism, to Hugo Ball, was ‘Dada in political disguise’. But it was another Russian political thinker who, in physical terms at least, found himself much nearer to the Cabaret Voltaire.

When Lenin arrived in Switzerland in 1914, he informed the authorities that he was neither an army deserter nor a coward, but a political exile. He had little difficulty gaining entry to the country. With his wife Nadia Krupskaya, he settled in bourgeois Bern. Politically, he did not win over any friends or comrades. In February 1916 he was granted permission to move to Zurich where he had access to the central library. The couple rented a two-room flat at no. 14 Spiegelgasse. It was here that he finished his work Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (the study was influenced by John Hobson’s thinking on the subject) – in spite of bad smells. Nadia wrote in her memoirs that the yard was filled with the stink of a nearby sausage factory. Did Lenin visit the Cabaret? Hugo Ball does not mention Lenin amongst the people attending the performances, but Huelsenbeck claims to have encountered Lenin in Zurich (ironically, the local police were more suspicious of the Dadaïsts than of the revolutionary thinker). Marcel Janco circulated stories according to which the shows were attended by Lenin and by another famous inhabitant of the city, Carl Jung. Self-promotion has always been one of the stronger aspects of the movement. In his Lénine Dada (1989) French writer Dominique Noguez imagined Lenin as a member of the Dada group and suggests how the meeting of minds influenced and transformed his vision of society. Leninism is a product of Dada. Noguez based his book on this intriguing question: could Lenin have been Dada incarnate? In 1917, with the help of Swiss representatives of the political left, Lenin received permission to return to St Petersburg. In April of that year he left the Spiegelgasse for good. Six months later, following the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks seized control.

This then is the remarkable chain of events. In February 1916 Lenin and his wife settled at no. 14 Spiegelgasse. Cabaret Voltaire opened its doors at no. 1 Spiegelgasse on 15 February of that same year. In Tom Stoppard’s Travesties (1974) Lenin and Tzara stand opposed. The name of Spiegelgasse (the German ‘Spiegel’ means mirror) functions as structural and thematic base for the play which opposes two revolutionary characters, one who transformed the political, the other the artistic status quo. The mirror image postulates sameness and difference. One can look at this mirror image from a different angle. In one street, in the same month of the same year, two contrasting personifications of the idea of ‘avant-garde’, Tristan Tzara and Vladimir Lenin, stand shoulder to shoulder, staying virtually next door to one another, the one representing the artistic, the other the political interpretation of this controversial concept.

Henri de Saint-Simon was a leading social theorist in the post-Revolutionary period. In his vision of society, scientists play a dominant role. It was in this context that Saint-Simon introduced the notion of avant-garde. In a Mémoire sur la science de l’homme (1813), the author encourages contemporary scientists of rendering their services to the elevation of mankind, thus functioning as a ‘scientific avant-garde’. From the outset, Saint-Simon regarded the arts as a crucial part of his social system. Writers had to develop the poetic part of his new social system and influence public opinion. The anonymously published Opinions littéraires, philosophiques et industrielles (1825) concludes with a dialogue between an artist and a scientist in which the former pledges that ‘we, artists, will serve you as your avant-garde’. The political use of the military metaphor preceded the artistic one which can be traced back to the 1790s. The word was adopted in left-wing utopian ideology. In the progression from Saint-Simonian to French socialist thinking, avant-garde became solely related to the historic task of ‘working class parties’. A number of newspapers adopted the word in their title. Lenin applied the word avant-garde in his account of What Is to Be Done? (1902).

Napoleon exercised an enormous influence on the arts. Balzac was dazzled by Bonaparte and so was Charles Augustine Sainte-Beuve, the greatest French critic of his age. What makes Sainte-Beuve’s jargon intriguing is his intimate knowledge of military matters. In a letter to Hugo (5 May 1845), he compared the early Romantics to the officers of the ‘Corps of Engineers who are sent ahead to clear the way, to lay a road for the army following behind’. Sainte-Beuve, biographer of Napoleon’s strategist Antoine-Henri Jomini (published in 1869), was well-read into military textbooks. His 1854 Stendhal essay reads like a lecture on military tactics, describing the author as some hussar in the vanguard who gallops up to the enemy’s position, but who also, no sooner has he got back to his own lines, needles the other troops to speed up their advance. When the critic refers to Stendhal as a ‘cheveau-léger d’avant-garde’, he used the metaphor in a well-considered manner. The cultural meaning of the term avant-garde originates in Sainte-Beuve’s critical imagery.

In aesthetics, the military metaphor of avant-garde gradually came to overshadow earlier metaphors of poetic exploration or artistic gamesmanship. The shift from explorer or athlete to soldier underlines the changing conditions under which the artist committed himself to his task. The first metaphors are part of Classicist thinking, as much as the latter constitutes an integral aspect of modernist attitudes. Contemporary critics have interpreted avant-garde in terms of a breach between artist and public, as a ‘tradition’ of heterodoxy and resistance. During the 1970s historians tended to confuse the political with the artistic use of the term. Avant-garde in art was judged to be left-wing, disruptive and anarchic. In the final analysis, the avant-gardist, like the colonist or athlete, metaphorically represents the mobility of the creative mind. The metaphor of avant-garde has been fertile in a sense that both artists and political utopians found a way of integrating the term in their belief-systems. One root, different branches. Two apartments, same street.

1 comment
  1. As a resident of Zurich, a local historian and blogger who writes about Zurich and leads historical and literary walking tours of the city I really enjoyed reading this. Spiegelgasse has an amazing literary history. I have posted a three part blog essay about Dada and Zurich here: http://www.pauldoolan.com/2010/05/dada-is-born-part-one.htm.

    One more thing, Goethe stayed in Spiegelgasse in 1779, at the home of Johan Kasper Lavater. The latter’s home was a major magnet for writers of the German Aufklarung.

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