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  • Berlin’s “First Responder” Artists, 1945–1946Theatre and Politics from the Rubble
  • Rebecca Rovit (bio)

“We are alive. Our house is still standing; and I am engaged in the general theatre business again,” Fritz Wisten reported from Berlin in 1946 to a fellow artist.1 Born Moritz Weinstein in Vienna (1890), the former director of an all-Jewish theatre in Nazi Germany (1939–1941) survived the war in Berlin. His non-Jewish wife and his position at the helm of an eight-year cultural organization and its theatre, the Jewish Kulturbund, had afforded him some protection within the Nazi regime. But Nazi law mandated that he wear the Star of David as he labored in a Berlin factory. He was not permitted to join non-Jews in his neighborhood bomb shelters during frequent air raids that occurred during the 1940s. Like other Jews left in Berlin, he waited for the Soviet military to liberate the city from the Nazis. Still reeling from the devastating events of World War II, in spring 1945 Wisten nonetheless enlisted considerable effort in reviving Berlin’s cultural landscape. He was one of the “first responder” theatre artists to forge a new direction in an environment that lacked a “cultural compass.” By the time Germany capitulated to the Red Army and the Allied Powers arrived in Berlin later that summer, the physical devastation and the administrative upheaval that accompanied the war had destroyed the city’s infrastructure, eradicating all “familiar points of reference—of community, of social and cultural networks” for disoriented Germans caught in the transition.2 The vibrant reemergence of culture in the direct wake of war resulted from the way [End Page 7] leading theatre directors and performers in Berlin coordinated their artistic endeavors even before Soviet and Anglo-American power put into policy the parameters for a new cultural life.3

Theatre historians have not adequately documented this “zero hour” (Stunde Null) for theatre practice, the moment so aptly described by historian Richard Bessel as when Germans, having experienced “destruction, defeat, disease, death and destitution on an unimaginable scale . . . went to hell and, in 1945, began to come back.”4 My focus on the immediate aftermath of World War II in Berlin (1945–1946) uncovers a surprising resurgence of cultural life in Berlin as the Red Army took over, sharing governance with the Allied Western command, from April 1945 through that autumn. Cultural officers in all of the occupied zones recognized the political power of culture, which led them to subsidize theatre. Officers in the Soviet-led Magistrat and the Allied forces also knew that the theatre could be a useful conduit for bringing recent history to the public. This article adopts a microhistorical lens to highlight the cultural and sociopolitical aftermath of war in Germany’s capital city.5 My reliance on archival research of previously unpublished documents and personal interviews reveals how a loosely connected group of seasoned theatre artists, including Wisten, directors Wolfgang Langhoff and Karl-Heinz Martin, and playwrights Friedrich Wolf, Hedda Zinner, and Günther Weisenborn, for example, began to restore cultural life as early as spring 1945. These artists—Jews, non-Jews, and German citizens of predominately leftist political leanings—had been at the forefront of the avant-garde prior to the war.6 Their commitment to producing socially relevant and topical dramatic work conveyed an insistent appeal for audiences to take moral responsibility for a postwar Germany in transition. Their active engagement with the theatre season of 1945–1946 discloses how an emerging cultural policy in the newly occupied East sector versus the West would shape the dramatic repertoire for years to come.

This exploration of an under-researched but significant turning point in twentieth-century history allows us to consider the reappearance of a cultural conscience in Berlin in the direct aftermath of war before the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic were officially founded, in 1949. Why has the artistic work achieved in the twilight years of regime transition received so little attention in theatre scholarship? By focusing on a group of theatremakers and their early collaboration we may readdress historiographical questions about the prevalent notion, particularly in the...


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