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Generation DadaReview - Generation Dada
The Berlin Avant-Garde and the First World War
by Michael White
Yale University Press, 2013
Review by Sharon Packer, MD
Dec 30th 2014 (Volume 18, Issue 1)

In this book, Michael White focuses on the friendships that forged the enigmatic and difficult to define avant-garde art movement (or anti-art movement) known as "Dada." He quotes Richard Huelsenbeck (1892-1974) who said that, "Dada is a club, founded in Berlin."

          Whether Dada began in Berlin or in Zurich (at the Café Voltaire) is open to question. The exact specifications of Dada art are also open to question, for Dada remains "the most indefinable of the 20th century's counterculture movements." In spite of this ambiguity, the Nazis did not doubt that Dada was "degenerate"—for they displayed it in their Degenerate Art show of 1936.

          Dada traveled to New York, but lost the political impetus of its European originators. Wherever it went, the boundaries of Dada aesthetics remained loose, so that Dada art is not instantly recognizable by appearance alone, as one might expect of the plastic arts. The exact opposite could be said for both the French-born Surrealism and for German Expressionism, two other art movements that arose around the same time, and that reacted to The Great War.

          The Dadaists saw themselves as a new generation, defined by their shared experiences and the extreme events of their day. Not only was there the carnage of the Great War, but there were highly lethal influenza epidemics that rode of the heels of war. Some critics of our current generation view Dada from the rear view mirror and see Dadaist photomontage as the start of the post-modernist mentality that privileges pluralism over pre-determined sources of power.   

          The very name that White chooses for his book--Generation Dada—reifies the contention that counter-cultural Dadaists were products of their unique generation. He elaborates on the inter-relationships of the artists, adding illustrations that highlight the wide range of works that fall under the rubric of "Dada".

          White succeeds in his stated intentions as he chronicles the personal connections that linked Berlin Dadaist members. He marvels that a protest movement that was "anti-this and that"--anti-art, art-war, anti-Weimar—nevertheless revolved around affinities rather than aversions and produced a sense of cohesion among artists of different stylistic persuasions. 

          Having stated that, we must ask ourselves how Generation Dada connects to metapsychology, or even psychiatry, psychology, psychoanalysis, neuropsychiatry or philosophy, which are the concerns of this publication. Answers to that question take us in many different directions.

          First, White tells us that most members of "Club Dada" were either, "fakers, deserters or avoiders," with respect to their participation (or lack of participation) in the First World War. Some enlisted in the military but many opted out, for any number of reasons. For instance, Dada artist George Grosz spent extended time in military mental hospitals. The ranks of the much maligned "malingers" or "war neurotics" gave way to several future Dadaists.

           White does not delve into the fascinating history of "malingering" or "male hysteria" during the First World War. However, that history is told by David Lerner's Hysterical Men (2003)[i], Andreas Killen's Berlin Electropolis (2006)[ii]Anton Kaes's Shell Shock Cinema: Weimar Culture and the Wounds of War (2009)[iii],  Sharon Packer's Cinema's Sinister Psychiatrists (2012)[iv] and Greg Eghigian's essay on "The First World War and the Legacy of Shellshock" (2014).[v] That history represents a nodal point in the theory and practice of psychiatry and gains importance for those reasons alone, with or without Dada.

          The nadir of this episode was the "Wagner-Jauregg Trial," which pitted future Nobel Laureate Julius Wagner-Jauregg and his cadre of like-minded and (hard-hearted) biologically biased military doctors against the likes of Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis.  Freud, a neurologist by training, testified at the trial of the noted Viennese psychiatrist, Wagner-Jauregg, (and other military psychiatrists) that stood accused of mistreating soldiers with medical complaints that had no identifiable organic origins. To mobilize these soldiers and to return frightened men to the front, the psychiatrists subjected them to painful electric shocks via a treatment technique known as "Kaufmannization," named for its psychiatrist-inventor, Fritz Kaufmann. Many soldiers deserted to avoid such abuse. It was said that some suicided. Some were simply fakers, too scared to return to a front where soldiers substituted for cannon fodder.

          Those who are more interested in the history of art than in the history of psychiatry might wonder about Dada's parallels with Surrealism, its chronological contemporary. Dada once included Andre Breton, who went on to found the Surrealist movement and to pen the first Surrealist Manifesto (1924). Over time, many one-time Dada artists drifted into surrealist circles, partly because surrealism persisted long after the Dadaist movement dissipated.  

          Breton's French-born Surrealism has strong connections to psychiatry, neuropsychiatry and most important of all, psychoanalysis.  Andre Breton, inventor of surrealism, had been a medical student before joining the French military. He worked on a ward with brain-injured soldiers, where he observed their behavior and listened to their language. Already familiar with Freudian ideas (but later rejected by Freud himself), Breton based his ideas on Freudian dream theory and decreed that dream states deserves as much priority as conscious waking states.

          Surrealist art, writing, even film, intentionally mined the unconscious to bring it to the forefront of awareness for the sake of art Psychiatric casualties resulted from early experiments with "automatic talking," but Breton moved to "automatic writing" and articulated his theories in his Surrealist Manifesto (1924), followed by the co-written book, The Second Manifesto (1929).

          The Dadaists deserve credit for writing the earliest countercultural art manifesto in response to WWI. Hugo Ball and Tristan Tsara were most active in these early endeavors, but Richard Huelsenbeck was also prominent in Dadaist circles and holds particular interest here.  

          Like Breton, Huelsenbeck was a medical student when he entered the military and forged his Dadaist ideology.[vi] Unlike Breton, Huelsenbeck went on to become a full-fledged physician, and a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst at that. Therein lies the strongest (but perhaps least well known) ink between "Generation Dada" and the concerns of Metapsychology readers.  

          Esteemed historian of psychiatry Henri Ellenberger posited that Breton might have founded a fourth psychoanalytic school, had he returned to medical school instead of allying himself with the arts and continuing in that tradition.  In contrast, Ellenberger's magnum opus makes no mention of Huelsenbeck but does make passing references to other Dadaists, such as Hugo Ball, Hans Arp, Marcel Jane, and Tristan Tsara.[vii]

          Ellenberger tells us that C.G. Jung dismissed the psychological value of Dadaism and doubted its ability to mirror psychotic states, reportedly claiming that, "it is too idiotic to be schizophrenic." That is in spite of the fact that Jung had an otherwise high tolerance for fringe philosophies, including parapsychology, poltergeists, alchemy, arcane Gnostic sects, Eastern religions as well as Nazi ideology. Later historians of psychiatry, such as Veronika Fuechtner,[viii] argue that Dada did mine the unconscious—but this conclusion remains a point of contention.  

          White devotes his final chapter to "Dr. Huelsenbeck"—but we must turn to a Frick Museum blog for more information on Huelsenbeck's post-Dada days.[ix] We learn that Huelsenbeck worked as a military doctor and later became a ship's doctor, traveling to Africa, Asia, and the United States, while he continued to write and to pursue his artistic passions.

          As the situation in Germany worsened and after the Nazis forbade him from writing (because of possible links to Bolshevism), Huelsenbeck moved his family to New York in 1936. Through the intervention of Albert Einstein, New York State recognized his Prussian doctor's license. He worked as an unpaid assistant psychiatrist at New York University Clinic. In 1939, he changed his name to Charles R. Hulbeck. He applied for membership in Karen Horney's American Institute for Psychoanalysis in 1942, where he subsequently became a lecturer.

          Huelsenbeck and Horney were already acquainted in Europe. Both were exiles from Hitler's Europe and both were renegades in their own way. The Frick website tells us that, "he credited Horney with sending him many patients and he built up a lucrative practice, enabling him to afford a suite on Central Park West."           Horney opposed Freudian emphasis on penis envy, supported proto-feminist ideas and attributed concepts of masculine superiority to culture rather than biology. It was fitting that Dr. Hulbeck analyzed another notable Horney graduate, Albert Ellis, who gained fame for progressive views on sexuality and wrote best-selling books on the subject (in addition to making important contributions to RET or Rational-Emotive Therapy).  

          Hulbeck shifted toward existential analysis (Daseinanalyse), yet Drs. Hulbeck and Horney remained friendly. Horney took painting lessons from Hulbeck, and Hulbeck continued to paint, show his art—and proceeded to publish in psychoanalytic journals some time later.

          Dr. Hulbeck returned to his native Switzerland to live out the final years of life. His 1969 essay "On leaving America for Good" is bittersweet. He writes, "As a doctor I was a success and as a Dadaist (the thing closest to my heart) I was a failure."

          In summary, White's book greatest success is its ability to rekindle interest in this unusual character who transformed himself, first from medicine to art, then to psychiatry and art—and once stood at the helm of an important but still ill-understood art movement.


© 2014 Sharon Packer


Sharon Packer, MD is a psychiatrist who is in private practice in Soho (NYC) and Woodstock, NY. She is an Asst. Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Her books includeDreams in Myth, Medicine and Movies (Praeger, 2002), Movies and the Modern Psyche (Praeger, 2007) and Superheroes and Superegos: The Minds behind the Masks (Praeger/ABC-Clio, 2010). In press or in production are Sinister Psychiatrists in Cinema (McFarland, 2012) and Evil in American Pop Culture (ABC-Clio, 2013, co-edited with J. Pennington, PhD.) She can be contacted at .


[i] Paul Lerner, Hysterical Men: War, Psychiatry, and the Politics of Trauma in Germany, 1890-1930 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003). 

[ii] Andreas Killen, Berlin Electropolis. Shock, Nerves, and German Modernity. (Berkeley: University of California, 2006).

[iii] Anton Kaes, Shell Shock Cinema: Weimar Culture and the Wounds of War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).

[iv] Sharon Packer, Cinema's Sinister Psychiatrists. (NC: McFarland, 2012).

[v] Greg Eghigian, "The First World War and the Legacy of Shellshock," (Psychiatric Times, February 2014).

[vii]Henri Ellenberger, The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History of Dynamic Psychiatry. (New York: Basic Books, 1970).


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