A Cultu­ral Foundation

Over eighty artis­tic estate coll­ec­tions and mate­rial on more than eighty thousand names span­ning the history of the cabaret and its prede­ces­sors comprise the core of the German Cabaret Archi­ves. Founded in 1961 by Rein­hard Hippen in Mainz, the private coll­ec­tion trans­fer­red to the city of Mainz in 1989. Mean­while, under the direc­tion of Jürgen Kessler, the archi­ves have been trans­for­med into a cultu­ral foun­da­tion subsi­di­zed by several public insti­tu­ti­ons. Since 1999, in reco­gni­tion of their natio­nal importance, the Cabaret Archi­ves have been supported by funding from the Cultu­ral and Media Depu­ties of the Federal Govern­ment. The coll­ec­tions moved to the histo­ri­cal Provi­ant-Magazin warehouse buil­ding in Mainz in 2004.

The Bern­burg Collection

A second branch in Bern­burg on the Saale River docu­ments the history of the cabaret in the German Demo­cra­tic Repu­blic. This project is supported by the city of Bern­burg and the Federal Govern­ment. The archi­ves are located next to the “Eulen­spie­gel Tower” in the Chris­ti­ans­bau of the Bern­burg Palace.

Stars of Satire

In their museum areas, both bran­ches of the archi­ves memo­ri­a­lize major figures of the cabaret in the twen­tieth century and present the “Stars of Satire” in their perma­nent exhi­bits. Mainz has honored the “immor­tals” of history in a cabaret “Walk of Fame” that runs between the Provi­ant-Magazin and the Unter­haus Theater, while a “Hall of Fame” in the Bern­burg Palace has a similar mission.


Docu­men­ta­tion Center for German-Language Satire

Since 1961

Purpose | The playful, sati­ri­cal form of cabaret and its lite­rary, philo­so­phi­cal, and poetic quali­ties are the focus of our docu­men­tary inte­rest. The central task of the German Cabaret Archi­ves is the conti­nuous coll­ec­tion and the avai­la­bi­lity of these mate­ri­als to acade­mics and historians.

Queries are answe­red on a daily basis, and scho­lars visit from around the world. First of all the archi­ves serve as a rese­arch site and source for studies, disser­ta­ti­ons, and theses in the fields of Lite­ra­ture and Theatre, as well as Musi­co­logy, Lingu­i­stics, Cultu­ral History, and Politics.

Exhi­bits of the archi­ves’ coll­ec­tions tour Germany regu­larly. They have been seen in Switz­er­land, Austria, Luxem­burg, France, Poland, Israel, Japan, and Austra­lia. The six-part series “100 Years of Cabaret” was opened in 2001 in Berlin’s Academy of the Arts. In light of the huge demand, two versi­ons of this touring exhibit are now available, and with help from the Maison Dijon de Rhéna­nie-Pala­ti­nat part of the mate­rial is being trans­la­ted into French.

A special exhibit on the theme of “Cross-German History in the Mirror of Poli­ti­cal Cabaret: Divided Mockery, Shared Laugh­ter” was commis­sio­ned by the Federal Presi­dent on the occa­sion of the Natio­nal Day of Unity.

Cabaret in Germany

offi­ci­ally began on January 18, 1901. The German Cabaret Archi­ves docu­ment its history: What the cabaret was, what it became, and what it is. And what it can be, even in systems of oppres­sion and intolerance.The year 2018 is the eight­ieth anni­ver­sary of the so-called “Night of Broken Glass,” a euphe­mism for the night of Novem­ber 10, 1938. And 85 years ago, May 10, 1933, was the day when books burned in Berlin. Shortly there­af­ter, on June 23, they burned in Mainz as well. In his memoirs, “Defying Hitler: A Memoir”, Sebas­tian Haffner descri­bes what lite­rary-poli­ti­cal cabaret could be during the years of the Natio­nal Socia­list reign of terror.


it is typical of the early years of the Nazi regime that the whole façade of ever­y­day life remained virtually unch­an­ged. … The fact that this was possi­ble also speaks against us. Our reac­tion to the expe­ri­ence of fearing for one’s life, and being totally at the mercy of events, was only to try and ignore the situa­tion and not allow it to disturb our fun. I think a couple of a hundred years ago would have known better how to deal with such an experience—if only by cele­bra­ting a great night of love, spiced by danger and the sense of loss. Charlie and I did not think of doing anything special, and just went to the cabaret because nobody stopped us: first, because we would have gone anyway, and second, in order to think about unplea­sant things as little as possi­ble. That may seem cold-blooded and daring, but it really only indi­ca­tes a weak­ness of the emoti­ons. We were not equal to the situa­tion, even as victims. If you will allow me this gene­ra­liza­tion, it is one of the uncanny aspects of events in Germany that the deeds have no doers and the suffe­ring has no martyrs. Ever­y­thing takes place under a kind of anes­the­sia. Objec­tively dreadful deeds produce a thin, puny emotio­nal response. Murders are commit­ted like school­boy pranks. Humi­lia­tion and moral decay are accepted like minor inci­dents. Even death under torture only produ­ces the response “Bad luck.”

That evening,

however, we were recom­pen­sed for our inade­quacy beyond our deserts. Chance had led us to the Kata­kombe, and this was the second remar­kable expe­ri­ence of the evening. We arrived at the only place in Germany where a kind of public, coura­ge­ous, witty, and elegant resis­tance was taking place. That morning I had witnessed how the Prus­sian Kammer­ge­richt, with a tradi­tion of hundreds of years, had ignobly capi­tu­la­ted before the Nazis. In the evening I expe­ri­en­ced how asmall troop of artists, with no tradi­tion to back them up, saved our honor with grace and glory. The Kammer­ge­richt had fallen but the Kata­kombe stood upright.

The man

who led this small group of artis­tes to victory—standing firm in the face of over­whel­ming, murde­rous odds must be counted as a victory—was called Werner Finck. This minor cabaret master of cere­mo­nies has his place in the annals of the Third Reich, indeed one of the very few places of honor there. He did not look like a hero, and if he finally became some­thing like one, it was in spite of himself. He was not a revo­lu­tio­nary actor, had no biting satire; he was not a David with a sling. His charac­ter was at bottom harm­less and amiable, his wit gentle, light, and capri­cious. His jokes were based on double entendre and puns, which he handled like a virtuoso. He had inven­ted some­thing that could be called the hidden punch line. Indeed, as time went by it became more and more neces­sary for him to hide his punch lines, but he did not conceal his opini­ons. His act remained full of harm­less amia­bi­lity in a country where these quali­ties were on the liqui­da­tion list. This harm­less amia­bi­lity hid a kernel of real, indo­mi­ta­ble courage. He dared to speak openly about the reality of the Nazis, and that in the middle of Germany. His spiel contai­ned refe­ren­ces to concen­tra­tion camps, the raids on people’s homes, the general fear and general lies. He spoke of these things with infi­ni­tely quiet mockery, melan­choly, and sadness. Listening to him was extra­or­di­na­rily comforting.

This March 31

was perhaps his grea­test evening. The house was full of people staring at the very next day as if into an abyss. Finck made them laugh as I have never heard an audi­ence laugh. It was drama­tic laugh­ter, the laugh­ter of a newborn defi­ance, thro­wing off numb­ness and despe­ra­tion, feeding off the present danger. It was a miracle that the SA had not long since arrived to arrest ever­y­body here. On this evening we would proba­bly have gone on laug­hing in the police vans.We had been impro­ba­bly raised above fear and danger.Translated by Oliver Pretzel, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 2002

Take a peek…

You’ll be surpri­sed when you visit me in the histo­ric Commis­sa­riat in Mainz. I’m anything but the cliché of a dusty archive. Despite my youth, I am a classic, if I may say so myself. Permit me to present myself in over a thousand square feet of down­right museum elegance. Just for you, of course! After all, I have a mission. In the cultu­ral inte­rest of the public. I preserve an entire genre, a unique art form, so to speak! My founder regis­tered me in the family genea­logy as a “docu­men­ta­tion center for German-language satire.” Just after he arrived in Mainz in 1961, he proudly named me the “German Cabaret Archives.”

Since that day,

my staff has been dedi­ca­ting them­sel­ves to the perfor­mance forms and mani­fes­ta­ti­ons of satire around the world. That’s why we so often greet inter­na­tio­nal visi­tors. Recently a student from Moscow was here to hunt for mate­rial from the 1920s for her docto­ral disser­ta­tion, and a profes­sor from Japan was inte­res­ted in the cabaret in exile. Once a docto­ral candi­date from Yale Univer­sity spent nine months in the bowels of the archi­ves tracing the role of the medieval trou­ba­dour as an ances­tor of the poli­ti­cal singer-song­wri­ter. Written inqui­ries from all over the world testify to the great inte­rest in my treasu­res. That’s why I was able to open over 160 exhi­bits since the begin­ning of the 21stcentury, in seven Euro­pean count­ries. Inclu­ding France. In the Maison Hein­rich Heine of the Cité Univer­si­taire Inter­na­tio­nale de Paris: “Le Monde, un Cabaret –Les débuts du caba­ret­lit­té­raire en Alle­ma­gne et en France.” Mont­pel­lier, Toulouse, Lyon, and Dijon follo­wed. In the German-spea­king regions, we toured with “100 Years of Cabaret” from Alzey to Zurich. That exhibit shows what I have to offer: the genre! Its mani­fes­ta­ti­ons. Their history. It’s about the artists. Espe­ci­ally about the poli­ti­cal-lite­rary cabaret as an art stri­ving for demo­cracy and freedom. It’s about the authors. Their life stories. All too often they were stories of suffe­ring. It’s about their rele­vance­for inte­res­ted people from all eras. For the audi­ence of the Belle Epoque. Of the impe­rial era. Between revo­lu­tion and censor­ship. Between the First and Second World Wars. Between demo­cracy and dicta­tor­ship, mili­ta­rism and fascism. It’s about the art of survi­val. In exile and under cover. Between styles and between political
parties. It’s about our culture. About its trans­for­ma­ti­ons. About educa­tion. And of course it’s about laugh­ter. Laugh­ter at oursel­ves and at ever­yone else. It’s about theto­po­gra­phy of mockery and its language through the changes of the times. Just like it’s about the humor and poetry of our human expe­ri­ence. About the absurd and the concrete. About criti­cism of current affairs in artis­tic form. And last but not least,it’s about enter­tain­ment too. From the very begin­ning. And about love! Coll­ec­ting, by the way, is a form of love, the Ameri­can philo­so­pher George Steiner once said.

The cabaret’s compo­site form of diffe­rent stage genres

has, in a formal sense, only existed since the end of the nine­te­enth century. This mixture is symbo­li­zed by the lovely French term “cabaret.” That means, on the one hand, a pub, a little bar, and that includes its inti­mate charac­ter. On the other hand, it means a divided salad platter, an hors d’ouevres tray. The sections around it repre­sent the diffe­rent stage arts: music, theater, dance, sket­ches, even pain­ting. After some prede­ces­sors like the “Caba­rets des Assa­sins,” where they sang street ballads about murde­rers, it was Rodol­phe Salis, origi­nally a painter, who climbed up onto a barrel one night in the fall of 1891 in his pub “Chat Noir” in Mont­martre and announ­ced the perfor­man­ces of various artists for his well-heeled audi­ence. That was the birth of what the world now knows as the topical, lite­rary cabaret! As the founder of the so-called Caba­rets Artis­ti­ques, Salis was the first of his guild of emcees. You could call him the connec­ting sauce in the center dish of the divided salad platter. His commen­ta­ries were noto­rious! Some­ti­mes insul­ting, aggres­sive, just like the songs sung there. But that’s what attrac­ted the intellec­tual public of Paris. Soon the intellec­tual elite climbed up to the “Butte sacré.” Poli­ti­ci­ans and aris­to­crats follo­wed. For example, Victor Hugo and Émile Zola; the Italian freedom fighter Giuseppe Gari­baldi came, as did Prince Jérôme Bona­parte, the great-nephew of the great Napo­leon and the nephew of Napo­leon III. Many singers, compo­sers, and perfor­mers of great talent appeared, most of whom later became famous, for instance Aris­tide Bruant and Yvette Guil­bert, the first diseu­seof the French cabaret. Her male coun­ter­part Aris­tide contin­ued his career in his estab­lish­ment “Le Mirli­ton” with soci­ally criti­cal songs aimed at the hypo­crisy of the proper­tied bour­geoi­sie. Thanks to a poster by Henri-Lautrec, he’s world famous today. Two Chat Noir posters from 1895 recently arrived in my graphic cabi­nets, joining all the others, almost twenty thousand arti­facts from all eras of the twen­tieth century. It all started with a segment of the popu­la­tion that loved art and culture. Cabaret was, at least for the bohe­mi­ans, the medium of choice. The author Otto Julius Bier­baum proclai­med: “The renais­sance of all the arts and of life from the music hall! We’ll dance up a new culture! We’ll give birth to Super­man in the honky-tonk! We’ll knock this silly world on its butt!” He meant it seriously! Unfort­u­na­tely, it was other people who knocked the world down. But still, it
was some­thing new for 1900! It was the era of new begin­nings, of new inspi­ra­ti­ons: mankind as beings hurled into time. The world as a cabaret! Like art nouveau, this new art form gave rise to a down­right movement—it was “in” and “en vogue,” and it became a fashion that soon swept into Berlin. Here the conser­va­tive baron Ernst von Wolz­o­gen had a hit with his “Über­brettl” on January 18, 1901, the thir­tieth anni­ver­sary of the foun­ding of the Second Germa­nEm­pire. The theater regu­la­ti­ons of this stage are in our archives.

Soon after­ward,

the “Eleven Execu­tio­ners” entered the scene in Munich: the first real poli­ti­cal cabaret in Germany. Frank Wede­kind joined the eleven, as did Marc Henry, who hailed from­Pa­ris. So my imme­diate ances­tors come from France on my mother’s side and from the German Empire on my father’s side. A Euro­pean mish­mash just like old royalty… And then it went fast! By 1901 forty locales had deve­lo­ped along the Spree river with programs of lite­rary cabaret. In Vienna, “Zum lieben Augus­tin” (Dear Augus­tine), the “Nacht­licht” (the Night­light), and the “Fleder­maus” (the Bat) opened. Frida Strind­berg, whose first child was fathe­red by August Strind­berg and her second by Frank Wedekind,founded the first cabaret in London. Before that, Barce­lona had “El quatre Gats.” Cracow, Warsaw, Buda­pest, and St. Peters­burg: caba­rets on the French model deve­lo­ped all the way to Moscow. Where­ver busi­ness savvy and a knack for arti­stry were lacking,though, a newly opened locale often quickly failed. But the upswing prevai­led. At first. Typical for this young art form, as origi­nally in Paris, was the pub stage, the podium for the so-called vagants or goli­ards. Here the dream of the artis­tic bohe­mi­ans was reali­zed: presen­ting their own works, free and outside of the estab­lished art busi­ness. The imme­diacy of this art form on stage is fasci­na­ting. Theater preten­ded things for the audi­ence, but in the cabaret they speak directly to the audi­ence! Sala­ries for the perfor­mers were gene­rally rare. Most people got paid in food and drink. Or they passed around a coll­ec­tion plate. Apropos trou­ba­dours: the models and roots went way back into the middle ages. Moral and sati­ri­cal poetry, love and drin­king songs of the so-called Erzpoeten,the earliest poets. In Hanns Dieter Hüsch’s “Arche Nova,” the role of the “archip­oeta” was honored in the very first program booklet with one of his songs from the twelfth century. The most important coll­ec­tion, about three hundred songs, disco­vered in 1803 in the Bene­dikt­beu­ren monas­tery and called “Songs of Beuren,” gained inter­na­tio­nal fame with a new musical setting: Carmina Burana.Troubadour poetry as an extra­va­gant orato­rio, time­l­ess thanks to Carl Orff’s bril­li­ant music.

The artis­tic bohe­mi­ans them­sel­ves are a product of their time.

And so these new caba­rets live from and for the moment. Only the “Simpli­cis­si­mus” in Munich is a long-lived success, run by a very compe­tent female emcee who was also an inge­nious busi­ness­wo­man: Kathi
Kobus manages to synthe­size art and commerce. The “Simpl” runs for fifty-six years, from 1903 to 1968—a time span that few caba­rets have managed to match until today. And who hung out there there before the First World War? Just about ever­y­body, and the stylish elite of Munich! Tourists from abroad, the Prince of Wales, Czar Ferdi­nand of Bulga­ria, the King of Belgium, capta­ins of indus­try, wealthy aris­to­crats. Wilhelm Voigt, the shoe­ma­ker who made a name for himself as the “Captain of Köpe­nick,” appears for money in the Simpl and sells his auto­graph. And a certain Hans Bötti­cher. He’s a regular, then the house author, and later he became famous as Joachim Ringelnatz.

On my fiftieth birth­day, a sweet, elderly lady gave me a gift, the “Golden Book of the Cata­combs.” In 1929, her late husband Tibor Kasics had co-founded the cabaret “Kata­kombe” (the Cata­combs) with Werner Finck in Berlin. In this wonderful gift there’s an amusing dedi­ca­tion by Joachim Ringel­natz, as well as an origi­nal drawing by Walter Trier, who illus­tra­ted the books of Erich Kästner. There are auto­graphs and apho­risms ranging from Hans Albers to Carl Zuck­mayer, by Klaus and Hein­rich Mann, Walter Hasen­cle­ver and George Grosz, Max Rein­hardt, Erich Mühsam, Gustav Gründ­gens, Luigi Piran­dello and Erwin Pisca­tor along­side Alfred Döblin and Richard Huelsenbeck.

The latter came up with the Dada recipe for cabaret:

“Dada is the cabaret of the world, just as the world, the cabaret, is Dada.” In the “Cabaret Voltaire” in Zurich, Hugo Ball inven­ted that lite­rary form as a chall­enge to the bourgeoisie’s apathy toward the horror of the First World War. After 1918, Kurt Tuchol­sky and Walter Mehring were the fore­most cabaret authors, thechro­nic­lers of an aban­do­ned repu­blic and cham­pi­ons of aggres­sive satire, who also wrote lyric poetry or hila­rious humor to enter­tain their audi­ence. For Bert Brecht, the cabaret served as an inspi­ra­tion for his theory of epic theater. With the ditties of Otto Reutter or the songs of Fried­rich Hollaen­der and Rudolf Nelson, sung by stars the likes of Claire Waldoff and Marlene Diet­rich, the cabaret made its mark on the opulent revues and the music hall stage, espe­ci­ally in Berlin. In Munich, cabaret took the popular-absurd form of the uproo­ted humo­rist of the sorrowful coun­ten­ance, Karl Valen­tin. And in 1932, a year before Hitler came to power, Werner Finck stands bashfully smiling on the stage and looks straight ahead. He’s imagi­ning what will happen when the Nazis take over, and he predicts, “In the first weeks of the Third Reich, parades will be held. If these parades are inter­rupted by rain, hail or snow, all the Jews in the vici­nity will be shot.” This punch­line, we would soon see, was no joke.

When the Nazis come to power, Finck tries to embody humor as resis­tance. Hundreds of cabaret perfor­mers and sati­rists spend the “Thousand-Year Reich” in concen­tra­tion camps. As a sampling, remem­ber the artists that are honored with a satire star outside my front door on Romano Guar­dini Square in Mainz: Erich Mühsam, Fritz Grün­baum, and Kurt Gerron. They were murde­red in Orani­en­burg, Dachau, and Auschwitz.
After May 8, 1945, cabaret enjoyed a genuine rebirth. In the western zones of “Trizo­ne­sien,” they sang with a taun­ting, melan­choly tone: “Hurra, we’re still alive.” In the “Kom(m)ödchen” in Dussel­dorf, the cabaret set new poli­ti­cal and lite­rary stan­dards. Erich Kästner started writing again in Munich, and Günter Neumann’s radio cabaret “Die Insu­la­ner” (the Island­ers) at Berlin’s Ameri­can broad­cas­ter RIAS leapt into the cold war. With Wolf­gang Neuss, the cabaret drummed the conse­quen­ces of suppres­sion and the econo­mic miracle into the West German consci­ence, and at Munich’s “Lach-und Schiess­ge­sell­schaft” and the Berlin “Stachel­schweine” (the Porcu­p­i­nes), they cele­bra­ted the new year in tele­vi­sion style. In this way, cabaret becomes popular with a broad middle-class audi­ence. Back then, tele­vi­sion was behind the boom of poli­ti­cal cabaret. In East Germany, for four decades, cabaret adapted to the limits of ever­y­day censorship—convinced, when push came to shove, of the supe­rio­rity of socia­lism. That’s a story in its own right, which now has its own roof over its head for coll­ec­ting and docu­men­ting the history of cabaret in the GDR, in Bern­burg Castle on the Saale River. In West Germany of the Sixties, Franz-Josef Degen­hardt sang out against the rise of neo-Nazis; the cabaret of the APO, the extra-parlia­men­tary oppo­si­tion, agita­ted into the trou­bled Seven­ties; and finally, Hanns Dieter Hüsch’s “Hagen­buch” declared ever­yone and ever­y­thing sick and insane.

In the Eighties,

cabaret rolli­cked though the young Sponti acti­vi­tist and alter­na­tive scene as the “Three Torna­does.” With Thomas Freitag, it unce­a­singly parodied Chan­cellor Kohl, the inven­tor of Realsatire,true events that are so absurd they seem like satire, “in this here land of ours,” while with Gerhard Polt it perfor­med an autopsy on our mental roots, and with Richard Rogler, it survi­ved the new intellec­tual-moral freedom through cyni­cism, and on the growing commer­cial tele­vi­sion networks, it disco­vered its market value. Since then, it has been wave­ring between cabaret and comedy, between meaningful poli­ti­cal commit­ment and a heigh­tened sense of profit, between Germany’s inti­mate stages and huge arenas. Over a hundred years later, that old “Jest, Satire, Irony and Deeper Signi­fi­cance” (to play on Chris­tian Diet­rich Grabbe’s comedy) with which one once hoped to topple the status quo fell prey more and more to the rules of commer­cial enter­tain­ment. The country has changed. New para­digms are ever­y­where. But that’s how it always was throug­hout the eras. Even consti­tu­ti­ons don’t live up to their promi­ses. Ever­y­thing has its premi­ses, its deve­lo­p­ments, its tran­si­ti­ons. And even­tually it has its cultu­ral history—which I docu­ment for the cabaret. And so, Will­kom­men! Bien­ve­nue! Welcome!Take a peek. Take your time. Make a reser­va­tion. Visit us. Maybe we will meet one day!

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