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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