His best-known work today is the wrought-iron gate of the Buchenwald concentration camp with the inscription “Jedem das Seine”. A taunting saying in bright red, graphically modern letters. The camp gate was designed by Franz Ehrlich, who had studied at the Bauhaus and came to Buchenwald as a prisoner. Since the history of its origins became public a few years ago, the use of Bauhaus-oriented typography has been considered an act of resistance.
An exaggeration that Friedrich von Borries and Jens-Uwe Fischer question. After all, they write, modernism lived on subcutaneously under National Socialism, in industrial architecture as well as in the design of everyday objects.
The SS officials probably just liked the lettering. Ehrlich was then also allowed to design the gate of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, for which he chose a less elegant font for the sentence “Work sets you free”.
It is a contradictory and most wondrous life that design researcher and architect von Borries and historian Fischer tell of in their book Trapped in the Titotality Machine. Ehrlich, born in 1907 and raised in a working-class district of Leipzig, walked to Dessau in 1927 to apply to Walter Gropius for the Bauhaus.
He had completed an apprenticeship as a machine fitter and had the idea in his head of “doing or becoming something that I can’t describe even today”, as he later recalled. He got a “free position”, meaning he didn’t have to pay any tuition fees, and stayed at the Bauhaus for three years.
Franz Ehrlich shared the enthusiasm with which a radically new art, permeating all aspects of life, was to be created at the Bauhaus, even though he felt that the Masters’ Houses that had just been built did not fit in with socialist ideals. He ends up in the plastic workshop, builds kinetic objects and deals with advertising and trade fair construction.
For Gropius, who is enthusiastic about total theatre, he and a fellow student made a sculptural “Ta-Ti-To-Tal-Theater” out of leftover material as a Christmas present, with warnings such as “Caution curve! Hold tight!”.
Von Borries and Fischer also warn against the claim to totality of a modern age that wanted to create a “new human being” and came dangerously close to total political power. The Bauhaus directors Gropius and Mies van der Rohe served National Socialism after 1933, while Hannes Meyer was enthusiastic about Stalin. Ehrlich, a pragmatist with many talents, probably left the Bauhaus without a degree, despite claiming the opposite. According to the authors, a penchant for imposture was one of his main character traits.
In 1930, Ehrlich and two other Bauhauslers founded studio Z in Berlin, which specialized in advertising, worked for the constructivist sculptor Naum Gabo and was involved in the construction of the large garage on Kantstrasse. Because none of this was commercially successful, he moved to Leipzig and became a kind of art director in a publishing house that brought out the modernist magazine “die Neue linie”.
At the same time Ehrlich joins the Communist Youth League in Germany with his brother Willi. After the National Socialists came to power, he produced the newspaper “Die Junge Garde”, which called for resistance. The group is exposed, he is arrested and sentenced to three years in prison in 1935. When he had served his sentence, he was taken into “protective custody” in 1937 and transferred to the newly opened Buchenwald concentration camp, prisoner number 2318.
Everyday life for the prisoners begins with roll call at 5:30 a.m. Ehrlich works 12 to 14 hours a day in the quarry, driven by the beatings and kicks of the SS guards. His training as a locksmith and carpenter saves him and he ends up in the “workshop construction squad”. A villa was built for the camp commander Karl Otto Koch, and within a year, according to the authors, a “National Socialist ideal city” was created, which included two settlements, in which the SS leaders and their families lived right next to the prisoners locked behind barbed wire Life.
Ehrlich’s work is valued by the SS, he makes a career, so to speak, and is even released from the concentration camp in 1939, but remains in the construction office, now as an employee. He must continue to reckon with the arbitrariness of the SS. He himself later spoke of “civilian imprisonment” and claimed to have continued to be involved in the communist camp resistance.
In Buchenwald, too, most of the furniture, lamps and vases that Ehrlich designed were essentially modern. He supplied minimalist wooden slatted chairs and tables reminiscent of works by Gerrit Rietveld and Marcel Breuer for the SS Falcon Court on the site, where falcons, eagles, hawks and other birds were housed in their own log cabins. A break in style, which Borries and Fischer aptly describe as “Old Germanic Modernism”.
At the center of crime
Ehrlich sees himself trapped in a “TiToTality construction machine” (which he draws in 1939), but in 1941 he even moves to the headquarters of SS construction in Berlin, where he is busy with the interior design of an SS model estate. At 390 Reichsmark, his salary is about twice as much as the average monthly salary.
Does he curry favor, does he want to protect himself and his wife? The pact with his former tormentors is the most obscure chapter in his life, the authors attest him a “difficult to understand role change” and a “clear crossing of boundaries”.
Von Borries and Fischer have formulated their biographical approach in a pointed manner, it is also worth reading because it also contains a small history of the architecture and art of the GDR. Ehrlich, who had survived the punishment battalion 999 and the Yugoslav captivity, joined the SED in 1946 and self-confidently considered himself “suitable as a city planning officer” for a metropolis like Leipzig or Dresden.
Neoclassicists versus Modernists
But he ended up in the midst of the “formalism dispute” between traditionalist and modernist architects. Following the model of the Soviet Union, a neoclassicism linked to national traditions, as can be seen in the confectionery style of East Berlin’s Stalinallee, was raised to the rank of an aesthetic dogma.
The losers in the ideological power struggle were Bauhauslers like Ehrlich, who did not want to renounce the ideas of modernity. Although he had achieved the pompous title of Technical Director of the newly founded state-owned industrial design company and submitted plans for the construction of Eisenhüttenstadt, only one of all his projects was actually implemented.
Photos show how Ehrlich led state and party leader Walter Ulbricht and Prime Minister Wilhelm Pieck at the inauguration in 1956 through the radio building he designed on East Berlin’s Nalepastrasse, which is still famous for its acoustics today. But the GDR newspapers downgraded him to “senior construction manager” in their reporting and later accused him of serving the “yesterday’s bourgeois” in a different context.
Ehrlich achieved a final triumph with the type furniture series 602, which he developed for the Deutsche Werkstätten Hellerau north of Dresden. The cupboards, tables and chairs were built on a grid of 50 by 50 centimeters and were produced in large numbers between 1957 and 1967.
With its “completeness” based on the modular principle and industrial production, the “Furniture from the Takt Line” not only drew on Bauhaus ideas, but also – according to von Borries and Fischer – on the furniture that Ehrlich had designed for the SS in Buchenwald . It is an irony of history that the GDR series furniture, with which the designer wanted to meet “people’s needs instead of luxury needs”, is now sold as “Mid-Century classics” for four-digit sums.
Franz Ehrlich, who last lived in Dresden and died in 1984, was a resistance fighter and collaborator, avant-gardist and compromiser, campaign victim and, under the alias “Neumann”, also a Stasi spy for a time. His complex biography demonstrates in an exemplary manner that one sometimes has to be an adaptable artist in order to survive in totalitarian systems.
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