Hess Hans


Hans Hess

Hess was born in Erfurt in 1908 to Alfred and Tekla Hess. Alfred owned Germany's second largest shoe factory but had a socialist outlook and the young Hess was educated in a series of independent progressive schools, in part because of the anti-Semitism endemic in much of German state education.

Alfred was a patron of modern German art and was a founder sponsor of the Bauhaus, an inter-war German college of art, which combined crafts and the fine arts, and was famous for a particular style and approach to design.  Many of the young artists who went there became friends of the family. The artists Kandinsky, Klee, Feininger and Pechstein became family friends.

After studying in Geneva and the Sorbonne, Hans went to the USA for a year (1928 to 1929) to learn about modern advertising and marketing, a skill he practised first in the family factory and then pursued in Paris after he had fled Nazi Germany in May 1933. With war already looming and possibly threatening an invasion of France, he left Paris for London in late 1936 and never left.

Among other occasional jobs in his early days in Britain, Hess was a Left Book Club lecturer and then an editor of émigré journals that exposed the true nature of the Nazi regime inside Germany.

The first title Hess was associated with was `Germany Today’, a monthly publication published during 1938-9 by the Committee of the Friends of the German People's Front, a Communist-directed organisation based in the Finchley Road.  The journal billed itself as being issued by the “German Information Bureau of the Relief Committee for the Victims of Fascism”.

He became a founding member of the Free German League of Culture (Frei Deutscher Kulturbund), founded in 1939.

Not only was Hans Hess a founding member of the shared a flat with Hans Kamnitzer, a key figure in the FGLC. The FGLC clubhouse, from Dec 1939, was much involved in holding intense talks on art and hosting exhibitions from the Artists International Association and of German expressionism.  It was by far the foremost cultural, social and political organisation representing anti-Nazi Germans in Britain during the war. At its peak, it had some 1,500 members, but many more people attended the impressive list of cultural events that it put on.  The FGLC had a lively youth wing, interestingly named the `Free German Youth’ (FDJ in German) and its own `Little Theatre’ in Upper Park Road.

The FGLC came out of the Friends of the German People's Front (FGPF) which was founded by Alfred Meusel, a significant academic authority on historical matters, who continued in this role in post war East Germany.  FGPF, amongst many other things, pioneered the Frei Deutsche Hochschule (which might loosely be considered to be called the Free German Institute of Science and Learning). This unofficial extra-mural adult learning institute followed Popular Front approaches but was rooted in German Communist culture of the 1920s.

But funds for these various émigré activities began to be a significant issue, especially after the signing of the 1939 Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union. Thus it was that the Friends of the German People's Front decided to publish `Inside Nazi Germany’ and Hans Hess was a key figure in the production of this, as he had been with `Germany Today’. Intriguingly, Hess was able to persuade W H Smith to stick both journals.

Thus, `Inside Nazi Germany’ effectively replaced `Germany Today’ in 1940, as a bulletin but it now majored in featuring smuggled letters or reports from correspondents actually still resident inside Germany. The new ING was linked to the Committee of the German Opposition, which had been previously based in Holland and had now relocated to London. This was essentially the German Communist Party’s (KPD) external arm as it linked internally to Germany. Contrary to the myth created by post-war western historiography, Communist resistance was still extant during the wartime period despite the intense repression. Some ten thousand individual cases of the distribution of Communist leaflets were reported as arrests by the Gestapo in late 1941.  But, despite the unique and significant role being performed, funding had still been an issue for ING.

With Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, matters changed considerably and, from 1942, with Jürgen Kuczinski, a well-known and eminent Communist economist and statistician, who had the rank of US Colonel (he returned to Germany in 1945) now heavily involved, `Inside Nazi Germany’ was turned into ING Publishing, which aimed to inform the British public on the internal affairs of Germany. Kuczinski's "300 million slaves" sold 20,000 copies and some fifteen pamphlet titles in all were published. Operating from offices at 9 Great Turnstile, WC2, it produced pamphlets such as "Report from Berlin", a letter by “a German Communist" giving a direct report on the current state of opinion inside Germany. Pamphlets by, or with the involvement of German members of the International Brigades in Spain, appeared on military issues. The famous artist John Heartfield contributed designs.

Interned and then deported to Canada as an `enemy alien' for a time, Hess returned to England in 1943 and worked for a short time as an agricultural labourer in Leicestershire.  

Near the end of the war, ING titles in German began to appear, presumably in anticipation of liberation. Its work increasingly merged with the FGLC as the war drew to a close. Then a Free German Movement, the leadership of which included important Communist figures, held its inaugural meeting at Holy Trinity Church Hall in Finchley Road on 25th September 1943. The FGLC began to prepare for potential power in a post war Germany and some breakaway refugees bodies, notably Jewish and Austrian began to seek independent status, especially as American influence began to bear results with its fascination with the aim of Zionists. In contrast, FGM began to focus on a return to a post-war Germany.

Meanwhile, through Jewish friends, Hans Hess had met his future wife, Lily Williams, an engineer's clerk who was half-German. Anita, their only child was born in April 1944.  The same year, the bulk of the FGLC collection that had been acquired from Hess’s father went to Leicester. No doubt, these factors encouraged a mind-set in Hans that staying in Britain was an option. In fact, he became deputy keeper of art at the Leicester Museum (now the New Walk art gallery),moving to York as Curator of the Art Gallery in 1947.

In the late 1950s, Hess was denied a visa to visit the USA due to his involvement in the FGLC, due to its classification as a `Communist front organisation'. Although Communist influence over the League was perhaps overestimated by the touchy Americans – of the eight members of its executive committee, only three were card-carrying Communists. 

Hess spent 20 years in York, where he was also artist director of the triennial Arts Festival. During this time he wrote his first monograph on Lyonel Feininger, one of the Bauhaus artists.

Having missed out on a full University education, Hess did an MA at Leeds as mature student. His subject was George Grosz, the satirical artist and a founder member of the German Communist Party, which was the basis for his second monograph.

In 1963, he was a lecturer for a Yorkshire-based Communist Party event (for Marxism Today) at Leeds City Art Gallery.  This was a symposium on Socialism and the Arts, involving Alan Bush, the composer, a speaker from Merseyside Unity theatre, Arnold Kettle (see separate entries for Bush and Kettle), a lecturer in English at Leeds, and Hess. Becoming an occasional lecturer at the newly-established University of York, Hans Hess decided to change career and, in 1967, moved to Sussex as Reader in Art History. He published two volumes of collected lectures.

He was also involved in lecturing for the Communist University of London in the early 1970s, speaking on art and design in 1974.

`Art and Social Function’ was the last lecture that Hans Hess delivered before his death in 1975 and it was in the process of being revised for publication by his wife, Lillie Hess, when she too died, in 1976.

Sources include: Anita Halpin Communist Review Winter 2011/12; Evening Standard 18th November 2006; "Politics by Other Means: The Free German League of Culture in London 1939-45" by Charmian Brinson & Richard Dove; “Political Exile and Exile Politics in Britain After 1933” Ed. Anthony Grenville, Andrea Reiter; information from the Association of Jewish Refugees; CPGB archives.

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