A Brief History of Cabaret Voltaire, the Birthplace of Dadaism

| © Patrizia Wyss / Alamy Stock Photo
Sean Mowbray

Part café, part place for artistic expression, Cabaret Voltaire is a staple of Zurich’s art scene, with a history dating back to 1916. Learn the story of Cabaret Voltaire, the birthplace of Dadaism and one of Zurich’s must-visit locations.

Cabaret Voltaire’s story begins at the start of World War I. Hugo Ball, a German actor, tried to enlist in the army but was refused entry. Any sense of patriotism that existed within him is said to have vanished after the invasion of Belgium, which he witnessed. “The war is founded on a glaring mistake, men have been confused with machines,” Ball said.

Ball fled to Switzerland – which remained neutral throughout World War I -, with Emmy Hennings, a fellow actress and poet who he would later marry. They both settled in Zurich.

Ball’s experience of the War and his penchant towards anarchist philosophy became the foundation for the Dadaist movement, which Ball launched in July 1916 – just four months before Cabaret Voltaire first opened its doors on February 5, 1916.
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Along with a host of other disillusioned artists and political agitators, Ball and Hennings were looking for a place to express their ideas and frustration. They found it at Spiegelgasse 1, which was already home to a cabaret at the time.

Ball and his fellow artists announced in a press release: “The Cabaret Voltaire. Under this name a group of young artists and writers has formed with the object of becoming a centre for artistic entertainment.”

So Cabaret Voltaire opened and nights there were filled with the bizarre and the wonderful, performances that sought to go to the extremes of art and push boundaries. These were artists who had seen the madness of War tearing Europe apart at the seams, and they expressed this madness through their art.

“Dada is anti-Dada”

Zürich, Switzerland

On July 28, 1916, Dadaism was born. Ball read his Dada Manifesto in the Cabaret Voltaire, allegedly saying he did not want it to become an artistic movement (his followers agreed, supposedly crying “Dada is anti-Dada” on occasion). It’s said that the name Dada was chosen after one of the founders plunged a knife into a dictionary and picked the word that the point happened to strike.

It was an art form unlike any other as the goal was not to create works of art, but to oppose modern society, its materialism and the rampant nationalism which was so intent upon destroying itself. It brought together Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism; and spanned everything from sculpting, photography, performance art and painting. Seemingly nothing was out of bounds.

All this time, Cabaret Voltaire was the maelstrom of this artistic madness. But Dadaism spread, with the help of a magazine and the opening of Galerie Dada in Zurich, which took some of the limelight from where it all began.

Ball left Zurich in 1917 to pursue a career in journalism and the movement fell to Tristan Tzara’s leadership, who flirted with nihilistic ideas. Dadaism grew a life of its own and came to live amongst France, Italy and Germany.

The rebirth of Dadaism?

Around the turn of the 21st century, there were plans to close Cabaret Voltaire. Some self-proclaimed ‘Neo-Dadaists’ occupied the building and put on a whole range of shows and performances during their three month sit-in. Eventually they were thrown out by the police.

Since then the building has reopened and still embraces its Dadaist roots. It’s a café, show room, education centre and a meeting point for the disillusioned and the politically inspired: in essence it’s much the same as when it was first born.

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