Free Volksbühne Berlin

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Volksbühne in Berlin, 1930

The Free Volksbühne Berlin e. V. is one of the most traditional Berlin visitor organizations.


The founding years

The Freie Volksbühne Berlin was founded in 1890 as the first cultural and political mass organization of the German labor movement with the aim of providing socially disadvantaged groups of the population with access to education and cultural life. Soon after its founding, the association became a large organization that set cultural-political accents and went through an eventful history.

In the call for the establishment of a Free Volksbühne on March 23, 1890, the aim and aspiration of the Free Volksbühne Berlin were summarized in the Berliner Volksblatt under the motto “The art of the people!”. Only the serious socio-political changes of the time made it possible to attempt to end the exclusion of the proletariat .

Journal of the Neue Freie Volksbühne
1906/1907, issue 1

The Freie Volksbühne made it possible for its members to visit the theater at a reduced price. By setting a uniform minimum amount of 50 pfennigs at the time  and raffling off the seats, it was able to sell its members cheap theater tickets. For the first time in history organized theater and organized audience were juxtaposed. The man of the first hour, the theater director Otto Brahm , was supported by the combative Bruno Wille , whose declared goal was both creative and party independence and who wanted to give the members of the new organization as much creative freedom as possible. The Volksbühne should only be affordable for a broader working class.

Brahm himself, who later u. a. had also directed the Deutsches Theater , took the Free Stage as a direct model for the Free Volksbühne. Like the Free Stage, it should also include pieces in its repertoire that were forbidden by the censors and therefore were not allowed to be played on the public stages. The Volksbühne was supposed to open access to a broader working class through affordable theater tickets. In this way, in addition to popular classics by Goethe and Schiller , current and critical stage plays could be shown in closed performances for the members . The striving for independent artistic direction is also reflected in the name “ Freie Volksbühne”. With the first performance, Henrik Ibsen's pillars of society , the Free Volksbühne also made a programmatic selection and received both jubilation and criticism. In the same year his also controversial play Ein Volksfeind was performed. Gerhart Hauptmann's early development was closely linked to the Freie Volksbühne. Soon after the Ibsen premiere, Hauptmann's drama Before Sunrise, which had already premiered at the Free Stage, was also staged in the Free Volksbühne in the presence of the author.

The activities of the Freie Volksbühne were accompanied from the very beginning by regular club journals or monthly magazines for members. Lively internal discussions about the artistic development shaped the young organization as well as the political instrumentalization attempts and the accompanying critical observation by Wilhelmine Germany, which was deeply suspicious of the cultural uprising of the working class.

As early as 1892, Wille was overthrown in a general assembly after a blatant argument with the then board member Julius Türk and thereupon founded the “Neue Freie Volksbühne”. On the same day, the Freie Volksbühne elected the leading head of the labor movement, Franz Mehring , as its new chairman. From then on there were two separate Volksbühnenvereine in Berlin, which did not cooperate again until 1913 with the common goal of building their own theater and were to reunite in 1919.

Own house and the First World War

As early as 1909, the members of the Freie Volksbühne decided to build their own house for their theater operations. In the same year they moved into the theater halls of the former Bunter Theater at Köpenicker Strasse  68, which had been expanded by August Endell . After years of planning by the two organizations, which had quickly grown to 70,000 members, construction of the Volksbühne began in 1913 on Bülowplatz .

The building by Oskar Kaufmann , completed in 1914, was tailored to the needs of a big city audience with its understated elegance and the departure from the baroque court theater . With its mixture of an intimate atmosphere and an equally festive ambience, the theater with its 2000 seats also corresponded to the democratic attitude that was to take possession of this building. From a technical point of view, the Freie Volksbühne was the most modern theater at that time.

The opening of the Volksbühne at the outbreak of World War I was celebrated by the press with hurray-patriotism as a "cultural act in the midst of the noise of war ... for which our enemies can marvelously envy us". In spite of this, the associations continued to be met with the existing distrust, which was based on moral objections to public education work against a socialist background.

After the opening of the building, there were intense disputes about artistic direction between the artistic committee and the chairman of the board. With the new big theater one was able to enter into direct competition with the other theaters. The balancing act lay in the political and social objectives of the clubs. On the one hand you had to secure the existence of the large visitor organization and its proletarian base, on the other hand you had to accept the business conduct of a private theater and open yourself to a bourgeois-classical educational ideal. Max Reinhardt took over the theater in 1915 as the first director of the Freie Volksbühne. Under his leadership and with Friedrich Kayssler as artistic director, the stagnation in the number of visitors and the decline in the number of members due to the war could be successfully absorbed and finally the number of members and the discounted tickets were even doubled. Nevertheless, the Freie Volksbühne was still under constant surveillance by the police and politicians for its purpose and ideological orientation.

The Volksbühne in the Weimar Republic

“The People's Art” amid attempts at political instrumentalization

At the end of the 1919/1920 season, the reunified Volksbühne concentrated on planning an additional new building, the Kroll Opera , in addition to the Volksbühne on Bülowplatz. Once again, Kaufmann was entrusted with the construction, which, however , dragged on from the groundbreaking ceremony on June 23, 1921 to 1924 due to the difficult financing situation.

The completion of the building by the Volksbühne could no longer be carried out, however, whereupon the Prussian state took over the building, which was still under construction, which would later become the State Opera on Platz der Republik (Kroll Opera). On the evening of the reopening, the Volksbühne members only stayed onlookers at a building that was once supposed to have become their own new house. For the regular performances, however, reduced ticket contingents have been agreed for Volksbühne members. The years of inflation made theater visits an unaffordable luxury for the lower income brackets, and tickets cost between 120,000 and 150,000 marks in times of crisis  . While there were therefore numerous resignations from the existing groups, more and more petty-bourgeois and medium-sized groups pushed into the association, who were also affected by the economic misery and - if at all - could only pay reduced amounts for theater tickets.

Friedrich Kayßler resigned in 1923 in the conflict-ridden area of ​​tension between economic foundations and artistic freedom. After numerous discussions about the successor to the artistic direction, the choice fell on Fritz Holl , who comes from Stuttgart . In his first season in 1923/1924, he began to open the program for new plays by time-critical modern dramatists, for which his predecessor was not open to. A year later, Erwin Piscator entered into a permanent contractual relationship with the Volksbühne Berlin as a guest director. In the reality of the Weimar Republic , a cultural establishment that was conscious of political neutrality and non-binding content determined the zeitgeist. Piscator, on the other hand, wanted to create a theater that spiritually combined a common will to change the world with a rising social class. Piscator's productions, which showed themselves to be contemporary and future-oriented through the convinced use of the most modern technical means, at the same time gave the organization something back that had once been one of the goals of its foundation.

After a first severe economic crisis caused by the war, the Volksbühne also stabilized economically in the period from 1924 to 1926. At that time, the number reached its highest level with 160,000 members. As a huge member organization, it represented a strong power factor in Berlin's cultural life and seemed to have fulfilled its objective of being a cultural bringer for the entire national community .

In 1927, however, after the inflation-related decline in membership and fears on the part of the board that Piscator would change the character of the non-partisan cultural organization, a rift broke out. The decisive factor for the scandal was Piscator's staging of Ehm Welk's thunderstorm over Gottland , in which the well-known actor Heinrich George played Claus Störtebecker. The board accused Piscator of having subjected the play to a tendentious-political reinterpretation, more precisely to an inadmissibly generalizing and provocative representation of “social revolution”, which was neither inherent in it nor desired. The statement from Ehm Welk's manuscript “This drama doesn't just take place around 1400” was used by Piscator as a justification for his staging concept. However, it initiated a sharp public debate about art and politics, which also made waves outside the organization and led to a major crisis within.

Soon afterwards, the critic founded his first Piscator stage in the Theater am Nollendorfplatz , which was mainly geared towards young members as the Volksbühne's target group, which guaranteed him a regular audience from the start, even in the new building. Fritz Holl's successor, who had resigned as a result of the conflict in 1928, was Karl Heinz Martin , who already quit his work after the 1931/1932 season.

The "Third Reich" and its effects on the FVB

After the unexpected departure of the previous theater manager Heinrich Neft in 1931, the theater was left unmanaged until it was handed over to the club's chairman Curt Baake and the new artistic director Heinz Hilpert . Baake, previously State Secretary, should have been the last important chairman before the National Socialists " seized power " . Hilpert had previously been the leading director at the Deutsches Theater and had put out a number of brilliant productions there. With him it was hoped to be able to increase the reputation and earnings of the Volksbühne again. The NSDAP, however, which had not remained hidden from the financial bottlenecks of the past few years, already at that time repeatedly urged that the organization should stop its gaming operations. Only a few months after Paul von Hindenburg had appointed Adolf Hitler as Reich Chancellor and the democratic-civil rights of the Weimar Republic were successively suspended, the NSDAP struck a devastating blow against the free cultural scene, which marked the temporary end of an independent Volksbühne: On May 11, 1933, the board of directors and the administration announced their resignation, while the artistic director Hilpert (until summer 1934) remained in office. Shortly afterwards, all cultural organizations were subordinated to Joseph Goebbels' propaganda apparatus and the theaters, including the Volksbühne, became part of the Reichsverband Deutsche Bühne e. V. merged. Goebbels strove for the fullest possible National Socialist control of the visitor organization, and the management should be directly subordinate to his ministry. The previous managing director and general secretary, Siegfried Nestriepke , who ultimately also held the leading position in the umbrella organization of the German Volksbühnen, prompted the political changes to leave.

In subsequent years, the visitor organization of people stage were the general directorship of the theater of Eugen Klöpfer was withdrawn own powers more and more until 1939 finally completely dissolved and their leftover assets of over two million Reichsmark confiscated by the Nazi Party. In 1938 Klöpfer described the Volksbühne as “an institute operated by the German Reich in the public interest”, which was only recorded pro forma in the register of associations, and at the end of the same year applied to the Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda for its dissolution. With the almost complete destruction of the building, which was now operated as a Reichstheater, the remains of the former Volksbühne were finally completely lost in the chaos of war.


After 1945, forces mobilized to shape a new era of the Volksbühne, above all through Siegfried Nestriepke. The former theater was largely destroyed in the war. Building the foundation for a new Freie Volksbühne in the ruins of a now divided city turned out to be difficult. Due to the complicated occupation situation, delays arose, which were to be offset by the formation of a four-sector committee. While a tough struggle for the profile and structure of a new Volksbühne began in Berlin, the Bund der Deutschen Volksbühnen was founded in 1947 . Nestriepke, a leading figure in the reconstruction of Berlin and ardent advocate of the Volksbühne idea, spoke out passionately in favor of a common Freie Volksbühne that should independently and freely convey the original Volksbühne ideas in a new era. But a solution to a politically instrumentalized dispute could not be achieved. Shortly after the founding of the committee, Alfred Lindemann separated as Nestriepke's ideological adversary and spokesman for the holder of the Soviet license and founded his own Volksbühne in the Soviet sector, which was subordinate to the Free German Trade Union Federation (FDGB).

The first general meeting of the board of directors of the new Freie Volksbühne in the three western sectors took place on February 23, 1948. The Theater am Kurfürstendamm , which the organization used from 1949 to 1962, initially offered itself for its own theater operations .

Gerhart Hauptmann Prize

Just five years after the founding of the Freie Volksbühne, Siegfried Nestriepke initiated the playwright's prize named after the writer on the occasion of Gerhart Hauptmann's 90th birthday on November 15, 1952 . To establish the foundation, they read out a call for donations and declared that from now on the prize should be awarded annually to one or more playwrights who wrote in German on the poet's birthday: either as part of a young talent scholarship or as recognition of works by already established playwrights . For this purpose a donation stamp of 10 pfennigs was printed. Works by Gerhart Hauptmann were raffled among those who sent the trading cards. Later, with the introduction of a tax penny on every ticket, this award became an award directly financed by the members. The fact that the Freie Volksbühne named the prize it awarded after the most important German playwright at the time was due to the fact that Hauptmann's rise as a writer and playwright was closely linked to the history of the Volksbühne movement.

Appeal for donations for the Gerhart Hauptmann Prize

The same progressive thinking group that brought Hauptmann's socially committed, naturalistic early work onto the stage helped to build the Berlin Volksbühne. For years, both the author and the Freie Volksbühne had been confronted with rigid criticism and censorship. Just as Hauptmann owed some of his greatest successes to performances of his works by the Volksbühne, the audience approval and box office success of the theaters of the Freie Volksbühne Berlin were based on Hauptmann's creative power, for which the Volksbühne audience in particular was very receptive. The name of the award pointed to a traditional reflection, but did not serve any content or aesthetic specifications with regard to the selection of the poets and playwrights to be awarded.

The great time of the Gerhart Hauptmann Prize was in the 1950s, when it also attracted the attention of important foreign writers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Cocteau , and thus gained international fame. In addition, he made an important contribution to the support of either young or still living and often controversial German playwrights and poets. Rolf Hochhuth's first major play Der Stellvertreter (1963) triggered a controversial and long-lasting discussion, the so-called “representative debate”. In his play, the author addressed the role and actions of Pope Pius XII. during the time of National Socialism in view of the Holocaust . Hochhuth received a scholarship for this work, which was awarded by the jury of the Hauptmann Prize.

Peter Handke triggered another wave of outrage when he received the award for Kaspar and for his public abuse in 1967, when he turned against the acquittal of the police officer who shot Benno Ohnesorg during the student riots on the occasion of the Shah's visit at the award ceremony . In 1968, a symbol of the student revolt , a discussion broke out about politically and socially engaged literature and about the role of artists themselves, which fundamentally called into question the Gerhart Hauptmann Prize as a result of the Handke debate of the previous year. From 1975 the Gerhart Hauptmann Prize was only awarded every two years, and in 1996 playwrights were given the award for the last time: Dominik Finkelde for the play Abendgruß and Jens Roselt for truffles .

The Freie Volksbühne in divided Berlin

From the construction of the wall to its fall

The number of members of the visitor organization had risen steadily to 120,000 after the reconstruction and thanks to Nestriepke's dedicated leadership. In 1961, two years before his death, Nestriepke passed the successor to Günther Abendroth . The trained chemist, born in 1920, first experienced the Freie Volksbühne during the period when all theaters were brought into line and, in contrast to Nestriepke, stood for a less emotional management style that was more oriented towards consensus and pragmatism. Abendroth, an SPD member since 1946 , had a. a. made the acquaintance of Willy Brandt , who at that time belonged to the local association of the SPD Wilmersdorf and also known himself to the Freie Volksbühne as an institution.

The fateful time of the building of the Berlin Wall coincided with the construction of a new theater in the west of Berlin. The then board of the association, who had already considered building their own house in the 1950s, commissioned the architect Fritz Bornemann to plan a house for 1000 to 1200 spectators. On May 1, 1963, Bornemann handed over the theater of the Freie Volksbühne , which had been built on the Schaperstraße-corner-Meierottostraße property in Wilmersdorf, to Erwin Piscator. After his flight from the National Socialists into American exile and the subsequent years of guest directing in various European countries, Abendroth won him again as FVB director immediately after taking office in 1962 and pulled a line under the rift in the 1920s. With the staging of the world premiere by Hochhuth's deputy (1963 still in the Theater am Kurfürstendamm), Piscator delivered one of the most acclaimed and controversial theater works of the 1960s. Other performances that made the Freie Volksbühne famous around the world were its productions of In der Dinge J. Robert Oppenheimer by Heinar Kipphardt (premiere in 1964) and The investigation by Peter Weiss (premiere in 1965).

Until Piscator's death in 1966, Günther Abendroth stood behind the famous advocate of political theater , who gave the Free Volksbühne a profile that clearly differentiated it from other Berlin theaters. In the three decades of his chairmanship, Abendroth never interfered in the field of competence of the theater director beyond his basic tasks and always remained true to his principle: "The freedom of the artistic director is inviolable". He gave directors such as Peter Zadek , Claus Peymann and Hansjörg Utzerath the opportunity to stage modern, controversial plays.

Utzerath, Piscator's successor from 1967, was the first artistic director of the Freie Volksbühne to run a repertoire theater with classics and a contemporary contrast program. The establishment of a permanent ensemble at the Freie Volksbühne goes back to him. In doing so, he consciously carried on the tradition of Piscator and brought his Hochhuth production back to the new house on Schaperstrasse. Hugo Diederich worked for many years as administrative director at the Freie Volksbühne, initially with Oscar Fritz Schuh at the Theater am Kurfürstendamm, then with Piscator, later with Utzerath until the early days of his successor.

The former theater of the Freie Volksbühne Berlin, now: Haus der Berliner Festspiele, 2014

In the context of the student movement of the 1968s , questions about a possible democratization and the development direction of the theater were raised. Abendroth, meanwhile district mayor of Kreuzberg , focused his gaze on what was feasible and sought a pragmatic balance between artistic freedom, economic realities, fiscal constraints and socio-political confrontations.

Kurt Hübner took over the theater in 1973 and ran the theater until 1986, which marked the longest continuous artistic directorship at the Freie Volksbühne. Hübner's era was dominated by great directors like u. a. Rudolf Noelte , Luc Bondy , Klaus Michael Grüber and Hans Neuenfels . Noelte's opening production of Gerhart Hauptmann's Die Ratten was invited to the Theatertreffen in 1977 as the first production of the Free Volksbühne . With these directors, Hübner repeatedly ensured high-quality productions for the house, but was unable to achieve continuous and consistently high quality during his artistic directorship due to repeated failures. Kurt Hübner, who died in 2007 at the age of 90, was made an honorary member of the Freie Volksbühne Berlin.

Hans Neuenfels was appointed Huebner's successor in 1986. With it, the house was given new forms of directing as well as structural, innovative approaches, such as the abolition of the separation of stage and auditorium. In 1988 the Freie Volksbühne celebrated the 25th anniversary of its theater in Schaperstraße, on the occasion of which a commemorative publication was published with greetings from the then Governing Mayor Eberhard Diepgen and the Senator for Cultural Affairs Volker Hassemer . The anniversary was crowned with a performance by Robert Musil's Die Schwärmer on April 30, 1988, in which Elisabeth Trissenaar and Hermann Treusch played the leading roles. Treusch later succeeded Neuenfels; thus he was the last director of the Freie Volksbühne Berlin (1990–1993).

The Free Volksbühne Berlin after reunification

After the fall of the Berlin Wall , a new Volksbühnen association was founded in the eastern section of Berlin with the aim of both associations to reunite after the state reunification. In 1990 the Freie Volksbühne Berlin celebrated its centenary in the theater on Schaperstraße. From 1992, under the new chairwoman of the association, Ruth Freydank, the Free Volksbühne tried to secure the continuation of the theater after the cancellation of all subsidies by the Senate, among other things by renting the theater first for guest performances, then to other private operators. The attempt to initiate permanent guest use for the house, however, failed. In this difficult phase, Dietger Pforte took over the chairmanship of the non-profit association in 1997 . After the club's reserves had been used up for an unsubsidized game operation, they were forced to sell the stage in 1999. It now functions as the house of the Berliner Festspiele . The archive of the Freie Volksbühne Berlin has since been stored in the archive of the Academy of Arts and can be viewed by prior registration.

Since the 1990s, the association's theater subscriptions have adapted to the diversity of the united Berlin cultural life and the individual preferences of the members. Today they are called “cultural packages”, more precisely “Berlin mix”, “contemporary”, “stage classics”, “theater”, “entertainment”, “dance”, “concert” and “opera”.


The Free Volksbühne today

Today the Freie Volksbühne Berlin association concentrates entirely on its activities as a visitor organization and cultural mediator. It offers orientation aid in the diverse cultural landscape and makes it easier for culture lovers to find cheap tickets in Berlin and Brandenburg .

The offer of the FVB continues the long history of the Freie Volksbühne Berlin as a connoisseur of contemporary capital city culture and its actors. Independent and competent advice when ordering tickets, be it for comedy , concerts and cabaret or for theater, operas and readings, as well as information on the individual venues. Members of the FVB receive the Kulturfoyer magazine every month . In addition to a comprehensive overview of the events on offer, information on cultural-political topics and exhibitions as well as offers for cultural trips and day trips can be found here. Culture fans can use the culture card to get discounted tickets at the box office in many hotels.

The Siegfried-Nestriepke-Haus is the office of the Freie Volksbühne Berlin in Wilmersdorf

The library of the Freie Volksbühne Berlin in the Siegfried-Nestriepke -Haus in Wilmersdorf brings together the great dramatic models of European theater literature from Goethe to Brecht, as well as a large number of historical documents. The focus is on the history of the Volksbühne movement - because the FVB continues to maintain a lively exchange with the Arbeitsgemeinschaft deutscher Volksbühnen - as well as numerous of the association's own publications. The Henry Oehler collection also provides an insight into the world of music theater , which, through his director's books from the 1920s, brings together many piano scores and large opera texts.

The FVB's active contributions to Berlin's cultural experience are the annual FVB Classical Concert and its own series of events, FVB Monday Culture, in the club's event room on Ruhrstrasse. Readings, concerts, lectures and exhibitions take place here on a regular basis, for which non-members can also order tickets. In addition, the FVB organizes insights behind the scenes and discussions with the local stakeholders. In addition, the management in the Council for the Arts Berlin is actively involved in cultural education and diversity in the capital.

Since 2017, the association, with its chairman Frank Bielka (from 2015) and managing director Alice Ströver, has been presenting itself under the “Kulturvolk” brand in order to avoid confusion with the Volksbühne on Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz.

130 years after Dr. Bruno Willes' call for the establishment of a free Volksbühne under the motto “The art of the people” should be celebrated on March 23, 2020 with a big event in the Volksbühne at Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz. Based on Erwin Piscator's revue “Roter Rummel” (1924), the director Christian Filips developed the “Teatro Piscator!”, The protagonists from the former theaters of the association in Schaperstrasse (West), the Volksbühne on Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz (East ) and should unite the civilized people of all countries. In a short time, all 800 tickets were completely sold out. Due to the corona pandemic, the anniversary revue had to be canceled and will hopefully take place in autumn 2020 (with appropriate protective measures).

Overall, the so-called “shutdown” with the closing of all theaters, concert halls and opera houses in spring and summer 2020 has become a crisis that threatens the existence of the association's public organization Kulturvolk . With the help of the great support of the members, however, an attempt is made to bridge the “forced cultural break” financially.

Intendants and directors (selection)

Actor (selection)


  • Burkhart Mauer, Simone Reber, Heiko Schier, Regine Walter-Lehmann, Heike Wiehle: Free Volksbühne Berlin: nothing has to stay as it is 1890–1980. Ed. v. Free Volksbühne Berlin e. V., deputy by Günther Abendroth . Berlin 1980.
  • Siegfried Nestriepke: History of the Volksbühne. Part 1: 1890-1914. Volksbühnen-Verlag, Berlin 1930.
  • Siegfried Nestriepke: New beginnings - the history of the Freie Volksbühne 1946–1955. arani, Berlin 1956.
  • Dietger Pforte (Ed.): Freie Volksbühne Berlin 1890–1990. Contributions to the history of the Volksbühne movement in Berlin. Argon, Berlin 1990, ISBN 3-87024-168-3 (ln.), ISBN 3-87024-169-1 (Br.)
  • Dieter Weigert: The theater in the urban desert. The construction of the Volksbühne on Bülowplatz . In: Berlin monthly magazine ( Luisenstädtischer Bildungsverein ) . Issue 4, 2000, ISSN  0944-5560 , p. 36–43 ( ).

Web links

Coordinates: 52 ° 29 ′ 29 ″  N , 13 ° 18 ′ 29.5 ″  E