Walter Serner (15 January 1889 – August 1942) was a German-language writer and essayist. His manifesto Letzte Lockerung was an important text of Dada.
Life and work
Walter Serner was born into a Jewish family as Walter Eduard Seligmann on 15 January 1889 in the Bohemian spa town of Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad at that time). His father, Berthold Seligmann, owned the town's major newspaper, the Karlsbader Zeitung, for which Walter wrote an arts column. In 1909, he graduated from the gymnasium in Kadan, which was attended by many Jewish students from the region, and soon thereafter matriculated at the University of Vienna's Law Faculty, formally converting to Catholicism and changing his name to Serner. In 1911, he organized in Karlovy Vary's Café Park Schönbrunn a large exhibition of Oskar Kokoschka's work. Serner quit school and left for Berlin in 1912 where he became a contributing writer for the avant-garde magazine Die Aktion and associated with anarchists. He finally finished his law degree at the University of Greifswald.
A staunch pacifist, with the outbreak of WWI Serner left for Switzerland and ended up in Zurich co-editing with Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings the magazine Der Mistral (where under the name Wladimir Senakowski he published his first prose). A founding member of Dada, he rarely participated in the Cabaret Voltaire evenings, claiming that "theater corrupts my play," though when he did the events became legendary for the chaos that ensued. According to Hans Richter, he was "the great cynic of the movement, the total anarchist, an Archimedes who put the world out of whack and then left it to hang." And for Christian Schad, it was Serner who "fertilized Dada with ideas, who gave Dada its ideology." What were these ideas? That idealism was a con, that fixed identity was a danger to be avoided, and that boredom was at the root of everything: "The world is boring, a fact as undeniable as it is unfathomable. Since no one can bear boredom, people are easily enthralled by spectacle, and for that reason are ever so ready to head off to war." While in Zurich, Serner became acquainted with Lenin, and remarked after the October Revolution: "Every revolution is a revolt of the desire for a more beloved fist."
Active as well in Geneva and Bern, Serner was one of the leading contributors to the literature and arts monthly Sirius. In 1918 in Lugano, he wrote the first version of Letzte Lockerung his infamous Dada Manifesto, much of which, rumor has it, was later plagiarized by Tristan Tzara for his Dada Manifesto. Fed up with the careerism of the artists drawn to Dada, whom he saw as "caged in their own intellect," he distanced himself from the movement and focused on writing. His first volume of crime stories appeared, and in 1920 he met with Breton in Paris, broke with Tzara, and now with a Czechoslovakian passport headed to Naples to join Christian Schad. By 1921 he was back in Germany and working on his novel The Tigress, which came out in 1925 in Berlin, as well as publishing more volumes of short crime stories, but now not with his former publisher Steegeman, who became so angered that he published a letter in the Prager Tagblatt calling Serner an "international con man," a "pimp" and "whorehouse proprietor."
Serner was constantly on the move, turning up here and there across Europe for the rest of the decade, and Zurich officials registered 34 different addresses for him between 1915 and 1933. What he lived on, no one knew, but he did have a rich benefactor in Dutch millionaire Anton van Hoboken, to whom Last Loosening is dedicated. He seemed to drop out of sight, lending further credence to the myth that he had become part of the criminal underworld. But he had returned to Czechoslovakia, married his longtime girlfriend from Berlin, Dorothea Herz (also Jewish), and lived the quiet life of a schoolteacher in Prague (first at Revolucni 30 and then Kolkovna 5). The Nazis banned and burned his books once they took power, and when Germany occupied Czechoslovakia, Serner and his wife made numerous futile attempts to leave the country for Shanghai. On August 10, 1942 they were deported to the Terezin concentration camp and ten days later, on August 20, put on transport No. Bb headed to Riga, where it appears they both died, though no one really knows (some say it was in Minsk).
Hans Richter noted: "Serner was so naïve as to think he could find sympathizers in the world of art. After turning his back on the art world — the very art world that would later use his ideas like a brand of laundry detergent — he glorified a world of swindlers in which everybody deceives everybody."
Hans Arp, who wrote automatic poems with him and Tristan Tzara, described him in this way: "Serner was a medical doctor, a writer and an adventurer. He was tall, thin, had an eastern elegance about him and occasionally wore a monocle. [...] Serner loved adventure and, as might befit an adventurer, has long since disappeared. No one knows what actually became of him, not even his friend Christian Schad, who also worked on the final Dada publications. Serner reminded me of a swallow. He loved people that made their way on unstable paths through life, smiling dandies, modern misfits. He loved trapezes, mirages, echoes, synthetic mushrooms, and manicured and pedicured Sterne, or, stars. Occasionally, he rushed up stairs as if he were rushing to the rooftop to discreetly watch a judge being hanged. He had the gait of an artiste, who is proudly hopping across the safety net to the thunderous applause of the audience, dancing off lightly.” (Source)
- Letzte Lockerung. manifest dada, Hannover: Steegemann, 1920, 45 pp. Written 1918. (German)
- "Last Loosening: A Dada Manifesto", trans. Malcolm Green, in Hugo Ball, Richard Huelsenbeck, Walter Serner, Blago Bung, Blago Bung, Bosso Fatakal: First Texts of German Dada, ed. Malcolm Green, London: Atlas Press, 1995. (English)
- "Last Loosening: A Dada Manifesto", in Serner, Last Loosening: A Handbook for the Con Artist & Those Who Wish to Be One, trans. Mark Kanak, Prague: Twisted Spoon, 2018.  (English)