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Kthe Kollwitzs Witness to War:

Gender, Authority, and Reception

ingrid sharp

Kthe Kollwitz (18671945) is one of Germanys most popular and successful

graphic artists and sculptors, but her witness to World War I has often been overlooked or misinterpreted. Consequently, the authority based on direct experience
has gone unacknowledged. This article compares two cycles from Weimar Germany: Kollwitzs seven woodcuts, War (Krieg, 192324), and Otto Dixs fty
etchings, The War (Der Krieg, 192233), and argues that the previous reception
of both artists works made gendered assumptions about the experience of war as
well as the creative process. This reception tends to stress the emotionality of Kollwitzs work, while overemphasizing Dixs ironic detachment and antiwar stance
at the expense of a deeper psychological complexity. By contrast, I demonstrate
that responding to both artists on equal terms as moral witnesses to war enables a
deeper understanding of their art and challenges and expands our understanding
of the nature of war itself.

Kthe Kollwitz (18671945) was one of the most significant and

successful graphic artists and sculptors in Germany in the 1920s. In
January 1919 she became the first woman to be elected to the Prussian
Academy of Arts, and from July that year she held (though seldom used)
the title of Professor. Although the financial rewards remained modest
(Bohnke-Kollwitz 27), she received much recognition for her art until
the National Socialists objected to her political affiliations, dismissed her
from her position in 1933, and prevented exhibitions of her work. In the
decades since she began exhibiting, she has been positioned variously as
a left-wing political artist, even a revolutionary producing crude socialist
propaganda, a pacifist artist protesting against World War I, and a sentimental, even kitsch artist whose intense moral and social engagement
was out of step with the spirit of an age more attuned to the ironic detachment of Otto Dix and the apocalyptic visions of Max Beckman.1 More
recently, she has attracted the positive interest of feminist historians and
Women in German Yearbook, vol. 27, 2011. Copyright University of Nebraska Press.

art critics, with monographs by Kearns in 1976, Krahmer in 1981, and an

essay by Comini in 1982 that highlights the discriminatory, gendered nature of art reception through a comparison with Edvard Munch.
At the time of writing, Kollwitzs critical reputation is secure, exhibitions of her work frequent, and she enjoys enormous popularity.2 But
even so, an important aspect of the artists intentions has been consistently overlooked: she has rarely been categorized, discussed, or exhibited as an artist bearing witness to war. While Kollwitzs work, especially
the monument to her fallen son, The Parents (Die Eltern), now standing
in Vladso cemetery, where he is buried, has often been seen as central to
the commemoration of the Great War, it is rarely accorded the weight and
authority of firsthand account. This anomaly is revealed especially clearly if we compare her war cycle, War (Krieg, 192223), with Otto Dixs
The War (Der Krieg, 192324) in terms of intention, content, execution,
and reception.3
My aim in looking at the two cycles together is to make a case for
moving beyond an over-marked, gendered reading which has had the effect of masking the oppositional, political dimension of Kollwitzs work
and overemphasizing Dixs antiwar stance at the expense of a deeper
psychological complexity. By this I mean that Dixs witness to the war,
which reflects and embraces the entirety of what he saw and felt, has been
placed too narrowly within the masculine narrative of disillusionment expected of the veteran front soldier. Likewise, Dixs ironic detachment has
been overread in stark contrast to the excessive emotionality attributed
to Kollwitz. This inquiry is very much in the spirit of Gail Braybons
exhortation to reexamine the evidence for shared assumptions about the
war: However much we feel we know the war: it is a superimposition
of interpretations built up over time. Sometimes it is enough to recognize
this and work with it, but sometimes we need to look beneath and, quite
simply, start afresh (Introduction 23). I will argue that reception of both
artists work has become overlaid with gendered assumptions about the
nature of war and in Kollwitzs case also about her motivation and creative process. In overemphasizing her status as a bereaved mother, her
supreme artistry and her insights as a moral witness to war have largely
been overlooked.4 I ask, too, in what ways it challenges and expands our
understanding of the nature of war if we respond to both Kollwitz and
Dix on equal terms.
The importance of cultural representation of the war through film, literature, and the visual arts in both expressing and forming contemporary

women in german yearbook 27

responses to World War I has been recognized and extensively explored

in recent years, but while the current account allows historians an understanding of war that goes beyond the battlefield, this heterogeneity
and richness (Horne xxiv) is not matched by the popular cultural meaning attached to World War I.5 Nor has art history been quick to embrace
this heterogeneity. Overwhelmingly, studies and exhibitions of war artists have included only male depictions or categorized womens art as
reflecting something peripheral to the war itself. The urge of the artist to
bear witness is far from new or limited to Dix and Kollwitz; it is also a
prime motivation of a number of the artists whose work can be found online in the Art of the First World War exhibition. This UNESCO-funded
site brings together 110 paintings by 54 artists, including eleven works
by Dix (by far the greatest number by an individual artist), but not one
by Kollwitz. All the artists included in this exhibition are male, several of whom had very limited (Grosz, Kirchner, Masereel) or ancillary
(Spencer) involvement in the conflict. Elsewhere, too, far more attention
is paid to Dixs The War than to Kollwitzs War; for example, while Dixs
cycle is extensively discussed in Parets Imagined Battles: Reflections of
War in European Art (10407), Kollwitzs is not even mentioned.6 There
are exceptions, and the most recent trend is toward a more inclusive approach, signaled for example by the 2009 exhibition at the Imperial War
Museum in Manchester, England, titled Witness: Women War Artists, and
by the inclusion of both Kollwitzs and Dixs cycles under the theme of
War in MoMAs major exhibition of expressionist art running from
March to July 2011.
Due in part to the vast numbers of non-professional soldiers involved,
historical emphasis in the aftermath of World War I placed the frontline experience (Fronterlebnis) at the center of the war story. The privileged position of the soldier meant that for a long time only those with
direct combat experience were deemed able to tell the truth about the
war. Hyness 1997 study, The Soldiers Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern
War, makes this point clearly indeed, beginning with the assertion of
the authority of ordinary mens witness and reminding us that about
war, men who were there make absolute claims for their authority (1).
For Hynes, soldiers tales are essentially experience books, telling the
reader (or more likely reminding him, as most memoirs were primarily
addressing initiates) what had happened and how it had felt (25).
Bearing witness, telling the truth about the war is in one view only
possible for a certain category of man: the front soldier. Yet Kthe KollSharp: Kthe Kollwitzs Witness to War


witz, middle-aged, female, and civilian, set out to do exactly this. In her
diaries and letters and in her War cycle she claimed absolute authority
in expressing a central truth about the war on the basis of bitter personal
experience. On 10 November 1914 she wrote in her diary: Havent Karl
and I been through this war a hundred times more than some of those
who are surrounded by grenades?7 To the French peace activist and author Romain Rolland she wrote of her emerging War cycle on 21 October
1921, These pictures should be shown everywhere and tell people: this
is how it was in the war, thats what we all had to bear throughout these
inexpressibly difficult years.8 Especially in the context of Weimar Germany throughout the 1920s, where right-wing forces were appropriating
the myth of a glorified war experience to boost nationalism and prepare
for another war, oppositional accounts such as her and Dixs war cycles
take on an urgent political dimension and deserve attention.
The Cycles
Kollwitz produced War, a series of seven woodcuts, in 192223. Dix created his cycle of fifty etchings in 192324, and both were included in the
Never Again War (Nie wieder Krieg) exhibition of 1924, which positioned
them as antiwar artists of the political left. This cycle wasfor neither
artistthe final or full expression of their wartime experiences. Dix spent
almost the entire war as a combatant, and his cycle documents his direct
experience on the eastern and western fronts, whereas Kollwitz remained
in Berlin throughout and her work presents war from the perspective of
the home front. Both artists make skillful use of the print media strongly associated with expressionism, etching, and woodcuts, revealing an
extraordinary ability to marry technique to expression (Whitford 184).
In choosing his medium, Dix was consciously placing his cycle into
the tradition of Callot and Goya, who had used etching techniques for
their war cycles, Misfortunes of War (1633) and The Disasters of War
(181015), respectively. Dix uses a range of intaglio techniques: etching on soft and hard ground, aquatint, and drypoint to build up his account. This allows him to capture very fine details in some plates as well
as the textures of pollution and decomposition appropriate to others:
[T]he corrosive qualities of aquatint were exploited to suggest physical
and moral decay (Whitford 184). This method is well suited to Dixs
narrative, which seeks to convey truth through a series of specific, intensely recalled moments. Stopping short of Goyas claim I saw this,

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Dixs marking of events by place-name, date, or the phrases seen on

(gesehen am) or found on (gefunden am) that occur in over half the
plates nevertheless adds up to a claim to the authority of direct witness.
Though largely self-taught, Kollwitz was skilled in engraving, having
used it to great effect for part of A Weavers Rebellion (189398) and for
her later cycle Peasants War (190308), and was also adept at lithography,
which she used for a number of her most compelling postwar images.9
After struggling to find a medium in which to express the emotional intensity of the war years, she turned away from her earlier techniques in favor of the woodcut after seeing the expressive power of work exhibited by
Ernst Barlach at the Berlin Secession in 1920 (Bohnke-Kollwitz 476). For
the cycle she chose the hard, practically grainless pearwood, working over
several months at achieving a coherence of line, images, form, and shape
in order to communicate with her audience as directly and clearly as possible. For Prelinger, Kollwitz compressed a wealth of associations into
simple motifs. [. . .] Everything is expression, gesture and iconic form
(Kollwitz Reconsidered 59). Unlike Dixs sprawling account, Kollwitzs
woodcuts are lean, reducing all she has come to understand about the war
into seven starkly iconic images. With none of the specificity or the narrative detail of Dixs account, unencumbered by particulars that would
restrict them to a specific time or place (Kollwitz Reconsidered 59),
Kollwitzs War, with its generic titles and pared-down, expressive images
makes claims to a more universal truth about the nature of war.
Otto Dixs The War: A Soldiers Tale
In September 1915, Dix volunteered for the front from his machine gunners training camp at Bautzen, apparently fearful that he would miss out
on the direct experience of war, anticipated in his art with a mixture of
repulsion and fascination, eagerness and apprehension. For the art critics
Otto Conzelmann (21151) and Linda McGreevy, his attitude to combat
reflects a Nietzschean desire to embrace the totality of human experience.10 McGreevy points to marked passages in Dixs copy of Nietzsches
Twilight of the Gods: the tragic artist is not a pessimist. It is precisely
he who affirms all that is questionable and terrible in existence (273). In
191415, before his first experience of combat, Dix explored his ideas
about the war in a series of self-portraits that reflect different aspects of
the anticipated war experiencethe euphoria and intoxication, but also
its brutalizing, animalistic nature, the loss of individuality.11
Sharp: Kthe Kollwitzs Witness to War


The 1924 war cycle represents a more reflected position. It was received at the time, by both admirers and detractors, as a clear and unambiguous indictment of war, exposing not only the horrors of death and injury on the battlefield but also debunking dominant nationalistic myths of
steel-eyed soldiers in heroic action. Instead, the cycle shows battered, venal soldiers retreating and advancing, wounded and dead, bored, priapic
and lousy in the trenches, drunk and randy behind the lines. Dix presents
the lives of ordinary soldiers with an uncompromising refusal to conceal
their flawed humanity: physiognomies depicted range from the timidly
intellectual to the brutish, and every so often Dix is there himself.12 Various themes appear seemingly at random, reflecting the inchoate nature
of the experience and the mechanisms of memory. Like the war itself, it
is impossible for an individual to gain an overview. Only seven plates of
the cycle show soldiers in combat and its aftermath, nine depict soldiers
engaged in front-line activities, and four present life behind the lines.
Women are present in six of the plates, in three as victims of aerial bombardment, while three record the activities of prostitutes behind the lines.
Eight are of the landscape at the front, while the largest number (twentytwo) deal with suffering and death. The boundaries between these themes
are fluid: deathfor Hynes the truest truth, the realest reality of war
(Soldiers Tale 19)permeates everything.
Reception of the cycle stresses the authority of the artist, the authenticity of his experience. For Conzelmann, Dix probably gave the unknown
soldier his only true monument (167), while Dix himself claimed that
no one else has seen the reality of war as I have.13 This claim to authority is underlined by the pen-and-ink drawing (fig. 1) used as the frontispiece to one edition, This Is How I Looked as a Soldier (So sah ich als
Soldat aus).14 This image sets the context for the cycle, identifying Dix as
the man who was there. Unlike the hesitant boy in Self-Portrait as Target, this soldier has seen action, and the image has elements of self-parody as well as the uncompromising honesty and mordant wit that characterizes the cycle as whole. Although Dix is unshaven, cigarette clenched
between his teeth, and his uniform and helmet are damaged and torn,
his expression of steely-eyed endurance does not suggest vulnerability.
The soldiers overdetermined masculinity is evident in the sheer size of
his gun: he is almost, but not quite, unable to bear the weight of his own
manhood. Dix is present in other images, too, retreating from battle in
Battleweary Troops Go Back behind the Lines, Battle of the Somme (Abgekmpfte Truppe geht zurck, Sommeschlacht), and even more comical92

women in german yearbook 27

Fig. 1. Otto Dix, This Is How I Looked as a Soldier. The Online Otto Dix Project, http://www

ly lost than the rest of his company in what could be mud, fog, or soupy
human remains in Machine-gun Squad Advances, Somme, November
1916 (Maschinengewehrzug geht vor, Somme, November 1916). In Roll
Call of Those Who Made It Back (Appell der Zurckgekehrten) we see a
motley crew of exhausted and ill-matched soldiers, their disarray in stark
contrast to the officers telltale neatness. Dix appears at his most pugnacious and proletarian with his stevedores arms protruding from torn
sleeves, and in Surprise Attack at a Sentry Post (berfall einer Schleichpatrouille auf einen Grabposten V, 4), the only image of close combat
Sharp: Kthe Kollwitzs Witness to War


in the whole cycle, it appears to be Dix himself, with his characteristic

lantern jaw, who is violently stabbing an enemy soldier at close range,
his expression showing an atavistic pleasure in unleashed violence rarely
encountered in cultural representation.15 In this way, Dix associates himself with even the nastiest instincts of masculine nature unleashed by the
war. For art critic G. H. Hamilton, it was truly this quality of unmitigated truth, truth to the most commonplace and vulgar experiences, as
well as the ugly realities of psychological experience, that gave his work
a strength and consistency attained by no other contemporary artist (qtd.
in Osborne 2).
Dixs development has been placed firmly into the traditional framework of the soldiers journey from naive enthusiasm to the utter disillusionment of experience, an antiwar stance clearly marked as male as it is
rooted in an experiential truth only accessible to the ex-combatant.16 Historian Jay Winter claims, for example, that Dixs postwar work dropped
any element of celebration of the warrior (Sites of Memory 160), and
there is certainly no room for traditional action heroes in Dixs cycle. His
soldiers are predominantly passive, reduced to the infant state of satisfying basic desires and bodily functions, naked survival instincts interspersed with the hunt for physical comfort: The solider eats his grub,
drinks his booze and shags the whores, and when his time is up, he
dies.17 Dixs searing, frequently grotesque images, which Starr Figura
rightly claims are still some of the most relentlessly difficult things to
look at ever created in art, force us to confront the effects of industrial
warfare on the human body in image after image of men suffering and
dying, blown to pieces, caught on barbed wire, and left to rot without
burial, their dead faces blackened by gas in ghastly close-up or distorted
in sheer animal terror.18 Yet, Dix is recording all this degradation and horror not to deny the possibility of heroic masculinity but to redefine it.
Heroism for him is nothing if not the power to endure in the face of bestial conditions, and not only to endure, but to embrace even these darkest
and lowest aspects of human existence. The overall effect, while far from
celebratory, is nonetheless oddly affirmative: If you want to be heroes
you have to affirm even this revolting stuff. Once youve been down to
the lowest depths: the lice, the hunger, the fear, shitting your pants, then
youre heroes; if notjust heroes from a storybook.19 As an intensively
lived personal account, Dixs cycle thoroughly and effectively debunks
the romantic myth about the transcendence of the war experience. At the
same time, however, we do Dix a disservice if we fail to recognize that

women in german yearbook 27

the cycle retains elements of the Nietzschean mix of fascination and repugnance that characterized his earlier work.20
Dixs cycle fits well into the tradition of the soldiers tale, the more so
because he does not claim to tell the whole truth about the war or even
form anyones opinions about it: Artists shouldnt try to improve and
convert: theyre far too insignificant for that. They must only bear witness (qtd. in McGreevy 325).
Kthe Kollwitzs War: Transforming Emotion into Art
In December 1922, Kollwitz wrote to her colleague Erna Krger: No one
will suspect that these 7 middle-sized woodcuts represent long years of
work and yet that is indeed the case. Contained within them is my struggle
to come to terms with that section of life between the years 19141918.21
Women are central to Kollwitzs wartime experience, which dwells on the
continuation of the war beyond 1918 through its effect on the civilian victimswidows, children, parents, and society as a whole. At the heart of
Kollwitzs own war is the loss of her younger son, Peter, who was killed
in October 1914 at the age of eighteen, and the guilt she felt at having
helped him to volunteer while still under age. In 1914, Kollwitz, like most
Germans, accepted the war as a defensive struggle for national survival.
Like many artists who volunteered or were drawn into the war, she had
expected the greatness of the experience to enlarge her vision and find
expression in her art.22 And like many other women, she was committed
to the concept of sacrifice for a higher ideal, a concept to which she returns again and again in her diary. Kollwitz felt that she was complicit in
Peters self-sacrifice, led on by literary and biblical allusions to Abraham,
whose own sacrifice was not carried through, and the oft-repeated story
of the young man who threw himself into the abyss that threatened Rome
in order to close it up. On 10 October 1916, Kollwitz writes: The abyss
still hasnt closed. It has swallowed millions and it is still yawning.23 In
her diaries and in her cycle, she sets the abstract concepts of redemptive
sacrifice, of death for the nation, and her belief in life after death against
the overwhelming significance of the embodied individual who dies and
is gone: What was important was this form, [. . .] this unique living person, this human being.24
The first plate, The Sacrifice (Das Opfer) shows the paradox of mothers wartime duty to send their sons into danger, which was dealt with
extensively in feminist literature at the time and was a lived contradiction
Sharp: Kthe Kollwitzs Witness to War


for many women, including Kollwitz herself. This version of the motif,
which Kollwitz produced in several media before settling on the woodcut, shows a mother torn between her desire to protect and her duty to
relinquish. What was in reality the parting of a middle-aged woman from
a uniformed young man gains heightened intensity by its depiction as the
reluctant handing over of a naked, vulnerable infant. The mothers arms
offer up the sleeping baby, but they also appear to repress the sacrifice.
However, neither the encircling arms nor the womblike darkness of the
cloak can fully enclose and shelter the two figures.25
The second plate is the only one of the cycle to depict soldiers, and
this is the problem that cannot be resolved, the absence of the soldiers
and the gap it has left. Although its title, The Volunteers (Die Freiwilligen) suggests an act of volition, the image has a dreamlike quality
that belies this. The volunteers, her son among them, trancelike, unseeing, are being led off to their deaths, their ecstatic faces at once transfigured and contorted in anticipation of the agony that is to come. Of the
group of four friends who rushed to volunteer to fight in the war in 1914,
only one survived beyond 1918. Kollwitz, age forty-seven in 1914, was
genuinely moved, even awestruck by the uncompromising purity of the
young mens desire to sacrifice themselves and serve their country. On
13 August 1914 she writes: They offer themselves up with joy. They
offer themselves like a pure, clear flame rising up to heaven, and on 15
December: What he gave me [. . .] was something the like of which I
had never known before. The piety of these young souls, the pure clarity of their flames. My young sons, my beloved flames, who led us rather than we you. Born of us, yet growing beyond us and taking us with
you.26 Later, in October 1916, she came to see that this intensity of feeling could all too easily be manipulated and that the duty of age was to
protect the young from the consequences of their own uncompromising
will (Bohnke-Kollwitz 27980). This was a position she struggled enormously to accept, and she expresses it here in an image that honors the
boys idealism while revealing them as being deluded and having to pay
too high a price for their freely given sacrifice.
Kollwitzs imagination stops at the threshold of war: she does not follow the volunteers into battle or speculate about their lives in the trenches,
and the rest of the cycle dwells on the experience of loss. The third plate,
The Parents (Die Eltern), reveals the anguish of the bereaved mother and
father, molded together in shared grief, and in the fourth plate, Widow I
(Witwe I), a pregnant widow rests her hand protectively on her unborn

women in german yearbook 27

child. Like the parents, she is unable to meet our gaze, looking down
and to the side, disconnected from society, alone in her grief. Does her
pregnancy suggest a possibility of redemption here, of regeneration? The
next plate, Widow II (Witwe II), suggests that this is not the case: It shows
the bodies of a woman and her young child, the tension in the womans
positionhead arched and feet stretched outsuggests they did not die
peacefully. The sixth plate, The Mothers (Die Mtter), takes an earlier
image of protective and encircling motherhood and develops it. The plate
shows a group of mothers joined en masse to rein in and protect their
offspring from the harm that they seem to anticipate from all directions.
These mothers are replacing the womanly duty to sacrifice with one of
maternal protection and containment. The seventh and final image, The
People (Das Volk), moves from the individual to a social context by demonstrating again how problematic regeneration will be in a society diminished by the war. This is indeed Kollwitzs central insight: war continues
its devastation long after the battles are over. The survivors of the conflict
will doubtless endure, but at what cost? In the 1923 poster The Survivors (Die berlebenden), which uses a similar image, the stance is more
accusatory. The blind, the broken, and the exhausted have been left to
regenerate a morally and spiritually depleted population. Kollwitzs revolutionary zeal, always a rather literary, aesthetic affair inspired in particular by the dramas of Gerhard Hauptmann, dissipates in response to the
reality of suffering and in the face of the corrupting effect of violence. Of
revolutionary socialism she writes on 21 March 1922, Whats the good
of achieving better conditions but with worse people?27
In her War cycle, Kollwitz presents the experience of the war as an
ongoing and insurmountable experience of loss. Her figures inward gaze
reveals the essentially private nature of their suffering, which, though
replicated many times, cannot be mitigated by the context or diminished
through being shared. In many ways Kollwitzs subject matterbereaved widows and mothers, pregnant womenwas familiar: womens
bodies had come to symbolize the nation, their violation standing for a
violated nation, and pregnancy suggesting the nations ability to regenerate itself after the war. Dead children and a doomed fertility, therefore, reflect Kollwitzs vision of a diminished postwar society in ways
that were highly accessible to the viewer. Perhaps the familiarity of the
subject matter might help to explain why the oppositional nature of her
work and the bleakness of her message have often been overlooked or
misread. The close association of her motifs with Christian symbolism,
Sharp: Kthe Kollwitzs Witness to War


especially the Virgin Mary as a grieving mother, encourages a reading

of her work that justifies war. The association of the soldiers death with
Christs redemptive sacrifice can serve to validate the cause for which
the soldier died. In recent times, Kollwitzs images of bereavement were
used by a neoconservative website as a positive model of what maternal
grief should be, which is in stark contrast to the publicity that surrounded
Cindy Sheehans campaign on behalf of her son who was killed in Iraq
in 2004 (Grieving Parents). Here, the silence and stillness of Kollwitzs
widows is misread as an appropriate expression of dignified suffering
that is essentially passive and accepting in nature.
Kollwitzs evolution from the revolutionary to an artist who believed in October 1920 that the world has seen enough of murdering,
lying, destruction, distortion is clearly reflected in the artistic development of the motif parents in her work after 1914, culminating in her
sculptural expression of grief The Parents, completed in 1932.28 Kollwitz
began designing this monument to Peter and his generation of volunteers very soon after his death, and her diaries record the development of
the concept over the eighteen years it took to bring it into its final form
(see also Timm). Originally conceived as supporting each other in their
grief and kneeling at the feet of their dead son, the parents, whom Kollwitz had first modeled naked with regenerative shoots sprouting from his
body, are finally presented alone and separate. For Moorjani, the absence
of the son and his replacement by an empty space through which visitors
approach the graves represents the artists detachment from the sacrificial
position he embodies: In displacing the heroic figure, [. . .] Kollwitz excised from the memorial the customary idealization of phallic valor and
sacrifice, leaving only the parents lonely sorrow for those who died in
vain (1123). In contrast, Jay Winters concept of a fictive kinship (Remembering War 136) that allows Kollwitz and, by extension, her figures
to suggest a family which includes us all (Sites of Memory 115) is too
cozy and consoling an interpretation. Kollwitz the mother indeed formed
a fictive kinship with the friends of her dead son for some time after his
death (Bohnke-Kollwitz 266). Her plans for the memorial, even as late
as October 1925, did envisage the mother figure, arms stretched wide,
embracing all the fallen soldiers in the consolation of her maternal sorrow (Bohnke-Kollwitz 603). However, diary entries show that this stage
of the mourning process was not sustained. As Kollwitz began to reassert
herself as an artist, she moved away from this position. The final version
of the statue, installed in the cemetery at Dixmuiden in 1932, reflects

women in german yearbook 27

her insight of 22 August 1916: I can be a mother only to my own sons,

that each bereaved mother mourns only her own individual, irreplaceable
loss, and that the comforts of a community of mourners has limited value
in giving solace to the bereaved.29 The power and truth of her monument
lies in her uncompromising expression of that reality.
The poignancy of Kollwitzs position coupled with the powerful emotional appeal of her images has led many critics to stress the raw emotionality of the artist, to see her work as the inchoate cri de coeur of the
grieving mother, as if the work does no more than channel the damnedup [sic] pain which breaks forth in this cry from the artists heart (McCausland 24). The assumption that the artists ability to express and
arouse emotion must mirror her emotional state while creating the cycle
has led to interpretations of Kollwitzs work as sentimental.30 As early as
1937, McCausland felt she had to defend Kollwitzs artistry and warned
against this tendency: Kollwitzs technical interests should be emphasised because it has been the custom to write as if she were an artist
who let emotion take the place of discipline (23). She continues, There
are critics who say that Kollwitz is a great human being but not a great
artist. These people should study the prints; careful scrutiny shows that
they have been designed to create lines equivalent to the emotion or idea
stated. Because of this identity between form and content, it is easy to
overlook the fact that the form was created by the conscious volition of
the artist (25).
While there is no doubt that Kollwitz used her art to work through her
maternal grief, it is clear that her art is far from being an easy conduit
for her anguish, which is documented in her diaries in many passages of
almost unbearable intensity. Art as an expression of unresolved emotion
was anathema to hertherapeutic maybe, but invariably bad art. Kollwitz could only work from a position of reflection. On 22 August 1916
she writes: In order to work you need to be hard and distance yourself
from what youve experienced. If I start to do that, I become the mother
again who doesnt want to let go of the pain.31 While it is human to
be overwhelmed by grief, the artist must transform that grief and give
it expression through the creative process. One diary entry that is dated
soon after Peters death compares the intensity of the pain Kollwitz feels
as a bereaved mother with the meditative, prayer-like state in which she
is able to work: Its a different sort of love from the one that cries and
yearns and suffers. When I feel like that it isnt prayer. But when I feel
him in the way I want to make visible in my work, then I am praying.32
Sharp: Kthe Kollwitzs Witness to War


In order to give artistic expression to felt emotion, she had to distance

herself from that emotion. Nevertheless, she experienced both states as
an expression of love.
Although Kollwitzs antiwar position has been seen as arising almost naturally and inevitably from her gender, Sara Friedrichsmeyer
has shown that it arises, in fact, from a hard-won process of reflection in
which the death of her son paradoxically had the effect of wedding her to
a position of support for the war. Once Peter had been killed, she felt she
had to remain true to his vision, because to question his faith would be
to render his death meaningless. She, therefore, initially vowed to Peter
to recognize and preserve [. . .] your legacy. What does this mean? To
love my fatherland in my way just as [. . .] you loved it in [. . .] yours.33
She also wished to honor his life and express his potential through her
own commemorative artistic production. The diary entries, in which she
seeks to mitigate her loss through a commitment to the cause for which
he died, show her clinging to an idealized vision of the war that is not
sustainable in the light of lived experience. Only much later, gradually
and painfully, is she able to accept that Peter was wrong and that she was
wrong as well. Kollwitz drew strength and support for what she worried
might be the betrayal of her sons ideals from the growing disillusionment of his young friends who continued fighting in the war for longer.
On 22 October 1918 she wrote: Hans Koch [a friend of Peters] was
here. He told meand that was very important for methat he wouldnt
volunteer again now.34
Kollwitz expresses her pacifism for the first time publicly in 1918.
This comes in response to the poet Richard Dehmels published appeal
for even more recruits to fight a war that was now clearly a hopeless
cause. The poets open letter, printed in Vorwrts on 22 October 1918,
is essentially a renewed appeal to the romantic ideal of redemptive sacrifice. Kollwitz responds: There has been enough death! No one else
should be allowed to die!35
Goethes phrase seeds for the sowing must not be ground (Saatfrchte sollen nicht vermahlen werden) had been a leitmotif in Kollwitzs writing since the first weeks after Peters death, but only now does
she allow herself to express its full meaning: There can be no regeneration for a nation that squanders its future. Kollwitzs position on the duty
of maternal containment and protection continued to develop, becoming
increasingly dynamic until it takes on the force of an angry challenge, a
demand for peace in its final manifestation, the poster Saatfrchte sol100

women in german yearbook 27

len nicht vermahlen werden of 1941: This demand is, like Never again
war, not an expression of sentimental longing but a command.36
Kollwitz, then, moved painfully away from her commitment to ideal
sacrifice, her admiration of revolution and of uncompromising emotions,
and developed a vision of the war that extends beyond the battlefield
and the cessations of hostilities. It is a vision that dwells on absence, on
diminution of powers, of irreparable, unending loss, one that prioritizes
the unique, irreplaceable individual over abstract ideals. Kollwitzs War,
while not exhorting the audience to specific political action, opposes all
attempts to aestheticize or affirm the war experience. It is a dynamic protest against the misappropriation of the mother figure and her sacrificial
son in order to justify and perpetuate war. Her diaries clearly demonstrate that through her art she honors the purity of the young mens sacrifice and makes public the private pain of loss while denying herself and
her audience the comforting fiction of any redemptive meaning to it.
Conclusion: Beyond a Gendered Reading
I have argued in this essay that, while the war cycles of Otto Dix and
Kthe Kollwitz reflect divergent experiences of war at home and on the
front line, their reception often reveals more about the persistence of
gendered assumptions about war than about the cycles themselves; consequently, it tends to overemphasize Dixs antiwar polemic and ironic
distance and Kollwitzs emotionality. Although Kollwitzs voice is no less
authentic than Dixs, and her desire to bear witness no less strong, her
claim to authority in telling her story is undermined by a view of war that
privileges frontline combat. I have argued that Kollwitz should not be
viewed primarily as a sorrowing woman who found consolation inand
offers consolation throughher art, because this interpretation masks not
only her achievement as an artist but also one of the key aspects of her
To return to my central question: Do we learn anything new or different about the war if we accept both Kollwitz and Dix as moral witnesses?
I think we do, because their work adds to the body of evidence that supports the idea that the war experience extends well beyond the combat
zonea broader vision of war that should be able to incorporate the accounts of both Kollwitz and Dix on equal terms. Our cultural memory of
World War I is shaped to a great extent by artistic and literary representation in which personal testimony occupies a central place. It therefore
Sharp: Kthe Kollwitzs Witness to War


matters a great deal if key pieces of the mosaic are omitted, misread,
overlooked, or suppressed, or if anachronistic layers of interpretation and
assumptions obscure the freshness and authenticity of what the artist is
struggling to convey. If these cultural representations are limited to depictions of the combat experience ofand often by and forthe men
who were there, we are left with a distorted and partial understanding of
the experience and significance of warwhat it was, how it felt, and how
it affected those who experienced it.
1. According to Jean Owens Schaefer, writing in 1994, Kollwitz has largely been
seen in the United States as a political artist whose standing has waxed and waned
with the fortunes of the causes with which she was associated. Writing in 1979, Lucy
Lippard reflects that during her training she was taught to see Kollwitzs passion as
embarrassingly uncool, commenting that for a large section of the contemporary
art audience, the combined formal and emotional integrity of Kollwitzs prints and
sculptures are almost impossible to see (vii). In Kollwitz Reconsidered (1992),
Elizabeth Prelinger argues that critical reception had hitherto privileged subject matter over form and technique and aims to both redress this balance and complicate the
narrative of Kollwitz as revolutionary artist.
2. See Schaefer and Bachert for a discussion of Kollwitzs postwar reception.
3. The war cycles and other works by both artists can be viewed online at MoMA,
at the Online Otto Dix Project, and at the Kthe Kollwitz Museums in Berlin and
4. Avishai Margalit coined the term moral witness (discussed at length in Winters Remembering War 23843) to describe Holocaust survivors who set their experiential truth against a discourse that denies or excludes their testimony. Rather than
trying to explain, moral witnesses only seek to truthfully convey what happened to
them and what it felt like. This is very much in line with the intention and effect of
both artists work: diary entries and interviews reveal that their overriding aim, even
compulsion, was to use their art to tell the truth about their war experience.
5. Among the many sources are key works on cultural representation by Fussell,
Leed, and Hynes (War Imagined). For a succinct account of developments in Great
War historiography, see Winter and Prost, and Horne. Braybons Winners and Losers offers a useful overview of historians debates about womens roles.
6. In contrast, Richard Corks 1994 study devotes three pages to Kollwitzs cycle
(27072) and seven to Dixs (27279), and in Annegret Jrgens-Kirchhoffs Schreckensbilder (1993) Kollwitzs work is discussed in detail as a representation of war
(27993). Cultural historian Annette Beckers recent survey article on artistic representation of the war has explained and reinforced the predominantly narrow male
perspective in the visual arts, which continues to equate the war with the experience


women in german yearbook 27

of being in the trenches as the truth of the first hand witness that would not allow
anyone who had not suffered in the trenches to depict them (Becker 344).
7. Sind Karl und ich nicht hundertmal mehr durch diesen Krieg gegangen als
manche, die von Granaten umflogen sind? (Bohnke-Kollwitz 175). All quotations
from the diaries are from the Bohnke-Kollwitz edition, and all translations are my
8. Diese Bltter sollen in alle Welt wandern und sollen allen Menschen zusammenfassend sagen: so war esdas haben wir alle getragen durch diese unaussprechlich schweren Jahre (Bohnke-Kollwitz 879).
9. For a full account and discussion of Kollwitzs skill and development as a
graphic artist, see Prelingers Kollwitz Reconsidered.
10. German art critic Otto Conzelmann is a recognized authority on Dix. He wrote
a number of detailed studies of his works and war diaries and also interviewed him
several times.
11. These are Self-Portrait as Soldier (Selbstbildnis als Soldat, 1914); Self-Portrait as Target (Selbstbildnis als Schiescheibe, 1914); Self-Portrait Wearing a Gunners Helmet (Selbstbildnis mit Artillerie-Helm, 1914/15), and Self-Portrait as Mars
(Selbstbildnis als Mars, 1915).
12. Dix is recognizably present in at least five of the plates, possibly seven.
13. Kein anderer hat so wie ich die Realitt des Krieges gesehen (qtd. in Conzelmann 187).
14. This edition, featuring twenty of the prints, was offered for sale for 1.80 marks
at the first exhibition of the cycle in 1924, in contrast to the 1,000 marks asked for the
full edition, which did not include the frontispiece (McGreevy 28384).
15. Joanna Bourkes research reveals the unpalatable truth that some men enjoy
the license for violence that war affords. This is hidden from civilians under layers of
protective language about sacrificewhile the soldier is often presented as willing to
die for his country, in fact his primary purpose is to kill, and the success of an army is
measured by its soldiers effectiveness in doing so.
16. But see Janet Watsons Fighting Different Wars (2004) for a discussion of how
Vera Brittain placed her account within this narrative framework to become one of
the few women accorded the authority of experience (22065).
17. Der Soldat frit, suft und hurt, und wenn es an der Zeit ist, stirbt er auch
(Conzelmann 68).
18. Starr Figura, Associate Curator, MoMA, New York City, exhibition German
Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse, MoMA exhibition website, online audio guide.
19. Wenn ihr Helden sein wollt, dann mt ihr diese Schweinerei [. . .] auch bejahen. Wenn ihr in die niedrigsten Tiefen gegangen seid, die Luse, den Dreck, den
Hunger, die Angst, die Hosenscheierei, dann seid ihr Heldenaber sonst: Helden
im Bilderbuch (qtd. in Conzelmann 166). This quote is attributed to Dix in later life.
20. For a fuller development of this argument see Merzs 1999 reappraisal of
Dixs The Trench (Der Schtzengraben, 1923) and his epic triptych, The War (Der
Krieg, 192832). Dora Apel (368) and Linda McGreevy (288326) observe a similar
ambivalence in the cycle.
Sharp: Kthe Kollwitzs Witness to War


21. Kein Mensch wird mutmaen, da diese 7 Holzstcke mittlerer Gre eine
langjhrige Arbeit in sich schlieen und doch ist es so. Es steckt darin die Auseinandersetzung mit dem Stck Leben, das die Jahre 19141918 umfassen (BohnkeKollwitz 868).
22. This is not stated directly but revealed through diary entries, her later disillusion implying her earlier expectations. This entry from 1 July 1918 states: I thought
and believed that the time from 1914 to now would purify me. The pain has left weariness in its wake. Its not just Peter. Its the war that crushes you right down to the
ground (Bohnke-Kollwitz 36869).
23. Der Abgrund hat sich nicht geschlossen. Millionen hat er verschlungen und
klafft noch (Bohnke-Kollwitz 280).
24. Christmas 1915: Wichtig war diese Form, die sich bildete. Diese einmal und
einzig lebende Person, dieser Mensch (Bohnke-Kollwitz 206).
25. The tension between maternal protection and ideal sacrifice in Kollwitzs
work is discussed by Prelinger (Sacrifice and Protection) and Moorjani.
26. Sie geben sich mit Jauchsen. Sie geben sich wie eine reine schlackenlose
Flamme, die steil zum Himmel steigt (Bohnke-Kollwitz 154); Was er mir gegeben
hat [. . .] war so etwas, was ich bis dahin kaum kannte. Die Frmmigkeit dieser jungen Seelen, die Schlackenlosigkeit. Meine jungen Shne, meine lieben jungen Flammen, die Ihr uns fhret, nicht wir Euch. Aus uns hervorgegegangen, ber uns hochwachsend uns mitnehmend (Bohnke-Kollwitz 178).
27. Was hilft es bessere Zustnde zu bekommen mit verschlechterten Menschen? (Bohnke-Kollwitz 526).
28. October 1920: Vom Morden, Lgen, Verderben, Entstellen [. . .] hat die Erde
jetzt genug gesehen (Bohnke-Kollwitz 483).
29. Mutter sein kann ich doch niemand als meinen eigenen (Bohnke-Kollwitz
268). This insight is confirmed in 1941 when her grandson, another Peter Kollwitz,
is killed. Even though she can deeply empathize with her daughter-in-law, she knows
that you can heal from such a wound only by yourselffrom within (19 Nov.
1942, Bohnke-Kollwitz 708).
30. In 1945, two months after Kollwitzs death, the art critic Clement Greenberg
expressed his disappointment at our failure to be stirred as much as we feel we ought
to be (qtd. in Schaefer 32), for which he blamed the artists technical deficiencies. In
1959, one critic wrote that Kollwitzs ideas are like being hit by a wet sponge, her
technique trite [. . .], her contributions to art, really, a debasement (qtd. in Schaefer
33). In a 1984 British Museum publication, Kollwitzs later work is characterized as
suffering through a perceived shift from the specific to the more general and abstract:
Partly as a result, the quality of her art suffered and it often became infected by
sentimentality (Carey and Griffiths 60). Although it does not denigrate her skill, the
Ontario Art Gallerys 2004 exhibition suggests a blind spot to Kollwitzs activism as
the catalogues page displays the incongruous juxtaposition of the title Kollwitz: the
Art of Compassion and Never again War, possibly the most dynamic of her antiwar posters (Rix and Clarke). Popular reception has been even more inclined to privi-


women in german yearbook 27

lege the emotional appeal or social content of her work over her artistry with several
examples from the print media cited by Bachert (131). An analysis of this aspect lies
beyond the scope of the current enquiry.
31. Zur Arbeit muss man hart sein und das was man gelebt hat aus sich heraussetzen. Wenn ich beginne das zu tun, so fhle ich wieder als Mutter, die den Schmerz
nicht von sich lassen will (Bohnke-Kollwitz 269).
32. July 1915: Es ist das eine andere Liebe als die die weint und sich sehnt und
grmt. Wenn ich ihn so liebe bete ich nicht. Wenn ich ihn aber so fhle wie ich es in
meiner Arbeit sichtbarlich nach aussen bringen will, dann bete ich (Bohnke-Kollwitz 193).
33. 26 December 1914: Dein Vermchtnis zu erkennen und zu bewahren. Was
ist das? Mein Vaterland so zu lieben auf meine Art wie Du es liebtest auf Deine
(Bohnke-Kollwitz 18081).
34. Hans Koch war hier. [. . .] Er sagte mir, und das war mir sehr wichtig, er
wrde nicht mehr freiwillig gehn (Bohnke-Kollwitz 376).
35. Es ist genug gestorben! Keiner darf mehr fallen! (Bohnke-Kollwitz 841).
36. December 1941: Diese Forderung ist wie Nie wieder Krieg kein sehnschtiger Wunsch sondern Gebot (Bohnke-Kollwitz 705).

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Sharp: Kthe Kollwitzs Witness to War


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