Even though I’d been there on two previous occasions, there was one place to which I had to return before I finished my brief exploration of the memorials and cemeteries of the western front. In Flanders, near to Dixmuide, north of Ypres, there is a German military cemetery where the son of the artist Kathe Kollwitz is buried. It was there, in 1932, that Kollwitz’s memorial to her lost son was unveiled, consisting of the figures of herself and her husband grieving for the loss of their youngest child. It is, I believe, one of the finest – and most deeply moving – artworks created in response to the devastation of the First World War.
Peter Kollwitz was just eighteen when volunteered for the German Army during the wave of patriotism that swept all the belligerent nations in August 1914. Although Kathe would come to develop strong pacifist views, she later admitted in 1914 she had not argued against her sons joining the German Army ‘because there was the conviction that Germany was in the right and had the duty to defend herself’. However, by 1917 she had changed her view of the war: ‘The feeling that we were betrayed then, at the beginning. And perhaps Peter would still be living had it not been for this terrible betrayal. Peter and millions, many millions of other boys, all betrayed.’
Kathe Kollwitz, Self portrait
Kathe Kollwitz had already built a reputation as one of Germany’s most important artists when the war broke out. Born in 1867 in Konigsberg, East Prussia (now Kalingrad in Russia), she was raised within Prussia’s first free religious community, founded by her maternal grandfather, in defiance of the Kaiser’s state-approved Lutheranism. Her grandfather’s unwavering commitment to social duty became her lifelong guiding principle, once writing in her Diary: ‘It is my duty to voice the sufferings of humankind, the never-ending sufferings heaped mountain high’.
Kathe studied art in Berlin and began producing etchings in 1880. A year later she married Dr Karl Kollwitz and they settled in a poor, working class area of Prenszlauer Berg in north Berlin, moving into the two-floor apartment that would be Kollwitz’s home until it was destroyed in World War II. On the lower floor Karl had his doctor’s practice and Kathe her studio. The upper floor was where the family lived: their first son, Hans was born in 1892, followed by Peter in 1896.
Kathe Kollwitz, ‘Poverty’ from The Weavers, 1895
Between the births of her two sons, Kollwitz produced her first masterpiece, The Weavers’: a cycle of six works inspired by the failed revolt of Silesian weavers in 1842. In three lithographs (‘Poverty’, ‘Death’, and ‘Conspiracy’) and three etchings with aquatint (‘March of the Weavers’, ‘Riot’, and ‘The End’), Kollwitz gave expression to the workers’ misery, hope, courage, and, eventually, doom. The cycle was exhibited in 1898 to wide acclaim.
From 1898 to 1903 Kathe taught at the Berlin School of Women Artists, and in 1910 began to create sculpture. Her second major cycle of etchings was ‘The Peasant War’, in which, between 1902 and 1908, she depicted scenes from the 16th century Peasants’ War that raged through southern Germany in the early years of the Reformation. The haunting Expressionist character studies and harrowing images of human suffering in Kollwitz’s etchings were a reflection of the socialist politics that she shared with her husband, and of her experience living in the midst of poverty and hardship in the working-class district where Karl had his practice, serving the needs of the urban poor. Kathe’s socialism was another inheritance from her family: her father embraced Karl Marx and The Communist Manifesto, joined the German Social Democratic Worker’s Party (SPD), though he could have become a lawyer, refused to serve the right-wing Prussian state, instead becoming a stonemason.
Peter Kollwitz as a soldier in 1914
By the beginning of the war, Kollwitz was recognized as one of the most prominent German graphic artists and had already been involved with various social, political and artistic organizations, among them the Berlin Secession and Simplicissimus, a satirical magazine. When war broke, Kathe was overwhelmed by fear and melancholy, though her position at this point was not one of outright pacifism or of opposition to the war. Hans, her eldest son, had joined the army immediately, but when Peter, just eighteen, announced that he, too, wanted to enlist, Karl and Kathe tried to dissuade him from volunteering. In her diary, Kathe describes her younger son as a gentle, quiet and sweet child. When he was seven, she did a drawing of him in her arms that formed the sketch for her etching ‘Mother with Dead Child’.
But Peter, like many of his peers (and elders – see the first chapter of Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front) were imbued with the conception of ‘death for the Fatherland’. Peter entered the infantry, and left for training at a camp about 60 miles north of Berlin.
Käthe Kollwitz, ‘The Wait’, 1914
Writing in her diary on 27 August 1914, she asked:
Where do all these women find the courage to send their dear ones to the front to face the guns, when they have watched over them all their lives with such loving care? I fear that the despondency which is bound to follow will be all the blacker for the present mood of exaltation…
A month later, on 30 September, she wrote:
Nothing is real but the frightfulness of this state, which we almost grow used to. In such times it seems so stupid that the boys must go to war. It is all so pointless, so insane. Occasionally there comes the foolish thought: how can they possibly take part in such madness? And at once the cold shower: they must, must! Then one is ready to despair.
On 23 October 1914, Peter Kollwitz was killed at Dixmuide in Belgium. To a friend his mother wrote, ‘There is in our lives a wound which will never heal. Nor should it.’ Kathe later wrote in her diary:
My Peter, I intend to try to be faithful…. What does that mean? To love my country in my own way as you loved it in your way. And to make this love work. To look at the young people and be faithful to them. Besides that I shall do my work, the same work, my child, which you were denied. I want to honour God in my work, too, which means I want to be honest, true, and sincere…. When I try to be like that, dear Peter, I ask you then to be around me, help me, show yourself to me. I know you are there, but I see you only vaguely, as if you were shrouded in mist. Stay with me…. my love is different from the one which cries and worries and yearns…. But I pray that I can feel you so close to me that I will be able to make your spirit.
Kathe Kollwitz, Mothers, 1919
In 1919, Kollwitz drew ‘Mothers’, a moving depiction of mothers trying to protect their children. In her diary entry for 6 February 1919, Kollwitz writes: ‘I am working on ‘Mothers’. . . . I drew the mother who embraces her two children; it’s me, with the children born from me, my Hans and my Peterchen. And I was able to do it well.’
Peter’s death fuelled Kollwitz’s anti-war sentiments, and her work became increasingly strong in its pacifist stance. In 1918, the Social-Democratic newspaper Vorwärts published her response to the poet Richard Dehmel’s call for all able-bodied men and boys to die for the Fatherland. She quoted Goethe’s words, ‘seed corn must not be ground’, implying that the nation’s future depended on its youth, which must not be squandered in a war of attrition. In Kathe Kollwitz: Woman and Artist, Martha Kearns writes that Kathe found in Goethe’s words the moral, philosophic, and emotional basis she needed, as a mother and an artist, to continue living and working:
I do not want to die, even if Hans and Karl should die. I do not want to go until l have faithfully made the most of my talent and cultivated the seed that was placed in me until the last small twig has grown. This does not contradict the fact that I could have died – smilingly – for Peter, and for Hans too, were the choice offered me. Oh how gladly, how gladly. Peter was seed for the planting which should not have been ground. He was the sowing. I am the bearer and and cultivator of a grain of seed-corn. What Hans will become, the future will show. But since I am to be the cultivator, I want to serve faithfully. Since recognizing that, I am almost serene and much firmer in spirit. It is not only that I am permitted to finish my work – I am obliged to finish it.
The most important meaning Kathe attached to Peter’s untimely death in war was that he should have lived so that his seed of life and talent would have borne fruit. As a result of his death, she gradually reversed her position on the war, and on all war, affirming that there was no justification for Peter – or for any of the young volunteers, of whatever country – to have been ‘seeds for planting’ in the bloody fields of war.
Kathe Kollwitz, ‘Seed Corn Must Not Be Ground’, 1942
Kathe returned to Goethe’s phrase for her last lithograph in 1942, entitled ‘Seed Corn Must Not Be Ground’, in which an anguished mother struggles to keep her children safe. At the height of Nazi power, and in the midst of the Second World War, Kollwitz produced more than a statement against war: this work is a protest, summoning resistance to the recruitment of young men into the armed forces. On 21 February 1944, a year before she died, Kathe wrote:
Every war already carries within it the war that will answer it. Every war is answered by a new war, until everything is smashed. That is why I am so wholeheartedly for a radical end to this madness and why my only hope is in world socialism.
After the First World War, Kollwitz was an active member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the organisation established in 1915 that campaigned after the war for peace, disarmament and international co-operation. She produced lithographs for the organisation that were distributed as postcards. But, above all, devastated by the loss of her son, she conceived of a memorial sculpture dedicated to Peter and to all the young volunteers who had sacrificed their lives. Gradually, the memorial changed from a sculpture of Peter to a relief of mourning parents – herself and Karl. It would be a monumental headstone for the entire cemetery where Peter lay.
In June, 1926, Käthe and Karl Kollwitz visited the cemetery at Roggeveld, in Belgium, to decide where the two figures should be placed. She later recalled:
The cemetery is close to the highway…. The entrance is nothing but an opening in the hedge that surrounds the entire field. It was blocked by barbed wire which a friendly young man bent aside for us; then he left us alone. What an impression: cross upon cross…. on most of the graves there were low, yellow wooden crosses. A small metal plaque in the centre gives the name and number. So we found our grave…. We cut three tiny roses from a flowering wild briar and placed them on the ground beside the cross. All that is left of him lies there in a row-grave. None of the mounds are separated; there are only the same little crosses placed quite close together…. and almost everywhere is the naked, yellow soil…. at least half the graves bear the inscription unknown German… We considered where my figures might be placed… What we both thought best was to have the figures just across from the entrance, along the hedge…. Then the kneeling figures would have the whole cemetery before them.
The sculptures were not finished until 1931, and before they were transported to Roggeveld, they went on display at the Prussian Academy of Arts:
For years I worked on them in utter silence, showed them to no one, scarcely even to Karl and Hans; and now I am opening the doors wide so that as many people as possible may see them. A big step which troubles and excites me; but it has also made me very happy because of the unanimous acclaim of my fellow artists.
Kathe Kollwitz and her husband at the unveiling of ‘The Grieving Parents’
Finally, in 1932, the sculptures of the two kneeling figures, ‘The Mother’ and ‘The Father’, were unveiled in the Roggeveld Military Cemetery in Belgium. The next day, before they returned to Berlin, Kathe and Karl visited visited the cemetery for the last time. Kathe wrote in her diary:
I stood before the woman, looked at her – my own face – and I wept and stroked her cheeks. Karl stood close behind me – I did not even realize it. I heard him whisper, ‘Yes, yes.’ How close we were to one another then!
The cemetery at Roggeveld with the newly installed sculptures in the distance.
In 1954, the German graves and the memorial Kollwitz had sculpted were moved from Roggeveld to Vladslo, where the parents kneel today, and where I returned once more to spend some time with this deeply moving work which, more than any I know, speaks of the grief and pity of war.
The burial stone bearing Peter Kollwitz’s name
Here, sheltered in one of the few woods of oaks in the area, lie hundreds of square black granite engraved with the names of the buried soldiers. These replace the ‘yellow wooden crosses’ at Roggeveld, as described by Kathe in her diary. Each plaque bears the names of twenty dead soldiers, so that you do not gain a sense of just how many are buried here: 25,644 burials in total. The stone bearing the name of Peter Kollwitz lies just in front of ‘The Grieving Parents’.
The position of ‘The Grieving Parents’ in the cemetery at Vladslo
In his book, The Great War and the Shaping of the Twentieth Century, Jay Winter wrote of the significance of the Vladslo memorial:
Kathe Kollwitz’s war memorial was an offering to a son who had offered his life for his country. That she was only able to complete it eighteen years after his death should tell us something about how unconvincing is the view that the Great War ended when the textbooks tell us, on 11 November 1918. For millions of people who had to live with the human costs of the conflict the war lasted much, much longer. It is for this reason that it makes sense to suggest that, in an important way, the contours of the history of the Great War, the history endured by millions of ordinary men and women, are visible at Vladslo.
The war opened in 1914 as a conflict which almost everyone believed would last for a few months. But the slaughter of Peter Kollwitz and the armies of 1914 did not result in a decisive victory. Instead, by the end of that year stalemate had set in: the Great War was born, a war which was to last fully 1,500 days.
At the Armistice of 11 November I9I8, the German Army was not far from Vladslo. It was still in occupation of large parts of Belgium. But it had been defeated. The Allies had won the war, at an unimaginable cost. In all combatant armies, over 9 million men had died in uniform; perhaps twice that number had been wounded. And an even larger number of people in every combatant country – wives and brothers, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers like Kathe and Karl Kollwitz – were in mourning. [That is the meaning] of Vladslo: in the midst of a Great War battlefield returned to farmland, holding together the remains of the fallen and the gestures of the survivors.
‘The Grieving Parents’ in the cemetery at Vladslo
In his book, The Great War and the Shaping of the Twentieth Century, Jay Winter continues:
The story of the pilgrimage of one mother and father to their son’s grave stands for millions of others. There is no artist’s signature, no location in time or space – only the universal sadness of two aged people, surrounded by the dead like ‘a flock of lost children’. The phrase is Kathe Kollwitz’s own. The story of her struggle to commemorate her son’s death testifies both to her humanity and to her achievement in creating a timeless memorial, a work of art of extraordinary power and feeling.
Kollwitz was only able to complete the memorial eighteen years after her son’s death, which alone should tell us something about the process of bereavement described so movingly in her diary and in her work. That process was in no sense unique. Kollwitz was haunted by dreams of her son, and felt his presence in the same way that other bereaved parents did throughout the world.
Details of ‘The Grieving Parents’ in the cemetery at Vladslo
Jay Winter continues:
What gives Kollwitz’s mourning an added dimension was her sense of guilt, of remorse over the responsibility of the older generation for the slaughter of the young. This feeling arose from her initial apprehensive but positive reaction to Peter’s decision to volunteer. Her vision was internationalist, and hostile to the philistine arrogance of official Germany. But, as she said time and again, she believed in a higher duty than mere self-interest, and had felt before 1914 that ‘behind the individual life … stood the Fatherland’. She knew that her son had volunteered with a ‘pure heart’, filled with patriotism, ‘love for an idea, a commandment’, but still she had wept bitterly at his departure.
To find, as she did later in the war, that his idealism was misplaced, that his sacrifice was for nothing, was difficult for many reasons. First, it created a distance between her and her son. ‘Is it a break of faith with you, Peter,’ she wrote in October 1916,’if I can now see only madness in the war?’ He had died believing; how could his mother not honour that belief? But to feel that the war was an exercise in futility led to an even more damaging admission – that her son and his whole generation had been ‘betrayed’.
This recognition was painful, but when she reached it in 1918 she did not flinch from giving it artistic form. This is one reason why it took so long for her to complete the monument, and why she and her husband are on their knees before their son’s grave. They are there to beg his forgiveness, to ask him to accept their failure to find a better way, their failure to prevent the madness of war from cutting his life short.
At Vladslo, on their knees, Kathe and Karl Kollwitz suggest a family which includes us all. And that may be precisely what she had in mind: the most intimate here is also the most universal. In a powerful sense, this memorial in a German war cemetery is a family reunion, a foretaste of what her broad religious faith suggested would happen at some future date.
The Käthe Kollwitz Museum at Koekelare
From Vladslo I drove the few miles to nearby Koekelare where there is an excellent Käthe Kollwitz Museum which I first visited many years ago with students. The Museum display includes many examples of Kollwitz’s etchings, including the Weavers’ Revolt series, but has been altered considerably since I last visited, and now concentrates on telling the story of her son Peter through extracts from her diary and other documents.
Part of the display at the Käthe Kollwitz Museum
Interestingly, it appears that his parents’ socialism had already made an impact on him as a schoolboy. From the display I learned that at secondary school Peter edited the school magazine Der Anfang which was soon banned by the school authorities because of its radical content. It was rescued by the educational reformer and free thinker, Gustav Wyneken (who coined the term ‘youth culture’).
Peter also joined the Wandervogel, the radical German youth movement established in 1901 committed to shaking off the restrictions of society and returning to nature and freedom through activities such as hiking, camping and rediscovering German folk song. Reading this gave me an even greater sense of the shock that Peter’s parents must have experienced when he announced his intention to enlist – and of how the declaration of war swept away radical, internationalist ideals at a stroke in August 1914.
The Museum display also reveals details of how Peter lost his life. His unit was involved in what came to be known as the battle of the Yser (the river that flows through Diksmuide and out to the North Sea). The German aim was to push through Diksmuide and on towards Calais. Their progress was halted when the Belgians opened sluice gates on the river, flooding the area around Diksmuide. Peter spent the last night of his life on the road to Beerst that now passes the cemetery at Vladslo. He and some fellow-soldiers were sheltering in a covered trench (covered with doors and other timbers seized from a local village). During an artillery barrage, a projectile fell through a gap between the timbers, entered Peter’s mouth and pierced his heart.
Kathe Kollwitz, Memorial for Karl Liebknecht, 1919
Throughout the 1920s, Kathe Kollwitz remained dedicated her belief that art should reflect the social conditions of the time, producing a series of works reflecting her concern with the themes of war, poverty, working class life and the lives of ordinary women. In 1919 she worked on a commemorative woodcut dedicated to Karl Liebknecht, the revolutionary socialist murdered in 1919. She made several prints as propaganda against war. Perhaps her most copied anti-war work is ‘Nie Wieder Krieg’ (‘Never Again War’), made in 1924 in which a male figure raises one arm high and the other hand is on his heart.
Kathe Kollwitz, ‘Nie Wieder Krieg’ (‘Never Again War’)
Kathe became the first woman to be elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts. but in 1933, After Hitler assumed power in 1933, leftist artists went into exile or were forced to stop working. Kollowitz attempted to form with Heinrich Mann a front of artists against the Nazi administration, but soon was forced to resign her post and was expelled from the Academy. In 1936 she was barred by the Nazis from exhibiting, her art was classified as ‘degenerate’ and her works were removed from galleries. In 1938 her husband was banned from medical practice. He died in 1940.
Käthe Kollwitz’s grandson Peter, named after the son killed in the First World War, joined the German Army in the Second World War. He was killed during the advance on Stalingrad in October, 1942. His father, Hans Kollwitz, recalled: ‘She bore herself proudly, did not grieve openly, scarcely wept; she tried to give us strength to bear it. But the blow had been deep and damaging.’
Kathe Kollwitz’s grandson, Peter
If World War I had blurred the distinction between civilian and military targets, World War II erased it as carpet bombing of cities, targeting civilians became the accepted norm. Kathe Kollwitz wrote:
It is almost incomprehensible to me what degrees of endurance people can manifest. In days to come people will hardly understand this age. What a difference between now and 1914… People have been transformed so that they have this capacity for endurance…. Worst of all is that every war already carries within the war which will answer it. Every war is answered by a new war, until everything, everything is smashed.
On 23 November 1943, Kathe Kollwitz’s apartment in Berlin was destroyed by Allied bombs – she lost family photographs, letters and mementos of her husband, sons and grandsons. She wrote: ‘It was my home for more than fifty years. Five persons whom I have loved so dearly have gone away from those rooms forever. Memories filled all the rooms… Only an idea remains, and that is fixed in the heart.’ Because of bombings, she was evacuated from Berlin. In 1944 she found refuge in Moritzburg. In spring 1945, Kollwitz knew she was dying and wrote in her very last letter, ‘War accompanies me to the end’ . She died two weeks before the end of World War II on 22 April 1945.
Some 15 years ago I visited Berlin. One of the sights in that city saturated in history that made the most impression upon me was of another Kollwitz sculpture, the replica of her Pieta, ‘Mother with her dead son‘, that, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, was placed in the Neue Wache guardhouse on Unter den Linden. Previously known under the Communist regime as the Memorial to Victims of Fascism and Militarism, her monument was re-dedicated in 1993 as the official memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for ‘victims of war and tyranny’.
One of the last entries in Kathe Kollwitz’s diary reads:
One day, a new ideal will arise, and there will be an end to all wars. I die convinced of this. It will need much hard work, but it will be achieved… The important thing, until that happens, is to hold one’s banner high and to struggle… Without struggle there is no life.
- The Grieving Parents: Ruth Padel’s talk in BBC Radio 3’s The Essay series, ‘Minds at War’ (available for one year)
- Noel Chavasse: WW1 hero from Liverpool
- The Chinese labourers who served on the Western Front
- Deserters, mutineers and the German soldier who warned of the first gas attack
- On the road to the last resting places of three WW1 poets
- Bugling for the Missing of WW1: cutting back to what’s left on the bone