Käthe Kollwitz: Memorialisation as Anti-Militarist Weapon

Originally published in Arts – Special Issue: War, Art and Memory: 1914-1945, ed. by Andrew Nedd (2020), 9, 1 (peer-reviewed), DOI: https://doi.org/10.3390/arts9010036 


When someone dies because he has been sick – even if he is still young—the event is so utterly beyond one’s powers that one must gradually become resigned to it. He is dead because it was not in his nature to live. But it is different in war. There was only one possibility, one point of view from which it could be justified: the free willing of it. And that in turn was possible only because there was the conviction that Germany was in the right and had the duty to defend herself. At the beginning it would have been wholly impossible for me to conceive of letting the boys go as parents must let their boys go now, without inwardly affirming it—letting them go simply to the slaughterhouse. There is what changes everything. 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.

Käthe Kollwitz, 19 March 1918.[i]

This essay explores the graphic work of Käthe Kollwitz within the context of the German, and later, the international No More War movement, during the years 1920-1925.[ii] Acknowledging Kollwitz’s well-documented pacifism in the post-World War I years, it argues for a more nuanced analysis of Kollwitz’s work as central to understanding the politics of war memorialisation in Germany, specifically her pragmatism in the creative process and in the dissemination of her work, as well as the appreciation of her work as affective anti-war art by her contemporaries. While the essay necessarily excludes detailed discussion of every war-related image by Kollwitz during the period, it provides insight to key actions by her that have been little discussed in the literature, namely the conditions surrounding the development of the drawing and corresponding woodcut Two Dead and the woodcut Memorial Sheet for Karl Liebknecht, the process and dissemination of her cycle of woodcuts War to an international audience by 1925 and the posters The Survivors and No More War, the latter created for the Nie wieder Krieg! [No more War!] rally on the Augustusplatz in Leipzig, August 1924. The essay is supported by material from the artist’s diaries and letters, some of which remains unavailable to an English language readership.

Kollwitz’s war art, though studied more than most German examples, has not received the same depth of scholarly investigation as that by artists such as George Grosz for example.[iii] While some recent German-only publications offer new insights, it is remarkable that Claire Whitner’s catalogue is the first in English in over twenty years, around the time when Elizabeth Prelinger argued that ‘it has served the interests of critics to present Kollwitz as a figure of unwavering resolution, progressive in terms of politics and feminism, without heeding her consistently critical and sceptical attitude toward her work and her ambivalent ideological and artistic stances’. Prelinger recalled that because Kollwitz adhered to figuration in the age of abstraction, was a woman in a male-dominated field and focused on socially-engaged art when it was unfashionable, her remarkable development in terms of form and technique has been largely overlooked.[iv] Additionally, and as first noted by Elizabeth McCausland in 1937, Judith Sharp has called out the over-emphasis on emotionality, as well as the tendency to overlook Kollwitz’s witness to war, which arguably has caused her war imagery to be less rigorously studied.[v] Most critically, most of her very substantial body of letters and diaries, immensely insightful to her artistic practice, remain untranslated.

The artist’s extensive diaries and letters convincingly reveal a pragmatic artist working to extract maximum impact. Questions of form and method governed the design of her work, the creation of which was motivated by the sense of betrayal that led to so many deaths. Moreover, while the death of her son Peter (who fell on the battlefield in the earliest weeks of World War I) undoubtedly marked her work and feeds our understanding of it—and it remains a remarkable expression of loss and testament to suffering on the home front—the evidence is that Kollwitz’s commitment to the No More War movement was pursued energetically and objectively. Indeed, her diaries tell us that she could only make art when she could distance herself from her personal experience, that is, separate the artist from the mother. On 22 August 1916, she wrote in her diary that ‘for work, one must be hard and thrust outside oneself what one has lived through. As soon as I begin to do that, I again feel myself a mother who will not give up her sorrow’.[vi] Like the younger activist artists George Grosz and John Heartfield, she deliberately mobilised her art to reach far beyond gallery walls and into mass-produced publications and posters. As the opening quotation of this essay indicates, Kollwitz believed in the war effort at first—even though war was repulsive to her—because she like many other Germans thought Germany was fighting a defensive war. Reflecting on the sombre mood that prevailed during the first weeks of war, she felt that ‘in such times it seems so stupid that the boys must go to war. The whole thing is so ghastly and insane. Sometimes the foolish thought: how can they possibly take part in such madness and then the cold shower: they must, must’.[vii] It was this belief that led her to support her underage son Peter’s pleadings to his father (Kollwitz’s husband Karl) that he be allowed to enlist. It was, she recalled, ‘this sacrifice to which [Peter] tore me and to which we tore Karl’.[viii] In 1918, by which time she had become disgusted by the mass death of young men, she was compelled to respond, by open letter, to poet Richard Dehmel’s urging on 22 October 1918 in the newspaper Vorwärts for one last volunteering drive.[ix] Printed in the Social Democrats (SPD)’s newspaper Vorwärts on 28 October and reprinted in the liberal Vossische Zeitung, Kollwitz forcefully challenged Dehmel’s appeal for new volunteers, likely to consist of the last of Germany’s youth, whose deaths ‘would be worse and more irreplaceable for Germany than the loss of whole provinces’. Cautioning that ‘a world war did not drain [Dehmel’s] blood when he was twenty’, she concludes: ‘There has been enough of dying! Let not another man fall! Against Richard Dehmel I ask that the words of an even greater poet be remembered: “Seed for the planting must not be ground”‘.[x]

Over the succeeding years, her involvement with the No More War movement grew. Kollwitz and many others were urged towards anti-war activism by the positive image and presence of militarism that persisted in postwar Germany. While organisations such as the Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold were set up to defend democracy against extremist militant factions, the taste for militarism, as Kollwitz was aware, remained an enduring element of national identity.[xi] Kollwitz refused to commit to any political party (which induced guilt in her), despite the alignment of her socially invested art with the concerns of the left (e.g. Communist Party, KPD) and widespread public recognition of that fact.[xii] But while Kollwitz felt that the SPD-led government could not do enough for the poor in the wake of the war, she was repulsed by the Communists’ readiness to use violence, even if they were, as she put it, hungry, disenfranchised people.[xiii] Her work pursued only one objective: no more war.

Kollwitz’s major work of the period 1919-1925 was the cycle of woodcuts War, completed in 1923 and published in Dresden in 1924 by the Emil Richter gallery (which would serve as Kollwitz’s exclusive publisher until 1930). As her numerous drawings and print trials indicate, she dwelt deeply on the cycle’s content as well as the suitability of media. Her letter to her son dated 31 January 1918 reveals that she had begun to develop the prints, for which she had already made numerous studies:

I’m back in the middle of etching (…). Yes, I jumped with both feet into a work that I suspected was always hovering darkly since 1914 but which I postponed again and again. Now it seemed like a direct call to me and I started it. Plates about the War. Until now only drawings existed. Never shown to anyone. Drawn under tears.[xiv]

These earliest drawings that predate the first print trials are lost with the exception of Die Witwe [The Widow] (1915). From this time to 1923, she worked intermittently to arrive at a satisfying pictorial conclusion but abandoned etching in favour of woodcut:

I first began the War series as etchings. Came to nothing. Dropped everything. […] If woodcutting fails, then I have proof that the fault lies only within myself. Then I am just no longer able to do it. In all the years of torment these small oases of joys and successes![xv]

The cycle would be worked upon intermittently while Kollwitz developed two other pieces, the drawing Two Dead [Zwei Tote] (1920, Figure 1), from which she based her first ever woodcut), and her first major woodcut—ironically, perhaps—a memorial to the murdered Liebknecht. The little known Two Dead was Kollwitz’s first widely disseminated anti-war picture. A rare image of soldiers in Kollwitz’s oeuvre, the drawing was created in 1919 as the title-page illustration to the German publication of Romain Rolland’s powerful pacifist drama set during the Boer War, Le temps viendra (The Time Will Come, German: Die Zeit wird kommen, 1903), which would be staged by Erwin Piscator in Berlin in 1922. Kollwitz had seemingly found in Rolland’s play, where the conscience of the individual is pitted against one’s national duty as a soldier of war, the literary equivalent of her developing antiwar art.[xvi] As Stefan Zweig described Le temps viendra, it dealt with the only authority that Rolland recognized – conscience – which was the essence of Kollwitz’s protest against Dehmel.[xvii] Two Dead centres on an event late in Act Two, involving the twenty-year old British soldier Alan and an unnamed Italian volunteer, who is a prisoner of war in Alan’s regiment. During an escape attempt, the Italian and Alan mortally wound each other. As they lay dying, they comfort each other, trying to understand the forces that brought them to kill each other. Another soldier, Ebenezzer, watching them, says ‘these pigs, these pigs of bankers, ministers, generals, thieves who send the poor to death and damnation for their ambition and their money’. Alan tries to reach out to the Italian, who moves, straightens, tilts and embraces him. They sink into death. A third soldier, Owen, Alan’s friend, vows, in the last line of Act II, that he will never kill again.

There is no surviving written record of why Kollwitz chose this scene above others and the artistic challenges she may have encountered in developing the final composition are restricted to her comments on the later woodcut. But the idea that the soldiers had been fooled into fighting and dying, as voiced by Ebenezzer, surely resonated with Kollwitz, as it clearly echoed Kollwitz’s feelings as recorded in the diary entry of 19 March 1918 (see opening quote).

Figure 1-1a. Käthe Kollwitz, Two Dead, 1920. Pen and ink, dimensions unknown. Lost; shown as it appeared on the front cover of the German edition of Romain Rolland’s The Time will Come [Die Zeit wird kommen] (below).

In developing Two Dead, she began to develop the spare compositions that characterize War, where emotional impact was drawn from a carefully chosen motif pared down to retain only its essential elements, keeping the viewer’s eye firmly focused on the subject.



[i]      Hans Kollwitz, The Diary and Letters of Kaethe Kollwitz,1988, p. 87. Original German in Jutta Bohnke-Kollwitz, Käthe Kollwitz. Die Tagebücher 1908-1943, 2012, p. 359. In Bohnke-Kollwitz, the text is dated 20 March 1918. Hans Kollwitz’s English language edition of his mother’s diary and letters, originally published in 1955, includes only a very limited number of diary entries and letters. Hans‘s much more extensive German compilations include “Ich will wirken in dieser Zeit”: Auswahl aus den Tagebüchern und Briefen, aus Graphik, Zeichnungen und Plastik, ed. Hans Kollwitz, 5th ed. (Berlin: Mann, 1981) and Ich sah die Welt mit liebevollen Blicken: Ein Leben in Selbstzeugnissen, ed. Hans Kollwitz, 8th ed. (Wiesbaden: Fourier, 1985). Bohnke-Kollwitz’s edition of her grandmother’s diaries (Jutta was Hans’s daughter) is comprehensive (accompanied by detailed notes), though it is possible that not all entries are included. Where an entry also appears in the English edition of the diaries and letters, the references for both the English and the German edition will be given. In all other German sources, the translations are my own.

[ii]     The German Nie wieder Krieg [No More War] movement (not to be confused with the British No More War Movement (NMWM), founded 1921) existed from the beginning of World War I, growing to much greater numbers by 1920, the first year that the major annual demonstrations were held in various German cities on the anniversary of the outbreak of World War I (1 August 1914) and which would continue in force until 1925, when numbers had already begun to wane. By 1921, more than twenty anti-war organisations had been formed in Germany as part of the Nie wieder Krieg movement. See for example Herbert Bader et al., Nie wieder Krieg. Der Kampf für Frieden und Abrüstung seit 1900. Eine Dokumentation (Berlin West: Elefanten Press, 1979). For insight to post-war German politics and society in relation to war commemoration, see for example Benjamin Ziemann, Contested Commemorations: Republican War Veterans and Weimar Political Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[iii]    A rich body of anti-war art was produced in Germany between 1914 and 1945, and many of the artists remain little studied. See Stefanie Heckmann and Hans Ottomeyer, Kassandra. Visionen des Unheils 1914-1945 (Dresden: Sandstein, 2009).

[iv]   Claire Whitner, ed., Käthe Kollwitz and the Women of War. Femininity, Identity, and Art in Germany during World Wars I and II (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016). Elizabeth Prelinger, Käthe Kollwitz (Washington DC: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 1992), pp. 13-14. Kollwitz was included in Claudia Siebrecht’s The Aesthetics of Loss: German Women’s Art of the First World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). German-only publications include Tobias Hoffmann, ed., Berliner Realismus. Von Käthe Kollwitz bis Otto Dix. Sozialkritik – Satire – Revolution (Cologne: Wienand Verlag, 2018); Käthe-Kollwitz-Museum Berlin, ed., Käthe Kollwitz und ihre Freunde (Berlin: Käthe-Kollwitz-Museum Berlin, 2017).

[v]    Ingrid Sharp, ‘Käthe Kollwitz’s Witness to War: Gender, Authority, and Reception’, Women in German Yearbook, 27 (2011), 87. Elizabeth McCausland, ‘Käthe Kollwitz’, Parnassus, 9 (1937), 23.

[vi]    Kollwitz, The Diary and Letters of Kaethe Kollwitz, p. 72. Original German in Bohnke-Kollwitz, Käthe Kollwitz. Die Tagebücher 1908-1943, p. 269.

[vii]    Kollwitz, The Diary and Letters of Kaethe Kollwitz, p. 65. Original German in Bohnke-Kollwitz, Käthe Kollwitz. Die Tagebücher 1908-1943, pp. 165-166.

[viii]   Diary entry, Monday, 10 August 1914, in Bohnke-Kollwitz, Käthe Kollwitz. Die Tagebücher 1908-1943, p. 152.

[ix]    Richard Dehmel, ‘Einzige Rettung’, Vorwärts (1918), p. 7. Translated article title: Sole Salvation.

[x]    Käthe Kollwitz, ‘An Richard Dehmel! Entgegnung von Käthe Kollwitz’, Vorwärts (1918), p. 3. Translated article title: To Richard Dehmel! A Response from Käthe Kollwitz. The article is translated into English in Han’s Kollwitz’s edition. See Kollwitz, The Diary and Letters of Kaethe Kollwitz, pp. 88-89. The ‘greater poet’ Kollwitz refers to is Goethe.

[xi]    Popular publications such as those by the Reicharchiv [Reich Archive] fulfilled an important role in publishing the accounts of ordinary soldiers’ war experiences but there was little to debunk what cultural historian George Mosse called the Myth of the War Experience, which glorified military experience as a ‘man-making’ exercise while playing down the savagery of modern warfare and its physical and psychological impact on soldiers. See Mosse, Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991). Militant organisations such as the Freikorps and the Stahlhelm were formed barely a month after the Armistice and played a cardinal role in converting the myth into a militarised, political mass movement. For a detailed account of postwar Germany and militarism, see for example Richard Bessel’s landmark study, Germany after the First World War (London: Clarendon Press, 1993).

[xii]    ‘I am ashamed that I still do not take sides and almost suspect that if I declare that I belong to no party, the real reason for this is cowardice. Actually, I am not revolutionary at all, but evolutionary, because I am praised as an artist of the proletariat and the revolution and I am increasingly pushed into the role’. Diary entry, October 1920 (no exact date given). See Bohnke-Kollwitz, Käthe Kollwitz. Die Tagebücher 1908-1943, p. 483.

[xiii]   Diary entry, 8 December 1918 in ibid. p. 388.

[xiv]   Kollwitz also reveals in this letter that she was also hesitant to make known her experiences and feelings on the war, as well as the discrepancy she felt between the themes of life and death and the ‘stuperous nature of studio work’. See Jutta Bohnke-Kollwitz, Käthe Kollwitz, Briefe an Den Sohn: 1904 bis 1945,1992, p. 163.

[xv]    Diary, 25 June 1920. See Kollwitz, The Diary and Letters of Kaethe Kollwitz. See Bohnke-Kollwitz, Käthe Kollwitz. Die Tagebücher 1908-1943, p. 477. The italics are used only in Bohnke-Kollwitz.

[xvi]   Kollwitz’s drawing illustrated the title page of the fourth and fifth printings of the German version, Die Zeit wird kommen. Drama in drei Akten (Leipzig: EP Tal & Co. Verlag, 1921) and the version of the drawing used for the title page is lost (Nagel, 354). Each copy is numbered up to a total of 1000 copies. The play was written in 1903 and explored numerous anti-war themes through an episode in the Boer War (1899-1902). Rolland described Kollwitz in 1927 thus: ‘The work of Kaethe Kollwitz, which reflects the ordeal and pain of the humble and simple, is the grandest German poem of this age. This woman of virile heart has looked on them, has taken them into her motherly arms, with a solemn and tender compassion. She is the voice of the silence of the sacrificed’. See for example Herbert Bittner, Kaethe Kollwitz. Drawings (London and New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1959), p. 8.

[xvii] Stefan Zweig, Romain Rolland. The Man and his Work, trans. Eden Paul and Cedar Paul (New York: Thomas Seltzer, 1921), p. 119.