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017 Käthe Kollwitz and the gravity of the war cemetery

Käthe Kollwitz

Käthe Kollwitz

Parental grief over dying young

It is Sunday 18 October 1914. It is the 17th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

German admiral Maximilian von Spee heads for Chile with his Atlantic fleet.

The Austrians attempt in vain to cross the river San.

The Germans have to flee from Warsaw and are pushed back by the Russians.

A fierce battle is fought around the medieval town of Ypres in the Flemish Westhoek.

For the first time a merchant ship is sunk by a submarine, but the German U-19 allows the crew of the British SS Glitra to abandon ship safely.

British intellectuals strike back in The Times at the Manifesto which was published a fortnight earlier by 93 German scientists, artists and writers in defence of their government and its soldiers.

Boer leaders Christiaan Beyers and Christiaan de Wet openly rebel against the South-African government.

Sir Charles Dobell starts an expedition in the west of Africa, aimed at conquering the German colony of Cameroon.

And at the Yser front young Peter Kollwitz is killed, to the lifelong grief of his mother, the artist Käthe Kollwitz.

Whoever roams the battlefields of the Great War almost a century afterwards, should search for scars in the landscape. A crater, too round in shape, may betray the past, or else a concrete bunker, which stubbornly continues its battle with the weeds. For the rest farmers, town planners, road builders and last but not least mother nature have put the conflict aside. Does that make the landscape guilty? Such is in any case the poetic meditation of the Dutch artist Armando.

Yet the war is inescapable in northern France, the Flemish Westhoek or the Yser area because of the many memorials, bombastic, serene or insignificant. But especially because of the almost endless rows of graves, spread across hundreds of killing fields, big ones and small ones.

On one graveyard the tombstones are exposed to the wind. On another the young lives lie under a roof of foliage. Vladslo, which is not far from Diksmuide, is such a leavy spot. There is a German war cemetery on the edge of the Praetbos forest (literally ‘talking wood’), a somewhat cynical name probably from before the war. Over 25,000 young Germans laid to rest here certainly do not talk.

Peter Kollwitz is one of them. He was killed in the Battle of the Yser on 23 October 1914, when the Belgian army had dragged their heels. He was a musketeer, a modest rank the name of which wrongly brought recollections of Napoleonic times. Peter Kollwitz simply belonged to the rank and file. After all he was only eighteen years old.

Full of youthful enthusiasm the German battalions had left for Flanders in cattle trucks. They were only cheered before crossing the border. They had hardly received a military training. In one giant patriotic step they went from school straight to the battlefield. They were mowed down by the dozen.

On 10 November a bunch of these students walks into the gunfire of British soldiers who know all the tricks. A day later German army command produces this bulletin: ‘We made good progress in the Yser sector yesterday. West of Langemarck young regiments, singing Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, broke through the first enemy lines and occupied these. About two thousand French infantrymen and six machineguns were captured.’

This was an example of deceitful propaganda. It was not even mentioned that thousands of Germans were killed in one day. And the scene of battle had been closer to Noordschote and Bikschote, but Langemarck will probably have sounded better to German ears. It is also better not to believe that the boys turned their assault into choir practice. But the myth of Langemarck was born – including all the memorials and commemorations in the Heimat. In later years Langemarck will also be exploited by Adolf Hitler.

There is a different, more appropriate name for youthful dying in the German ranks: der Kindermord. And children have fathers and mothers. When his brother is killed, a certain Kurt Lommatsch has to break the bad news to his parents and sister on 28 October 1914. The ending of his letter reads as follows: ‘Dear parents, I beg you once more not to give in to your grief over the boy too much. After all he has given his life for our German fatherland which is surrounded by enemies. Many others who came with him from Germany have done likewise and have been laid to rest in foreign soil. I wish you all the very best. Kindest regards from your only son who is now still alive.’

A French practical guide teaches that the grief of parents who lose their mature child is unfathomable. ‘They are traumatised much more heavily and show a chronic mourning with emotional, somatic and such like disturbances. The death of this child will be the predominant theme of their thoughts and conversations for the rest of their lives.’


Käthe Kollwitz had two sons, Hans, the eldest, and Peter. Soon after Peter’s death the plan grows to create a memorial not just for her own son, but for all the other boys and their parents. Käthe Kollwitz is a committed artist. In her work she is sympathetic towards the toiling and suffering human being who she also knows from the consulting rooms of her husband Karl. He is a national health doctor for whom she feels but little passion. She learned socialism at home in the Old-Prussian town of Königsberg, but she is not familiar with the blind obedience to orders of a political party.

But now she has to convert her own pain into art. And that will take her years. In December 1914 she still sees a group of sculptures before her, representing a father at the head of his son who is stretched out before him, and a mother at the foot. Not until 1932 has she finished. The final result is ‘The Grieving Parents’. Not a son. Just a father and a mother. They stand apart from each other, separated by mutual grief. There is no comfort. He stares ahead, paralysed. She crouches. Blocks of sorrow, utterly lacking in subtlety. They clasp their bodies, which would otherwise fall apart. Are they asking their son for forgiveness, both kneeling? Their son who lies buried under their feet, taken away in the earth, one of the twenty-five thousand of Vladslo. To many it is the most impressive memorial of World War One, though it does not betray any relation with a place or an event. Even the signature of the maker is missing. In winter the sculptures are wrapped up. But each spring their sorrow, diluted with remorse, awakens.

Why had Käthe Kollwitz not been able to convince her son that the war did not serve any purpose? When he left for the front, she had given him pink carnations as so many mothers, and after the fall of Antwerp she had flown the black-white and red flag from the window of his room. Now, after his death, she knew better. But was not this realisation at the same time a betrayal to Peter, who had died for his conviction? In October 1916 she addresses her dead son in her diary: ‘Do I break the confidence in you, Peter, when the only thing I can recognize now in this war is lunacy?’

Käthe Kollwitz never saw her sculptures actually standing in Vladslo. In 1956 they were transported there. She had been dead for ten years then. The governments of Belgium and West Germany had decided on a concentration of German cemetaries in Flanders. The only places where Johann, Helmut, Heinrich, Kurt and Peter are resting in Flanders fields are Hooglede, Menen, Langemark, Zeebruges and Vladslo. We had better trust that the mortal remains of Peter Kollwitz were taken from Esen-Roggeveld, close to where he was killed, to Vladslo in 1956.

Just over a week before the British inaugurate their 45-metre-high wargate at Thiepval, a brick memorial to the missing of the Somme, Käthe is there when her sculptures were erected in Esen-Roggeveld. They were transformed from plastercasts into granite. ‘When we leave, I am not cheerful but sad’, she writes in her diary on 23 July 1932. She must also have visited other cemeteries, for a little further she writes: ‘The English and also the Belgian cemeteries are clearer, in a certain sense friendlier and more conventional, familiar than the German. I prefer the German cemeteries. The war was not a merry occasion, it is not fitting to embellish youthful death with flowers. Every war cemetery should remain grave.’

When she is back in Germany a month later, she takes down the following. ‘In retrospect the most beautiful memory of my days in Belgium was the last afternoon, when Van Hauten drove us there one more time. He left us to ourselves and we went from the sculptures to Peter’s grave and all was very lively and completely intense. I stood in front of the woman, saw her face, which was my face, cried and caressed her cheeks. Karl was right behind me, I did not even notice. I heard him whisper: ‘Ja ja’. How together we were then!’

A year later Hitler is in power. Just like the novelist Heinrich Mann, Käthe is thrown out of the Academy of the Arts by the new rulers. Käthe Kollwitz’s art is entartet – corrupt. The sculptures of Ernst Barlach, who has influenced Kollwitz’s work more than the famous Auguste Rodin, suffer the same fate. The Gestapo will pay her a visit and threaten Käthe with the concentration camp. Her age will not save her, they hasten to add. In July 1936 she writes in her diary: ‘If it seems inevitable, we will decide to escape the concentration camp by suicide.’

That will not be necessary, but Käthe Kollwitz is not spared another war either. Her husband dies in 1940. On New Year’s Eve 1941 she writes a letter to her grandson Peter, named after the uncle he has never known. Peter serves in Hitler’s army. ‘Du geliebter Junge’, his grandmother writes. ‘When your father telephoned me yesterday to tell me that you were in the field hospital with a light touch of jaundice, I could not say what went through me. You are alive and have been saved in time. Keep your jaundice as long as you want.’

In October 1942 she keeps it short in her diary. Hans, the eldest of her two sons and the father of her grandson Peter, has been to see her. ‘He came in very quietly. I knew then that Peter was dead. He fell on 22 September.’ Käthe Kollwitz has had to render both her son Peter and her grandson Peter to the war.

But she goes on, because she has to. In February 1944 she urges Hans to start teaching his younger son Arne Russian. ‘Later on that will give him a head start over the others.’ And in the same month she writes: ‘The worst of all is that each war implies its answer. Each war is answered with a new war. Only the devil can tell what the world may look like, what Germany may look like. That is why I am whole-heartedly for a radical end to this lunacy and only expect something from world socialism.’

In June 1944 she longs for the end: ‘It will be terribly hard to leave you, you and your children. But the unquenching desire to die remains.’ March 1945: ‘You, my firstborn. I am very old now and will add another year. Every night I dream of you, I must see you one more time. If it is really so that you can come under no circumstance, I will believe you. But I want to hear it from you yourself.’ She is old and worn-out and cannot make art any more. But she has remained a mother till the very end.

Käthe Kollwitz dies on 22 April 1945 at the age of seventy-seven. The war, her second war, will not last much longer.

Next week: Khudadad Khan

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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