The First World War in 261 weeks

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Archive for the tag “Women”

056 Elsbeth Schragmueller and what we do not know about the war

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Elsbeth Schragmueller (maybe)

Elsbeth Schragmueller (maybe)

Little army of spies achieves small successes 

It is Sunday 18 July 1915. It is the 56th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

German generals August von Mackensen and Max von Gallwitz make new conquests in the Polish regions.

There is heavy fighting around the fortified town of Ivangorod 160 kilometres from St Petersburg.

In the Second Battle of the Isonzo the Austrians first lose Monte San Michele and regain it again from the Italians a day later.

After the conquest of Nasiriyah on the Turks, the British in Mesopotamia decide to advance to the town of Kut al-Imara, the next stop before Baghdad.

Bulgaria declares itself neutral again, after Tsar Ferdinand I has received the German ambassador of Constantinople in Sofia.

In a reaction to news about German excesses in Belgium, American ex-president Theodore Roosevelt considers his neutral fellow countrymen accomplices.

The employers to a large extent bow to the wage demands of the striking miners in Wales as a result of the intervention of Lloyd George.

With German-Turkish support the Senussi, an order of Sufis, attack Italian garrisons in what is now called Lybia.

And in Antwerp, outside everybody’s visual field, a German spy school is run by the mysterious Elsbeth Schragmüller.

Fräulein Doktor’s story is as exciting as it is tragic. She is Germany’s most secret agent, who scared the French so much as Mademoiselle Docteur. As a young woman she gave birth to a dead baby. She is turned out into the street by her parents. Then she throws herself into the arms of a cavalry captain, who leads a double life as a spy. But her lover dies and she herself gets addicted to drugs, which does not prevent her from building a career as a German secret agent in the First World War. She seduces allied officers and between the sheets she extracts strategic information from them.

Meanwhile Fräulein Doktor also recruits other spies for the Germans and brings the enemy’s secret agents down. She pretends to be an art history student and experiences exciting adventures in the Balkans, Belgium and France. In Paris she manages to penetrate the office of the French counter-intelligence as a cleaning lady. Again from Barcelona she conducts a secret operation on the western front under the guise of the Red Cross. But then war is over and Fräulein Doktor cannot handle the defeat. She dies anonymously in a Swiss sanatorium, addicted and exhausted.

There you are, the story in a nutshell. The reality is completely different, not to say a lot more boring. Fräulein Doktor indeed existed, but to begin with, her name was not Annemarie Lesser, as writer Hans Rudolph Berndorff in 1929 fantasized in his book, which formed the basis for a play and five films. Elsbeth Schragmüller was her real name. She was not exposed to real danger. She was not made for carnal love and for drugs she was much too conscientious.

What made Elsbeth Schragmüller special was the high position she occupied as a woman within the Kriegsnachrichtenstelle Antwerpen, which was taken for a mysterious spy school. It was in that office that Miss Schragmüller fanatically and painstakingly moulded her students into moles. She must have been good at her job, though the implications of her results remain cloudy.

Schragmüller comes from a distinguished family and belongs to the first generation of women who graduated from university. When war breaks out she wants to do more than just bring water to the boys who are leaving for the front by train. She goes to Brussels on her own and there succeeds in reaching military governor Colmar Freiherr Von der Goltz. Via him she gets a mysterious job. She impresses and is taken higher and higher in the hierarchy of intelligence.

A year before the war she had got a doctoral degree in political science, which is why she was addressed in Antwerp as ‘Fräulein Doktor’. This title was above all functional, for nobody needed to know her true identity, but it also contributed to the myth of the femme fatale. German agents, who had been found out, talked to the French about conversations with a young woman who had introduced herself to them as ‘Fräulein Doktor’. Then rumours appeared in the French newspapers about an enigmatic beauty on the banks of the river Schelde. ‘The blonde siren of Antwerp’, ‘the red tigress’, ‘la grande patronnesse’, no holds of the imagination were barred.

Spy madness is a phenomenon of the First World War anyway. The enemy is among us! With hidden hand this treacherous warrior in the dark spreads death and destruction! In the years preceding the war the English had already been caught up in espionage literature. In the 1903 novel The Riddle of the Sands for example, the Germans secretly prepare an invasion of England from the German Wadden Islands. The book, which is regarded as the first modern thriller, becomes incredibly popular. This is why it not only represents widespread paranoia among the British, but also a historic diverging of opinions.

Together with the Prussians they had defeated Napoleon. Now the Germans were the arch enemy, determined to repeat what William the Conqueror had succeeded in doing a very long time ago in the year 1066: invade England. A salient detail is that Erskine Childers, writer of The Riddle of the Sands, would die before a firing squad in 1922 because of his activitities as an Irish nationalist during the Civil War in Eire. This was to the satisfaction of Winston Churchill, who thought nobody had brought more damage to the Irish people than Childers, the man that had actually made clear to the English that they should fear the Germans.

Despite the widespread fascination for spies, the First World War seemed to have come too early for 007. Espionage in the Great War was rather the work of pathetic amateurs than of skillful intelligence officers, though of course it is true that we know less of the top notch spies than of the nincompoops.

In any case Mata Hari was one of those who did not stand a chance. As agent H21 she is said to have been taken care of by Elsbeth Schragmüller. Fräulein Doktor will not have had much confidence in the coquettish and extremely naive nudie of Dutch descent. And it would have been not very likely that Schragmüller shed a tear when the French executed Mata Hari in 1917.

Much earlier in the war Karl Lody had been treated in the same way by the British. In November 1914 Lody had the questionable honour to be the first man in 150 years who was executed within the walls of the Tower of London. He had almost openly applied for his death sentence. As a tourist, cycling around Edinburgh, carrying an American passport, Lody asked the local Scots everything under the sun. His letters, addressed to a contact in Sweden, were effortlessly intercepted by the British.

Lody had no understanding of invisible ink and encrypted codes. The letter in which he enthusiastically wrote that trains filled with Russians were going to the south of England was allowed to pass. The British were all too eager to leave such a fantastic wrong track. The Russian auxiliary troops were absolute nonsense that was circulating among the British people. In Carlisle they supposedly asked for vodka, and in Durham they were said to have put a rouble in a gas meter. One of the most fantastic stories was that the snow from back home still stuck on the boots of the Russians when they landed in Scotland. Man is gullible in times of war.

Already before the Great War the German spy network had surfaced in England. When Wilhelm II visited London in 1911, an old navy officer from the imperial entourage remarkably often popped into a third-rate barber’s shop. It was therefore relatively easy for the British counter intelligence to identify the German under cover agents. On 4 August 1914, the first day of the war, it had been a matter of rounding them up. Then the important task lay ahead of Lody to fill the intelligence gap for the Vaterland. It did not really agree with him.

After Lody nine more German spies would be executed in the Tower of London, among whom the Dutchmen Janssen and Roos. In May 1915 they had crossed the Channel as so-called cigar dealers, but they were found out on the other side pretty quickly. They appeared to know a lot more about ships than about cigars.

Far away from the front the lone warrior was all too often in the dark. Obviously the war was not influenced substantially by secret information from individuals. There were occasional successes. Marthe Richard was a French spy who among other  things succeeded in eliminating a submarine by sleeping with a German navy attaché.

Louise de Bettignies, a lady from a French aristocratic family, is also worth mentioning. She was recruited by the British and from Lille, in the north of France, became the hub of an imposing espionage network. On various occasions she herself crossed the lines to the Netherlands and even England to report on the enemy. When the Germans caught her in October 1915, they decided to keep her alive. Earlier that month the execution of the British nurse Edith Cavell had given the Germans an appalling press. And yet Louise de Bettignies would not survive the war. In September 1918 she died in a German prison of typhoid fever and pneumonia.

None of the spies from the First World War could in any way be compared to a master traitor like Alfred Redl. Widely praised, this former head of the Austro-Hungarian counter intelligence was identified as a double agent in May 1913. Immediately after his exposure the Austrian authorities gave him the chance to shoot himself through the mouth. A blunder, for in this way it remained unclear how big the exact damage was that Redl had inflicted on the Dual Monarchy.

Or was the smell of the cesspool too terrible to have it emptied competely by Redl? Himself blackmailed by the Russians  because of a homosexual relationship, Redl in his turn must have succeeded in blackmailing the head of the Russian secret service. Whatever the case, it is likely that the Austrian misfortunes in the beginning of the war can be attributed to a large extent to Redl. Thanks to Redl the Russians had been completely informed of the Austrian strategy.

If being a spy can be called a profession, it took long before working conditions would come into view. In 1907 the Hague Convention provided judicial protection. From now on spies that had been taken prisoner had a right to a fair trial. This did not lead to an abundance of mercy in the First World War. In 1917 the Germans shot 52 Belgians for espionage in the town of Ghent alone.

After the war Elsbeth Schragmüller remains unmarried. Living at home with her father and mother she continues her academic career, but this is broken off again for no apparent reasons. In 1929 she accounts for her wartime activities. In an article in the publication ‘Was wir vom Weltkrieg nicht wissen’ (What we do not know about the world war), she reveals that she is the woman about whom so much nonsense is in circulation. Without going into detail Fräulein Doktor relates of the ‘intellectual delight’ that went hand in hand with the debriefing of secret agents in the interrogating room. ‘We asked ourselves political, economic and military questions. You should never forget for a second with whom you were talking.’

After the publication of the book she also gives lectures about her wartime experiences. In a newspaper article from 1931 it is reported that the slender, tall, blonde woman is a war invalid. It remains unclear, however, how she got these injuries. According to the German writer Hanne Hieber, who did research into Fräulein Doktor, there is not even a photograph of Elsbeth Schragmüller, apart from a family portrait from her childhood years.

A brother of hers is one of the victims in the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, Hitler’s ruthless liquidation of numerous political enemies. The Fraülein who never became a Frau on the side of a husband dies in her house in Munich in 1940, probably as the result of tuberculosis.

Would she have returned to her old craft in the Second World War? Who knows. It will always be difficult to ascertain what moved this mystifying woman ideologically. And of course also the grave of Elsbeth Schragmüller remains silent.

For the moment this was the last episode of The First World War in 261 Weeks. 

Tom Tacken (special thanks to Peter Veltman for translating 56 stories from Dutch into English)


055 Emmeline Pankhurst and the disgrace of the white feather

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Emmeline Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst

It is Sunday 11 July 1915. It is the 55th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Austrian airplanes bomb Venice again.

Sir John French tries to persuade French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre in vain to postpone a new attack until 1916.

A newly formed Third Army of the British, under the command of General Charles Monro, takes over a part of the front between Arras and the Somme from the French.

There is news about skirmishes between British-Belgian and German troops north of Rhodesia.

In Aden on the Arabian peninsula, the Sultan of Lahej dies after being wounded in a Turkish attack.

The Germans suffer heavy losses in their vain attempt to reach the other side of the Flemish river Yser.

In the Argonne the Germans attack again.

Two British warships return to the Rufiji delta in East Africa to finish an earlier job, sinking the German cruiser Königsberg.

German General Max von Gallwitz advances towards the Narew river, a tributary of the Vistula, part of an immense German effort along the front between the Baltic regions and Bukovina.

And ‘the Right to Serve’ is demanded in London by demonstrating women, led by Emmeline Pankhurst.

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035 Rosa Luxemburg and the blazing trumpets of the revolution

Rosa Luxemburg

Rosa Luxemburg

Left-wing Germany becomes further divided

It is Sunday 21 February 1915. It is the 35th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Reims cathedral is heavily damaged during a German bombing.

The Germans claim the victory in the Winter Battle of the Masurian Lakes and take 100,000 Russians as prisoners of war.

The Russians in their turn can boast having seized the Polish town of Przasnysz.

Grand Duke Nicholas promises the British to send the Black Sea navy of the Russians and an army to Constantinople.

After a five-day delay because of bad weather, the British resume their bombardment of Turkish and German artillery units along the Dardanelles.

Besides, British troops land at Sedd el Bahr on the Gallipoli peninsula.

German submarines sink a series of allied merchant ships.

The French make some progress in the Champagne district and the British achieve a modest success at La Bassée

And, lonely in a German prison cell, a small woman is still dreaming of a socialist revolution: Rosa Luxemburg.

In one of her many letters from prison Rosa Luxemburg writes to a friend: ‘Sometimes it seems to me that I am not really a human being at all but like a bird or a beast in human form. I feel so much more at home even in a scrap of garden like the one here, and still more in the meadows when the grass is humming with bees than at one of our party congresses. I can say that to you, for you will not promptly suspect me of treason to socialism! You know that I really hope to die at my post, in a street fight or in prison. But my innermost personality belongs more to my tomtits than to my comrades.’

Here is the tender side of the high-calibre marxist, the razor-sharp theoretician of Germany’s left wing. The small brave woman who saw in imperialism and militarism the last convulsions of capitalism, but who was hidden away in a prison-cell almost the whole war. She got four years for an inflammatory public statement she made in 1913 against the war that she foresaw.

And yet Rosa Luxemburg kept fighting her class struggle behind bars between 1914 and 1918. Friends succeeded in smuggling her writings under the pseudonym Junius out of prison. In these she gave an outline of the dilemma of society, ‘socialism or babarism’, but she especially dealt with the social-democrats, who had betrayed the cause of the workers according to her. Already before the war she targeted the moderate-left revisionists, who thought they could enter socialist paradise by social reforms.

Rosa Luxemburg was born in 1871 as the daughter of an emancipated Jewish merchant. After having studied economics in Switzerland, she became a German citizen through a marriage of convenience. So a Jewish, Polish, red-headed woman was the perfect object of ridicule in imperial Germany. Besides having a passion for politics Rosa Luxemburg also leads an active love life. She flirts with Kostja Zetkin who is fourteen years her junior. Kostja is the son of Clara Zetkin, the other woman from the vanguard of the left movement.

She is small and slight of build. A hip impediment causes her to walk with difficulty. But within there is a fire which cannot be put out. She could charm halls full of people. During one of her speeches a police-inspector has to maintain order, but he is so carried away by the flaming argument of Red Rosa that he begins to applaud. Afterwards Luxemburg sends him a note: ‘It is a pity that a man as sensible as you should be in the police, but it would be a greater pity if the police should lose so human an example. Don’t applaud any more.’

In 1904 she is sent to prison for lese-majesty. She said that though the kaiser speaks of a good and secure existence of the German workers, he has no idea of the true facts. In the years after she will issue louder and louder warnings for a war between the European superpowers. Using general strikes the international proletariat will have to change this course. This is also what Jean Jaurès urges France to do. And in 1913 Rosa Luxemburg addresses a crowd of people as follows: ‘If they expect us to lift the weapons of murder against our French or other foreign brothers, then let us tell them ‘No, we won’t do it’.’

With this Rosa Luxemburg seems to have deserved the monument which she got in Berlin in 2006. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall she was the unsurpassed heroine of the German Democratic Republic, but also after the Wende Rosa Luxemburg continues to capture the imagination of left-wing Germany. Since 2006 sixty dark wooden beams have been hidden in the ground in her very own Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, in nazi times known as the Horst-Wessel-Platz. The beams contain political as well as personal quotes of Luxemburg herself.

A competition was organised for this work of art. The second prize was awarded to the couple that wanted to commercialize the brand name ‘Rosa de Luxe’ as an art form, such as Che Guevara, which you come across on thousands of T-shirts in the streets of Berlin. ‘Rosa de Luxe’ would also be printed on the label for example of the package of cottage cheese. Rosa Luxemburg herself wrapped her left-wing ideals in literary paper. When she wanted to express her categoric rejection of the capitalist system, she aptly chose these words: ‘Die Revolution ist großartig, alles andere ist Quark!’ ‘The revolution is magnificent. Everything else is bilge.’


Parliamentary democracy was of little interest to Rosa Luxemburg. Comrades who had joined the Reichstag were scorned by her. On the first day of the war another divisive issue could be added to this. The entire faction of the SPD, the party to which also Rosa Luxemburg had counted herself, voted for the war loans. On 2 December 1914 SPD member Karl Liebknecht was the only member of the Reichstag to vote against the new war loans. He would have to give up his place in the SPD faction, of which party his father Wilhelm had been one of the founders.

In August 1916 Karl Kautsky, a prominent social-democrat on the German side, wrote in a letter to his Austrian colleague Viktor Adler, that he knew who was the most popular man in the trenches at that moment: Karl Liebknecht. ‘The dissatisfied masses understand nothing of his policy’, Kautsky declares. ‘But they see him as the man who is working for an end to the war, and this is what counts for them.’

Against the war and for the revolution is the line which Rosa Luxemburg has followed right from the start, just like Vladimir Lenin. But there are also big differences with the Russian bolsheviks, who have a thorough understanding of the importance of a well-organised revolutionary vanguard, a party elite. Rosa Luxemburg thinks that the masses will revolt all by themselves after some agitation and propaganda. That will prove to be Rosa’s fatal mistake.

Red Rosa  has never succeeded in reaching the masses, let alone setting them in motion. The Spartacus League, of which she and Karl Liebknecht were the figureheads, merged into the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands on the last day of 1918. This League remained a rather insignificant left-wing splinter, even in the turbulent months after the fall of the empire.

Spartacus was the man who had led a rebellion of slaves in the Roman Empire of the first century B.C.. But the German wage slaves of just after the Great War would rather identify with the middleclass citizen and social-democrat Friedrich Ebert. He was proclaimed the first president of the new German republic. It is his government that will restore order and authority with the help of paramilitary troops, the Freikorps, at the expense of red rioters such as Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

They both die in the same manner.  On 15 January 1919 Luxemburg and Liebknecht are dragged to the Berlin Eden Hotel by men of the Garde-Kavallerie-Schützen-Division. They do not carry a warrant for their arrest. Rosa Luxemburg managed to put a couple of her favourite  books in her suitcase. After all, she is used to being apprehended. But this time it ends differently. In the hotel there is a brief interrogation and a brutal molestation. A soldier does his job and smashes their skulls with the butt of his rifle. They are dragged into a car half dead. Liebknecht is thrown out of the car near the zoo and gets  killed. The offical reading is that he was shot when on the run. Rosa Luxemburg, 47 years old, gets a bullet through her temple. The public is informed that she was lynched by an angry mob. The death squad dumps her body into the Landwehr canal. The corpse does not turn up until months later.

It has never become clear who was really behind the double murder. Leader of the death squad was someone called Waldemar Pabst, who was never convicted. Arms trafficking made him rich and he died a wealthy man in 1970. Pabst maintained that he had the full support of the social-democrat Gustav Noske, under whose direction the leftist revolt was ended. But did in the background also president Ebert agree with the murder? Note that Ebert was one of those who had been taught the socialist  tricks of the trade at the party school of the SPD by teacher Rosa Luxemburg in the years before the war.

It is highly unlikely that Luxemburg and Liebknecht would have succeeded in claiming the revolution, if they had been granted more time to live. Barely released from a prison cell of the empire, they could hardly get a grip of the revolutionary developments in the new republic. They worked as if possessed, furiously turning out their articles for Die Rote Fahne.

Rosa Luxemburg’s final article ended as follows: ‘Tomorrow the revolution will rear its head once again, and, to your horror, will proclaim, with trumpets blazing: I was, I am, I will be!’. Revolutionary rhetoric that does not really sink in outside the editorial office. The author Sebastian Haffner disagrees with the notion that the German revolution of 1918-1919 should coincide with the Spartacus Uprising of January 1919. Haffner refers to Luxemburg and Liebknecht when he says that was exactly how everything would have happened, if they had not been there. According to Haffner, even one-day wonders such as seaman Karl Artelt and officer Heinrich Dorrenbach have had a stronger influence on the developments than the two famous revolutionaries.

That is why the assassination of Luxemburg and Liebknecht was mainly of symbolic importance in January 1919. Covenient violence, however, became the general spirit in Germany for the next decades. Sebastian Haffner placed the double murder forty years ago in that particular perspective. He writes: ‘The murders of January 15, 1919, were a prelude – the prelude to murders by the thousand in the following months under Noske, and to murders by the million in the ensuing decades under Hitler. They were the starting signal for all the others. Yet this one crime remains unadmitted, unexpiated and unrepented. That is why it still cries out to heaven in Germany. That is why its light sears the German present like a lethal laser beam.’

Historically speaking the twofold scandalous act of 15 January 1919 is so significant,  because it sealed the division within the leftist family for good. Social-democrats and communists, members of the SPD and of the KPD were to continue their struggle for power stubbornly when the Brownshirts were already marching the streets of Germany. Would Hitler have been able to seize power, if the left had formed a single front against him? This is one of many questions history asks without supplying the answer.

Next week: Anton Kröller

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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)

007 Bertha Krupp and birds falling to the earth

Bertha Krupp

Bertha Krupp

German guns bombard  Belgian fortresses

It is Sunday 9 August 1914. It is the seventh week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The British Expeditionary Force arrives in France.

The French launch their plan XVII in Alsace-Lorraine, but soon have to give up the town of Mulhouse to the Germans.

War is declared to Austria-Hungary, first by France and later by Great Britain.

In Africa the British focus on the German colonies of Cameroon and Togo.

The Germans, however, conquer the town of Taveta in British East Africa.

The Russians go onto the attack in East Prussia.

Japan sides with the allies France, Great Britain and Russia.

The first German pilot, Oberleutnant Reinhold Jahnow, crashes near Malmedy and dies on the same day, followed two days later by his deputy, Oberleutnant Heinrich Koch.

During the Battle of Haelen it appears that the days of the cavalry are over: a German charge on horseback with drawn sabre would not stand a chance against Belgian machineguns.

But the fortifications around Liège crumble under the sledgehammer blows of Big Bertha, the howitser named after Bertha Krupp.

‘This is no artillery, these are no ordinary armaments. This is a giant, enormous and terrible, hunting across the plain in fury, crushing everything with his iron footsteps’. It is a German soldier who wrote this review of Big Bertha, the most famous monster of the Great War, that made her entrance near Liège. ‘A devastating and unknown hurricane rages roaring, hissing and shrieking through the air. The terrible blast tears roofs of houses, uproots hundred-year-old trees and makes birds fall to the earth.’

How would Bertha Krupp herself have felt that her name would not only be so disrespectfully associated with the terrible howitzer from the first days of the war? When in 1918 an even more awful gun began to blast the French capital, the frightened Parisians spoke of la grosse Bertha.

Pictures of her do not show a corpulent lady, so the ‘big’ did not really apply to her anyway. Funny in peculiar way to give pet names to the most formidable armaments.

Schlanke Emma (Skinny Emma) was the name of a 305 millimeter howitzer from the Czech Skoda factory of the Austrians. Little sister Skinny Emma came to assist Big Bertha in battering the fortresses of Namur. The gun with which the Germans bombarded Dunkerque in  France was called Langer Max (Long Max). And years later at the end of World War II the Americans baptized their first atom bomb – cynically – Little Boy.

The Germans had to dig out their Big Bertha pretty soon. Their hero Erich Ludendorff, who was a true hoodlum, had invaded the citadel of Liège just like that. However, this did not cause the fortifications of the town on the Meuse to fall yet. They were reputed to be the strongest of Europe. It had indeed been the Germans themselves who had urged Belgium to build them in the eighties of the 19th century. Berlin had anticipated that in case the French ever came to revenge the defeat of 1871, their route to Germany might well lead through the lowland around Liège.

There were twelve of them, built in a circle around Liège. Every two forts, constructed of concrete and iron and largely built underground, were about four kilometers apart. This circle of forts accommodated four hundred guns and three thousand soldiers. Ludendorff knew that field artillery could not destroy them. So he called in the help of Big Bertha, a 420 millimeter howitzer, twice as big as the heaviest gun of the Liège fortresses.

Big Bertha hurled its missile towards the enemy in a big bow. An 820 kilogram shell could easily land twelve kilometers away. Two Berthas had left the Krupp works in Essen on 10 August. It took twenty hours to get them off the train at Herbesthal station and put them together again. This was followed by a hellish journey by road when Daimler-Benz tractors pulled the two colossal mortars up to the forts.

From hot air balloons and church towers artillery observers passed on the co-ordinates to the men behind Big Bertha. The Fort de Pontisse, that had resisted the light artillery of the Germans for a few days, soon surrendered. Then in order to demolish the Fort de Loncin, 36 horses were needed to pull a Big Bertha straight across Liège.

General Gérard Leman, 63 years old, was in the Fort de Loncin. He knew that the hours of the system of fortifications were numbered, but he refused to capitulate. Big Bertha’s revenge was merciless. A chance hit landed exactly in the ammunition room of Loncin, which accordingly exploded from within. The cast iron gun turrets flew up to a hundred meters high in the air like fleas. They still lie where they landed upside down, macabre show-pieces of the impressive museum that the Fort de Loncin has turned into.

Hundreds of defenders disappeared under the rubble of Loncin. Also Leman was feared to have died. However, he managed to struggle out of the debris and lost consciousness in the moat around the fort. After he had come round, Leman told the Germans to put in writing that he had not surrendered as commanding officer of the forts. Out of respect a German officer gave Leman his sabre back.

Because of the display of power the commanding officers of the Fort de Hollogne and Fort de Flémalle were inclined to lower the flag. From his hospital bed Leman gave the order not to surrender any fort without being shelled. Belgians and Germans thereupon agreed to fire a couple of symbolic shells. On 16 August at half past nine in the morning Liège did not have a single fort left. With a four-day-delay an open road to Brussels finally lay ahead of the First Army of General Alexander von Kluck.

Liège had a first that was not to be envied, but later also Namur, Antwerp, Maubeuge, Verdun, Ypres and Oudenaarde got to know the incredible Big Bertha fire power. Nevertheless, in the course of the war they strategically did not make a difference to the Germans, however much they were dreaded by the enemy. Trenches were the true fortifications of the First World War. Big Bertha could deal with concrete and iron. Mud and barbed wire were a different story. The French would benefit a lot more from their much lighter field artillery, the 75 millimeter gun, or soixante-quinze. This is an example of gunnery whereby missiles are fired almost horizontally, whereas a howitzer like Big Bertha stood between a gun and a mortar. The word howitzer by the way is derived from Czech houfnice, meaning ‘sling’.


In 1811 the family business Krupp started with four workers. A century later 79,000 workers earned a living at Krupp Werke in Essen. Alfred Krupp, nicknamed Alfred the Great, or The Cannon King, had turned the company into a steel empire in the 19th century. Whoever worked for Krupp, was Alfred’s subject. The company’s constitution was called General-Regulativ. Duties of the employer were not included, neither were the rights of the employee. Penalties for arriving late for work, immoral behaviour or lack of work discipline, however, were meticulously described. Thus Krupp Werke could throw up shells, cannons and rails regular as clockwork.

In 1902 the empire falls to a sixteen-year-old girl, Bertha Krupp. Her father Friedrich, son of Alfred the Great, has got entangled in a sex scandal. The Italian press writes that he has assaulted small boys on the island of Capri. Some time later Friedrich Krupp dies. The official story says brain haemorrhage, but there are rumours that Friedrich Krupp has taken his own life.

It is important to start looking, without delay, for a good chap for Bertha, the eldest of two daughters. Kaiser Wilhelm II is personally going to look around. It will be the Prussian diplomat Gustav von Bohlen und Halbach, who is born in The Hague sixteen years before Bertha Krupp saw the light of day. By decree of the emperor he can place the name Krupp before his. Kaiser Wilhelm himself is also present at the wedding.

Krupp is Germany’s pride. On the eve of the First World War it is Germany’s biggest company, even though the turnover of the American enterprise US Steel is five times bigger. With an estimated value of 283 million marks Bertha is known by the bank as the wealthiest resident of the empire, the emperor himself occupying a fifth place.

In Germany Krupp practically has the monopoly as far as the production of heavy guns is concerned. Before the war it also conducts business beyond the borders. It is a bizarre detail that after the armistice Krupp is to receive a substantial sum of money from the rival British firm of Vickers. In 1902 the latter entered into a rental agreement  with Krupp for an ignition mechanism. After the war Vickers settles the account on the basis of the number of German losses as a result of allied artillery. In this way Krupp also made a lot of money on dead Germans.

With Vickers’ money and government support from the Weimar republic Gustav can soon start working on the rearmament of Germany again. In the Netherlands Krupp secretly builds bunkers for the production of submarines and in Sweden they work on perfecting new artillery. This is how Adolf Hitler is led to outline the rolemodel for Germany’s youth when he brags them to be ‘flink wie Windhunde, zäh wie Leder und hart wie Kruppstahl’: swift as greyhounds, tough as leather and hard as Krupps steel.


Bertha Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, contrary to family tradition a happily married woman, got eight children. One son passed away shortly after he was born. Two others died in the Second World War and a fourth was kept prisoner for ten years by the Soviet Union. Her husband Gustav, the actual pilot of Krupp during the interbellum period, was accused of war crimes in 1945, but he proved to be too senile to stand trial. His eldest son Alfried could not escape that very fate. He was specifically accused of using prisoners from concentration camps as slaves. Not far from Auschwitz Krupp had a factory called Berthawerk. Alfried was convicted by the Nuremberg tribunal. He was released from prison in 1951. The company he had taken over from his father was expropriated after the Second World War.

Not only a monstrous mortar type of gun and a factory near an extermination camp were named after Bertha Krupp, but also a hospital carried her name. At the end of her life she must have moved many with visits to needy Krupp workers. She donated the ground on which a church was to be erected. Up to this day there are children in Essen who go to the Bertha-Krupp-Realschule at the Kerckhofstrasse. Bertha Krupp died in 1957 at the age of seventy-one.

In 2011 her granddaughter Diana Maria Friz wrote a biography presenting Bertha Krupp as a forceful personality. This granddaughter is convinced that Grossmutter remained in control, though her husband was the one who propagated the Krupp company to the outside world. ‘She stayed the central figure of her large family until her dying day. We grandchildren will remember her as a great lady, who linked composure and savoir vivre to motherhood and affection. She was closer to us than our parents, for the war, the collapse of the family business in 1945, widowhood and also old age had made her a gentler person, so that she could show us feelings she had never permitted herself to show her own children.’

Next week: Alexander Samsonov

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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