Käthe Kollwitz: artist of the people – no more war!

IssueOctober 2008
Feature by Roger Stephenson

In October 1916, the German artist Käthe Kollwitz wrote in her diary: “It’s not only our youth who go willingly and joyfully into the war; it’s the same in all nations. People who would be friendly under other conditions now hurl themselves at one another as enemies.” All she could see in the war was “criminal lunacy”. “I have been thinking,” she wrote later, “whether I could not contribute something to the propaganda for peace.”

Kollwitz was born in 1867 into a family with a strong social awareness – radical socialist on her father’s side, Protestant free thinkers on her mother’s. She combined the two in her life and art. Kollwitz started training as an artist when she was 18. In her mid-twenties, she married a doctor and moved with him to a slum district of Berlin where he gave medical care to the poor. In her work as an artist she too was dedicated to the people, depicting the grim realities of working class life, their struggles against an oppressive economic system, and, particularly, the pain and suffering of mothers who lost their children through disease caused by the dire social conditions in which they were forced to live.

Kollwitz chose to work in the print media of etching and lithography rather than painting, and stipulated that her prints should be sold inexpensively so as to reach as wide an audience as possible.

She was a lifelong pacifist and utterly condemned the sacrifice of the young on both sides in 1914-18. Their idealism and energies should not be put to war but to building a better life and society. Despite the strong convictions of their mother, both Kollwitz’s sons volunteered for the army in 1914. Peter, the younger, was killed in October. This was a loss from which she never recovered.

After the war, Kollwitz continued to work for social and pacifist causes, producing, in 1920, the poster “Vienna is Dying, Save Her Children”. In 1924, she produced the poster “Nie Wieder Krieg” – “Never Again War” – and repeated Goethe’s warning that to sacrifice the young in war is to sacrifice the future: “The seed for planting should not be ground”.

Both during and after their rise to power, Kollwitz publicly condemned the Nazis, and was prepared to take the consequences because, seeing what they were doing, she could not live with herself and remain silent. She lost her teaching post and studio at the Prussian Academy and narrowly avoided being put in a concentration camp, but she continued to work.

In 1942, she returned to Goethe’s warning against sacrificing the young, but this time she sees it as young children rather than as young soldiers.

In the lithograph “Saatfrücht sollen nicht vermahlen werden!” – “The seed for planting should not be ground!” – she shows a defiant grandmother (a self-portrait) protecting three young children in the shelter of her arms.

At the time Käthe Kollwitz made this image, her grandson, Peter, was seriously wounded in the fighting on the Eastern Front and was later killed in battle in September 1942, but she had no thought of revenge. In describing the lithograph, she wrote that the mother was telling the children: “When you are grown up, you must get ready for life again, not for war again.”

Topics: Culture