Peter Kollwitz was not of full age in August 1914 when he wished to join the German army. As such, he needed permission from his father to be a military volunteer, but his father refused. His mother, Kathe, persuaded her husband to change his mind and permission was granted. So, when Peter was killed ten days after leaving his home town of Berlin in October, there was not only grief, but also guilt.
By 1914, Kathe Kollwitz had already established herself as a great German artist through her production of prints, lithographs, etchings, and woodcuts, as well as sculptures. Having been born in 1867 Prussia to socially radical parents and an equally radical Lutheran priest for a grandfather, she was from childhood consumed by issues of social justice. When she married a doctor who worked solely among the poor in 1890s Berlin, she became deeply involved with the lives and hardships of the working-class people among whom she was living, and above all, with the role and responsibilities of women.
Peter’s death became a turning point. “There is in our lives a wound,” she wrote, “which will never heal, nor should it.” She would try to express her grief and guilt about her son through her different mediums for the rest of her life.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, many of Kathe’s posters, exhibits, displays, sculptures, and carvings were reflections of the war and its effect on people, society, and social concerns. She publicly opposed the rise of Hitler and, along with Einstein and other intellectuals and artists, encouraged voters to reject the Nazis in the 1932 election. Unsurprisingly, once they came to power, the Nazis banned her from exhibiting and forced her to resign from the Academy of Arts, where she taught.
In 1935 she produced her last cycle of prints—eight lithographs called simply Death. They portrayed individuals, including herself, in deep sorrow, grief, and despondency for the condition of their lives, transformed and diminished by war and oppression.
This was hardly welcome to the Nazi regime, as it claimed to be the rebirth of a cleansed and pure nation. She was visited by the Gestapo, who threatened her with a concentration camp; her international profile left her in relative freedom. The Second World War delivered a final blow: the death of her grandson on the Eastern Front in 1942 followed by her evacuation from Berlin the following year. She died in the last weeks of the war, in April, 1945.
In an entry in her diary dated October 22, 1937, the anniversary of Peter’s death, she wrote about a small sculpture she had been working on, a sculpture meant to be a private memorial for her son and herself together. It showed a mother, seated, holding her dead son lying between her knees, in her lap. Although the form derives from religious imagery, there is nothing Christian about this sculpture. The son is not, like Jesus, presented to the viewer for contemplation or adoration. He is not resting, as in Michelangelo’s Pieta, on her knees, but is huddled between her legs, almost totally enclosed. She does not show him to us, but attempts to shield him, although dead, from further harm. There is no hint of salvation, merely a response to slaughter.
On November 14, 1993, in the pouring rain, the President of Germany, Richard von Weizacker, came to the Neue Wache [New Guardhouse] building in Berlin to rededicate it as the National Memorial to the Victims of War and Dictatorship. It is a building with one display room with a plain slate floor and walls of stone under an oculus in the ceiling that is open to the wind, rain, and snow, as well as the sun. In the middle of the otherwise undecorated and unadorned room, was placed a larger version of the sculpture created in 1937 by Kathe Kollwitz, herself both a witness and victim.
Ruth Padel, a poet, said this about the sculpture:
“So there it stands, light versus dark. It is in the open air, the light comes down and it is surrounded by empty walls. It sums up the suffering of everybody in all wars. If this were found in a Neolithic tomb, it would still be relevant, because it is about a grown-up mourning a child. It was a kind of political genius of [Helmut Kohl, Chancellor of Germany, who chose the sculpture] to see that this would stand when other things fall away. There is no contextualizing, with any particular clothing or prop. There is just the little face of the dead child, turning up to the mother, the mother’s hand over his face but yet looking at the child, helpless. It is the embodiment of grief and loss.”
I took this picture in October of last year. I had read about this memorial, but had not expected to find the sculpture. I discovered it only three blocks from my hotel. Many of the words above come from Germany, Memories of a Nation, by Neil MacGregor.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.