On this day in 1932, in Flanders, Belgium, the German artist Kathe Kollwitz unveils the monument she created to memorialize her son, Peter, along with the hundreds of thousands of other soldiers killed on the battlefields of the Western Front during World War I.
Born in 1867 in Koningsberg, East Prussia, Kollwitz was schooled privately and sent to study art in Berlin, an unusually progressive education for a woman in the 1880s. Influenced by Realist artists and writers including Max Klinger and Emile Zola, as well as the works of Edvard Munch, Kollwitz became known for her drafting and printmaking skills, as well as for the dark subject matter of her work, which chronicled scenes from the poverty-ridden lives of working-class people in Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her work before the beginning of World War I included drawings with such titles as Homeless, Waiting for the Drunkard and Unemployment.
Soon after the Great War began in the summer of 1914, Kollwitz’s 19-year-old son Peter enlisted voluntarily as a soldier in the German army. He was killed in battle on October 22, 1914, on the Western Front, at Diksmuide, Belgium. This personal tragedy in Kollwitz’s life was reflected in her art, along with her political ideology and strong social conscience—by 1910 she had become a committed socialist. Over the war years, Kollwitz produced a series of drawings exploring the war’s impact, with titles like Widows and Orphans, Killed in Action and The Survivors. In 1917, with World War I in full swing, Kollwitz celebrated her 50th birthday with an exhibition at the Berlin gallery owned by the internationally known art dealer Paul Cassirer.
Kollwitz’s memorial to her son Peter was dedicated on August 20, 1932, at the German military cemetery near Vladslo in Flanders, Belgium. The grieving Kollwitz had worked for years to create the monument, struggling to reconcile her hatred for the war and mistrust of its leadership with the desire to honor her son’s sacrifice for the cause. Entitled The Parents, the statue depicts an elderly couple kneeling before the grave of their son. It bears no date or signature.
Kollwitz continued her support of German and international socialism in the post-war years, and was eventually punished for her outspoken political beliefs. She became the first woman elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts but was forced to resign after Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist (Nazi) Party rose to power in 1933. Three years later the Nazis classified Kollwitz’s art—like that of so many others during that period—as “degenerate,” and barred her from exhibiting her work. Kollwitz’s husband Karl died in 1940; in 1942, her grandson, also named Peter, was killed at the Russian front during World War II. Her own home, and much of her work, was destroyed by Allied bombs the following year, and Kollwitz was evacuated from Berlin to Moritzburg, near Dresden.
“In days to come people will hardly understand this age,” Kollwitz wrote during her time in Moritzburg. “What a difference between now and 1914…People have been transformed so that they have this capacity for endurance….Worst of all is that every war already carries within the war which will answer it. Every war is answered by a new war, until everything, everything is smashed.” She died on April 22, 1945, just two weeks before World War II ended. As she wrote in her final letter: “War accompanies me to the end.”