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The Love of a Son: Käthe Kollwitz & Vladslo


Vladslo German Military Cemetery. Authors image

The physical act of touching a war memorial, touching the name of the relative, for some people is an important act of remembrance. Freud, in 1917, wrote of mourning and melancholia and his essay provides us with some understanding of the burden of bereavement. It can be crushing, but for others bereavement can be bearable. I first saw Käthe Kollwitz memorial to her son Peter in Vladslo German Cemetery many years ago. There is something melancholic about the figures however, what does separate this memorial from all the others is the sheer simplicity and the inability of the viewer to tie it to any school of art or ideology. Käthe Kollwitz’s war memorial is an offering to her son, a son who sacrificed himself for his country. It took her eighteen years to complete and this alone should tell us something about her process of bereavement. The figures are of herself and her husband Karl and I think there is no memorial more moving to the grief of those who have lost a son in war than this. The story of her struggle to create this memorial to her son Peter, testifies to her humanity and her achievement in creating this timeless piece of commemorative art.


The Early Years

Käthe Kollwitz was born in Königsberg, in what was then East Prussia. She was the fifth child in her family. Her father, Karl Schmidt, was a Social Democrat who became a mason and house builder. Her mother, Katherina Schmidt, was the daughter of Julius Rupp, a Lutheran pastor who was expelled from the official Evangelical State Church and founded an independent congregation. Her education and her art were greatly influenced by her grandfather's lessons in religion and socialism. Her older brother Konrad became a prominent economist of the SPD.


Recognizing her talent, Kollwitz's father arranged for her to begin lessons in drawing and copying plaster casts on 14 August 1879 when she was twelve. In 1885 she began her formal study of art under the direction of Karl Stauffer-Bern, a friend of the artist Max Klinger, at the School for Women Artists in Berlin. At sixteen she began working with subjects associated with the Realism movement, making drawings of working people, sailors, and peasants she saw in her father's offices. The etchings of Klinger, their technique, and social concerns, were an inspiration to Kollwitz.

Hans, Käthe & Peter Kollwitz 1909

When she was seventeen, her brother Konrad introduced her to Karl Kollwitz, a medical student. They became engaged while she was studying art in Munich. In 1890, she returned to Königsberg, rented her first studio, and continued to depict the harsh labours of the working class. These subjects were an inspiration in her work for years. In 1891, Kollwitz married Karl, who by this time was a doctor tending to the working class in the Prenzlauer Burg district of Berlin. They lived happily in the same flat at Weissenburger Strasse 25, today Kollwitzstrasse 56 a (new building), on Kollwitzplatz, Prenzlauer Burg, Berlin. The Kollwitz family used two floors of an apartment building. On the second floor of the house was Karl’s doctor's office and, at times, Käthe’s studio. On the third floor was their apartment. They had two children Hans, born in 1892, and Peter, born in 1896.

Käthe Kollwitz 'The Weavers'
Käthe Kollwitz 'The march of the Weavers'

The Weavers - 'A milestone in my work'

In 1896 Käthe saw a performance of Gerhart Hauptmann’s ‘The Weavers’ which dramatized the oppression of the Silesian weavers of Langenbielau following their failed revolt in 1844. She wrote that the ‘performance was a milestone in my work.’ She immediately dropped the work on a series of etchings, she had intended to illustrate Émile Zola's Germinal, and set to work on 'The Weavers' a series of six works of three etchings March of the Weavers, Riot, and The End, and three lithographs depicting Poverty, Death, and Conspiracy. It was exhibited publicly in 1898 to wide acclaim. Her work was nominated for the gold medal of the Great Berlin Art Exhibition of 1898 however, the Kaiser did not approve of the work saying: ‘I beg you gentlemen, a medal for a woman, that would really be going too far . . . orders and medals of honour belong on the breasts of worthy men.’ The series was purchased by Max Lehr, director of the Dresden collection of engravings and drawings and he succeeded in procuring the gold medal for it. In the same year Kollwitz was asked to join the Secession movement, she remained a member until it was dissolved.

Käthe Kollwitz Peasants War

Her second major cycle was the Peasant War completed between 1902 and 1908. This work depicted the German Peasant’s War in southern Germany during the early years of the Reformation and was a revolution by the peasants against their feudal landlords and the church.


By 1909, she and Karl had begun to drift apart, she was devoted to him however, she did not feel any passion for him. As her sons grew older, she travelled to Paris and Florence and in this time, she met the Hungarian art critic Hugo Heller. He was dynamic, erudite and an enthusiastic Social Democrat. When he moved to Vienna and opened a gallery, he and Käthe began to correspond with each other. When Heller’s wife died in 1909, he and Käthe became lovers. None of their letters survived, Käthe burnt them before her death however, six explicit drawings survived and in Sekreta the rapid, sensuous strokes of charcoal give form to their breathless intimacy. In Liebesszene I he grasps her from behind.

Käthe Kollwitz Death and Women
Käthe Kollwitz Death and Women

This scene is repeated in Death and Women in this Death replaces the lover, who pins back her arms and locks her legs with his skeletal limbs, dragging her away into the darkness. She both resists and surrenders to this embrace, throwing her head back, but held to life by the naked child clinging to her breasts. By 1914, she is forty-seven years old and on the declaration of war she sat on her bed ‘weeping, weeping, weeping.’ Her two sons now in the army.


Peter Kollwitz was born on 6 February 1896 in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin. Peter's room was sober and simply furnished: an iron bed frame, a cupboard with glass doors in which his collection of rocks and a plaster-modelled head of the Greek son of the god Narcissus were kept, a bookcase and an easel. A silhouette of his profile and his guitar , framed behind glass, hung on the wall. His skis and toboggan stood in a corner. In her diary Käthe Kollwitz outlined what thoughts and preferences drove her own son: ‘Play billiards . Rock climbing. Painting expressionistically . Skip school. The star Sky. Read Zarathustra . Tuscany in May . Erich Krems . Hang out in Aschinger's fast food buffet (this was in Alexanderplatz). Kintop . The Baltic Sea dunes near Prerov . Ice skating . The SPD 's mass demonstrations against the threat of war. Read Oscar Wilde in English. Smoke. Rebel against the school.’ Peter and his friends Hans Koch, Erick Krems and Richard Noll were members of the German Wandervogel youth movement, this consisted of a large number of small groups that carried out self-organized hikes and trips on weekends or during the holidays, mostly under the leadership of young adults.

View of Peter Kollwitz room Wissenburger Strasse Berlin Prenzlauer Berg after 1914

Peter Kollwitz an eighteen-year-old volunteer with Reserve Infanterie Regiment 207

In July 1914, Peter was on holiday in Norway with his three friends when they learned of the declaration of war by Austria-Hungary against the Kingdom of Serbia. They cancelled their holiday and returned to Berlin. Peter, being underage, required his father’s permission to join the army. His brother Hans was already serving in the medical corps. Peter asked his father for permission and he refused and Käthe Kollwitz recorded in her diary: ‘In the evening Peter asks Karl to let him go before the Landsturm is called up . Karl speaks against it with everything he can. I feel grateful that he is fighting for him like this, but I know it won't change anything. – Karl: ‘The fatherland doesn’t need you yet, otherwise it would have called you already.’ – Peter quieter but firm: ‘The fatherland doesn’t need my year yet, but it needs me.’ He always silently turns to me with imploring looks that I speak for him. Finally, he says: ‘Mother, when you hugged me, you said: 'Don't think we are cowards, we are ready’. I get up, Peter follows me, we stand at the door and hug and kiss each other, and I ask Karl for Peter.’ It was Käthe Kollwitz who persuaded her husband Karl to comply with Peter's wish. In her diary on 27 August 1914 Käthe Kollwitz writes: ‘A piece by Gabriele Reuter in the Tag on the tasks of women today. She spoke of the joy of sacrificing – a phrase that struck me hard. Where do all the women who have watched so carefully over the lives of their beloved ones get the heroism to send them to face the cannon? I am afraid that the soaring of the spirit will be followed by the blackest despair and dejection. The task is to bear it not only during these few weeks, but for a long time – in dreary November as well, and also when spring comes again, in March, the month of young men who wanted to live and are dead. That will be much harder.’


Death of Peter and Käthe's Mourning

In October 1914 Peter Kollwitz is an eighteen-year-old volunteer with Reserve Infanterie Regiment 207 which was facing the 11th Belgian Line Regiment on the Yser front at Diksmuide in Flanders, Belgium. His mother wrote the first of two letters to her son: ‘My dear boy! No news of you from Belgium so we have to assume that you are in France. Perhaps you are already under fire. My love! Although your life may now be in danger and although I imagine the hardships you must now endure, I do not feel as weighed down with sorrow as in the past. Perhaps it is because I have been drawing and so have moved the pressure away from my heart and onto the paper. I think of you with a firm confidence. And with love, you beloved faithful boy.’ Peter Kollwitz, Musketier, was killed in action on the night of 22/23 October 1914. His mother had written a second letter which was returned on 30 October the envelope marked ‘Back – dead’ She wrote: ‘My dear boy! Are you receiving our cards? It’s a strange feeling that everything we write may never reach you. Father and I are well. Father has a lot of work. I am drawing. Where might you be? It is as if one thinks in the fog. Farewell, dear boy! We send regards.’

Envelope of letter returned to Peter's parents.

Hans Koch passed on the details of Peter’s death to his parents. Part of his unit was in the trenches; another had come under fire on the opposite side of a highway. Peter passed on the order to retreat to the safety of a ditch as he stood up, he was fatally shot. He was the first casualty in his regiment. Hans Koch dug the grave and had to take cover in it. He later reported on the burial: ‘The leader of the battalion was the first to take an oak branch and stick it on the hill. After him the captain - and the lieutenant had a cross made and wrote on it: ‘Here died the heroic death for the fatherland Peter Kollwitz, war volunteer Res. Inf. Reg. 207


Bereavement and Mourning for Peter

Her son’s death left her in the depths of depression. In November 1914, she wrote to her friends: ‘Your pretty shawl will no longer be able to warm our boy. He lies dead under the earth, he fell at Dixmuiden, the first in his regiment. He did not suffer. At dawn the regiment buried him; his friends laid him in the grave. Then they went on with their terrible tasks. We thank God that he was so gently taken away before the carnage.

On the 1 December 1914, she wrote in her diary: ‘Conceived the plan for a memorial for Peter tonight… It is a wonderful goal, and no one has more right than I to make this memorial.’ She had thought that the memorial should ‘stand on the heights of Schildhorn looking out over the Havel’, near Berlin. Her initial idea for the monument would have ‘Peter’s form, lying stretched out, the father at the head, the mother at the feet. It would be to commemorate the sacrifice of all the young volunteers.

Her war memorial to her son was an offering to a son who had sacrificed his life for his country.

She movingly described her bereavement in her diary entry of 31 December 1914: ‘My Peter, I intend to try to be faithful… What does that mean? To love my country in my own way as you loved it in your way. And to make this love work. To look at the young people and be faithful to them. Besides that I shall do my work, the same work, my child, which you were denied. I want to honour God in my work, too, which means I want to be honest, true, sincere…When I try to be like that, dear Peter, I ask you then to be around me, help me, show yourself to me. I know you are there, but I see you only vaguely, as if you were shrouded in mist. Stay with me…’ She spent many hours sitting in his room. In October 1916 she wrote in her diary: ‘I can feel Peter’s being. He consoles me, he helps me in my work.

Mother with Dead Child. Käthe and her seven year old son Peter. She said in this work that she foresaw Peter's death.

She did not believe in spirits returning however, she was drawn to theosophy, spiritism or mysticism. As time moved on and the pain of her loss began to ease, she still spoke with her son particularly when she was working on the memorial. Despite this remorse and sense of guilt both she and Karl did accept that Germany needed to defend itself she had felt before 1914 that ‘back of the individual life… stood the Fatherland.’ She knew that Peter had volunteered with a pure heart that was filled with patriotism, love for an idea, a commandment. This did not stop her weeping at his departure. Later in the war, she found his idealism misplaced and that her son’s sacrifice was for nothing and this created a distancing between her and her son writing in October 1916 that ‘Is it a break of faith with you, Peter, if I can now see only madness in the war.’ She came to the conclusion that the war was an exercise in futility and that her son and his generation had been betrayed. When, in October 1918, Richard Dehmel called for more soldiers to fight in a last stand, Kollwitz wrote an impassioned letter to the Vorwaerts newspaper, were he published his call, stating that there should be no more war, and that ‘seed corn must not be ground’ in reference to young soldiers who were dying in the war.


Gedenkblatt fur Karl Liebknecht, 15 January 1919.

On 8 December 1918, she and Karl attended the Freedom Celebration of which she wrote: ‘..two movements of the Ninth Symphony… the first time the Ninth has been played since the beginning of the war. … Yes, in the Ninth there is socialism in its purest form.

Authors image. Monument to the Spartacus Group, in the shape of a torch erected in 1958. It stands on the site of the offices of Karl Liebknecht were, on 1 January 1916 the Spartacists movement was formed. The statue is inscribed with the words Liebknecht wrote days before his murder.

During the November Revolution that broke out across Germany in the final days of the war, Karl Liebknecht proclaimed Germany a ‘Free Socialist Republic’ from the Berlin Palace on 9 November 1918. On 11 November, together with Rosa Luxemburg and others he founded the Spartacist League. The Spartacists, who were gaining popularity throughout the Reich, made use of the military intervention to plan the founding of a new, left-wing revolutionary party and invited their supporters to its founding congress in Berlin at the end of December 1918. On 1 January 1919, the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) was formed.

Beginning on 8 January, Liebknecht and other KPD members participated in the Spartacist uprising which began with a general strike and the occupation of several Berlin newspaper buildings. Liebknecht joined the strike leadership and, against the advice of Rosa Luxemburg, called for an armed insurrection to overthrow the Ebert government. KPD delegates tried without success to persuade some regiments stationed in and around Berlin to defect, and with only minimal support from the mass of the working classes of Berlin, the uprising failed to gain ground. When the government called out the military against the insurgents on 11 January, they were quickly overwhelmed. The total death toll is estimated at around 180. Shortly after he and Rosa Luxemburg were murdered by members of the Guards Cavalry Rifle Division. Karl Liebknecht’s body was dumped in a lake in the Tiergarten. Rosa Luxemburg’s body was mutilated and dumped in the Landswehr Canal.

Authors images of the sites of the murders of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.

At the request of Liebknecht’s family Käthe Kollwitz produced one of her most celebrated works ‘Gedenkblatt fur Karl Liebknecht, 15 January 1919.'


Peter’s Memorial

In December 1919, she put the memorial project to one side however, she was still committed to seeing it through ‘I will come back, I shall do this work for you, for you and the others. It is only postponed.’ It was still her idea to create two parents kneeling before their son’s grave, possibly positioned at the entrance to the cemetery and for the figures to be Egyptian in size and for the visitors to pass between them. In October 1925 she once again returned to the project. On 11 June 1926 she and Karl visited the German cemetery at Roggevelde writing: ‘ The day of our arrival in Dixmuide we had ridden by railroad to Zarren. We were told that Roggevelde lies between Zarren and Eessen…. The cemetery is close to the highway…the entrance is nothing but an opening in the hedge that surrounds the entire field. It was blocked by barbed wire which had been bent aside for us… what an impression: cross upon cross. Some of the graves originally had largish wooden crosses which the weather had ruined, and these had fallen over; but on most of the graves there were low, yellow wooden crosses. A small metal plaque in the centre gives the name and number. So we found our grave. We cut three tiny roses from a flowering wild briar and placed them on the ground beside the cross. All that is left of him lies there is a row-grave… We considered where my figures might be placed… We both thought best was to have the figures just across from the entrance, along the hedge… Then the kneeling figures would have the whole cemetery before them… fortunately no decorative figures have been placed in the cemetery, none at all. The general effect is of simple planes and solitude… Everything is quiet, but the larks sing gladly.

The grave marker of Peter Kollwitz today. Authors image

She now worked on the memorial and completed it in April 1931 writing in her diary on 22 April 1931: ‘Today was the opening of the Academy show in which I am exhibiting the two sculptures – the father and mother…These past weeks have been strenuous. But now that the works are delivered to the world, I am calmer. In June I will start on the finishing touches. In the fall – Peter, - I shall bring it to you.’ On 16 April 1932 she wrote in her diary: ‘A good day. Richter, the state architect, came to the studio in response to a letter I had written to the cemetery board in Brussels. He looked at the work and thought it very good. He told me that the construction of the pedestal and the laying of the foundation will be undertaken by the cemetery board. He will also take care of getting the works put through custom-free and of the freight charges in Belgium. The German national railway will probably provide free transportation.’ She then had a quandary on where to exhibit the figures in Berlin. She thought the Academy to academic and that putting them in the Schiller Park would have no relationship to the surroundings. She also dismissed putting them inside the Neue Wache (Memorial Hall) on the Unter den Linden as this had been taken over by the Right. Left outside she felt they would be vandalised and scrawled over with swastikas. She noted that: ‘So that problem is still unresolved. But in any case the affair is progressing and I am happy.

Installation of the Figures at Vladslo

The figures were installed on July 24, 1932. Visiting the cemetery on July 23 Käthe recorded her impressions in her diary: ‘Saturday we drove to the cemetery. The first impression of the cemetery was strange, because it has been changed since I last saw it. It has been levelled. And it seems smaller because the unknown soldiers have all been buried in pairs. Now the cemetery seems more monotonous than it did… It is nice that the whole area is now planted to grass. The space in front, which has been reserved for the figures, is smaller than I thought. It too is in lawn.’ She though that the British and Belgian cemeteries were brighter than the German but that she preferred the German cemeteries. The war, she wrote, was not a pleasant affair. On 24 July the figures were set in place. She was unhappy as the figures did not look to have been set up correctly. She returned in the late afternoon of the next day. She wrote: ‘And the depression of the day before lifted. I was able to see it all in the right light. We said goodbye.’ On the 14 August she recalled her visit writing in her diary: ‘Looking back upon the time in Belgium, my loveliest memory is of the last afternoon when van Hauten drove us out there once more. He left us alone and we went from the figures to Peter’s grave, and everything was alive and wholly felt. I stood before the woman, looked at her – my own face – and I wept and stroked her cheeks. Karl stood close behind me – I did not even realize it. I heard him whisper, ‘Yes, yes.’ How close we were to one another then!

Käthe Kollwitz Father and Mother. Authors image

Later Life

In 1933 the Nazi regime forced her to resign her place on the faculty of the Akademie der Künste following her support of the Dringender Appell, (The ‘Urgent Call for Unity’ )was an appeal by the Internationaler Sozialistischer Kampfbund (ISK) to defeat the Nazis. It was signed by nearly three dozen well-known German scientists, authors, and artists in advance of the German elections in July 1932. Her work was removed from museums. Although she was banned from exhibiting, one of her ‘mother and child’ pieces was used by the Nazis for propaganda. On her 70th birthday, she received over 150 telegrams from leading personalities of the art world, as well as offers to house her in the United States, which she declined for fear of provoking reprisals against her family. She outlived her husband (who died from an illness in 1940) and her grandson Peter, who died in action in Russia in 1942.

She was evacuated from Berlin in August 1943 by her family, no longer able to put up with the bombing. On 23 November 1943 her house in Prenzlauer Burg was bombed and many drawings, prints, and documents were lost. She had lived there since 1891. She moved first to Nordhausen, then to Moritzburg, a town near Dresden, where she lived her final months as a guest of Prince Ernst Heinrich of Saxony. Käthe Kollwitz died on April 22, 1945, just 16 days before the end of the Second World War. She was buried in a small, quiet cemetery in Moritzburg. Later her body was exhumed and cremated at an impressive ceremony in Meissen, it had been her wish to be buried in the Central Cemetery in Berlin-Lichtenberg, beside her husband and her brothers and sisters, beneath the gravestone she herself had fashioned. There her ashes rest.

Central Cemetery, Berlin-Lichtenberg. Authors image

Vladslo German Cemetery & Peter’s Comrades

After the Esen-Roggevelde cemetery and many others were closed in 1956, Peter Kollwitz now lies in the German Military Cemetery, Vladslo, West Flanders. The unmissable, almost life-sized, the mother and father figures by Käthe Kollwitz were positioned so that they overlook the burial ground with 25,645 German fallen soldiers.


All but one of Peter’s friends were killed in action: Lothar Brandes, Erich Krems (March 10, 1916), Walter Meier, Richard Noll (September 27, 1916), Julius Hoyer (November 1918), Gottfried Laessig (November 1918). Only Hans Koch survived the war. He was seriously wounded in the summer of 1915 and was eventually discharged from the army.


Mother and Dead Son

Her Pietà ‘Mother with Dead Son created between 1937 and 1939 - is in the Neue Wache on the Unter den Linden in Berlin - shows a mother crouching on the floor letting her dead son rest between her legs on her lap. This sculpture is dedicated to Peter. Every year, wreaths and arrangements are laid there, including by the incumbent Federal President, Federal Chancellor, President of the Bundestag and the President of the Federal Constitutional Court. Käthe Kollwitz wrote about this sculpture in her diary: ‘I am working on the small sculpture that emerged from the sculptural attempt to make the old person. It has now become something like a Pietà. The mother sits with the dead son lying between her knees in her lap. It is no longer pain, but contemplation.’ Two years later she added to this work ‘that the Son was not accepted by people. She is an old, lonely, and darkly contemplative woman.

Pietà ‘Mother with Dead Son’ created between 1937 and 1939. Neue Wache, Unter den Linden, Berlin. Authors image.

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