a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Armistice Day

Posted by Thomas Nephew on November 11th, 2012

“Mahnmal,” (lit. “Warning monument,” usu. “Grieving Parents”) Kathe Kollwitz, 1932.
Photo by Tony Novosel

Today is Armistice Day, marking the end of combat in World War I. I’m seeing other remembrances of it on the Internet, and thought I’d add this one. It’s titled “Grieving Parents” or “Mourning Parents” in English, but the true name, in German, is simply “Mahnmal” —  “Warning Monument.”

Kathe Kollwitz’s younger son Peter volunteered for the German army when World War I began, and died in Belgium in 1914. Kollwitz — a socialist and eventual communist, as it happened — began work on this the next year; it was placed in the Roggevelde-Eesen German military cemetery in 1932.*

To me, this is one of greatest sculptures of all time, a Pieta of this world, not the next: the mother collapsing as if shot, the father grimly holding on to himself to keep from doing the same; eternal, unassuageable grief set in stone. Multiply this nine millionfold: World War I. Multiply it millions upon millionsfold again: the wars still fought after the war to supposedly end them all.

Each wartime grief has a particular story.  In this one, Kathe Kollwitz’s younger son Peter volunteered for the German army when World War I began.  Her diaries record the sequence of events:

27 October 1914Peter left for the war 14 days ago. At a patient’s house, Karl [Kathe’s husband, a doctor] read an officer’s description telling of finding individuals from the 22d Army Corps, young little fellows, many wearing glasses [Peter fit the description — ed.], exhausted and footsore by the side of the road.  No word from Peter.  […] Nothing new in the newspapers.  Bitter fighting on the Belgian-French border around Ypres, Nieuport, Dixmuiden. […]

Friday, 30 October, 1914: “Your son has fallen.”

10 November 1914Of everything Hans Koch told us about Peter two things are so very dear to me: they were quartered among Belgians, and the little toddlers crawled around on him and he played with them.”  […]   […]  […]

end July 1915There are times when I almost don’t feel Peter’s death any more.  It’s a condition in which I feel emptiness instead of feeling. Than comes a dumb longing — days on end.  Finally it breaks through and I cry and cry, then I feel again with all my body and soul that Peter is dead.   […]

…One says that prayer should be a rest in God, an empathy with the holy will.  If so, then — sometimes — I am praying when I remember Peter. The need to kneel and let him flow through me.  To feel completely one with him. It is the one other love than the one that cries and yearns and grieves.

After trying and rejecting other designs, Kollwitz settled on the final one around 1926.  In 1932, the statues — made of granite donated by the city of Berlin — were finally ready.  Her final visit to the Roggevelde-Eesen cemetery* where Peter was buried was to set them up.  Kollwitz:

21 – 30 July, 1932The many grave crosses have the effect of a herd. None depict Christ on the cross, but each freestanding cross has the arm-outstretched pose and is a symbol of suffering. I think of Bach’s music to the text: “O great love – measureless love, that led you on this martyr’s road. […] The English and French cemeteries have a more healed [heiler] effect, in a way they’re more friendly, middle class [buergerlich], familiar than the German ones. I prefer the German ones. Every military cemetery should remain solemn. […]

The artist wanted the monument to be perfectly matched to its setting; she needed her exact, precise message to be clear: war is sorrow, and not just hers, not just her husband’s.  “Closure” is an overused word, but maybe something like it happened for one grieving mother, eighteen years after her son had died:

The statues were set up on the 28th. […] The pedestals are already in place. It takes long hard work to put up the mother’s statue. It turns out that its pedestal must be raised a little in front, because the gently sloping terrain otherwise emphasizes the bent over pose too much. Then the man. Bad situation with this one that puts me very out of sorts at first, in that he doesn’t raise his head enough. He doesn’t look out over the whole cemetery, but just in front of himself. […]

It rains in the morning [the next day], I pack my things. The weather clears up in the afternoon. Van Houten comes at 4 with the car and we drive there one more time – the last time. And now my depression lifts. I can see how everything is good the way it is. We say goodbye.

So many memorials exist, so many days are set aside to glorify victory or, if not to exalt war, then at least to make it easier to bear by accentuating the positive: the bravery, the unity, the youth, the cause.

On Armistice Day, it’s important to remember one monument that does the opposite: one that epitomizes nothing but the cost of war.  One that warns all who see it just how unbearable that cost can be.

* When the cemetery was later consolidated with others to the Vladslo military cemetery, the statues moved with it.

2 Responses to “Armistice Day”

  1. Nell Says:

    Thanks, Thomas, for an outstanding post. My father had several books of Kathe Kollwitz drawings, one of them including sketches for this memorial, but I’d never seen the actual sculptures. Seeing the picture is like receiving a physical blow; I can only imagine the effect on visitors to the cemetery.

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Thanks, Nell, I’m glad you liked it. I find Kollwitz more and more interesting the more I read about her. Not ideological at all, at first, or maybe ever really. Just drawn to the underdog and to finding beauty in unusual settings, and fiercely hoping her art might matter and might help make things better.

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