In August 1914 an excited Peter Kollwitz told his mother, the artist Käthe Kollwitz, that he had enlisted. She was apprehensive but didn’t want to dampen her youngest son’s enthusiasm. Kollwitz confided to her diary that: “The idea of mere boys going into battle strikes me as senseless. It is all so pointless, so insane…” Nineteen-year-old Peter reached the Front in October. Three days later he was killed at the opening of the first Ypres or Yser campaign.
Kollwitz was devastated by grief and by guilt that she had not worked harder to persuade her son not to go to war. She fell into depression but soon decided to work on a memorial to Peter. By 1921 she had found some joy by tending her grandson, named Peter after his fallen uncle. And, during this time, she began many designs for the memorial that she wanted to create; none of these designs satisfied her and she destroyed them all.
In 1926, Käthe and her husband travelled to Belgium to visit the graveyard at Roggeveld where her son was buried.
What an impression: cross upon cross. Some of the graves had originally largish wooden crosses which the weather had ruined, and these had fallen over; but on most of the graves were low, yellow wooden crosses. A small metal plaque in the center gives the name and number. So we found our grave… We cut three tiny roses from a wild briar and laid these on the ground beside the cross. All that is left of him lies there in a row-grave. None of the mounds are separated; there are only the same little crosses placed quite close together. That is what the whole cemetery is like, and almost everwhere is the naked, yellow soil. Here and there relatives have planted flowers, mostly wild roses, which are lovely because they cover and arch over the grave and reach out to the adjoining graves which no one tends for to the right and left, at least half the graves bear the sign allemand inconnu.
That night, back in the inn where she was staying, Käthe Kollwitz had a dream, or perhaps a vision: She saw with terrible clarity that there was going to be another war, that many, many more young men would die. Unless, she dreamed, unless she did everything she possibly could to stop it.
Six years later, the sculptues that Kollwitz called die Eltern, The Parents, were placed at Roggevelde. They are kneeling life-size figures, a man and a woman. The man grips his arms, holding in his emotion, numb with pain. The woman bows her head over the arms crossed on her breast where once she had held her child. The figures are modelled on Käthe Kollwitz and her husband. The graves in front seemed like “a flock of lost children” to Kollwitz. Most war memorials are about valor, honor, or national pride. The Kollwitz sculptures are about grief.
In 1942, Käthe Kollwitz received word that her grandson Peter, had been killed on the Eastern Front. Sometimes, in those years, she lapsed into despair: “…every war already carries within the war which will answer it. Every war is answered by a new war, until everything, everything is smashed.” But in one of the last entries in her journal, she wrote:
One day, a new ideal will arise, and there will be an end to all wars. I die convinced of this. It will need much hard work, but it will be achieved… The important thing, until that happens, is to hold one’s banner high and to struggle…
Käthe Kollwitz died in April 1945, a few weeks before war ended in Europe. In 1954, the German graves and the memorial she had sculpted were moved from Roggevelde to Vladslo, where the parents kneel today.
Quotes from Diary and Letters of Kaethe Kollwitz