German anti war artist Käthe Kollwitz

Kollwitz, Never Again War

German artist Käthe Kollwitz, often included in the Expressionist movement, was born on 8 July 1867; in Königsberg (then in the German empire, today, Kaliningrad in Russia).

Her father had studied law.

However, being a non-conformist Protestant not belonging to the Lutheran state church, he was not allowed to be a lawyer.

The same dilemma which Karl Marx‘ father had faced decades earlier.

Heinrich Marx had solved that by changing his religion from Judaism to official Protestantism in order to be able to practice his profession; his wife Henriette, whom he had married in the synagogue of Nijmegen in The Netherlands, never changed.

Käthe Kollwitz‘s father Carl Schmidt also did not change his religion.

Which meant that he had to change his profession to mason.

Carl Schmidt supported his daughter when she wanted to become an artist.

In 1886, she saw paintings by Rubens in Munich, which impressed her much.

Next year, she became engaged to a member of Karl Marx’ party, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (banned by the government then). Her fiancé was the student of medicine, later doctor, Karl Kollwitz.

The novel Germinal, on workers by the French realist author Emile Zola, influenced Käthe’s art.

So did German playwright Gerhart Hauptmann. Hauptmann inspired her graphics on rebelling weavers.

In 1891, she married Karl Kollwitz.

Käthe Kollwitz

Also after her marriage, she continued to sign her work with K(äthe) S(chmidt), as in the self-portrait from 1906 shown here.

They went to live in Berlin, where Karl became a doctor in a poor working class neighbourhood.

In 1898, the jury at an art exhibition wanted to honour Käthe with a medal, for her graphics on the weavers’ uprising.

However, Emperor Wilhelm II did not want any honours for this artist, rebellious in both form and subject.

In 1898, Käthe Kollwitz got permission to be a teacher at her old art school. It was a school for women only, who were taught separately from male students.

In 1899, she participated in the first ever exhibition of the “Berliner Secession“, for artists, hated by the emperor. Their non-conformism meant they were refused at official art exhibitions.

In 1904, she learned sculpture in Paris, visiting the workplaces of Auguste Rodin and others.

In 1906, she made a poster for an exhibition on house industries.

The Empress Auguste Viktoria refused to visit the exhibition because of who made the poster. Also because Kollwitz‘s poster showed a woman worker, clearly suffering from bad conditions.

Only after lots of paper and glue had removed Käthe’s posters from sight, Her Imperial Majesty visited the exhibition.

Next year, Kollwitz was in Florence in Italy. From there, she walked to Rome, reaching it after three weeks.

From 1908 to 1910, she worked for satirical magazine Simplizissimus, mocking in her caricatures the oppression of workers in Wilhelm II’s empire.

In 1912, she made a poster on the miserable housing situation in East Berlin.

The authorities banned it.

In 1913, there was a split in the “Berliner Secession” between old artistic vanguardists who had become sort of a new establishment themselves, and the rebels, who became the “Freie Secession”.

Käthe Kollwitz, though 46 by now, sided with the latter. She went from the executive of the “old” Secession to the executive of the new “free” Secession.

In the same year, she also joined the executive of the newly founded women artists’ association, as chair.

In the next year, the First World War broke out.

Also among many socialists, whose international congresses had decided that war should be fought by workers’ strikes, the wave of nationalist hysteria accompanying the outbreak of the war did have at least some effects.

Käthe Kollwitz’s eighteen year old son Peter volunteered to be a soldier.

Shortly afterward, he died at the front in Diksmuide in Belgium.

His mother became very depressed.

Then, Käthe Kollwitz decided to strongly oppose war, also in her artistic work.

On 30 October 1918, the Social Democratic party daily, Vorwärts, published an anti-war letter by Kollwitz.

The war was going badly for the German empire.

Like in the Bush empire concerning Iraq in 2007, some people, including Tony Blair, claimed “final victory” was still possible, with a final “surge“, some Germans then still proclaimed that the emperor’s armies would win.

Kollwitz’ letter opposed this.

She wrote: “Es ist genug gestorben! Keiner darf mehr fallen.

Ich berufe mich gegen Richard Dehmel auf einen Größeren, welcher sagt: ‘Saatfrüchte sollen nicht vermahlen werden.”

[Enough people have died!

Nobody should die any more.

Against [German militarist author] Richard Dehmel, I base myself on a greater [poet; meaning Goethe], who says: ‘You should not grind down seed bearing fruits’].

Now, on a much more dramatic scale than Kollwitz’ artistic home, the Secession, before the war, her political home, Social Democracy, split into Left and Right wings.

The Right wing allied itself with Rightist paramilitary groups, many of whom would later join Hitler’s nazi party, against the Left wing, which would become the Communist Party.

In 1919, the paramilitarists murdered Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the Leftist leaders.

At the request of Liebknecht’s family, Käthe Kollwitz made his portrait in the mortuary.

Käthe Kollwitz, Memorial for Liebknecht

In spite of sympathies, she never joined the Communist Party.

In 1924, ten years after the beginning of the war, at the request of the international trade union movement, she made her famous poster: The Survivors. Fight war, not wars.

Krieg dem Kriege, by Käthe Kollwitz

In the same year, she also made a poster for women’s rights on abortion. As well as fighting for women’s rights on abortion, she also fought for gay rights.

Just before Hitler came to power, Kollwitz called for anti nazi cooperation between Social Democrat and Communist parties.

One of the nazis’ first acts was to expel her from the Prussian Academy of Fine Arts.

No longer could she teach at the Academy, where she had been the first female professor.

The temporary bans on her work in Wilhelm II’s Second Empire became a permanent ban in Hitler’s Third Reich.

In 1936, the Moscow daily paper Isvestija interviewed Käthe Kollwitz on the reality under Hitler’s reign of terror.

When the nazis found out, she was immediately subjected to a Gestapo interrogation.

One more ‘false’ move, she was told, and off to a concentration camp with you.

Though it could not be exhibited, Käthe Kollwitz continued making anti militarist art until she died.

In 1937, Kollwitz’s work was included in the infamous Degenerate Art exhibition organized by the nazi regime.

In 1943, her house, with much of her work inside, and her son’s house were destroyed in the air war.

On 22 April 1945, just before liberation from Hitler, Käthe Kollwitz died.

In Cologne, there is the Käthe Kollwitz museum; where much of the information for this article comes from.

There is also a Käthe Kollwitz museum in Berlin.

And in Moritzburg.

Quotes by Käthe Kollwitz:

“Every war already carries within it the war which will answer it.

Every war is answered by a new war, until everything, everything is smashed.

That is why I am wholeheartedly for a radical end to this madness, and why my only hope is in world socialism. … Pacifism simply is not a matter of calm[ly] looking on; it is work, hard work.”

“I am in the world to change the world.”

“One day, a new idea 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.”

“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 this 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.”

Also on Kollwitz: here.

And here.

Works by Kollwitz on-line: here.

German expressionist Karl Hofer: here.

German sculptor Barlach and war: here.

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57 thoughts on “German anti war artist Käthe Kollwitz

  1. Very stirring ‘street art’ in Germany. The German artist Gunther Demning with his ‘Stolpersteine” project (hobble stones) gives back the original deported / deceased Jews’ properties. Gunther Demning took upon himself the enormous project as to relocate & reconnect them with the original inhabitant / owner.

    In front of each house, on the pavement, some 40 cm away from the front wall, copper plaquettes, hobble stones (10 x 10 cm) with the names of the holocaust victims & final destination remind of the horrendous deportation of Jews from German cities.

    Whether the sun shines or whether it rains – the glitter of the shiny copper squares attracts the attention, draws one to have another look – tells the brief story of an individual who used to live in this house. The shiny glitter reminds of a fleeting image of an elusive soul, a lost abeloved, a lost friend, a lost neighbour.

    I started documenting some of these name tablets in the German cities.

    Stolpersteine Günter Demnig. (hobblestones)

    For a map please have a look at:


  2. Fwd from scott:

    I am trying to connect with other anti-war groups outside of the USA. Google, the main search engine does not list many,except for a few UK sites. In particular, I would like to network with others who are artist to use the power of Art to create change. The NEWS in the US is void of real information. We see almost nothing about the war and so most Americans think nothing of it! It is only when something is leaked and then there is quick action to cover it up. I hope that a movement for change can be created globally and that would bring the American people to take action. My e-mail is


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  43. Also this month [September 1917]: Käthe Kollwitz works on memorial for her fallen son

    The Grieving Parents, Sculpture (1914–1932) for her son Peter

    In September 1917, the painter and sculptor Käthe Kollwitz works on a memorial for her son Peter who was killed in the First Battle of Ypres. She has been working on it since 1914, but stops frequently.

    Immediately after the beginning of the war, the 18-year-old Peter wanted to volunteer for military service but needed the consent of his father. His father was against the war and initially declined. An older son, Hans, was already drafted. Käthe Kollwitz was against it at first but finally changed her mind. She writes in her memoirs in 1943: “How it came to be that I underwent this change is not entirely clear to me. I cursed the war, I knew that it would mean the greatest hardship. That I did not resist is probably due to the fact that I was unable to be entirely one with the boy in these times.”

    It is clear from the entries in her diary that the character of the war was not really clear to her at this time. She and her husband were both members of the Social Democratic Party, which did everything it could to justify the vote for war credits to its followers, presenting the war as a defensive one. She let herself be carried away by Peter’s war fever and helped him change his father’s mind. On October 13, 1914, the young volunteer, poorly trained with a barely healed knee injury, went to war. “Hard day, very hard day,” Kollwitz wrote in her diary. Ten days later he was dead. “It is a wound in our lives that will never heal and is not meant to,” she wrote.

    In the following years, she criticized the war and attempted to cope with her pain by working on the memorial for her son. She initially began by sculpting Peter’s head. Then she designed a relief: mourning parents embracing each other with heads bowed. During this time, she also created one of her most important sculptures, Pietà, a barely 40-centimeter tall bronze statue. (A copy four times its size is placed in the Neue Wache in Berlin, the “Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Dictatorship.”)

    In September, she writes in her diary: “Worked this week … good. I see more clearly that this path leads to my goal, but also, that the goal is still so far away that years will pass before I am finished with Peter’s work … If I do this really well, there will be in this work much other work that would otherwise have to be expressed separately … with unending slowness I discover what this should be.” She will take a total of 18 years before completing the memorial. (It stands today in the Vladslo German war cemetery in Belgium.)

    Kollwitz’s grief over her son and the experience of the war go hand-in-hand with increasingly strong partisanship for the poor and oppressed and their artistic representation. She takes part in peace rallies. Attentively and full of hope, she follows the developments of the revolution in Russia. She writes on November 8: “In Russia the tremendously important revolutions. The revolutionary socialists are in the government. They want to organize Russia socialistically, communistically. Max Wertheimer [a friend] expects the same spirit in Russia to spread throughout Europe. He believes in a vast moral uprising.” At the end of the year, she writes: “Russia has given us new prospects. Something new has now come into the world, something which seems to me definitely good.”

    What she began in 1897 with her cycle on the “Weaver’s Revolt” and in 1908 with the “Peasant War,” she continues in a new form after the war with etchings and her famous charcoal drawings like “Bread,” “Killed in Action,” and “Never Again War.” After the murder of Karl Liebknecht, she dedicates a woodcut to him.


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