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Witness to War

By Linda F. McGreevy | HUMANITIES, January/February 2003 | Volume 24, Number 1

The First World War produced casualties and nightmarish battles that were unprecedented: Russia, France, Germany, and Austria-Hungary each lost more than a million soldiers, and the British just under a million. In one offensive, the four-month Battle of the Somme, the British suffered 420,000 casualties, the French 195,000, and the Germans 650,000.

While many of the Great War’s soldiers survived to document their experiences, none of their work would prove as emotionally compelling or realistically convincing as that of the German artist Otto Dix. It was his use of biography and realism that made his work shocking at the time and a lasting reminder of war for following generations.

In August 1914, the twenty-two-year-old Dix was studying painting at the Dresden School of Arts and Crafts. He volunteered for the German Army and became a machine gunner in the infantry, where he witnessed some of the most horrific battles of the Western Front. He was wounded several times, worst of all when shrapnel hit him in the neck and nearly killed him. By the time the war ended, he had become a vice sergeant major and had been awarded the Iron Cross.

Dix molded his memories of trench warfare into uncompromisingly harsh and truthful images--images that many did not want to see.

German soldiers came back with memories of horrors that would rob them of sleep and internal peace for years. Yet, the Weimar Republic’s first chancellor told them that they were “undefeated.” Did they want to forget--or could they even if they wanted to? Historian Richard Bessel describes the disputes that preoccupied Weimar: “At stake were the ways in which the war could be imagined, the myths which could frame how the immediate past affected a bitterly contested present.”

Some attempts were made to honor the victims. Literary circles shared experiences, and fallen writers were eulogized in a collection. Cemeteries and battlefields became unofficial memorials, mostly on foreign soil where so many Germans died.

Britain, Italy, and France unveiled monuments to unknown soldiers as early as 1920, but it wasn’t until 1924 that the German government began planning its Tomb to the Unknown Soldier. Eventually completed in 1931, it was located in Schinkel’s nineteenth-century Neue Wache in Berlin. Memorials continued to be planned for German towns throughout the Weimar Republic.

At the time disabled vetrans described themselves as memorials, or “special representatives of the dead. The disabled veteran was noticeably present in works by Otto Dix, including his War Cripples, Prager Strasse, and The Skatplayers, which depicts disabled men, with wooden limbs. Prosthetics were so essential for returning veterans that in 1916 the German Association of Engineers held a contest for designs of artificial arms. By war’s end, there were thirty types of arms and fifty legs in production.

Both War Cripples, and later his piece called The Trench, may have been Dix’s attempts to banish the past. He wrote: “All art is exorcism. I paint dreams and visions too; the dreams and visions of my time. . . . Painting is the effort to produce order; order in yourself. There is much chaos in me, much chaos in our time.”

While Dix’s war-related works were often interpreted as antiwar agendas, the artist himself avowed no pacificism. Dix’s memoirs describe how he felt as he encountered combat:

“I was afraid as a young man. . . . the heavy barrage was like hell. . . . but the farther up you moved, the less afraid you were. At the real front . . . you weren’t afraid at all. . . . There are all the phenomena that I absolutely had to experience. I . . . had to see how someone next to me suddenly fell and was gone, the bullet hitting him right in the middle. I had to experience that all very precisely. I wanted to. In other words, I’m not a pacifist at all. Or maybe I was a curious person. I had to see it all for myself.”

Der Krieg, or The War, which debuted in 1924 remains Dix’s paradigmatic expression of the war experience. Fifty images in five portfolios narrate isolated events and daily routines at the front and behind the lines.

Dix consulted photographs to jog his memory and inject a documentary sense into the cycle. One source was Ernst Friedrich’s photographic collection, which became War Against War, published in July 1924.

Friedrich’s book was a remarkable memorial document, akin to Der Krieg in its unflinching realism. Its compiler had resisted enlistment and spent the war in a mental hospital. Prosecuted by Weimar’s courts for anarchist and pacifist actions, he was finally imprisoned in 1930 on charges of high treason for having published antimilitarist tracts to be distributed among army and police recruits. The text consists of simple sentences in four languages. By the tenth edition in 1930, more languages had been added; eventually it was made available in forty, including Russian and Chinese. Close to four million copies were in circulation when Friedrich entered prison.

Dix was not the first German artist to produce a print cycle about the war. Käthe Kollwitz’s Krieg had appeared the year before. It included seven images devoted to the artist’s own experience on the home front. The image called Volunteers was initially to be called Diksmuiden, for the site where her son Peter fell in October 1914. Peter’s portrait is at the center. Kollwitz’s and Dix’s cycles might share the same title and reflect a similar anguish, but Dix’s horrors would be more difficult for audiences to absorb and his Der Krieg would remain more controversial.

Dix’s Der Krieg is a memoir that verifies unimaginable atrocities with dates and locations. It was born of the artist’s earlier frustrated attempts to enfold all his wartime experiences into a single image. By creating a narrative in fifty plates, Dix rendered what was incoherent into a cohesive whole. There are three interrelated themes: the daily degradation of trench life, the grim experience of actual combat, and the corruption and confusion of civilizations trapped within--or drawn to--the conflict.

The exhibition opened on August 1, 1924, in Berlin. A pamphlet featuring twentyfour of the prints was sent to leftist newspapers and law journals, and also to the League of Human Rights, local branches of peace societies, and union halls to be sold for 1.80 marks on the Great Anti-War Day.

At the time of its initial appearance, Der Krieg excited a great deal of criticism in the right-wing press. The cycle was seen to reflect not the “desperate battles of the people, but . . . the hideous excesses of animalistic criminals” and as an “effrontery that must shock every honorable front soldier to the depths.”

The complete cycle of Der Krieg sold but a single set. Yet it circulated--both in the less expensive abridged booklet and in exhibitions that year and later. In 1949, the Municipal Council of Greater Berlin in the eastern sector issued some of the plates in a portfolio on the theme of war; the text extolled Dix as an anti-fascist and antiwar hero. But this was an attempt by the East German art establishment to co-opt the artist for its own political purposes. Dix said of Der Krieg and his intentions: “Artists shouldn’t try to improve and convert; they’re far too insignificant for that. They must only bear witness.”

When Hitler came into power in 1933, his government considered Dix’s paintings antimilitary and contrived for him to lose his teaching position at the Dresden Academy. The dismissal letter claimed that Dix’s artwork “threatened to sap the will of the German people to defend themselves.” Several of his paintings were destroyed by the Nazis shortly after.

In 1939 the artist was accused of conspiring to kill Hitler. He was arrested, but eventually the charges were dropped and he was released. During the Second World War, he was conscripted and forced into the German Army. He was captured while serving and was held in a prisoner-ofwar camp until the end of the war.

Upon his 1946 return to Dresden, which had been destroyed by bombing, Dix continued to paint. He employed religious allegories, completing paintings such as Job and Masks in Ruins, which depicted the suffering of World War II. He died in 1969 at the age of seventy-eight.

About the Author

This article is adapted from Bitter Witness: Otto Dix and the Great War by Linda F. McGreevy, Volume 27 of the German Life and Civilization series, © 2001 Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., New York. Reprinted with permission. McGreevy is associate professor of art history and criticism at Old Dominion University in Virginia. She received an NEH fellowship to do research on Otto Dix.