BERLIN (Reuters) - The German Expressionist sculptor Kaethe Kollwitz, whose work was so anti-war the Nazis banned it, labored for 15 years to express in stone her grief at losing her 18-year-old son Peter at the start of World War One.
“Grieving Parents,” the set of statues she finally placed at his grave in Flanders in 1932, has now inspired a memorial tour from Belgium to Russia that Germany has organized to honor the dead of that conflict and the Second World War that followed it.
Berlin’s war graves commission has had replicas made of the granite father and mother and is sending them this summer from the cemetery in Vladslo in Belgium, through Germany, Poland and Belarus to a graveyard in Rzhev, 200 kilometers from Moscow.
German and Russian soldiers who died in the century’s second great war are buried there, including most likely Kollwitz’s own grandson, also named Peter.
“Through the fate of the Kollwitz family we wanted to draw a symbolic arc spanning both world wars, and between East and West,” said Markus Meckel, a former East German dissident who is now president of the German war graves commission.
“The power of the statues is that they show the terrible isolation of grief,” he said. “The parents are expressing it in two very different ways. Yet the suffering of the figures is not just their personal suffering, it is also a universal emotion.”
The statue set shows a couple kneeling separately, the father staring ahead with arms crossed taut across his chest, the mother hunched and head bowed, clutching her cloak.
Like “Mother with her Dead Son,” her Pieta-like statue that now stands in Germany’s main memorial to all war dead in Berlin, the sadness and suffering the statues showed were the opposite of the glorification of war that Adolf Hitler promoted.
The centenary of the outbreak of World War One has been marked with major events in Britain, France, and Belgium, but today’s Germans shudder when recalling the militarism that plunged Imperial Germany and Hitler’s Third Reich into war.
Many prefer muted memorials such as Kollwitz’s statues, or the graveyard-like Holocaust memorial in Berlin, for their stark simplicity that speaks movingly without words.
Kollwitz’s 83-year-old grandson Arne said the power of “Grieving Parents”, which stands in the German war cemetery at Vladslo in western Belgium, also lay in the intensity of the artist and her 15 years of labor on the theme.
“She settled on these statues after many, many former attempts. And they create an immediate counterpoint to the graves of the fallen soldiers,” he said.
Reporting by Alexandra Hudson; Editing by Tom Heneghan