Witness to War

Article excerpt

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. …