Into the Fray: the German People’s Perspective on WWI Participants

Käthe Kollwitz. The Volunteers (die Freiwilligen). 34.9 x 49.5 cm.

The Volunteers (die Freiwilligen), 1923. Woodcut, 34.9 x 49.5 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Käthe Kollwitz’s The Volunteers offers proof of the negative perspective held by the Germans regarding the participants of World War I. She displays this sense of despair through the harsh color scheme, the facial expressions of the subjects, and the shapes present throughout the piece.

The drastic opposition of black and white creates sharp edges, distinct shapes, strong emotion, and energy. Most of the piece is black, but white is used to highlight certain elements. The white highlights the faces of the subjects, which look distraught, harsh and skeletal. The most distinct face is the one on the left, which looks like a physical manifestation of Death, and is also the leader of the group. The arcs in the background are also highlighted and are reminiscent of a restrictive. The block of white at the bottom is frantic and chaotic, and seems to be sweeping the subjects away with it. The white also creates interesting shapes in the piece, including sharp lines, triangles, and a glow behind the subjects that is like a lifeline, all of which bring a sense of urgency and life to the piece.

The overwhelming presence of black suggests the darkness and despair with which the Germans viewed the war’s participants. The contrast provided by the white creates strict lines, mimicking the strictly negative view that the Germans had on the war as well as the countries and citizens that aided the war effort. The people are representative of those who participated in the war, which Kollwitz refers to as “volunteers.” However, they are seemingly being led by Death (far left), and unwillingly at that, which makes them seem more like victims rather than proponents of the awful destruction and devastation caused by the war.

To further this claim, their deformed stature and painful facial expressions give a sadness and a morbid persuasiveness to the piece, suggesting that Death is the one who is at the root of all the evil. Yet, they are still following him into the fray, and can thus be considered the volunteers that Kollwitz has dubbed them to be. It seems that Death is leading these countries to their own deaths, and while they are in pain, they do not seem to fight back, thus giving way to Death’s demands with regard to war.

The moral and physical struggle of these followers is further highlighted in white. They are within the white arcs, yet Death is outside, making it seem like they are trapped within this oppressive cycle of terror that Death is both leading them out of and keeping them within. The multiple arcing lines could indicate the various levels of oppression that occurred during World War I, yet they form one entity and are inevitably connected. Also, the white block on the bottom is like a cloud, and its rushed, frantic composition further enhances the idea that these followers are being swept up in the fury of war and pain.

Represented in human form, the countries involved in World War I are led by Death through a strictly black and white scene, with facial expressions and shapes that imply force, oppression, and pain. All of these elements imply the negative perspective that the Germans held on the war and those who participated in it.

Kollwitz, Käthe. The Volunteers. 1923. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Museum of Modern Art. Web. 16 Oct. 2013.

Creative Commons License
Into the Fray: the German People’s Perspective on WWI by Claire Fyvolent is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.