I do not want to die

 Käthe Kollwitz in 1927
Photo: Hugo Erfurth, via Wikimedia

Born in 1867, Käthe Kollwitz was a German artist known for her powerful and emotional works, particularly her prints, which often addressed themes of poverty, injustice, and the human condition. Two of her most famous projects are the print cycle War (1923-1928), which depicts the horrors of World War I, and Mother with her Dead Son (1937), a sculpture inspired by the death of her 18-year-old son, Peter, as he fought on the Belgian front in October of 1914. It was four months after his passing, as she struggled to come to terms with such immense loss, that Kollwitz wrote this diary entry.

The Diary Entry

February 15, 1915

In the studio I looked at my former sketches. Saw that I have gone along by roundabout ways—which were perhaps necessary—and yet am making progress. I do not want to die, even if Hans [her surviving son, also on the front line] and Karl [her husband] should die. I do not want to go until I have faithfully made the most of my talent and cultivated the seed that was placed in me until the last small twig has grown. This does not contradict the fact that I would have died—smilingly—for Peter, and for Hans too, were the choice offered me. Oh how gladly, how gladly. Peter was seed for the planting which should not have been ground. He was the sowing. I am the bearer and cultivator of a grain of seed-corn. What Hans will become, the future will show. But since I am to be the cultivator, I want to serve faithfully. Since recognising that, I am almost serene and much firmer in spirit. It is not only that I am permitted to finish my work—I am obliged to finish it. This seems to me to be the meaning of all the gabble about culture. Culture arises only when the individual fulfils his cycle of obligations. If everyone recognises and fulfils his cycle of obligations, genuineness emerges. The culture of a whole nation can in the final analysis be built upon nothing else but this.

Further Reading

In 1948, a volume of Kollwitz’s letters and diary entries was published, in German, selected and edited by her surviving son, Hans; five years later, an English language edition appeared, titled, The Diaries & Letters of Kaethe Kollwitz. And some of her diary entries also appear in a couple of other books that I know of, both of which are excellent and worth tracking down: The Voices of Women Artists, edited by Wendy Slatkin, and Revelations: Diaries of Women, edited by Mary Jane Moffat & Charlotte Painter.

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