“I have no right to withdraw from the responsibility of being an advocate. It is my duty to voice the sufferings of people, the sufferings that never end and are as big as mountains.” So wrote Käthe Kollwitz – artist, socialist, pacifist, and grieving mother – five years after her son Peter died on the battlefield in World War I. In 1937, she began working on her Pietà in his memory as war loomed again. In that second great bloodletting she would lose her grandson, also named Peter, killed in action as a draftee for Hitler, whose regime was hounding Kollwitz for her dissident activities.
In 1993, an enlarged casting of the Pietà was installed as the centerpiece of Germany’s National Memorial to the Victims of War and Tyranny on Berlin’s Unter den Linden boulevard. The sculpture is situated in the Neue Wache guardhouse, once a nationalistic shrine that played a central role in the Nazis’ annual parade for war heroes.
Today, the remains of an unknown soldier and an unknown concentration camp prisoner rest beneath Kollwitz’s statue. Directly overhead, the oculus allows sunlight, rain, and snow to fall onto the agonized mother. “Blessed are those who mourn” – this place draws us into the heart of this cryptic beatitude, evoking the suffering of mothers all over the world, from Syria to the Congo.
Berlin photographer Walter Mason writes: “Kollwitz’s statue, alone in the middle of the room, commands a respect that is immediately understood by anyone who enters. The tourists come in off the street and, without exception, fall silent. The mother with her son is so wrapped up in her sorrow that she seems unapproachable; the visitors stand at a distance and partake in her grief.”