Adequate and Courageous Parental Reaction on the Death of Their Son as a War Casualty


Kathe Kollwitz, “The Parents” (1922 – 1923), Print (Woodcut on paper), from the Cycle “War”

Most parents feel proud when their sons die in wars – sacrifice themselves for the sake of triumph of their country. Of course, they are suffering but they believe that the loss of their uniformed children is justified, and their pride not less than their grief is part of the redemption of their loss. Such parents still don’t understand that the difference between a legitimate war (when you defend your country against the aggressor) and a unjust war – that of aggression, is not valid anymore. For example, many people with conservative sensibility in US today (who are not too well educated in world history) haven’t awakened to the fact that the concept of preemptive war (Bush doctrine) justifies war of aggression, that the very moral difference between war of aggression and war of defense has been dissolved into technicalities and subjective guesses and feelings.

Kollwitz lived through two World Wars and knew what an illegitimate (unjust) war is (for example, WWII was that of aggression the Nazi Germany was responsible for). Kollwitz lost her son on the frontline of WWI and her grandson in WWII, and she developed her own perspective on war and sacrifice of children in uniform to idols of war-profit, ambition, pride and hate. Today, when moral consciousness of Americans towards war should change (after the official legitimization of preemptive wars of aggression in the 21st century) we need to hear from Kollwitz – we need her passion, courage and talent to understand better what war is in relation to the value of our children. How her anti-war position sounds today since several unjust wars (and more to come) when American soldiers will be sent again to die in battles against countries which have done nothing wrong to our nation?

In “The Parents” – having learned about the death of their son-soldier, his parents have as if lost the right to look like human beings – they are transformed into a heap of waste (into as if sinews of shame – the white lines of sharpened moral consciousness, and the abysmal darkness of their guilt that as if swallowed their being). They as if lost their right to have a human face – the mother hides her face in the crook of her husband’s arm, while the father covers his face with his palm. Kollwitz uses “ascetic” technique of woodcutting to its monumental (all-embracing) power.

Why parents of the killed soldier take the whole responsibility for their son’s death to themselves? It happened at a time of mandatory military service – punishment for being a deserter during the time of war was the “ultimate measure”. But the fact that Kollwitz’ “parents” take their son’s death as only and completely their guilt is a stroke of her genius as an artist. Their grief transcends any geo-political, socio-political reasons for war and personal feelings about it. By feeling guilty these parents recover their absolute status as people who have a voice in deciding – war will be or not. They retrospectively demand their democratic right to have this deciding voice. And they cannot forgive themselves for having squandered the opportunity to stop war before it killed their child. Of course, the deciders don’t ask from the people the permission to start war – they do as they want. But these parents accuse themselves for letting war happen, for not having done everything to prevent it.

In the matter of life and mass death there is deeper authority than human imperatives including the commanding power of Commander-in-Chief or pride of a nation or political system. The obliteration of the difference between a just and an unjust war demands from us the ability to confront war as such. It is the ontological obligation of every human being to greet creation, to promote and perpetuate it (to follow the universal laws of peace, life, creativity, of prolongation of life and its reproduction). When this mystical reverential instinct as a part of human nature cannot sustain its natural priority in the individual and the social life, we have a deal with basic (ontological) perversion of human nature. Religious intolerance of other beliefs, politico-ideological messianism with its crude megalomania, and industrial and financial obsession with global dominance and power – are symptoms of this basic inversion of human nature – forgetfulness of human beings about being part of a (unitary) Being.

It is becoming conscious of this basic sin under the influence of shock of losing a son makes his parents feel cosmic shame in front of Being for failing to prevent the destruction of war. If majority of parents were like the ones Kollwitz represents in her print, wars could die, and then world’s fathers and mothers could get the right to show their faces to the light.

The awareness of their sin of losing their uniformed child in war is a spiritual awakening, the only decent way out of wars, out of conformist passivity in front of leaders, barbarity of hate and animosity and megalomaniacal pride in being stronger than others. It is necessary to develop the spiritual ability to negotiate with people who are dissimilar from “us” and resist propaganda of war. By the heroic reaction of parents the unknown soldier of Kollwitz’ print has become a hero, not that of a war with its righteous destruction, but that of a peace, life and creation.