Kaiser Wilhelm II, King of Prussia and Emperor of Germany, was determined to expand Germany’s power and when the First World War broke out most Germans were in support. However, as the war continued discontent increased on the German Home Front.
Conscription in Germany
The First World War was fought mainly by large conscript armies. The concept of the ‘citizen soldier’ was established during the French Revolution and was based on the idea that all male citizens had a duty to bear arms in defence of their nation. Britain did not enforce conscription until January 1916, but in Germany all able bodied men aged 17-45 were liable for military service. By 1914 the Germans had a well-established and organised system of peacetime conscription.
At the Age of 20 men would undertake two or three years of peacetime training in the active army. At the end of their training they were allowed to go back into civilian life but could be called back to the army at any time up to the age of 45.
Conscription meant that by August 1914, the German army needed just 12 days to expand from 800,000 to 3,500,000 soldiers. In Germany, under 60% of military-aged men served. In 1916 Germany passed the auxiliary service law, which made all men aged between 17 and 60 liable for service in some form, including war production.
British Naval Blockade
One tactic that Britain used to help win the war was to starve Germany. They used their naval forces to cut off all supplies coming from outside Germany in an attempt to starve the nation and force it to surrender. The Royal Navy blocked the entrance to the English Channel and the North Sea, and with the help of the French and Italians mounted another blockade in the Atlantic Sea, which affected Germany’s ally, Austria-Hungary. The blockade, beginning at the start of the war and ending when Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919, worked well. The Naval forces successfully limited the supplies that reached Germany and its allies.
The consequences of the blockade were compounded by Germany’s failure to manage its own food production effectively or to distribute food in ways that were equitable. Bad harvests in 1916 resulted in what the Germans called ‘the turnip winter’. The country began to suffer from malnourishment, resulting in riots and starvation in some areas. The pattern was repeated in the winter of 1917-18. After the war Germany claimed that about a million people had died because of the blockade, whether actually starving to death or contracting diseases such as tuberculosis and pneumonia.
German War Artists
The work of German artists Kathe Kollwitz and Otto Dix reflected candidly on the world they saw falling apart around them. They both viewed their art as therapeutic for themselves and their society. They depicted images of war, grief, and devastation, including starving children and soldiers with facial injuries.
Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945)
Kathe Kollwitz was a German artist and sculptor, as well as being an advocate for victims of social injustice, war, and inhumanity. In 1914 her youngest son died in battle, hugely affecting her. The way she felt best able to grieve was through her art, and she produced many pieces on the theme of a mother protecting her children. In 1924 Kathe wanted to produce a memorial dedicated to her late son. She made two sculptures, The Mother and The Father, which were placed in a cemetery near Ypres where her son was buried.
Otto Dix (1891-1969)
Otto Dix volunteered to join the military service at the beginning of the war. He survived but the horrors of the war stayed with him. His paintings, influenced by expressionism and futurism, often reflected this. As a machine gunner at the front Otto experienced many of the gruesome parts of the First World War, which inspired his paintings. Due to Otto’s graphic and disturbing depiction of the war and his ‘mocking’ of the German idea of heroism, he was dismissed from his teaching post at the Dresden Academy in 1933.