How the harrowing etchings of ‘Der Krieg’ by Otto Dix have preserved the horror and trauma of World War I

Not many war tributes are as grim and unflinching as Der Krieg (‘The War’) by German artist Otto Dix (started in 1915 during his time at the front and completed in 1924) — a series that preserves in memory the horrific reality experienced by soldiers during The Great War. Join me as I examine the underlying emotions and themes represented within Dix’ pieces: from the obvious horror and violence; to the subtle nihilism, existential despair, disillusionment, and eventual empathy that so many young men found themselves experiencing whilst living face to face with unrelenting death and decay.

“The twentieth century was the most murderous in recorded history.”

O. Knowles, Wilfred Owen War Poems (1994)

Prior to the start of The War, propaganda from each side championing patriotism and nationalism was encouraging a collective ‘war fever’. This hysteria, soldiers would later discover, was nothing more than an attempt to ‘justify the righteousness of the war’. The popular Latin phrase ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ (‘It is sweet and honourable to die for one’s country’) became associated with the propagandist rhetoric of celebrating the dead as martyrs and heroes – something veterans, including Dix, saw right through following their return from war (Wilfred Owen, a British soldier, referred to the phrase as the ‘Old Lie’ in his eponymous war poem in which he documents the horrors of war). Most World War I poems and artwork reflect on this experience of disillusion: the shattering contrast between the idea of a glorified, heroic service ‘for king and country’ and the reality: the indignity and perversity of war and death in which there exists no such ‘glory’.

Otto Dix was twenty-four and a student at Dresden School of Arts and Crafts when he enthusiastically enlisted in the army; seeing war as an ‘inevitable part of life’ and a ‘catalyst for change’. In 1915, he was called to serve and operated as a machine gunner on the front line – however it was not until after the war, in 1924, his anti-militarist series Der Krieg was showcased. 

‘Wounded Man’ (Autumn 1916, Bapaume) from Der Krieg (The War), Otto Dix, 1924

Der Krieg is a collection of fifty-one etchings, full of barbaric realism; destruction and death set against a backdrop of foreboding misery. In the series, Dix captures his human subjects unflinchingly and candidly – he thrives on representing the most honest documentation of his wartime experiences; whether that means the portrayal of a soldier glaring at the viewer in wide-eyed agony following a blast to the abdomen, or the harsh fate shared by almost one million men: being reduced to nothing more than a skeleton on the ground, infested with worms and maggots.

‘Skull’ (Schädel) from Der Krieg (The War), Otto Dix, 1924

“Lice, rats, barbed wire, fleas, shells, bombs, underground caves, corpses, blood, liquor, mice, cats, gas, artillery, filth, bullets, mortars, fires, steel: this is what war is! It is the work of the Devil!”

Otto Dix, War Diary 1915–1916 (published 1987)

Perhaps the most disturbing theme one encounters whilst viewing the series in its entirety, is a sense of unsettling nihilism. Human life devoid of any meaning or significance; death is accepted as, literally, part of the scenery: mutilated remains of the dead crudely entangled in barbed wire, decomposing bodies sinking into the barren fields and mud of No Man’s Land. Poignant in its disillusionment, Dix portrays a grim testament to reality: speaking for the men falsely promised by politicians and generals a war ‘free of lice and rats’ and assured they’d be home in time for Christmas. 

‘Dance of Death’ from Der Krieg (The War), Otto Dix, 1924

The stylistic documentation of the works – the fact we are seeing the war experience through Dix’ eyes – is what makes Der Krieg so frighteningly realistic, perhaps even more so than the hellish acts of violence it displays; the fact that, despite conjuring those vivid images of Armageddon, this was an inescapable truth. This happened. How can we dare to doubt Dix in his conviction? He lived it. He was there. 

‘Mealtime in The Trenches’ (Mahlzeit in der Sappe) from Der Krieg (The War), Otto Dix, 1924

It is clear that everyday life for those in the trenches was abysmal. Setting aside the violent aspect, we are forced to confront the fact that this is what life can be reduced to – even for us: World War I was not the first atrocity on Earth, and it certainly won’t be the last. Dix names a panel ‘mealtime in the trenches’, a deceptively benign title which forces us to compare our own experiences of mealtime – surrounded by family in the comfort of our own homes – with a trench mealtime: surrounded by filth with nothing but a decaying corpse for company. This is interesting when considering the depictions of trauma preserved in Dix’ work: he cleverly inserts a very unsettling depiction of traumatic stress into a drawing of a mundane, everyday activity. By definition, ‘emotional trauma’ manifests as the body’s response to a sudden and shocking change. We know not every mealtime this soldier has experienced in his lifetime has looked like this one; we can see that, past his thousand-yard stare, he is a human just like us – albeit with his faculties shot and his very self isolated amidst depravity. Arguably, it was during the adjustment to trench life – the adaptation of these ‘mundane, everyday’ activities (such as mealtime) against the hostile and horrifying backdrop of war – that enabled traumatic stress to manifest.

One particularly horrifying panel depicts a soldier who, we presume upon first glance, has died from the visible injuries caused by artillery and gunfire: flesh torn from his body, unprecedented wounds, his face contorted in agony. Only, upon further inspection, do we find the title of the piece – to our horror – informing us that this man is, in fact, not dead. Rather, he is dying. Probably slowly, certainly painfully. Again, we are forced to confront the pitiful and devastating reality of the war: Dix almost thrives on the horror he’s reproducing from his memories; it is as if he’s egging on the viewer ‘I endured this, you have to, too.’

‘Dying Man’ from Der Krieg (The War), Otto Dix, 1924

There is an element of inquisitiveness when viewing Der Krieg; it is almost voyeuristic – we may be left feeling as though curiosity has got the better of us (and perhaps even the artist himself). When speaking about his reasons for enlisting in the war, Dix talks of his need for realism, which not only explains his harrowing artwork but also supports his case of reliability further:

“I had to see all that myself. I’m such a realist, you know, that I have to see everything with my own eyes in order to confirm that it’s like that. I have to experience all the ghastly, bottomless depths of life for myself…”

Otto Dix, War Diary 1915–1916 (published 1987)
‘Dead Sentry in the Trenches’ (Toter Sappenposten) from Der Krieg (The War), Otto Dix, 1924

One of the most famed pieces from Der Krieg is the panel ‘Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor’ (‘Shock troops advance under gas’). Dix portrays five soldiers donning gasmasks, advancing the enemy lines. It is other-worldly, apocalyptic, and genuinely scary. Worse still, these soldiers – who, with their gasmasks obscuring their faces – have lost all trace of humanity – are crawling, scraping, hacking through dirt and barbed wire with whatever instruments they can find, and are coming for us, the viewer.

‘Shock Troops Advance under Gas’ (Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor) from Der Krieg (The War), Otto Dix, 1924

Upon contrast with other World War I artworks, Dix’ is distinct because of his refusal to conform to creating ‘aesthetically pleasing’ images: he is unflinching, brutally honest with the viewer – we cannot blend with gentle brush strokes the devastation of war and death. One might argue that too many artworks depicting war exist wherein the artist has taken great care to ensure a flattering composition complete with vibrant colours and an immaculate finish. Instead, Dix opts for stark black and white contrast, the messy – almost violent – technique of etching: creating the impression that the artworks themselves have been bayoneted, shot at, and left to decay in the muddy fields of France and Belgium like many of their subjects. The dreary, colourless hues found throughout Der Krieg only emphasise its sinister, jarring impact. Dix shows us a world sapped of colour; of life, of hope, of escape, and in doing so he succeeds in epitomising absolute horror.

‘Dead Man In Mud’ (Toter im Schlamm) from Der Krieg (The War), Otto Dix, 1924.

It’s clear from the varying emotions channeled into each drawing – some of which evoke a calm eeriness, others which quite literally personify fear, despair, and death – that Dix used drawing ‘in the midst of boredom and misery’ during the war as a sort of catharsis. Dix’ wartime experiences were so traumatic that he would later go on to suffer from recurring nightmares, and if his grisly artwork is anything to go by, one can scarcely even attempt to imagine the memories haunting him.

“For at least ten years I kept getting these dreams in which I had to crawl through ruined houses, along passages I could hardly get through

Otto Dix, War Diary 1915–1916 (published 1987)
‘Corpse caught up in barbed wire (Flanders)’ from Der Krieg (The War), Otto Dix, 1924

In conclusion, Der Krieg is a brutally honest and unflinching narrative of war, told by a first-hand perspective of one of its casualties (and, later, its opposers). Der Krieg forces us to acknowledge the reality of warfare and the physical and psychological effects of those whose lives it touches. Dix’ approach is aggressive – the harsh etching, the duotone contrast – his anger and terror tangible in every piece, the sputtered canvases themselves reminiscent of something straight from No Mans Land. It is almost as though Dix sees it as his duty to set straight the glorified ‘Old Lie’ by revealing the ‘truth’ – a theme of justified embitterment that many war poets such as Siegfried Sassoon explore in their work. For these men, they are united amongst an almost tangible sense of unforgivable betrayal. Their work survives and serves as retribution for the Lost Generation.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by, 
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know 
The hell where youth and laughter go.

Siegfried Sassoon