The Other Side of the Medal: WWI and the Dance of Death

As part of the centenary commemorations for the outbreak of the First World War, the British Museum is examining the German experience through a display of art medals. These are not military medals, but hand-held works of art made by artists who lived and worked in Germany during the war. Expressive, stylised and at times provocative, they nevertheless document the realities of war from both a physical and a psychological perspective.

Karl Goetz (1875-1950) was the most prolific of the medallists working during the war, and he was also the most confrontational, producing a number of medals that sought to agitate public opinion against the allies and Britain in particular. His work entitled Zeppelin L.19 (Figure 1), for example, depicts a German airship sinking in the North Sea following engine trouble in 1916. Fearing that its crew would be outnumbered, a nearby English fishing vessel refused to pick up survivors as they clung to the airship's hull. All were drowned and the inscription on Goetz' medal reads:


‘Curse the sea-going British,
Curse your bad conscience,
Help-seeking castaways had to perish.’


Goetz was also responsible for the most notorious medal of the war, about the sinking of the passenger liner RMS Lusitania by a German U-boat in 1915. The German argument for the sinking was that the ship had been carrying munitions and Goetz' medal depicts the stricken vessel laden with armaments. British copies of the medal were even made and sold during a fierce propaganda war that attempted to incite public opinion against Germany.


Figure 2: Lusitania
by Walter Eberbach


Figure 3: Hans Holbein the Younger, The Knight, a woodcut
Germany, proof print before AD 1526, first published AD 1538
From the series Dance of Death


Other medallists were more apocalyptic in their vision, choosing instead to reflect on the suffering of all mankind. Several artists chose to achieve this by reviving the medieval Dance of Death motif in which skeletal or cadaverous figures deliberately drag the living to their deaths.

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1543) famously depicted the Dance of Death in a series of woodcuts (Figure 3) that commented on the indiscriminate way in which Death targets the living:


Where blighting cares so keenly strike,
And, spite of rank, or wealth, or worth,
Death – Death will visit all alike.'(1)


Updating the tradition, Walter Eberbach (1866-1944) produced a series of Dance of Death inspired medals. His interpretation of the sinking of the Lusitania (Figure 2) has Death standing over the vessel, fixing it with a malevolent stare as it begins to capsize.


Figure 4: Death and a Cannon
by Arnold Zadikow


The artist Arnold Zadikow's (1884-1943) version of Death, meanwhile, is an altogether more playful figure, casually straddling a field gun and smoking a long cigarette whilst a city burns in the distance (Figure 4). Zadikow was an active participant in the war, having enlisted in 1917. Shortly after, however, he was severely wounded, captured by the British and spent the remainder of the war interned in a Prisoner of War camp in Staffordshire, England.

Besides the Dance of Death, medallists such as Ludwig Gies (1877-1966) began to consider the futility of the war in other ways, including simplifying the human form, to render people as mere stick figures. In some cases he introduced giant machinery in the form of a ship’s hull or an armaments factory, to emphasise the might of industry compared with the insignificance of life. His medal depicting a field hospital, on the other hand, contrasts jaunty carnival-esque tents on a hill with the ant-like figures below carrying the wounded slumped on stretchers.

Meanwhile the medallist Hans Lindl (1885-?) took the metaphor to the point of abstraction in his work entitled Kitchener’s Dream (Figure 5). The medal shows tiny soldiers leaping from Kitchener’s mouth as he sleeps. It was partly a reflection on the German fear, early in the war, that British resources were almost limitless, but it was also a comment on the expendability of human life: the average soldier could be, and was, easily replaced.


Figure 5: Kirchener's Dream
by Hans Lindl


As the war drew to a close several medallists chose to reflect the bitterness that was felt by many Germans about the punishing terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Goetz’ work about the peace was predictably outspoken. He produced a medal depicting a German harbour wrapped in barbed wire, behind which lie half-starved dying figures. Inscribed ‘England’s scandalous deed’, it was a criticism of the allied blockade on Germany, which was controversially maintained for six months after the cessation of hostilities in November 1918 (Figure 6). Meanwhile, Elizabeth Esseo’s (1883-1954) Pax considered the impact of peace by showing a helmeted Peace with eyes closed in mournful suffering (Figure 7).


Figure 6: The Blockade
by Karl Goetz


Figure 7: Pax
by Elizabeth Esseo


Recognising their significance to the development of the medallic tradition, the British Museum had begun to collect German art medals even before the end of the war. Often cast rather than struck and depicting heavy stylised forms, the medals were unusually coarse and unrefined, merely serving to emphasise the brutality of the conflict.

The other side of the medal: how Germany saw the First World War is on view in Room 69a from 9 May until 23 November 2014 at the British Museum in London.




NOTES:

1. Translated from The Dance of Death by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1543)

All images copyright the Trustees of the British Museum

Cover Image: "Zeppelin L.19"
by Karl Goetz