Post 4 – The other side of the medal: How Germany saw the First World War

Temporary exhibition at the British Museum

9 May – 23 November 2014, Free

I happened to be at the British Museum the other day and this exhibition caught my eye. It’s just a small one in a little alcove off to the side of their Roman section but worth checking out if you happen to be in the museum in the next few months.

The exhibition contains a number of medals made by German artists between 1914 and 1919, and can roughly be divided into two sections – propaganda presenting a pro-German or anti-Entente view of the war, or expressionist art presenting views on the horror and destruction of the war. Both sections produce some very striking and thought provoking pieces of art, though not always for the reasons intended by the artists.

The expressionist pieces, largely by Karl Goetz and Arnold Zadikow, provide an updated take on Hans Holbein the Younger’s Dance of Death Series from the early-Sixteenth century (I’m no art expert, this is pointed out in the exhibition with some examples for comparison). These are fairly interesting, if grim, showing Death as a skeleton actively pulling the strings of the war to the detriment of the soldiers in the German army. Other pieces use mood to show the lack of humanity in this new form of total war that affects soldiers and civilians alike.

Hans Holbein - The PeddlerZadikow - DeathDeath Zeppelin

The propaganda medals are interesting in quite a different way. Some present the USA and Japan as the new rising powers, taking money from a devastated Europe. with an aim to turn the public against these countries. The most famous medallions, rather controversially, respond to the sinking of the Lusitania with a scathing condemnation of the British for allowing commercial activity to continue – “Business above all” or portray the ship as carrying weapons. In fairness, Goetz’s work on this was meant as satirical, but it was taken up by British propaganda as a glorification of the sinking and loss of civilian life. Others provide views of figures like Lord Kitchener, events like the naval blockade of Germany or even the eventual peace with the Treaty of Versailles. Some of these can be quite tasteless, but that’s probably par for the course with war propaganda.

Karl Goetz, Lusitania MedalHans Lindl - Kitchener's Dream

While I’m on the topic of World War One artwork, I was walking through Brompton Cemetery a few weeks ago and noticed this grave with a fresh poppy wreath and a rather striking carving of a Zeppelin.

Brompton Cemetary memorialI can’t say that I find the stone itself particularly tasteful (it was apparently put up by Daily Express readers, which may explain that) but the pilot, Reginald Warneford, has quite a good story. Born in India, he initially signed up for the army but was quickly transferred to the Royal Navy Air Service and completed his training at the end of February 1915 (his supervisor noted “This youngster will either do big things or kill himself”). Just a few months later, he chased a German airship LZ37 and in a running battle lasting almost an hour he eventually managed to set fire to and destroy it. Unfortunately the explosion damaged his own aircraft forcing him to land behind enemy lines. However, he managed to repair the plane and return to the allied side where he was awarded the Victoria Cross and the Légion d’honneur for his achievement. The luck didn’t last and he died only 10 days later in a crash while delivering a plane.

I don’t usually go in for that sort of Boy’s Own thing, but it’s a great tale of daring and heroism combined with the all too common tragedy of a life cut short.

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