The New Yorker
Dec. 9, 2002
WARNING: Extremely graphic violence.
For a long time some people believed that if the horror could be made vivid enough, most people would finally take in the outrageousness, the insanity of war. Fourteen years before [Virginia] Woolf published Three Guineas — in 1924, on the tenth anniversary of the national mobilization in Germany for the First World War — the conscientious objector Ernst Friedrich published his Krieg dem Kriege! [War Against War!].
This is photography as shock therapy: an album of more than one hundred and eighty photographs mostly drawn from German military and medical archives, many of which were deemed unpunishable by government censors while the war was on. The book starts with pictures of toy soldiers, toy cannons, and other delights of male children everywhere, and concludes with pictures taken in military cemeteries. Between the toys and the graves, the reader has an excruciating photo-tour of four years of ruin, slaughter, and degradation: pages of wrecked and plundered churches and castles, obliterated villages, ravaged forests, torpedoed passenger steamers, shattered vehicles, hanged conscientious objectors, half-naked prostitutes in military brothels, soldiers in death agonies after a poison-gas attack, skeletal Armenian children.
Almost all the sequences in War Against War! are difficult to look at, notably the pictures of dead soldiers belonging to the various armies putrefying in heaps on fields and roads and in the front-line trenches. But surely the most unbearable pages in this book, the whole of which was designed to horrify and demoralize, are in the section titled “The Face of War,” twenty-four close-ups of soldiers with huge facial wounds. Continue reading