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Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Case

In response to:

Weimar Faces from the November 2, 2006 issue

To the Editors:

Ian Buruma’s otherwise informative piece “Weimar Faces” [NYR, November 2] seriously misrepresents the role during and after the Great War of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, arguably the best of the German Expressionists. Kirchner was enlisted in the artillery, not infantry, and, traumatized by his fear of being killed or maimed in the war, purposely starved, drank, and drugged himself into a physical and mental wreck. Fooling his army doctors, he was discharged and thus never served on the front like Beckmann, Dix, or Grosz. Shortly after his discharge in 1915, Kirchner moved to Switzerland, working in virtual isolation and apart from the vibrant culture of the Weimar Republic for his remaining twenty-eight years. The most telling difference between Kirchner and a man like Grosz was their respective reactions to the Nazis’ condemnation of their art in 1937. While the politically engaged Grosz welcomed the Nazi ban as proof of his artistic authenticity, the apolitical Kirchner, stuck with ideas of the decade before the Great War, felt abandoned and totally rejected by his fatherland, Nazi-run or not, and consequently committed suicide.

Wolfgang Schoellkopf

Melville, New York

Ian Buruma replies:

I stand corrected. Kirchner was indeed serving in an artillery regiment when he had his nervous breakdown. The fact that his art was denounced and many of his works were destroyed by the Nazis for being “degenerate” surely contributed to his suicidal condition. He was no hero, perhaps, but I would not condemn him for that.

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