Brown on Guenther, 'Postcards from the Trenches: A German Soldier's Testimony of the Great War'
Irene Guenther. Postcards from the Trenches: A German Soldier's Testimony of the Great War. London: Bloomsbury, 2018. Illustrations. 248 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-350-01575-3.
Reviewed by Adam Brown (Air University, Squadron Officer School) Published on H-War (April, 2021) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56074
In Postcards From the Trenches: A German Soldier’s Testimony of the Great War, Irene Guenther illustrates how, through his artwork in his wartime postcards sent home, Otto Schubert provided haunting visuals of life in the German trenches during World War I. Additionally, this work analyzes iconic works of German art from soldiers and widows affected by the lingering effects of the war in the 1920s. Guenther argues that these postcards, in contrast to images printed off by government sources, showed the ferocity and true face of war as experienced by those affected by it. As a professor of modern and American history at the University of Houston, Guenther is a veteran at writing about art and politics in early twentieth-century Europe. She is an accomplished author, winning the Sierra Prize for Best History Book by the Western Association of Women Historians and the Millia Davenport Award for Best Book in Fashion History by the Costume Society of America.
In the first chapter, using powerfully descriptive and illustrative language, Guenther provides the context of the First World War to familiarize readers with the individuals and communities affected specifically in Germany. Guenther argues that art provided German soldiers the methods and means to express their sentiments about the frontlines to loved ones back home while also providing the German government an opportunity to disseminate large amounts of patriotic material in support of the war. However, she acknowledges that any attempt to offer an authentic characterization of the war experience would be over-generalized and plagued with variance issues, such as sampling sizes, government censorship, and the events shaping the card’s content. Even with these caveats, a survey of the postcards within this collection presents at least an idea of the common experiences the German soldiers shared.
In chapter 2, Guenther focuses on the trajectory of German artists from the beginning of World War I through the middle of the twentieth century. She begins with a discussion of the initial reactions of German artists at the beginning of World War I and presents five distinct categories into which the majority of their artwork could be classified: patriotic victory over Germany’s enemies, the war as a spiritual crusade, transition of old to new beliefs in a spiritual age, art whose sole nationalist purpose was to serve Germany, and the transition of artistic attitudes regarding the realities of war. Guenther notes in this last category how quickly attitudes of German artists changed once the reality of mechanized warfare became apparent to the civilian population. Guenther uses various case studies to provide a historical persona of the artists and soldiers and their perspectives of different war-related events and opposition to the war. Through these case studies, she illustrates the overarching theme, which is that the art German artists produced during World War I presented the prospect of humanity’s salvation as imperiled by unthinking nationalism, political gamesmanship, violent solutions, and dismissive historicizing, which still resonates today.
In chapter 3, Guenther presents Schubert’s profile and turns to the main focus of the book, his artwork. She argues that Schubert’s postcards are significant because they present both written and visual personal testimony rather than one or the other. The postcards are vivid paintings with captions. The profile of Schubert’s life spans from his time as a soldier during World War I after he was wounded to his discharge from the military, and describes how these events affected his expressionistic artwork. During this analysis, the author includes images of Schubert’s prominent postcards to his loved ones in Dresden. Schubert was respected in Germany after the war, receiving several national awards that cemented his status as a respected author for these postcards and other works that he wrote after the war. However, Guenther depicts his star rising, and then falling from grace during the Third Reich years, his Cold War attitudes, and his attempts to illustrate his disgust of German concentration camps during World War II. Guenther’s method through this profile is meant to showcase that Schubert’s final days “brought him full circle back to those difficult, yet hopeful days” that most German artists had engaged in with forming groups and manifestos advocating that art could provide hope for a just and peaceful world (p. 81). Guenther ends the analysis and written portion of the book by noting what Schubert’s works and legacy contributes beyond the postcards.
She ends the book with a visual portfolio of all of Schubert’s artwork, spanning from his time on the frontlines through the end of his life, illustrating the broader themes of war. In these artworks, the artist depicts the agony, humiliation, salvation, hope, and personal nature that warfare exacts from those who are connected to it.
The author’s main argument and claim for writing the book is the connection the art exhibited by Schubert had to the experiences of a generation surviving World War I heading into the remainder of the twentieth-century events that would shape the world. She argues that the artwork’s messages are as relevant now as they were then. His message was to “stop, take [the art] in, and contemplate” the complexity and devastation of war on everyone who is connected to it (p. 85).
Guenther provides an interesting analytical perspective on the individual and psychological expression conveyed through the use of postcards during World War I. She persuasively presents a survey of historical artwork and evaluates the primary sources while humbly acknowledging the limited scope of this work in the context of World War I. This is an excellent read for anyone interested in a World War I individual perspective, military history, or early twentieth-century art.
Citation: Adam Brown. Review of Guenther, Irene, Postcards from the Trenches: A German Soldier's Testimony of the Great War. H-War, H-Net Reviews. April, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56074This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.