As part of the centenary commemorations of the outbreak of the First World War, the British Museum
is examining the German experience through a display of art medals. The other side of the medal: how Germany saw the First World War displays medals made by artists who lived and worked in Germany between 1914 and 1919. Challenging and at times deliberately provocative, a number of these medals were intended to influence popular opinion against Germanys enemies. Others, however, provide a more universal criticism about the futility of war and waste of human life.
Initial enthusiasm for the war quickly descended into horror at its scale and brutality. Reflecting upon this, German medallists revived the medieval Dance of Death motif to present an almost apocalyptic view of the conflict. Death stalks the battlefield, sea and the sky on such medals, hacking down soldiers, sinking ships or manipulating giant Zeppelin airships. The figure becomes an active malevolent presence and indiscriminate force of destruction. Elsewhere, recent movements such as Expressionism were a powerful influence on the design of medals. This led to the depiction of vulnerable stick-like figures, dominated by giant war machines in scenes that strip humanity of its individualism. German medallists were also keen to consider the collateral effects of war, depicting refugees displaced by invasion or people starving as a result of food shortages. By doing so they engaged with the totality of the First World War in a way that eluded most of the allied medals that were produced.
German medallists were unique among the warring nations, both in the volume of medals they produced and in the breadth of styles they embraced. Some of the smaller struck medalets were mass-produced, but the larger cast medals, which mainly comprise this exhibition, were produced in comparatively small numbers. They were mostly cast in iron because bronze was required for the production of shell casings. The medals were unusually modernist in style, at least in comparison with the more decorative French tradition, serving to emphasise the brutality of the conflict. French medals were typically made in an Art Nouveau style, full of allegorical allusions to the war. Unlike German medals, they did not tend to question the moral implications of the conflict or confront its human cost. Meanwhile, very few British medals were produced in connection with the war.
German artists were affected by the war in different ways, and at least one of the medallists featured in the exhibition, Arnold Zadikow, fought on the Western Front. He was initially against the war but was later swept up in the patriotic fervour that gripped the German nation and, since he loved horses, he decided to join the cavalry. His medals, most of which depict a version of the Dance of Death, show Death as a nonchalant figure, casually holding Zeppelins on strings as if they were kites in the sky, or straddling a cannon smoking a cigarette as a city burns below. In 1917 Zadikow was severely injured in the back and then captured by the British. He spent the remainder of the war interned in Brocton Prisoner of War camp in Staffordshire, where he was given materials so that he could continue to sculpt.
The medals, whilst not officially produced or sanctioned, nevertheless caused considerable controversy when they first appeared. Lusitania, by Karl Goetz, depicts the sinking of the passenger liner of the same name 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. The reverse shows Death selling tickets to passengers alongside the caption Business as usual. British copies of the medal were even made and sold during a fierce propaganda campaign that attempted to incite public opinion against Germany.
In consideration of some of their propagandist qualities, wartime Britain regarded these medals with outrage. In response, Sir Arthur Evans, archaeologist, numismatist and British Museum trustee, organised a prize competition of £100 in 1916 for the best British medal about the Battle of Jutland. The winning design features in this exhibition.
Realising the significance of German art medals as historical documents, the British Museum was highly proactive in acquiring them even before the end of the war. A century on, this display of medals from the collection offers a fresh perspective to our understanding of life and death during the First World War.