Pietà, 1937-38/39, bronze © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2005
On the anniversary of her son Peter's death in 1914 the artist noted in her diary in 1937: "I am working on a small sculpture which has developed out of my attempt to make a sculpture of an old person. It has become something like a Pietà. The mother is seated and has her dead son lying between her knees in her lap. There is no longer pain - only reflection." (Translated from: Tagebücher, 22 October 1937). Reflection on the fact "that her son was not accepted by people. She is an old, lonely and gloomily reflective woman." (Translated from: Tagebücher, December 1939).
Käthe Kollwitz' Pietà which inspite of her remarks she did not regard as religious differs clearly from "traditional" Pietà-representations where the dead Jesus is presented to the observer. In Käthe Kollwitz' Pietà the son is not resting on his mother's knees, he is huddled on the ground between her legs. As his legs are drawn up so far that he is totally enclosed by his mother's body he seems like a child seeking protection in his mother's lap.
Since the artist had not included her fallen son in his memorial sculpture in 1932 and had only shown the mourning parents, she created an intimate and private memorial for him and herself in this sculpture. When in 1993 the Federal Republic in Berlin, the new capital, erected a central memorial for the victims of war and dictatorship in Schinkel's "Royal Guard House" (Neue Wache) with an enlarged sculpture of Käthe Kollwitz' Pietà (made by Harald Haacke), this gave rise to an heated controversy.
The former German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, who had been the moving force behind this initiative, was reproached on all sides for choosing this sculpture. A woman mourning her son did not do justice to the victims of the Holocaust and the mass deaths of the Second World War but only those of the First World War with the roughly 2 million German soldiers who fell and to whom Käthe Kollwitz' Pietà refers.
The Käthe Kollwitz Museum Köln has two copies of the Pietà, one of the very first casts which was made during the Second World War and an early bronze cast from the period after 1945.