From the dead zone, with love
Postcards sent from a soldier to his sweetheart find beauty amid the terror of the Western Front, says Lucy Davies
Otto the artist met Irma the blacksmith’s daughter in 1913, in Dresden, where he was studying at the city’s prestigious art academy. He was 22 and smitten, though worried his impoverished background meant he had little to offer her. Irma, a year older and by all accounts very beautiful, couldn’t have cared less, and the two fell feverishly in love.
Casting a shadow over their fledgling romance, though, was the forthcoming war and, in September 1914, Otto was drafted into the German army and sent to the Western Front. For a time he would send letters, but by November of the following year, he was seemingly no longer able to find words to describe the things he was seeing. Instead, he fell back on his talent for drawing, creating beautiful vignettes on the reverse of the blank 4in by 6in postcards that the military issued to soldiers, in the name of boosting morale back home.
Otto sent Irma nearly 100 postcards in all, from all over Belgium and northern France. “Dear Irma!” he usually began, signing off with a version of: “Take from my heart a thousand heartfelt greetings.” Mostly his comments were sparse and uninsightful.
Very occasionally they betrayed his despondency: “I’m really fed up with life!!!” he admitted in December 1915. Several times he urged Irma to keep the cards, sensing even then how significant his visual record might become.
Relatively few of the cards convey the horror of war, although it creeps into some, in glimpses of roadside graves, or blurred bodies on the ground, or a soldier’s weary face. More often, Otto seeks instead to spare and even delight his beloved, with fond portraits of the French locals and his friends, or brightly painted views of the towns and countryside through which he was trudging.
Otto’s missives came to an abrupt halt in May 1916, when he was badly hurt at the Battle of Verdun. That year, German casualties reached 3.5 million. The Western Front had become, as one commentator described, “a zone of death 500km [300 miles] long and 10-25km [6-15 miles] broad”. In some areas, more than a thousand shells had fallen per square yard. Though his injuries were severe, Otto was one of the lucky ones.
Irma, whom he married in 1919, did keep the postcards. They were, after all, a concrete link to her absent sweetheart. “They reflected his thought and care,” says Irene Guenther, who unearthed the postcards in 2005, and who has been researching Otto’s story ever since – her book, Postcards from the Trenches, will be published this month. “He touched them, painted on them, spent time with them.
She savoured them, read them and reread them. Across the miles and miles of loneliness, the cards provided an intimate connection, a bridge from war to home.”
Otto’s full name was Karl Max Otto Schubert, though he always went by Otto. He was a wellknown artist in his day: a rising star in Dresden at a time when the city was considered the cultural pearl of Germany; part of a crew that included the modernist Kurt Schwitters (with whom he shared an apartment) and the portraitist Otto Dix, Schubert’s fellow cofounder, in 1919, of the Dresdner Sezession Gruppe, of which Oskar Kokoschka was also a member.
Schubert was prolific, producing accomplished portfolios of war lithographs, along with handsome woodcuts and paintings. He illustrated editions of The Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Rabelais, Balzac, Flaubert and Aesop. In 1918, he even won the Grosser Staatspreis – Saxony’s most distinguished award for artists, in recognition of his extraordinary talent.
All of which baffled Guenther when she found the postcards, on top of a bookcase in her recently deceased father’s study, because, even as a professor of 20th-century European history with a great interest in German inter-war art, she had never heard of him. “I assumed it was an oversight on my part,” she says, “and that learning who he was, especially in the internet age, would simply be a matter of looking up his name.” Instead, she found “only needles in haystacks that took me years to uncover and connect.”
The answers were hiding in plain sight, though. First, Guenther discovered an advertisement in a German journal of 1920 promoting her poet grandfather’s latest book. The illustrator? One Otto Schubert. If that weren’t coincidence enough, among her art historian father’s correspondence, she found a series of letters between him and Schubert’s second wife, Christa Schefler. “My father told her about his father’s personal and professional connections to Schubert and wrote that he wanted to introduce Schubert to art historians and art lovers,” says Guenther. “She gave my father the hand-painted postcards that he had created and mailed from the Western Front. She was deeply touched that someone was finally taking an interest in her husband’s art. And here I was, some 30 years later, unknowingly picking up where my father had left off.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Schubert’s near-absence from history comes down to politics. Under the hyperinflation and depression Germany experienced in the late Twenties and early Thirties, Dresden became a withered outpost. Desperation led him to join the Nazi party for a short time in the early Thirties,
'Across the miles of loneliness, the cards provided a bridge from war to home' Postcards from the Trenches is published by Bloomsbury at £30