German Quakers and the Trial of George Grosz

It was 1930, and in Germany the Weimar Republic was visibly in a state of imminent collapse as an ever-intensifying attack from many factions and a growing dissatisfaction erupted before the onslaught of National Socialism. In this tumultuous atmosphere, George Grosz, an Expressionist painter and graphic artist with ties to the Dada movement, used his artistic talent to oppose war and to expose the moral corruption that abounded in Germany. One of his drawings, Shut Up and Do Your Duty, or Christ with the Gas Mask, was deemed particularly offensive, and he and his publisher, Wieland Herzfelde, were ordered to stand trial because of it. George Grosz’s drawing depicts a crucified Christ wearing a gas mask and is intended as a sharp criticism of those who profit through war at the expense of the suffering of the lower classes. He was tried according to the German Penal Code of 1872 that required blasphemy and the verbal abuse of any legal religious organization to be punished with a prison sentence of up to three years even though this statute was in direct conflict with Article 118 of the Weimar Republic, which emphatically disallowed censorship of theatrical performances and art exhibits.

At once highly controversial and widely publicized, the Grosz case was soon taken up by the Religious Society of Friends under the leadership of Hans Albrecht, clerk of German Yearly Meeting. The case was appealed before three German courts, and George Grosz was ordered to secure a deposition in order to establish the effect of three pictures from his portfolio, Hintergrund (Background), upon religiously devout people. One of the pictures was Christ with the Gas Mask. The deposition should have proved influential in either validating or invalidating the charge of blasphemy against him. Here the Quakers felt obligated to take a stand, and the court agreed to consider Hans Albrecht’s deposition, which he gave on December 3, 1930. It questioned the justification of the indictment. (In the following translation, one small section dealing with other pictures is omitted.)

George Grosz was acquitted in the last of the three courts that heard the case, as was the publisher Wieland Herzfelde. At the 1931 Friends Yearly Meeting, a pleased Hans Albrecht was able to announce that the George Grosz case was a demonstration of the necessity for Friends to use every opportunity to bear witness to their convictions.


Before entering into a discussion of the pictures in question, I would like to say something about the premise from which I am proceeding because I think it is essential to an understanding of my interpretation. The Friends (Quakers), the group to which I belong and whose views I share, have never sought to formulate a doctrine or a dogma regarding God. For that reason they do not seek to make any declaration with respect to the personality or the essence of God but rather consider this an individual matter. It is left to each individual in the way that he/she experiences God inwardly. Friends strive to follow God’s commandments as best they can and for this reason reject war and violence. As far as Quakers are concerned, the concept of God’s power, which, if we wish, can work through us, and the actual effect of God’s working through people stand in the foreground.

The Churches have always sought to establish the essence of God through doctrines or beliefs in order to make the nature of God comprehensible. According to my experience, this approach has met with very little success, especially in our present time. I am of the opinion that today there is no longer a unified interpretation of God. The establishment of a conception of God would necessitate the inclusion of the deity of the Jews and the Muslims as well as that of other religions, large and small, for there is only one God for all people, only one concept of God that is the absolute truth although this truth can be expressed in a multitude of ways throughout humanity.

This absolute truth is so far elevated beyond all human knowledge and understanding that we humans cannot define it within concrete terms. Because of this condition, I do not believe that people can injure the sacredness and honor of such a God by harming my personal experience of God. This type of experience is peculiar to each individual and, for that reason, differs immeasurably even when it is apparently rendered uniform by a doctrine about God. Because of the countless ways in which God is experienced, I cannot imagine that I could transfer the protection of my personal religious feeling to a person or a human institution that is burdened with human weaknesses and fallacies as well as the inability to recognize the essence of God and to perceive his workings in this world. As soon as I do that, I am distancing myself from God and doing something human. According to my conviction, I can only react positively, not negatively, to an injury to my religious sensitivity or relation to God. This positive way has been shown to us by Christ’s life as is evident in Chapter 13 of Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians.

If the penal code threatens to punish any insult directed at a Christian church or other recognized religious society, I see no possibility of an objective judgment, for what are concerned here are not God’s truths but rather human institutions and forms of expression. The result of the application of this measure would be a limitation of the scope of the prosecution. The religious sensitivity of many people would be viewed as insignificant while that of other people would be considered to be proper. This would both limit and trivialize God. Additionally, where is the measure that designates my religious sensitivity as proper in contrast to the religious feeling of others? My religious sensitivity is most deeply offended by war. How will my sensitivity be protected? War in itself is for me a blasphemy of God. As one of our English Friends has said: "War is a blasphemy of God. I cannot look God in the face while aiming a rifle at my fellow human beings. I cannot give up my religious convictions for the sake of the state; as a religious person, I must first obey God in all aspects of my human life."

Furthermore, I would like to add that I believe that God is present in every person and that one’s connection to God is made possible by striving to strengthen God’s presence within the self. In any event, we do not know if the motive for the words or actions [shown in George Grosz’s art] was really and objectively strictly one of hate or rather more one of unfulfilled love, a longing for God that was nipped in the bud because the person in question could never experience God in a world, which truly is not the world of Christ.

Before turning my attention to the main picture, Christ with the Gas Mask, I must first briefly discuss revelation in connection with religious and artistic intuition. I believe that God’s workings have not only been revealed through Christ, which is the highest revelation and forms the basis for all other forms of revelation. God reveals himself to us on a daily basis, and these present-day revelations become obvious to us whenever we are inwardly ready to notice them. God can use every person as a channel for his revelations. It does not matter if this is an obviously religious person in the sense of a generally accepted church view or not. If God speaks through him, i.e., through the divine element in him, those people longing for God will be deeply moved by what they perceive emanating from him.
I also believe that every religious experience is directly connected to intuition. Religion that is not inwardly and intuitively experienced is not religion. Religious experience is outside of our understanding; it is something spiritual that hovers. Intuition is not given to a church or community or to the leaders of these groups; it is a gift, with which individuals are endowed. Intuition must be inherent in the one who creates as well as in the one who appreciates the creation. Both aspects are necessary for intuition to function.

Every truly artistic creation emanates from intuition. Each great artist is within the context of his creation in a certain sense religious. From artists who have sought to distance themselves greatly from any Christian or religious views or worship, we have artistic works that have profoundly affected the inner experience of religious people. I believe that we cannot use formulas, customs, or doctrines to create definitions with respect to artistic creation because we are dealing with something that is in a state of flux and is spiritually vibrant. No one is able to establish the border between intuition that is purely artistic and that which is purely religious.

It is from this premise, that there is no clear line separating artistic intuition from religious intuition, that I shall proceed with my assessment of the picture, Christ with the Gas Mask. This picture is part of the portfolio, Background. I consider this title to be symbolic and, for that reason, do not think that the picture in question can be removed from the context of the portfolio even though the striking quality of its idea sets it far apart from the rest of the collection.

The purpose of the picture collection is, after all, to portray the background of the visible occurrence of war, by which the fate of human beings are snatched, the grinding of the war mill, from which there is no escape, and to show how a human being is held captive like a stupid creature in this mill by legal paragraphs, national and religious befuddlement, and blind obedience until above the heap of skulls, there appears the question: "What for?" In the middle of this group, suddenly stands this picture [Christ with the Gas Mask].

Until now, I never knew George Grosz. I knew nothing of his inner life, whether it was religiously oriented or not. It seems to me to be unessential if George Grosz was a practicing religious person or not. According to my own religious feeling and my interpretation of God’s workings, a tremendous intuition is voiced by him in this picture. This intuition is so great that I do not doubt that we hear through him a divine admonition to stop our ungodly action. Nothing has diminished the significance of his message given to humanity in the form of this miserable Christ on the Cross, starved and surrounded by war. The eternal light still radiates above him; even in death, he, who bears the suffering of the world, holds up the symbol of the Cross, but people have hung a gas mask on him instead of a crown of thorns and have put soldier’s boots on his feet. The picture cries out to the world the terrible accusation: "What have you done to me? I made you children of God and brothers, and gave you peace; you have clamped me into your war machine. You make war in my name! I preached love to you; you have twisted my sermon to do the opposite and in my name, you have used all sorts of murderous instruments, poisonous gas, and flame throwers." This is a wretched Christ; one that almost perishes beneath the sins of humanity. From him issues the tremendous sigh of humanity for salvation.

Via this picture, artistic intuition voices a deeply religious thought. It is an ecce homo, a shattering appeal to free Christ from the prison of human terror and degradation. This is my interpretation and I believe that God is saying something to us through this picture.

I do not know if George Grosz himself is in a position to provide a total explanation of what the specifics of this picture mean. Even the name of the picture provides no clarification. Does it refer to Christ, who is forbidden to speak, or to those people who have not acted according to Christian principles to oppose the machine of war? All this does not seem essential to me. For me, the idea spoken by the picture is that which is essential. There is not a trace of blasphemy in it. It is rather much more the opposite that calls out: a terrible accusation made by God against the blasphemous action of people. It is humanity that hangs upon the cross—the cross in the hand of Christ waves like a remote hope.

I do not want to present other attempts at interpretation but rather would like to refer again to the interpretation that Christ has been gagged by war because even he is restricted by legal paragraphs and can show the cross only timidly from afar. It is precisely this uncertainty regarding an explanation that proves for me the intuition of the idea. The idea itself remains untouched. We merely sense it.

I do not stand alone with this interpretation but have the support of all the members of our meeting. I will emphasize again that I am firmly convinced that there are actually very few people who lack the intuitive ability to sense the idea [expressed by Grosz’s picture]. At Easter, one of our Friends was attending a public assembly of Quakers in Wernigerode, where about two-thirds of the Quakers were not members of our meeting. Without any hesitation, she made the following observation: " I wish George Grosz’s picture of Christ with the gas mask were hanging on the altars of all the churches as a stinging reminder of today’s Golgotha." This sentiment was repeated by our readers in our monthly newsletter. Although this is a small circle, the reaction is, nonetheless, an affirmation of the effect of the picture.

In his book, Art in Danger, George Grosz writes the following: " Today’s artist . . . must . . . give up pure art . . . by mirroring the face of our time as portrayer and critic, as propagandist and defender of revolutionary ideas and their supporters and fall into line with the army of the suppressed, who fight for their just part of the assets of the world and a purposeful society." George Grosz is attacking the conditions of present-day society with its injustice and dishonesty; in these pictures, he opposes with flaming protest the hypocrisy of our Christianity. Within his work, I do not detect the slightest degradation of Christ but only an indication that Christ is being crucified anew by people.

In his drawings, the art of George Grosz is cruel and extremely gripping. For many, this may be a reason for accepting or rejecting his pictures. That is a matter of one’s artistic viewpoint or taste, about which I have not been called to render a judgment. The question of aesthetics has nothing to do with the effect of the pictures upon religious people.

In summary, I wish to state that my religious interpretation indicates that neither objective nor subjective evidence of any contempt toward Christ or Christian teaching can be shown to be present in either picture #10 [Christ with the Gas Mask] or the other pictures in the collection. Rather, I see especially in the picture Christ with the Gas Mask the intuitive attempt of an artist to shock people and thereby direct them again to the teaching of Christ. The picture signifies a recognition of and an emphasis on Christ’s teaching, the teaching of every Christian community that should stand in contrast to what happens during war. I am convinced that this significance will be understood by every religious person and especially the ordinary person, who takes the affair seriously and ponders the relation between the picture [Christ with the Gas Mask] and Christian teaching.

Mary Mills

Mary Mills, a teacher of French and German at County Prep High School in Jersey City, N.J., is a member of Woodstown (N.J.) Meeting and serves on its Peace and Social Justice Committee. She is also a Mandel Teacher Fellow of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Etta Albrecht Mekeel (d. November 29, 2001), the daughter of Hans Albrecht, clerk of German Yearly Meeting 1927-47, provided the author with the text of the deposition and gave permission to translate it. This article is dedicated to her memory.