When World War I broke out in August 1914, German artist Otto Dix was 22 years old and studying at the Dresden Academy of Art. Dix’s works alternated between landscapes and city scenes, but the horrors of World War I proved to be his greatest subject matter. More so than his contemporaries, Dix used his memories of trench warfare to make uncompromisingly harsh images. His fifty plate series Der Krieg (The War)focuses on occurrences common to service in the trenches and became a way for him to speak to others about his experiences during the war. The most reproduced print from the series is Stormtroopers Advance under Cover of Gas.
In this print, Dix has portrayed five soldiers, their faces covered by their gas masks, advancing on an enemy line through No Man’s Land while under a gas attack. Despite the fact that these men appear inhuman, they materialize as even more menacing as they move in and out of the haze created by the gas. The landscape they move through consists of mud, shelled trees, barbed wire, and dead bodies. The landscape is heavily shaded and dense and seems to consume the men’s bodies which shows that it took sheer effort and strength to navigate the trenches and No Man’s Land. The shelled tree on the right looks just as dangerous as any of the modern weapons used during combat due to its pointed limbs representing a demonic pitchfork. The soldier on the far left has gotten snagged on a line of barbed wire representing the many ways in which a soldier’s body came under attack.
World War I became the first event where medical professionals observed and treated soldiers suffering from war neurosis, or as it is now known, post-traumatic stress disorder. Many medical professionals denied that the root cause of war neurosis was the horrible experiences faced in the trenches and instead insisted that the cause of symptoms was due to a soldier’s will which made soldiers blameworthy for their own illnesses. This idea that it was will not experience that caused soldier to suffer from war neurosis made it increasingly difficult for soldiers to come to terms with their prewar selves and postwar selves. In order for a solder to reconcile the two different identities, it needed to be taken into consideration that a soldier’s war identity was made outside the normal social experience and that the male body was subjected to experiences unfathomable to civilians. For many, especially those young men like Otto Dix who entered the war under the age of twenty-five, war experience made them what they are and they now had to learn how to translate that experience into a language to be understood by civilians.
Dix’s use of shading mixed with aquatint gives these bodies monumentality and asserts their presence in the viewers’ space. The solidarity of the bodies is what allows them to not be consumed by the realities of war. This print represents bodies in active combat where there was no time for fear and bodies ran off of pure adrenaline. Dix is rendering a militarized male body, one that fits in with society’s standards of masculinity. But when soldiers wore their masks they lost all signs of humanity and Dix uses the masks here to show that soldiers had to alter their bodies and therefore their identities and literally become inhuman in order to live up to the masculine standards of heroism imposed upon them. It is prints like this that help the soldier confront war experience as the process of being made strange and fill the gaps between his prewar self and postwar self because he can come to terms with the exact experiences of the war that changed him.