One hundred years ago, Gustav Klemp, a trained artist from Podgorz-Thorn in what was then West Prussia, served as a medic in the German Army on the Eastern Front in World War I. Today, selections from the postcards and artwork he sent home to his wife and family during the war are on display outside of Special Collections and Archives (SC&A) in Fenwick Library.
The journey that the collection took to get to Mason reflects the complex 20th century history of the former German Empire and Eastern Europe. After Germany and Austria-Hungary’s defeat in the First World War, Poland became an independent nation for the first time since the 18th century. The victorious Allied Powers gave most of West Prussia to the new country, and the Klemps and other ethnic Germans in the province were given the choice to become Polish citizens or emigrate elsewhere. Klemp and his family chose to leave for the United States, and they initially went to Iowa before settling in Wisconsin. Their hometown of Podgorz-Thorn is now Torun, Poland. Gustav Klemp’s grandson, Richard Passig, resides in the DC area, and he donated his grandfather’s extensive collection of postcards and original watercolors and sketches to SC&A in autumn 2014, one hundred years after the outbreak and early months of the war in which his grandfather served.
Klemp’s postcards and artwork provide an intimate portrait of what life was like for ordinary men on the front lines of World War I. Klemp himself was not a soldier (he was in his early 30s during the war, and was older than the ideal age to fight), but he lived alongside and experienced many of the same hardships as the men he tended to as a medic. Several of the postcards that Klemp sent home show soldiers and medical staff in the downtime between the German Army’s offensives against the Russian Empire in modern-day Poland, Romania, and Ukraine. Klemp himself is featured in many of the photos, playing cards, celebrating Christmas in bunkers, and sitting and smoking with his comrades.
The collection is remarkable for the human face that it provides for an army that was the enemy of the Allied Powers, including the United States beginning in April 1917. In the spirit of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and the French film Joyeux Noel, both of which illustrate the common experiences of soldiers and staff on both sides of the First World War, SC&A is proud to present Picturing the Eastern Front: Postcards and Watercolors from the Gustav Klemp World War I German Graphic Materials Collection, on exhibit until April 2015.