A Prosthetic Economy: The Kriegskrüppel in Weimar visual culture

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)


At the end of 1918 Heinrich Hoerle (1895-1936), who had received a second class iron cross after serving in the field artillery on the Western front, returned to his native town of Cologne. Like so many young artists of his generation, Hoerle was barely 19 when he was sent to war, having delayed his mobilization for as long as possible, on the grounds of pacifism. He returned from his service as a field artillery telephone operator, a non-combat position, more determined than ever to continue as an artist but one for whom art’s sole purpose could now only be in the service of political revolution against war. Initially a member of Cologne Dada, by 1920 he had joined ‘the New Cologne Painting School,’ also known as ‘Gruppe Stupid’. It was within the context of his membership of ‘Gruppe Stupid’ that he produced his first full scale response to the aftermath of war, Die Krüppelmappe (The Cripples Portfolio). As Deborah Cohen has commented, ‘The First World War was murderous without precedent. More than nine and a half million soldiers died over a period of 52 months; twenty million men were severely wounded and eight million veterans returned home permanently disabled.’ Significantly, the Weimar Republic’s response to its disabled War Veterans was to embrace their care through a state sponsored system of rehabilitation and re-employment. Under the Law for the Employment of the Severely Disabled, approximately 90% of severely disabled veterans in Germany held down jobs during the 1920s and 1930s, since it was virtually impossible to fire them. Nevertheless, the state’s largesse unexpectedly resulted in a stand-off between the German disabled and their fellow citizens. Paradoxically, public antipathy towards veterans - who were more likely to retain employment during the Great Depression than any other sector of the workforce - resulted in veteran’s ultimate hostility towards the Republic which had supported them. However, during the period in which Hoerle produced his Krüppelmappe, the reintegration of disabled veterans into society was still at its early stages and the title of the Mappe was clearly an ironic jibe at one of the Ruhr valley’s largest employers, the Krupp factory, famous for their steel production and for their manufacture of the ammunition and armaments that helped to produce the casualties of war in the first place. Hoerle’s Cripples Portfolio consists of twelve delicately executed lithographs calling for ‘Help for the Crippled’ (Helft dem Krüppel) and drawing attention to the plight of the individual war-wounded soldiers seeking to re-integrate themselves into a society and an economy unable and unwilling to properly support them after their bitter defeat in the First World War. The portfolio was published by Hoerle’s SelbstVerlag (Self Press, later renamed Schloemilch Verlag) and it preceded Otto Dix’s better known graphic response to the First World War, Der Krieg, by four years. It was first advertised on the back pages of Der Strom in January 1919. The titles of each work, when printed together on the cover, seemed to be potentially suggestive of a prose poem: Helft dem Krüppel; Das Ehepaar; Der Ernährer; Der Erwerbslose;Der Vater; Der Immerwährendesschmerz; Der Mann mit dem Holzbein träumt; Freunlicher Traum; Hallucinationen; Hallucinationen; Der Baum der Sehnsucht; Am Wegende. In this article I shall explore how Hoerle’s experiences of war both physically and politically, are mediated through his graphic visual responses to it in Die Krüppelmappe, and to what extent individual experience is used for radical political effect.
In the twelve plates, maimed and wounded veterans are shown in different roles: seeking comfort from loved ones; begging on the streets; haunted by missing limbs, mired in nightmares of exaggerated sexual fantasies; engulfed in both physical and psychological loss, and received with fear, horror and schadenfreude by those around them. As the portfolio unfolds, a clear progression emerges from the first six plates to the last. The first six consist of a politically engaged socialist critique of the daily inequities faced by former soldiers now crippled and reliant on ineffectual prostheses, whilst the second six plates chart the descent into the psychological and sexual hell of the subjects depicted. They seem to map the move from outer to inner, a dialectic that frequently characterises much the work produced by the Cologne avant-garde during the Weimar era. The ‘crippled’ war veterans of Hoerle’s portfolio are ultimately left abandoned by society and haunted by their own psychological traumas and sexual fantasies. The delicate execution of the works belies the trauma of their content producing an affective visual testimony to the horrors of war. As Hal Foster observes of Max Ernst’s immediate post-war Dada work, fragmented bodies serve as signs for ‘a bashed ego’ hovering between ‘evocations of the narcissistic damage incurred during the war’ and ‘cautions against the reactionary obsession with the body armor’ of fascism that followed. A similar pattern can be discerned in Hoerle’s oeuvre from the same period.
Each image operates as much as a sign of lack and absence as it does of presence and as such it haunts Hoerle’s subsequent oeuvre in different media and remains one of his most powerful contributions to the genre. The widespread crisis of masculinity provoked by the horrors of the First World War and relentlessly explored in the Weimar era to follow, form the subject of this article in which the Krüppelmappe becomes the expressive and poignant springboard.
Original languageEnglish
Article number4
Pages (from-to)750-779
Number of pages30
JournalArt History
Issue number3
Early online date12 Aug 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sep 2019

Bibliographical note

This the first draft of an article that has been accepted to be published in Art History vol. 42 no. 3 2019 as part of a Special Issue of the journal entitled 'Weimar's Others.'


  • Weimar Gemany
  • Disabled war veterans
  • Art History

Fingerprint Dive into the research topics of 'A Prosthetic Economy: The Kriegskrüppel in Weimar visual culture'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

  • Activities

    • 1 Participation in conference

    Weimar's Other: Visual Culture after 1918; 41st AAH Annual Conference Session

    Dorothy C Price (Organiser)

    11 Apr 2015

    Activity: Participating in or organising an event typesParticipation in conference

    Cite this