George Grosz was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1893. After studying art in Dresden and Berlin he began contributing cartoons to German journals such as Ulk and Lustige Blatter.
On the outbreak of the First World War Grosz was conscripted into the German Army. A strong opponent of the war, he was eventually released as unfit for duty. However, the following year, desperate for soldiers, Grosz was called up again. Kept from frontline action, Grosz was used to transport and guard prisoners of war.
After trying to commit suicide in 1917, Grosz was placed in an army hospital. It was decided to execute Grosz but he was saved by the intervention of one of his patrons, Count Kessler. Grosz was now diagnosed as suffering from shell-shock and was discharged from the German Army.
In 1917, Grosz joined with John Heartfield in protesting about the German wartime propaganda campaign against the allies. This included anti-war drawings such as Fit for Active Service (1918), in which a well-fed doctor pronounces a skeleton fit for duty.
After the Armistice Grosz was active in left-wing politics and contributed to communist journals published by Malik-Verlag. He also joined with artists such as John Heartfield, Otto Dix, Max Ernst, Kurt Schwitters to form the German Dada group. Grosz's drawings often attacked members of the government and important business leaders. Grosz was taken to court several times but although heavily fined, managed to escape imprisonment. Grosz's collected drawings, The Face of the Ruling Class (1921) and Ecce Homo (1927), earned him an international reputation as a politically committed artist.
His memoirs, The Autobiography of George Grosz was published in 1955. George Grosz returned to Germany in 1959, saying "My American dream turned out to be a soap bubble". He died shortly after his arrival following a fall down a flight of stairs.
What can I say about the First World War, a war in which I served as an infantryman, a war I hated at the start and to which I never warmed as it proceeded? I had grown up in a humanist atmosphere, and war to me was never anything but horror, mutilation and senseless destruction, and I knew that many great and wise people felt the same way about it.
I don't even like to talk about it. I hated being a number and not merely because I was a very small one. I let them bellow at me for just as long as it took me to find enough pluck to bellow back at them. I stood up as best I could to their disgusting stupidity and brutality, but I did not, of course, manage to beat them at their own game. It was a fight to the bitter end, one in which I was not defending ideals or beliefs but simply my own self.
In 1916 I was discharged from military service, or rather, given a sort of leave of absence on the understanding that I might be recalled within a few months. And so I was a free man, at least for a while. The collapse of Germany was only a matter of time. All the fine phrases were now no more than stale, rank printer's in on brown substitute paper. I watched it all from my studio in Sudende, living and drawing in a world of my own.
I drew soldiers without noses; war cripples with crab-like limbs of steel; two medical orderlies tying a violent infantryman up in a horse blanket; a one-armed soldier using his good hand to salute a heavily bemedalled lady who had just passed him a biscuit; a colonel, his fly wide open, embracing a nurse; a hospital orderly emptying a bucket full of pieces of human flesh down a pit.
(3) George Grosz, interviewed by Erwin Piscator (1928)
When John Heartfield and I invented photomontage in my South End studio at five o'clock on a May morning in 1916, neither of us had any inkling of its great possibilities, nor of the thorny yet successful road it was to take. As so often happens in life, we had stumbled across a vein of gold without knowing it.
I was recalled (to the German Army) in the middle of 1917. My new duties were to train recruits and to transport and guard prisoners of war. But I had enough and one night they found me semi-conscious, head-first in the latrine. I spent some time in hospitals after that.
Whenever I had a moment to spare I would vent my spleen in sketches of everything about me that I hated, either in my notebook or on sheets of writing paper; the brutal faces of my comrades, badly mutilated war cripples, arrogant officers, lascivious nurses.
One day, I gathered that I was to be shot for desertion. Luckily Count Kessler heard about it as well, and interceded on my behalf. In the end, they pardoned me and packed me off to a home for the shell-shocked. Shortly before the end of the war, I was discharged a second time, once again with the observation that I was subject to recall at any time.
I thought the war would never end. And perhaps it never did, either. Peace was declared, but not all of us were drunk with joy or stricken blind. Very little changed fundamentally, except that the proud German soldier had turned into a defeated bundle of misery and the great German army had disintegrated.
I was disappointed, not because we had lost the war but because our people had allowed it to go on for so many years, instead of heeding the few voices of protest against all that mass insanity and slaughter.
In those days (after the First World War) we were all Dadaists. If the word meant anything at all, it meant seething discontent, dissatisfaction and cynicism. Defeat and political ferment always give rise to that sort of movement.
We held Dadaist meetings, charged a few marks admission and did nothing but tell people the truth, that is, abuse them. The news spread quickly and soon our meetings were sold out, crammed with people wanting to be scandalized or just after fun.
Between insults we performed "art", but the performances were as a rule interrupted. Thus hardly would Walter Mehring begin to rattle away at his typewriter while reciting some piece or other of his own composition, when Heartfield or Hausmann would come out from behind the stage and yell: "Stop! You're not trying to bamboozle that feeble-minded lot down there, are you?"