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The Story That Almost Got Away

Honors College History Professor Irene Guenther Looks at WWI Through New Lens

By Mallory Chesser
Nov. 7, 2018 

This Sunday, November 11, the Honors College will be commemorating Veterans Day in a very special way, as Honors faculty members Irene Guenther and Robert Cremins host the “WWI Centennial Book Conversation” at Brazos Bookstore. The event celebrates the launch of Guenther’s new book, Postcards from the Trenches, from Bloomsbury Publishing (November 2018). 

Through a series of hand-painted postcards from 22-year-old Otto Schubert, a German art student drafted into World War I, to sweetheart Irma Müller, Guenther’s collection tells the story of “The Great War” in a new and poignant way. Schubert’s illustrations of soldiers, villages, weapons, battle scenes, and even carnage show the war through the eyes of a young soldier and gifted artist whose life was irreversibly altered by the “calamitous events of the twentieth century,” (Postcards from the Trenches. Preface)

The 80 postcards from Schubert to Müller are beautiful and highly skilled, the more remarkable for having been created in the midst of war and destruction, and often depicting the same. Guenther, a scholar and historian of modern Germany, was surprised she had never heard of Schubert before. Her father, Peter Guenther, was one of the founding members of the Art History Department at the University of Houston and served as the department’s chair for 13 years, often asked his daughter to help him in his work, but he had never mentioned Schubert. 

Noting that Schubert often illustrated some of WWI’s deadliest battles, and that the cards stopped abruptly in May 1916, she speculated that perhaps the artist had been killed in Verdun, France. Her curiosity launched an eight-year investigation into the life of Otto Schubert. The result is Postcards from the Trenches, which not only uncovers the mystery of Schubert’s life, but reflects more broadly on the role of art in WWI and the war’s impact on German artists.

In her preface, Guenther writes of discovering the postcards, a story almost as compelling as the cards themselves. In 2005, after the death of her parents just weeks apart, Guenther was charged with packing up and selling their home of 40 years. After six months of difficult work, the house was ready. Just hours before the sale, a physically and emotionally exhausted Guenther made one last scan of her parents’ library:

I stood on the highest rung of a ladder to feel with my hands for anything I might have missed on top of the nearly floor-to-ceiling bookcases. Sure enough, my fingers retrieved…two large envelopes that had…dropped flat against the top ridge … I then reached into the second envelope and pulled out what seemed to be postcards ... They took my breath away. (Postcards from the Trenches. Preface)

The political and historical relevance of the postcards became increasingly clear. Further investigation revealed Schubert’s ties to other artists, as well as to the city of Dresden’s drawing collection, which had a few of Schubert’s cards and war sketches in its archive.   

In a 1920s European art journal, Guenther made an even more important discovery. She came across an advertisement for her grandfather’s new book of poetry, alongside an ad for “six woodcut illustrations by Otto Schubert.” An investigation into her father’s private correspondence would reveal coincidences even more astounding. For example, Schubert had actually illustrated one of her grandfather’s books of poetry.

Leading up to the publication of Postcards from the Trenches, Guenther has given interviews on the British Broadcast Network, Irish Global Radio, and Houston Matters. From August 2014 - February 2015, the Schubert postcards were featured in an exhibit called “Postcards from the Trenches: Germans and Americans Visualize the Great War,” which traveled from Washington, D.C. to Houston and then to Germany. In a Washington Post review of the exhibit, “In the galleries: Soldier-made images of the Great War,” Mark Jenkins calls the Schubert postcards “the most striking” of the collection, and goes on to observe that the cards “show one man’s war but suggest the experiences of cohorts on both sides of the barbed wire.”

At this Sunday’s “WWI Centennial Book Conversation,” Guenther and Cremins will provide background information on the role of art in WWI, and Guenther will answer questions about Postcards from the Trenches and the investigation that led to its publication. For those eager to find out more about Schubert’s ties to the Guenther family, copies of the book will be available for purchase.

Postcards from the Trenches
WWI Centennial Book Conversation
Dr. Irene Guenther with Robert Cremins

November 11, 2018 (Veterans Day) at 5 p.m. 
Brazos Bookstore
2421 Bissonnet Street
Houston, TX