Disabled History in 80 Objects: 4. Carl Herman Unthan’s Ohne Arme Durchs Lebe/ Surviving Without Arms(1916)

Wednesday 27 May 2020

“I saw the first transport of wounded soldiers and hear their moans. Terrible visions arose before me. How would these many thousands endure the crippledom that had befallen them?”

So wrote the 66-year old Prussian violinist, marksman and armless Carl Hermann Unthan in the thick of WW1. He would among many other things, write a booklet called Ohne Arme durchs leben/Surviving Life Without Arms in 1916 which would help guide the countless German men who found themselves suddenly amputees due to the bloodiest war ever seen until then.

Unthan knew what these men were going through, having been born with no arms, he had found a myriad of solutions for navigating the world. His teacher father had declared upon his birth that “The boy is not to be pitied”, but also that he wasn’t to be helped or coddled. Unthan was disabled, but also completely independent due to the preassure of his father. Unthan could feed himself by two and by ten was progressing in teaching himself violin, securing a place at a music conversatory at 16 which he graduated from. He started performing before audiences when he was 20 and added the display of different skills he had, including shooting a gun, as he was a accomplished marksman to boot. He spent time across Europe, South America and the USA and married another performer Antonie Neschta in Prague between 1883-1894. In 1913 when he was 65 he even starred in a Danish silent movie, Atlantis, playing Arthur Stoss, an armless violinist that the story’s author Gerhart Hauptmann insisted could only be played by him.

It was during the war, however, that he truly made a difference. Unthan noted early in the war how the “terrible visions” of wounded men that had suddenly had “crippledom” thrust upon them through simply serving their country haunted him. Hoping to help the war effort he offered to perform talks on behalf of the War Office in Vienna, but their lack of response meant he did demos and lectures at hospitals out of his own pocket at first. Some surgeons started to ask him what could conceivably be taught to the soldiers, but it was Doctor Brettner, head of the war hospital in Berlin who asked him for photographs of his extraordinary feats.

These became a pamphlet called Uber Land und Meer which showed the injured that there was hope of living a life somewhat similar to before their accident. To Unthan, one exchange emphasised why such an approach due amputees was needed. A boy he met with crushed arms told him he wasn’t to train how to do things as he would be getting artificial arms which would do everything for him. He refused Unthan’s help as he was so convinced. Carl believed that what an “artificial arm” couldn’t do for himself, his legs “would already be doing”. He just had to convince the soldiers and medicial professionals.

Unthan’s first lecture was at the Konigstadt hospital in April 1915 and from then on he gave demonstrations throughout the German empire until 1918. He demonstrated how the men could be taught to do everything from undressing to lighting cigarettes. Upwards of 2000 people attended on occasion with medics, injured servicemen, statesmen, high-ranking military and even the King present at talks. The ruler asked him what he found the most difficult and Unthan cheekly replied that violin did require more practise. In 1915 the Deutsches Hygiene museum put on an exhibition of films called Ausbildung der Fusse als Hande/Training the Feet as Hands. Visitors could see Unthan ringing a bell, opening and closing doors, undressing, swimming and dressing. Of the swimming Unthan emphasised it was essential to maintenance of a healthy body telling injured men “Therefore in you get, you disabled men!Try what I began to do and it will work for you!”.

In 1916 he released the book called Ohne Arme Durchs Leben/Surviving Life Without Arms telling men he saw in their future’s “hope” where able-bodied persons only saw “utter helplessness”. More than anything else, Unthan tried to teach men, in what he called a period of sudden transition, perservance. The smallest completed task could banish thoughts of suicide for these men who had seen hell.

Unthan wasn’t without critics with a Konrad Biesalski, who was a pioneer in rehabilitation, saying his exhibition of his “handicap” made him a Reklamekruppel/Publicity Cripple. Unthan did all this work while refusing payment and despite a decline in his health and savings due to it. He finally retired at 75 with his wife, being awarded the Red Cross and Cross of Merit medals for his war work. His memoir, The Armless Fiddler:A Pediscript(play on manuscript), shed light on his long and productive life. Unthan finally died in 1929.

His legacy was indeed what he hoped when he said in Ohrne Arme Durchs Leben, “With all my power I strive to spread sunshine and roses over the future path of your lives. If only a small fraction of my wishes are fulfilled and illuminate and warm you on your new journey, I will feel royally rewarded”. Over a century on from the end of WWI, it is important we remember the disabled veterans of wars like this, and the amazing individuals like Unthan that helped them live again.

Colleen Schmitz, “Life Without Arms: Carl Hermann Unthan and his Motivational Work with Disabled Veterans in Germany” in War and Medicine, (UK:Black Dog Publishing,2008), pp. 57—66; Carl Hermann Unthan, Ohne Arme durchs Leben, G Braunsche Hofbuchdruckerei und Verlag, Karlsruhe, 1916, p. 2,48.; C.H Unthan, The Armless Fiddler: Pediscript, (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1935),p. 7, 16-17, 203-207, 261-268, 272, 287

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