In contrast to her earlier series, the Weavers and The Peasant War, Kollwitz's War cycle was intensely personal and reflected her deep opposition to war, according to biographer Martha Kearns. The series of seven prints was a passionate denouncement of war's devastating senselessness and a woman's fury at its consequences. War was a clear expression of Kollwitz's pacifist convictions. Curator Henriëtte Kets de Vries observes that, unlike in her earlier prints, the raised arms in this series were not used to incite revolution or as symbols of impending death. Instead, Kollwitz used Renaissance iconography to create a protective space or to express grief. In The Parents, Kollwitz aimed to convey the totality of grief.
Kollwitz began sketching a memorial to her son Peter in 1914, and the lithographic version of the third print in War was completed in early 1919. Kollwitz continued to refine this work until the final woodcut version was completed in 1922. According to Curator Claire C. Whitner, Kollwitz painstakingly added detail to the parents' clothing while simultaneously obscuring their faces to transform them from portraits to archetypes, creating a powerful testament to parental grief.
As with her most powerful graphic works, Kollwitz coordinated every element of the composition to embody and illustrate intense emotions, such as the unending, unyielding torment of a parent's grief. The mother's body is completely bent, her form limp and unable to support itself, while the father's kneeling, slightly more erect torso attempts to hold her up but is so consumed by emotion that he cannot face the world around him. The image is spare, and the mother and father are entwined in an embrace that renders them almost indistinguishable from each other. As the only other person able to comprehend the depth of their loss, the mother and father lean into each other for support.