Ernst Barlach was a sculptor in the Art Nouveau style. He honed his craft with travels in France and Russia. His own style developed in which he emphasized the faces and hands of his figures, minimizing other parts of the body. He worked mostly in wood and bronze but also did many sketches, woodcuts, and lithographs.
When World War I erupted Barlach was an enthusiastic patriot supporting the German war effort. His art early in the war showed that support as in his 1914 sculpture Der Rächer (The Avenger) that symbolized the unstoppable force of the German army.
Then Barlach volunteered for the army in 1915 and was assigned to the infantry. After three months he was discharged for medical reasons, but he left with a dramatic change of mind and heart. Barlach became a staunch pacifist, and the horror of war haunted his work from that point on.
When Magdeburg commissioned a memorial for the Great War, Barlach produced in 1929 the Magdeburger Ehrenmal (Magdeburg Cenotaph), a sculpture of six figures. Three figures at the top stand over a cross. They are soldiers: A young recruit, an officer, and an old reservist. They are not in a heroic pose but looking out at a cemetery with pain and anguish on their faces. The three figures below are a mourning widow with her face covered in despair, a skeleton with an army helmet, and a terrorized civilian with eyes closed and ears covered. Barlach carved his own face for the civilian figure.
Such art depicting the horrors and toll of war was counter to the rising Nazi philosophy with its glorification of might and spirit of militarism. For Hitler, Barlach was a prime example of those producing “degenerate art.” The Nazis shut down a major exhibition of Barlach’s art and confiscated it. Barlach was prohibited from working as a sculptor and was banned from art academies in Germany. He died in 1938 before the full horrors of yet another World War were unleashed around him.
Barlach’s Magdeburg Cenotaph was removed from the Magdeburg memorial, as were the artist’s memorials in other churches. However, the Magdeburg Cenotaph was hidden by friends. Following World War II, the sculpture was revealed, and in 1955 it was placed in the Magdeburg Cathedral where it has become iconic as people light candles before it.