Magdeburg, home of Barlach’s Cenotaph

I don’t want to be unjust to Magdeburg, especially as we only had a few hours to spend in a city that was founded over twelve centuries ago. It was an unpleasantly hot, humid and grey day that sucked the life out of us as we walked around, almost as much as the mass of depressingly sterile post-war East German architecture that has become a dominant feature of the city. Despite the epic history, Magdeburg didn’t endear itself to us.

I suspect that’s because to get a feel for the city you’d have to spend a few days exploring the cultural attractions for which it is known; take the time to get to grips with its lively student-fuelled nightlife; and spend some time exploring the long riverfront and its many parks and green spaces. A stop on the way back to Berlin from the Harz really doesn’t do it justice.

Ernst Barlach’s Magdeburger Ehrenmal, Magdeburg, Germany

Especially since, on paper, Magdeburg is my sort of town. It boasts an extraordinary and outsized influence on German history. A major ecclesiastical centre, it played a significant role in the Reformation – with strong links with Martin Luther – it still has a group of magnificent ancient churches. The Cathedral of Saint Maurice and Catherine is just the most spectacular.

Add to that a handful of buildings that reflect the former wealth and importance of the town, including the Altstadt area close to the Marktplatz. Not to mention its association with the Brothers Grimm, who attended the university – a university renowned for its scientific discoveries. None of that though can hide the fact that Magdeburg was utterly devastated during the Second World War.

Cathedral of Saint Maurice and Catherine, Magdeburg, Germany
Art Museum, Magdeburg, Germany
Cathedral of Saint Maurice and Catherine, Magdeburg, Germany
Saxony-Anhalt Government, Magdeburg, Germany

The last of the thirty-eight air raids to hit Magdeburg during the war, took place on 16 January, 1945. Already partially ruined, the firestorm that erupted in the city that night ripped the heart out of it. It’s claimed the fire could be seen 400 km away and burned for days. Thousands died and 60 percent of the city, including up to 90 percent of the Old Town, were reduced to little more than rubble.

Alongside Dresden, it is considered one of the most devastating air raids on any German city. That legacy can still be plainly seen today, along with the unmistakable architectural hallmarks of East German town planners. As we strolled along the river, it was clear that much has been done to make Magdeburg a more attractive city, but recent history has dealt it a bad hand.

Sculpture park, Magdeburg, Germany
Sculpture park, Magdeburg, Germany
Sculpture park, Magdeburg, Germany
Sculpture park, Magdeburg, Germany

Our route took us past the cathedral, where the one thing I wanted to see in Magdeburg resides. It’s not the tomb of 11th century Holy Roman Emperor, Otto I, who made Magdeburg an imperial residence, but something much more humble. The Magdeburger Ehrenmal, or Magdeburg Cenotaph, is perhaps the most famous sculpture by Ernst Barlach.

Commissioned by the Magdeburg authorities to commemorate the sacrifices of German soldiers in the First World War, what Barlach served up was a powerful anti-war statement. He sculpted six figures and a cross bearing the dates of the war. The bottom figures are of a weeping woman, a dead soldier, and Barlach himself, head in his hands, face contorted with trauma.

Hundertwasser’s Green Citadel, Magdeburg, Germany
Hundertwasser’s Green Citadel, Magdeburg, Germany
Hundertwasser’s Green Citadel, Magdeburg, Germany
Hundertwasser’s Green Citadel, Magdeburg, Germany

Barlach went from being a supporter of the war to being an arch critic, and he wanted to show the suffering and trauma. No jingoistic heroism here, just the truth of what war did to people. Which is why the Nazis hated him and labeled his art ‘degenerate’. The last time I wrote about Barlach it was for his magnificent Floating Angel (Der Schwebende) in Güstrow Cathedral.

Like the Angel, the Cenotaph was saved from the hands of the Nazis, who would have destroyed it. It was a joy to see. We continued our stroll along the river, past more churches to reach a sculpture park attached to the town’s art gallery (closed), and a visit to the Hundertwassers Grüne Zitadelle, a pink, Gaudi-esque building that is like none other I’ve ever seen.

Art Museum, Magdeburg, Germany
Sculpture park, Magdeburg, Germany
Sculpture park, Magdeburg, Germany
Cathedral of Saint Maurice and Catherine, Magdeburg, Germany

We walked back through the cathedral square after which we called it a day, jumped in the car and headed east back to Berlin. Magdeburg is a place that deserves another chance though.

8 thoughts on “Magdeburg, home of Barlach’s Cenotaph

  1. A Hundertwasser complex! How fabulous! I haven’t done a lot of reading round the subject, so I wasn’t aware there was anything much of his outside Vienna (where the heating plant and the Hundertwasser House both fascinated me when I lived there). It sounds like it and the churches could make Magdeburg much more palatable than the post-war architecture (or communist blocks!) would otherwise warrant.

    1. The Hundertwasser building is much more splendid than my photos would lead you to believe, and also a lot larger. It reminded me of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, like an alien spaceship had landed. It’s also a vivid pink, which really does contrast sharply with its surroundings. I really do feel like I need to go back now.

  2. The first complete devastation of Magdeburg took place in 1631, when the city, one of the strongholds of the Protestant faith, was conquered and destroyed by Catholic troops. It took over 250 years until Magdeburg regained its initial ammount of population. The second destruction in WW II threw the city back for many decades.

    1. The Thirty Years’ War was not a good time generally, but I read that Magdeburg was utterly devastated by it and two thirds of the population was killed in 1631. Horrific.

  3. Too bad you didn’t get a very good impression of Magdeburg on your short visit, but you are right that it is known for its cultural attractions, especially (from my point of view) the nicely renovated opera house: https://operasandcycling.com/viennese-opera-ball-in-magdeburg/

    1. I’m certain that it would leave a very different impression if I was to go back for a few days. After spending some time in all those lovely Harz towns the post-war architecture was a bit bleak.

      1. Yes, the post-war architecture is undistinguished, to say the least. I went to that city art museum, by the way, the one that was closed when you were there, but I haven’t posted anything about it yet. Another connection to Magdeburg for me was that my younger son taught there for a while at the university — but for part of that time he didn’t even live there, just commuted by train from Berlin.

        1. I can understand why someone might want to live in Berlin rather than Magdeburg, but that’s quite a commute! Berlin also has its share of post-war architecture, but it seems to fit the city better. Magdeburg felt different somehow.

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