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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.