Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The World War One Memorial the Nazis Deemed Degenerate

Das Magdeburger Ehrenmal

Artist Ernst Barlach was an early enthusiast for the German war effort. He enlisted at age 44 despite coronary disease. After two years service he was was discharged—now a committed pacifist.  After the war he took several commissions for German war memorials.

For the 1929 memorial at Magdeburg, Barlach returned to wood sculpture, a favored medium. A large oak panel featured three German soldiers at top, possibly meant to show a young recruit, a junior officer with bandaged head, and an older reservist. The central figure embraces a large cross inscribed with the dates “1914 1915 1916 1917 1918." At the bottom are the heads of a weeping woman, a rotted corpse wearing a helmet, and a self-portrait of Barlach, hands to his horrified face, gas mask hanging from his neck.

Das Magdeburger Ehrenmal  (aka the Magdeburg Cenotaph) was declared to be degenerate art due to the "deformity" and emaciation of the figures. It was also attacked by Nazi ideologue Julius Rosenberg who claimed that the soldier on the right was a Russian. (Strangely,  this concept has persisted with some people still believing that the figures are German, French, and Russian, respectively.) The attempt to link Barlach with Russia was part of a campaign to paint him as a non-German. Barlach was also called a Jew and a Communist.

Current Location, Magdeburg Cathedral

Friends spirited away the Magdeburg carving before it was seized by the authorities. After the Second World War ended, Barlach’s work was brought out of hiding. The Magdeburg panel was remounted at the Magdeburg Cathedral. Today it is a launching point for local protest demonstrations.

Source:  Shrine of Dreams Blog


  1. It's a work of art, with a powerful message, period.

  2. That bandage on the head of the principle figure ... though intended as such, it works disturbingly well as the characteristic slick of hair that makes the principle figure look like an ominous pre-echo of a coming cataclysm. Hitler emergent ...

  3. I agree, Brian. That's one of the things that makes this such a fascinating piece of work.

  4. The resemblance to Hitler is the first thing I noticed.

    Here is a thought...

    The "official" reason given for it being "degenerate art" was due to the "deformity" and emaciation of the figures. What if, in reality, the local officials saw the resemblance as well and thought it looked too much like Hitler embracing war, death and destruction and said "C**P! We can't let Adolf see this!". Sort of a bad omen type thing.

    Again...just a thought.

  5. Looking closely, the resemblance to Hitler as struck me... But in 1929 he was just coming to power, so maybe that unconsciously influenced Barlach's work (or maybe who ever commissioned it requested that)... Either way, it's a powerful image of the futility and horror of war...