When war broke out in 1914, Ernst Barlach decided to enlist. He believed the romantic nonsense of the day — that war was a revitalizing, renewing force — but these beliefs were confounded by the casualty rates that were soon reported. Even so, Barlach wanted to see for himself and was finally pronounced fit for service in 1915, even though he was 44 years old and had a heart condition. By 1916, Barlach had seen enough and obtained his release from the armed forces. He was now a committed pacifist. The Christmas issue of der Bildermann has a Barlach lithograph on the cover. The Virgin Mary is depicted with hands to her face surrounded by seven swords, medieval symbols for the Seven Sorrows of Mary. “Give Us Peace” the picture pleads.At the War’s end, there was tremendous demand for memorial cenotaphs and Barlach was approached about designing several. He finally accepted a commission from the Nicolai Church at Kiel and reworked his Bildermann design into a large wood sculpture with the aggrieved figure of Mary thrusting forward from a panel that included the seven swords. “My heart bleeds with grief but You give me strength” read the inscription. This memorial was destroyed during World War II.
Barlach’s next commission was for the church in Güstrow where he lived in seclusion most of his life. Finally installed in 1927, the sculpture is a bronze casting more than two meters long and is suspended over the baptismal. It depicts an angel, arms folded and eyes closed hovering above the heads of humanity. The expression on the angel’s face is one of deep compassion felt by this other-worldly being for the human beings below who are inflicting so much pain on one another. “Recollection and inner reflection” was the proper attitude for a war memorial to inspire, said Barlach.While modeling the angel’s head, Barlach became aware that it resembled fellow artist, Käthe Kollwitz. Kollwitz was three years older than Barlach and was, like him, associated with the Secession Movement, though neither was particularly interested in being described as a Movement artist. Even though she was opposed to war, Kollwitz had given permission for her youngest son, who was under age, to join the Army. Ten days after he enlisted, the boy was killed. Kollwitz was devastated by grief and guilt. She began designing a memorial for her son, destroying several versions before finally creating the bereft couple that kneel in mute agony among the graves of the fallen at Vladslo. For the 1929 memorial at Magdeburg, Barlach returned to wood sculpture, a favored medium. A large panel features 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. The memorial was 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.
The grieving mother has been a theme in Western art at least since the Mater Dolorosa of the medieval era and developed into the Pieta of the Renaissance. Barlach had begun his memorials with this image, now he returned to it for the 1931 cenotaph at Hamburg. A grieving pregnant woman comforts a younger girl. This bas-relief was carved on one side of a large stele which had these words carved on the other side: “40,000 sons of the city gave their lives for you”. Barlach did not write the inscription and was not overly pleased with it.The memorial was seen by Nazis as an insult to soldiers and the nation. The mother’s features were described as Slavic and accusations about Barlach’s racial affinities and politics were published. The 76ers, a Hamburg veterans group, lobbied to have the stele removed. But Barlach’s international reputation made Hamburg afraid of embarrassing itself. Louis Mumford, for instance, praised the work and described its opponents as “Ku Klux Klansmen”. “What really troubles the Nazis is that the whole monument is so free of pomp and bluster..,” he wrote. In 1933, the city compromised by allotting space for the 76ers own memorial which depicts a group of more than eighty heroic soldiers and bears the inscription: “Germany must live even if we must die.”
Barlach was working on another memorial that featured a Pieta design of a woman holding a dead soldier in her lap, but the political atmosphere had become so poisonous that he gave it up. Barlach was disdainful of the Nazis and was open about this with his friends. Although he was careful about not allowing his letters to fall into government hands, Barlach’s attitude was well-known in official circles. One by one, his war memorials were taken down. The relief on the Hamburg stele was replaced with an eagle. Friends spirited away the Magdeburg carving before it was seized by the authorities. In 1938, the Kiel angel was removed and was later melted down to be turned into war materials. Some of Barlach’s friends rescued the plaster mold that he used to form the sculpture and cast a new copy which they kept hidden.By now, Barlach’s work was officially declared “degenerate” and non-German, a silly accusation to make about wood sculpture that so obviously is derived from medieval German forms. In 1938, authorities seized works exhibited by Barlach and Kollwitz. Later that year, Barlach’s heart finally gave out.
After the Second World War ended, Barlach’s work was brought out of hiding. The Magdeburg panel was remounted. The Hamburg stele was repaired and a controversy now rose about whether the 76er memorial should be removed. Eventually, it was decided to let it stay but with various disclaimers attached to it (including counter-sculptures) by the city. The Güstrow angel was placed in Cologne. Güstrow asked for its return but that city was in the East and the angel became a Cold War issue. In 1953, Cologne made another casting, this time from a mold prepared from their copy, and presented it to Güstrow where it regained its place over the baptismal font. Every year, on the anniversary of the angel’s removal, the church observes a ceremony where members silently recollect and reflect on the past.