Anyone who walks in Kiel can find art unexpectedly. In addition to various modern and abstract forms, there are also some works of great historical significance. The statue at the Nikolaikirche has a particularly eventful history.
In 1924 Ernst Barlach ranked among the most important artists in the country, because of this he was asked by the city superintendent, Willy Hahn, to create a large sculpture to beautify Kiel. Ernst Barlach refused because he wanted to devote himself to “self-chosen tasks”. But when no further requirements were imposed on him, apart from the task of “presenting an idea”, and he was guaranteed all artistic freedom without restriction, in 1927 he agreed. In the same year, the magistrate finally gave the order and one year later the figure arrived in Kiel. It was unveiled in early December, in complete secrecy, at the former Franciscan monastery because the modern work of art was largely rejected by society and one might not want to cause a stir about the person of Barlach. In 1929 Barlach went to Kiel to look at his work on site. Later he wrote to his brother:
“The reception of the group is chilly and hostile. Two days before, the sword had even been turned off at night, and all right-wing parties talking me down.”
Ernst Barlach an seinen Bruder Hans Barlach, 22.01.1929, in: Ernst Barlach. Die Briefe II, S. 147
According to Ernst Barlachs statement this sculpture is “the external representation of an internal process”. The figure symbolizes the victory of the spirit over evil and the sublimity of the people over the dark. In this sense, it was not a heroic monument, which contradicted the National Socialist understanding of art. The right-wing circles in Kiel strongly criticized the expressionist sculptor and graphic artist. Therefore, in 1937 the figure was removed from the cityscape by the Nazis on Hitler’s birthday, it was later branded as “degenerate art” and confiscated by state order. Many other works of art by Ernst Barlach likely fell victim to this concept. Large parts of his works disappeared or were destroyed. But it was possible to save the large sculpture from being melted down. The bronze sculpture, over five meters high, was sawed into four parts and hidden on a farm in Schnega by Hugo Körtzinger, a friend of the artist who by that time had already died.
After the war, the ownership was in dispute so it was unclear for a long time what would happen to the statue. After difficult negotiations, the bronze statue was finally brought back and restored in the courtyard of the Kiel Town Hall. Seventeen years after its violent removal, the figure was rebuilt in a corner of the street next to the Nikolaikirche. On June 21, 1954, the artwork was solemnly unveiled under the ringing bells. The Kieler Nachrichten reported at that time:
“The Schleswig-Holstein capital has its Barlach sculpture back again!”
With this monument, Ernst Barlach has created an artwork of international importance, which rightly counts as one of the most popular Kiel attractions. The Kielerinnen gave the statue the name “Der Geistkämpfer” (The Ghostfighter); a title that the artist soon adopted. Although the artist did not witness the rescue of the sculpture from the National Socialists it may still be a comfort to him that he himself is considered a spirit-fighter in the hearts of those who value his art. Thus, a long and moving story has come to an end, and if you pass carelessly and hurriedly past a work of art, you may wonder in the future what story is behind it.