We visited Weimar in Germany a few years ago and were very impressed by this grand city with its tree-lined streets, parks and grand cultural connections – a superb place to visit for a few days. It was therefore with some interest that I read the recent article by David Blackbourn ‘Princes, Counts and Racists’ in the London Review of Books. It was all about Weimar, and told more than I had learned from tourist literature and being there – particularly its dramatically contrasting associations with Wolfgang Goethe and Adolf Hitler.
Weimar was the capital of a small duchy of the Holy Roman Empire, a cultural backwater until 1772, when the Duchess Anna Amalia began to gather writers at her court. By 1787 there were four giants – the polymaths Christoph Wieland, Johann Herder and Wolfgang Goethe, and the poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller. Weimar was a great cultural centre for around thirty years, with the nickname Athens on the Ilm. After Herder, Schiller and the Duchess died, a long slow decline set in as Goethe lived out his later years.
Later rulers tried to entice further luminaries, and Franz Liszt lived there for thirty years after the 1840s, but was unable to establish the dreamed-of cultural renaissance. He tried to get a position for Wagner, but the latter eventually went to Bayreuth. The philistinism of the locals prevailed. A generation later, the pattern was repeated with the composer Richard Strauss.
Early in the 20th century it was the turn of painters. Art exhibitions were sponsored and Belgian Henry van de Velde became resident, founding an arts and crafts school, which after WW1 became the Bauhaus movement.
At around the same time, Nietsche’s sister had brought the man himself to Weimar, to die in 1900. She established a Nietsche foundation that published falsified editions of his work, presenting him as a German chauvinist. Weimar became home to a coterie of racist and anti-semitic writers.
After WW1 ended, Weimar was chosen as the venue for the national assembly drawing up a new constitution, because of its ‘civilised’ cultural connections. The commandeering of a whole city for such a purpose was unpopular locally, encouraging the right wing element.
Meantime the Bauhaus movement flowered for 6 years, with such names as Gropius, Breuer, Klee and Kandinsky involved. But right wing politics became dominant, reducing their budget and the Bauhaus moved to Dessau.
Hitler paid his first visit to Weimar that same year 1925, launching his political comeback after serving a sentence for the Beer Hall Putsch. Weimar was more right wing and Nazi than most and the party was elected to power in Thuringia in 1932, before their national success in 1933. The concentration camp at Buchenwald, 5 miles to the north of Weimar, was established in 1937.
After WW2 Weimar was in the soviet zone and Buchenwald became an internment camp for ex-Nazis, many of whom died. Restoration of the buildings of Weimar was initiated by the GDR and continued after reunification, producing the garden city that we see today. It became European Capital of Culture in 1999.
We certainly enjoyed our visit to Weimar, which included the restored Goethe Haus and Schiller Haus in the buildings where these two great luminaries lived. I was particularly impressed by Goethe’s dedication to surrounding himself with beautiful objects to stimulate his creative process. There are also museums to Liszt, Bauhaus and Nietsche that we did not have time for.
It is difficult to come to terms with the fact that such a beautiful city, with such a rich cultural heritage, could have become one of the most fertile grounds for the birth of the Nazi movement. This perhaps strikes a cautionary note in today’s uncertain times.
Featured image shows the top of huge statues of Goethe and Schiller, Weimar