A trip to Weimar, Buchenwald, and two very different Germanies.

In 1775, the duke of the tiny German state of Saxe-Weimar invited the German-speaking world’s hottest new celebrity, 25-year old Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, to take up residence in his quiet little capital.

Goethe was famous because of his hit novel “The Sorrows if Young Werther” about a melodramatic young man who falls in love, unhappily, and commits suicide – setting off a fad of young men across Germany dressing like the protagonist and occasionally killing themselves.

At a scandalously young age, Goethe – who had been raised in Frankfurt – was named a privy councilor and helped the duke administer his tiny state, which including the university at Jena, as well as serving as an intellectual ornament to the court.

He lived most of the rest of his life in Weimar, working as a civil servant, writing many of his greatest works – including Faust – and contributing to cultural and intellectual life. The main house where he lived (yellow) is now a national museum to his memory and work.

Here is Goethe’s study, where he wrote his plays and correspondence, and conducted experiments to better understand nature.

Outside Goethe’s study are cabinets full of rock samples he picked up on his country walks and studied to satisfy his curiosity.

Other rooms and hallways are filled with classical statues and other bits and pieces he picked up on his travels, and kept around as muses.

You can imagine the famous people who came through Goethe’s front doors and visiting with him in this sitting room, to discuss all the varied intellectual currents of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries.

Or strolled with him in the peaceful garden Goethe kept out the windows of his study, as he conjured the next line to Faust.

When his official duties took him to nearby Jena, Goethe would stay in this cliffside rococo palace at Dornburger Schlösser.

It was, as his ducal patron intended, a life of constant intellectual and aesthetic stimulation.

In the 1790s, Goethe was joined in Weimar by the younger poet and dramatist Friedrich Schiller, who had fled his home state of Württemberg where he had been banned from writing. He lived in this house, a short walk from Goethe’s.

Goethe (left) and Schiller (right) worked closely together in establishing what is now Germany’s national theater (behind them) in Weimar, and are seen as the co-founders of a German cultural renaissance.

Their thoughts and writings became the basis for “Weimar Classicism”, which emphasized humanism and the inspirational role of nature – and eventually gave birth to Romanticism.

Compare the painting above, depicting Schiller (speaking left) and Goethe (listening right) in the grounds of Tiefurt Schloss, outside of Weimar, to the very same scene today.

The duchess Anna Amalia of Saxe-Weimar held many gatherings of intellectuals at Tiefurt House. Goethe, Schiller, Herder, and others were frequent guests.

The house’s decorations reflect the fascination at that time with the classical heritage of Greece and Rome, as well as the value placed on refined company and conversation.

The manicured yet wild-looking grounds reflect the emphasis on the inspirational encounter with nature, a theme that went on to directly influence the Transcendentalists (Emerson and Thoreau) in early 19th Century America.

This new perspective on nature inspired the Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt to travel to the wilds of South and North America, where he developed an idea of nature as an interconnected whole – what we would call an “ecosystem”.

Humboldt (whose statue pictured here stands at the entrance to the university his brother founded Berlin) became the most famous scientific figure of his time, and his discoveries and ideas about man and nature influenced Goethe in turn.

Humboldt met and dined with US President Thomas Jefferson on his travels. Democratic revolutions in America and France, and the encounter with the American frontier, were introducing new and more liberal ideas into Germany’s feudal landscape.

Schiller, a political refugee himself, was deeply inspired by these democratic revolutions. On the wall of his drawing room, he kept a print (right) of the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Just before moving to Weimar, the revolution in France inspired Schiller – whose study and writing desk in his Weimar home is seen here – to write the poem “Ode to Joy”, which Beethoven incorporated into his Ninth Symphony.

Schiller died young, of consumption, in 1805. But the very next year, the political upheavals that had so inspired him hit very close to home, when Napoleon and his army arrived in nearby Jena.

In the hills above Jena, in 1806, Napoleon defeated the Prussian Army, in one of his greatest victories.

The philosopher Georg Hegel, teaching at the university there, writes of seeing Napoleon enter the city on horseback – a moment that had a major impact on his concept of a “world spirit” animating the course of history.

History, of course, has a way of turning. A few years later, in 1813, at the Battle of Nations just a short distance away, Napoleon suffered his greatest defeat, and was exiled (for the first time) to Elba. A giant momument to the battle stands in the outskirts of Leipzig.

But the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars had broken up the old Holy Roman Empire and stirred the German pot – and triggered a response that gained Germans a reputation for humanism, rationalism, and cultural excellence.

But it had also opened up the path for eventual national unification under the more militaristic, autocratic regime of Prussia, with its capital in Berlin.

In much of the world’s eyes, German “kultur”, far from embracing liberal ideas, became an excuse for brutal militarism and conquest during World War I.

So it was, in part to escape the political turmoil in Berlin, but also with an eye towards the humanist legacy of Goethe and Schiller, that German politicians met in Weimar’s national theater in early 1919 to write a constitution for a new and democratic post-war republic.

That same year, a new design and architectural school was started in Weimar in this building, a few blocks away from Goethe’s house. The school, and the movement it started, was called Bauhaus.

The ideas animating Bauhaus were modernism, simplicity, functionality. Boxy buildings with boxy rooms with boxy windows. And boxy chairs and tables.

In 1925, the Bauhaus school moved to Dessau, about halfway to Berlin, where it resided in this building which exemplified its core philosophy.

When the Nazis came to power, they denounced Bauhaus as decadent. Several of its major proponents fled to the US, where they designed a number of landmark office buildings in New York, Chicago, and other cities.

Bauhaus also had a huge impact on design of furniture and other everyday products. If you think these Bauhaus designs look like they had a big influence on Ikea … you’d be absolutely right.

But the Nazis did come to power, and while eschewing the legacy of Weimar, they left their imprint on it as well, just outside of town, at a concentration camp called Buchenwald.

Buchenwald – named after the beech forest where it was located – was established in 1937. It was not an extermination camp, but a forced labor camp – though conditions there were sadistic and often deadly.

The main gate to Buchenwald was designed by Franz Ehrlich, a former Bauhaus student who was arrested as a Communist and incarcerated in the camp. Its motto reads “To each what is due” i.e., justice is served.

The gatehouse contains a long row of prison cells, many containing memorials to the prisoners who died in them.

The commandant’s office next to them holds various restraints, torture instruments, batons, and whips laid out under the motto “Loyalty is my honor”.

Buchenwald farmed out its inmates to sub-camps across the countryside, where forced labor took place. One of the most inflames, about an hour and a half drive away, in the foothills of the Harz Mountains near Nordhausen, was Dora-Mittelbau.

Inmates, mostly able-bodied political prisoners, were shipped off from Buchenwald by freight rail car to an unknown destination.

When they arrived, starting in 1943, the prisoners were marched into a hole in the mountain.

Inside they were forced to dig miles and miles of tunnels for a top-secret underground factory for producing V2 rockets, and were later forced to work the assembly line.

Initially there was no above-ground camp. The prisoners were housed in the dark and wet tunnels themselves, never knowing if they would ever breathe fresh air or see the sky again.

Later, wooden barracks were built, and every day the slave laborers would be assembled and marched down to the tunnels to work.

But slave labor had its drawbacks, even for the Nazis. Nearly half of the V2 rockets produced at Dora were faulty, either due to intentional sabotage or just exhaustion and lack of skills.

But exhaustion and starvation rations took their toll on the prisoners as well. About 1/3 of the workers died in this underground hell, and the weak or sick received no medical care.

Their bodies – about 20,000 of them – were incinerated in the camp’s crematorium, and the ashes dumped out behind it.

The workers in the crematorium drew these flowers on the wall to cheer things up a bit.

In 1945, US troops arrived in the area and were led to the secret underground V2 factory. They couldn’t believe what they saw – and knew they were sitting on a gold mine of secret rocket technology.

The problem was, it was located in what was designated to be the Soviet occupation zone. The Americans worked day and night to remove all the rockets and everything else useful they could, before they had to hand over the site.

By the time the Russians showed up, the only thing left behind was rubble and junk.

The Nazi rocket scientists who surrendered to the Americans pretended not to know anything about the conditions at Dora-Mittelbau, where their V2s had been built. A number of them went on to play a key role in laying the foundations for the US space program.

The main camp at Buchenwald was also liberated by US troops in April 1945. What they found profoundly shocked them.

Bodies of concentration camp victims stacked outside the crematorium at Buchenwald in 1945. A group of students standing in the same spot today.

Journalist Edward R. Murrow came to Buchenwald soon after its liberation and his radio report revealed the full picture of Nazi atrocities to the world. You can listen to it here:

It is estimated that about 56,000 of the 250,000 inmates who passed through Buchenwald died of overwork, malnutrition, and abuse, their bodies cremated.

After General Eisenhower toured Buchenwald (or one of its sub-camps) he reportedly turned to one of the American soldiers standing guard and scathingly asked, “Now do you find it hard to hate them?”

But in the middle of Buchenwald there was a tree – gone now, except for its stump. It was supposed to be a tree under which Goethe had once sat, so the guards and the prisoners called it Goethe’s Oak.

For the Nazi guards, Goethe’s Oak symbolized the superior German culture they believed they were dedicated to purify and protect.

For the prisoners, Goethe’s Oak symbolized another Germany, whose humanity and democratic spirit they once knew, and hoped could live once again.

Goethe’s Oak was reported destroyed by an American firebomb during an air raid in 1944. They say it burned all night.

An old clock in Schiller’s house, in Weimar, Germany

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *