Originally created 07/18/04

Germany's classical culture capital also has a dark side



WEIMAR, Germany -- Weimar is considered the capital of classical German culture, home to Goethe, Schiller and Bach. The city was also the birthplace of Bauhaus modernism, and of Germany's first democratic republic.

But Weimar has a dark side as well. Adolf Hitler was adored here, and the Buchenwald concentration camp sits on a hill overlooking the city. For four decades after World War II, the city was under Communist rule.

Today it is one of Germany's loveliest cities, appealing to everyone from lovers of literature and music to history buffs. I have been coming here since the days of East Germany's peaceful revolution 15 years ago. But it's not just Weimar's high-culture past that keeps luring me back. It's also the city's complicated personality. With its cobblestone streets and the dark, daunting tower of City Castle looming above, Weimar is a window upon the German soul.

It was the Dowager Duchess Anna Amalia and her son, Duke Carl August, who put Weimar on Europe's cultural map in the late 18th century. Seeking a tutor for her son, she hired Christoph Martin Wieland, a well-known poet and translator of Shakepeare's works. Anna Amalia also created a library in a 16th century rococo-style palace. The building, called the Duchess Anna Amalia Library, is now home to some 850,000 volumes.

Germany's most revered writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, author of "Faustus" and "The Sorrows of Young Werther," moved to Weimar in 1775 after Carl August asked him to be his secretary of state. Many visitors to Weimar make a pilgrimage to the house where Goethe lived from 1782 until his death 50 years later. The house is so well-preserved that you almost expect him to come walking through the door.

The home of Friedrich Schiller, his good friend and fellow writer, is a few blocks away. Schiller, author of "The Robbers" and other works, moved to Weimar in 1799 and died here in 1805.

The composer Richard Strauss lived and performed in Weimar in the late 1800s. On the edge of downtown is the home of composer Franz Lizst, and the villa where philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche spent his final years.

In 1919, a year after Germany's defeat in World War I, the country's first democratic government was created in Weimar by an assembly that met in the German National Theater. The fledgling democracy was named after the city where it was born: the Weimar Republic.

This city was also the birthplace of the architectural and design movement known as Bauhaus, although it was driven out of the city in 1924 because of hostility toward its progressive ways.

Weimar and Thuringia state were early and enthusiastic Hitler supporters. Thuringia lifted its ban on Hitler's political activities in 1924, a year after his arrest for a failed putsch in neighboring Bavaria.

The Hitler Youth organization was founded at a 1926 Nazi party congress at the German National Theater - the birthplace of the Weimar Republic seven years earlier.

Hitler made frequent visits to Weimar, staying at the Hotel Elephant. Crowds of Weimar citizens would congregate beneath the balcony of Hitler's room, shouting: "Dear Fuehrer, come on out, come on out of the Elephant House." The Nazi leader obliged, to the cheers of his admirers.

Hitler also liked to visit Nietzsche's sister, who twisted her deceased brother's writings to support Nazi ideology.

On a Weimar street corner stands the Marstall building, which was once Weimar's Gestapo headquarters, a site of torture and murder. Several blocks away is the Gauforum, a massive structure that was built as a parade ground and meeting place for Nazi bigwigs.

Huddled in the rolling countryside, Weimar is located about an hour from the remnants of fortifications that once separated West Germany and the Communist East. The city's cultural and historical treasures are rare gems in a region still struggling to recover from mismanagement by the East German communists.

These sites have been spiffed up with the help of government funds since German reunification 14 years ago. The now-gleaming old buildings, along with an impressive list of cultural events each year, keep visitors streaming through the city.

"Weimar has a rich offering of culture," said Joachim Vogel, a Bavarian who moved here after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. "What other city of 60,000 people has a German National Theater, a state orchestra, and regularly plays host to important German politicians?"

Weimar is believed to date back to the 10th century. It became the capital of the duchy of Saxe-Weimar in the 16th century. Painter Lucas Cranach the Elder moved to Weimar in 1552. Composer Johann Sebastian Bach followed Kranach nearly 200 years later, performing for the Weimar court society at the palace church.

The museum at the City Castle is home to paintings by Cranach, Albrecht Duerer, Rembrandt and Claude Monet, and the New Museum, home to more modern works.

Other attractions are the Bauhaus Museum, the Belvedere Palace and the Wittums Palace.

At the edge of downtown Weimar, and flanking the Ilm River, is the Park on the Ilm. It is a charming expanse of open green fields that dates to Goethe's days.

A dowdy city during the Communist years, Weimar has become livelier since Germany's reunification in 1990. New shops have opened up. People fill the streets, and cafes and restaurants bustle.

But sometimes the new Weimar can seem a little cheesy. Tourist shops sell Goethe and Schiller hand puppets and coffee mugs, along with T-shirts bearing one of Nietzsche's most-quoted maxims: "That which does not kill me makes me stronger."

Above Weimar, on Ettersberg hill, is the city's most chilling link to the Nazi era - Buchenwald concentration camp. It was built at the request of Thuringia's Nazi leaders, and more than 50,000 people died here from 1937 until the war's end in April 1945.

A steady stream of travelers - including busloads of school children - come up Ettersberg hill to see the remnants of the camp.

More than two centuries ago, Goethe sat on this same hill, gathering inspiration. "Here one feels great and free," Goethe told a friend while they picnicked on the Ettersberg, according to "Mythical Weimar," a book by Peter Merseburger.

Inside Buchenwald was a tree called the "Goethe Oak," beneath which the poet was believed to have sat during these moments of contemplation.

Some Buchenwald inmates saw the Goethe Oak as a positive symbol of life while others saw it as a hated symbol of German might.

The Goethe Oak was hit during a U.S. air strike in 1944. The stump is still there, a reminder of Germany's dual past.

If You Go...

GETTING THERE: Weimar is located about halfway between Frankfurt and Berlin and is easily reached by train from either city.

CONTACT: For help in planning a visit to Weimar, including information on accommodations, packages and sightseeing, go to www.germany-tourism.de/e/city-weimar.html. The tourism office in Weimar can be reached at (49) 3643-745-0; the German National Tourist Office in New York is at (800) 651-7010.