Liz Gill visits this fascinating German city and contrasts the pinnacles and depths of its long and varied history
When, after the First World War, Germany’s leaders wanted a safe place in which to draft their new democratic constitution they settled on Weimar. It was a natural choice. It was central, it was peaceful, unlike Berlin and Frankfurt, but above all it was cultured. This was where Goethe and Schiller had written, where Bach and Liszt had played, where Cranach had painted and Luther had preached and where the new art and architecture Bauhaus movement was just beginning.
Less than a decade later not only had National Socialism replaced the Republic but just five miles down the road a concentration camp was being built in the beech forest from which it was to take its name: Buchenwald. By the time of its liberation in April 1945 250,000 inmates had passed through its gates of whom 56,000 were to perish, starved, beaten, tortured, worked to death.
How such heights of artistic achievement and depths of depravity could co-exist is one of the great questions of our time, if not of all human history, and to be fair Weimar itself is not afraid to ask it too. For the city looks at its dark period as unflinchingly as it looks proudly at its past glories and indeed celebrates its current successes.
The Elephant Hotel
It’s a tricky balance but one which they seem to be carrying off. For me there was a small but telling example in the hotel where we were staying. The original Elephant Hotel dated back 300 years but in the Thirties Hitler had it rebuilt to his own specifications. He was welcomed in Weimar at a time when the Nazis were still banned in places like Bavaria and he wanted an apartment in the hotel with a balcony from which he could address the cheering crowds in the Marketplatz square.
Today the hotel has completely refurbished those rooms for guests to stay in with beautiful art deco furniture but over the mantelpiece in Hitler’s meeting room where once there would have been a huge map of Europe, they have hung a lithograph by Otto Dix, an artist the Fuhrer considered decadent. In its own little way it is a two fingered gesture to any Nazi ghosts.
Elsewhere are reminders of more enlightened visitors: a letter from Gunther Grass saying how much he enjoyed his stay, photos of Thomas Mann arriving by car, mentions of Goethe dining in the restaurant and murals in the ballroom with a Ring of the Nibelung theme by contemporary artist Jiri Georg Dokoupil. There’s also a wonderful collection of elephant memorabilia donated by a regular guest which includes, most strikingly, a small sculpture by Dali.
The Town Square
The hotel is a good starting point for a tour of the old city. On one side is the neo-Gothic 1841 Town Hall with its wonderful sounding Meissen porcelain bells and on the other is the Town House, its facade a replica of the 1422 original. The square is the focal point for the Christmas market – Weimar was the first place to have a public Christmas tree – and the famed Onion Festival which draws a 350,000 strong crowd to hear folk music as well as sample onion themed dishes.
There aren’t any today so we snack instead on the region’s other famous delicacy the Thuringia bratwurst – the recipe is said to date from 1404. To be authentic the sausage must be between six and eight inches long so it’s a pretty serious bit of fast food kit but very welcome on a cold winter day. Other fare was been similarly hearty – beef casseroles, roast wild boar, potato dumplings, mushroom soup – and similarly tasty.
Goethe and Schiller
Just round the corner from Marketplatz is Goethe’s house where he lived for 50 years. Built in the Baroque style it is full of lovely furniture and works of art, reflecting its owner’s wide range of interests and talents. As well as a poet and a playwright he was also a scientist, a government minister, a theatre director and an architect; by comparison our Shakespeare seems an under achiever. Not far away is Schiller’s house where everything is on a more modest, domestic scale: Schiller had years of poor health before dying at only 45 without ever being properly prosperous. Similarly within walking distance is the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul with its huge altar triptych by Lucas Cranach who was a friend of Luther and wanted his art to express the ideas of the Reformation.
The Anna Amalia Library
In another direction is the City Palace with its fine art collection and near that one of Weimar’s must-see sights, the Anna Amalia Library created by the 18th century duchess who, as part of the Enlightenment, decided to make the family’s book collection available to the public. We have to put on giant felt overshoes to prevent us marking the soft wood floor of the famous Rococo room with its tiers of antiquarian books – among them a handwritten prayer book from the reign of Charlemagne – and busts of the great and good.
So dear is the library to the hearts of the people of Weimar that when a devastating fire swept through the building in 2004, nine hundred volunteers formed a human chain to rescue tens of thousands of books. The director himself braved the burning building to bring out three Luther Bibles. “When we woke up next morning and smelt the smoke and saw flecks of soot floating in the air it felt like a personal loss,” recalls our guide Jane. Of the 50,000 volumes which were damaged around three quarters are currently being painstakingly restored, a process which will take ten years. The renovated £8m building was opened by Germany’s president who said “Germany’s cultural heart beats in Weimar.”
Next day though we are to learn about the dark side of the city starting with the National Theatre where a plaque marks the signing of the Republic constitution in 1919 but which within a few years would be covered by swastikas and Third Reich banners. Opposite in what is now a Bauhaus museum were the Nazi’s administration offices. We walk on to the huge square where they held their rallies, clearing more houses to create it than were destroyed by Allied bombs later. Its names – first Hitler Square, then Marx Square and now Freedom Square – – sum up recent history. We visit the old stables which became the Gestapo headquarters and read in the subterranean cells some of the stories of those who dared to defy the regime, before driving out to its terrible ultimate manifestation.
It is perishing cold and snow covered at Buchenwald and it seems somehow more appropriate than being comfortable as we walk along the barbed wire perimeter through the gates with their cruel sign Jedem Das Seine – To Each His Own – and try and comprehend the sheer scale of the horror.
The biggest concentration camp in Germany, the place is the size of 100 football pitches and although none of the barracks remain, a scale model shows the three delineated areas: the inmates’ quarters, the SS training section and the industrial plant which made rifles and missile parts. Buchenwald was a forced labour camp for men rather than an extermination camp: prisoners died through disease, starvation, torture, exhaustion, medical experiments and summary execution for the slightest misdemeanour. After the war it saw more suffering under another regime when it became a Soviet internment camp for 28,000 political opponents of whom at least 7,000 died there.
The Buchenwald story is told in the buildings: in the prison block, in the watchtowers, in the crematorium with its slab on which bodies were plundered not just for gold teeth but for body parts to be given to medical students before being burnt in the ovens. It is told in the extensive and remarkable exhibition housed in the old storage block and in an astonishing gallery of art by both inmates and later artists. It is also told by guides like Phillip who might escort some of the half a million visitors who come every year from all corners of the world.
I tell him that one of the facts I find most shocking is that barely yards from the camp boundary were lovely villas where officers lived with their wives and children. Another is that although the first barracks were made of wood the later ones were of stone: this hellish place was to be, not a by-product of war, but a permanent system, built to endure for ever.
“They saw their work as similar to cutting out a cancer,” he says. At 38 Phillip is too young to feel guilt but he does feel a sense of responsibility to talk about it. “This is part of our story and the right way is to deal with it as openly as possible to prevent it ever happening again.”
Germania airlines now fly twice weekly from Gatwick to Erfurt (15 minutes from Weimar by fast train). Prices start from around £49 one way. www.flygermania.de
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This article first appeared on www.theculturalvoyager.com