In March 1932 , Thomas Mann visited Weimar in central Germany. For the last thirty years of the 18th century, this modestly sized town was home to Goethe, Schiller, Herder and Wieland, but by the 1930s it had become a hotbed of the radical right. ‘The admixture of Hitlerism and Goethe affects one strangely,’ Mann wrote in ‘Meine Goethereise’. ‘Of course, Weimar is a centre of Hitlerdom. Everywhere you could see Hitler’s picture etc in the National Socialist newspapers on exhibit. The town was dominated by the type of young person who walks through the streets vaguely determined, offering the Roman salute.’ Cultural greatness in decline and the juxtaposition of Goethe with Hitler – these are the two narrative axes along which Michael Kater tells the story of Weimar.
It was the capital of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, a small duchy in the fragmented landscape of the Holy Roman Empire. Cranach lived there briefly, and Bach served even more briefly as court musician, but Weimar was otherwise remarkably free of cultural associations until Duchess Anna Amalia, a niece of Frederick the Great, began to gather writers at her court. In 1772 Christoph Martin Wieland was hired as tutor to the crown prince, the classic occupation of the late 18th-century man of letters. Goethe arrived three years later, fresh from the Europe-wide success of The Sorrows of Young Werther. He recommended another polymath, Johann Gottfried Herder, who arrived in 1776 and became general superintendent of churches, also overseeing Weimar’s school system. These three – the central figures at the Muses’ Court – were joined in 1787 by the young Swabian Friedrich Schiller. Together they turned Weimar into Athens on the Ilm, a nickname that pointed to their re-evaluation of the classical legacy. Wieland was a poet who translated Horace and Lucian and edited Germany’s leading literary journal, Der teutsche Merkur; Herder the writer of works on history and aesthetics whose collections of folk poetry were hugely influential; Schiller a poet and the leading playwright of his time; Goethe an all-purpose genius. There were collaborative ventures, too, and regular gatherings that attracted the Humboldt brothers and the Schlegels. But there was also friction. Wieland was kind but vain, Herder a depressive hypochondriac, Goethe superior. Schiller arrived during Goethe’s two-year stay in Italy, and was snubbed when Goethe returned. It was six years before they worked together for the Weimar court theatre, in the journal Die Horen and in works like Xenien. Goethe and Herder started off as friends then clashed over the French Revolution, literature and personal morals – the prudish Herder and his wife referred to Goethe’s partner Christiane Vulpius as a ‘whore’.
Weimar’s golden age ended in the early 19th century. Herder died in 1803, Schiller in 1805, the duchess in 1807. Goethe lived until 1832, and watched the town’s cultural decline. What had once been the most exciting stage in Germany served up a French comedy featuring a poodle. It was the last time he set foot in the theatre. In the last decades of a long life he completed both parts of Faust, wrote Wilhelm Meister and consolidated his reputation as one of Joyce’s trio of Daunty, Gouty and Shopkeeper. Shortly before his death he complained to Wilhelm von Humboldt: ‘I appear to myself to be ever more historical.’ That was prescient: the 19th-century Weimar court and educated middle class devoted much energy to memorialising the town’s cultural heroes in museums, statues, and in Goethe’s case, the great Weimar Edition. Weimar was not alone in its myth-making, in the way it turned itself into a kind of museum during the historicising 19th century, and Kater doesn’t show how Weimar differed in this from, say, Nuremberg or Heidelberg.
After 1832, successive rulers tried to attract new cultural luminaries, with limited success. Even relatively minor figures declined to come. Some came but soon left, like Hans Christian Andersen and Hoffmann von Fallersleben, author of ‘Deutschland, Deutschland, über Alles’. The exception was Franz Liszt, who spent thirty years in Weimar in all. He first appeared in 1841 and was soon offered the post of extraordinary Kapellmeister. He took up the offer in 1848, arriving with his new lover, Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, and moving into the Altenburg Palace on the outskirts of town; Thackeray, George Eliot, Smetana, Berlioz and Wagner all visited. Liszt engaged better musicians, improved the repertory, old and new, and included his own compositions. He put Weimar back on the cultural map, but didn’t get the support he hoped for from the court. He tried hard to secure a permanent position for Wagner; the two men even talked about building a theatre in which the completed Ring Cycle would be exclusively performed – in which case, Weimar would have become Bayreuth. Liszt later wrote that he had dreamed of a new era of greatness in Weimar, in which he would be Goethe and Wagner would be Schiller. But he was frustrated at every turn and left in 1861. When he returned eight years later, still womanising, still extraordinarily generous to his students, he gave few public performances and held no official position: this was no reprise. He stayed until shortly before his death in 1886.
Liszt’s first stay seemed to raise, then dash, the possibility of Weimar’s revival. This would be a recurring pattern. Franz von Lenbach and Arnold Böcklin, two of the first teachers at the painting academy established by Grand Duke Carl Alexander, would later become major artists, but both left within a few years, repelled by the philistinism of local notables and the formality of the court. A generation later the 25-year-old Richard Strauss was hired, but like others before him felt blocked by petty bureaucrats and insufficiently supported (or recompensed) by his patron. After five years he went back to Munich.
The wealthy cosmopolitan Count Harry Kessler moved to Weimar in the opening years of the 20th century. A patron of the avant-garde and an enthusiast for the Ballets Russes, he was friends with Rodin and collected works by Cézanne and Van Gogh. He got on well with the new young Grand Duke Wilhelm Ernst and quickly carved out a role for himself. As an unpaid museum director he put together exhibitions of the best contemporary French and German work; he invited prominent artists such as Munch to the town (he had a motive here – he wanted Munch to paint his portrait); and he founded the Deutscher Künstlerbund, an organisation that supported Germany’s secessionist artists. Kessler left Weimar in 1906 after an exhibition of 14 erotic watercolours Rodin had donated to the grand duke caused a scandal – one of the works bore a personal message of thanks to Wilhelm Ernst and depicted a naked woman, squatting to relieve herself. One of Kessler’s achievements in Weimar survived his departure. In 1901 he persuaded the grand duke to hire Henry van de Velde, the Belgian Jugendstil painter, architect and designer, to advise local craftsmen. Six years later van de Velde became head of a new arts and crafts school which would be reborn after the First World War as the Bauhaus.
Van de Velde was politically on the left, but Kessler’s circle included many on the right. Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, who had moved to Weimar in 1897 with her sick brother, eased Kessler’s initial entry into town society. Elisabeth was creating a cult around her brother, who died in 1900. She established and controlled a Nietzsche archive and foundation, published falsified editions of his work that presented him as a German chauvinist and made her home into a combination of shrine and salon. Her legend-making consciously rivalled Cosima Wagner’s in Bayreuth, and was wrapped in the same anti-Semitism. Prewar Weimar was home to a coterie of racist writers, practitioners of blood-and-soil Heimat works or enthusiasts for Nordic man, including Adolf Bartels, Friedrich Lienhard, Ernst von Wildenbruch, Johannes Schlaf and Ernst Wachler, who became editor of the local newspaper in 1902. Bartels founded the Schiller League in 1906 in order to allow ‘selected high school students’ to attend plays by Goethe, Schiller, Lessing and Kleist; classical Weimar was being increasingly appropriated for the nationalist cause.
After the November 1918 revolution that followed Germany’s defeat in the First World War, Weimar was once again pressed into symbolic service. With unrest continuing in Berlin, the national assembly charged with drawing up a new constitution sought a safer venue. The options included Frankfurt, Nuremberg and Würzburg, but Weimar was chosen, as the embodiment of a ‘civilised’ Germany and its geographical centre. In January 1919, more than four hundred parliamentarians, a large press corps and thousands of soldiers descended. They stayed for seven months. The theatre became a parliamentary chamber, inns were overcrowded and private homes requisitioned: the Weimar Republic was unpopular in Weimar before it was unpopular anywhere else. Weimar was in fact exactly the kind of place where people were likely to associate the republic with socialists, Jews, the ‘stab-in-the-back’ legend of German defeat and a sell-out peace settlement. It was a small Protestant town with a large educated middle class, conservative artisans, numerous rentiers and a strong radical-right cultural tradition.
Small wonder, then, that the Bauhaus faced so much local opposition. Walter Gropius gathered an extraordinary group around him: Lyonel Feininger, Paul Klee, Marcel Breuer, Oskar Schlemmer, Wassily Kandinsky, László Moholy-Nagy. The Bauhaus had its internal divisions and idiosyncrasies, but the six years it was located in Weimar were some of its most successful. In August and September 1923, a large exhibition of work by Bauhaus masters and students was accompanied by lectures, concerts and film showings. Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier were among thirty architects who came from across the world; new works by Stravinsky and Hindemith were performed. But the Bauhaus, established when the political left was strong just after the First World War, was never secure. In 1924, its budget was immediately halved by the new right-wing state government of Thuringia, and the teachers received notice. They moved the school to Dessau in April 1925.
Hitler had paid his first visit to Weimar a month earlier, the first of four that year, and Weimar was where he launched his political comeback after serving his sentence for leading the Beer Hall Putsch. Leading Nazis had spoken at a rally organised by völkisch groups the previous year, and when Hitler spoke in October 1925 he drew an audience of eight hundred. Like Thuringia as a whole, Weimar had above average numbers of Nazi Party members and voters. The party had effective local organisers, like the banker’s son and newspaper editor Hans Severus Ziegler, who had a protégé called Martin Bormann. Two other later notorious figures also came from the area: Fritz Sauckel, who was hanged at Nuremberg for his role in transporting foreign slave workers to Germany during the Second World War; and Baldur von Schirach, a theatre director’s son who as a star-struck 17-year-old served as Hitler’s tour guide in 1925 (he later became the head of the Hitler Youth and the governor of Vienna). In 1932, a year of multiple elections, Hitler spoke in Weimar eight times. The Nazis became the largest party in Thuringia in July, and began to institute policies that would be enacted nationally when Hitler became chancellor six months later.
Hitler’s visits to Weimar fell off after 1933. Berlin, Munich, Nuremberg and Linz, even Hamburg, became Führerstädte, but not Weimar. It was Ziegler and Sauckel, now gauleiter of Thuringia, who planned new party buildings for the town, which remained largely uncompleted at the end of the war. Other senior Nazis used Weimar for their own purposes: von Schirach for youth rallies, Goebbels for book weeks, Alfred Rosenberg for ideological training at the Nietzsche archive. The Degenerate Art exhibition, which included works by former Bauhaus painters, visited Weimar; in 1944, the theatre was shut down and taken over for arms production. A State Office for Race Studies was established by a party loyalist called Karl Astel, who had a degree in sports medicine and held a chair in eugenics and race science at nearby Jena. Astel carried out thousands of sterilisations, a prelude to the involuntary euthanasia campaign which was particularly popular in Thuringia. The first concentration camp in Germany was in Nohra, outside Weimar, though it was soon closed and its exclusively communist prisoners transferred elsewhere. Nohra held hundreds; Buchenwald held tens of thousands. Located five miles north of Weimar, it opened in July 1937. In August 1943 there were 20,000 inmates; by January 1945 110,000 – Jews, criminals and political prisoners, the latter increasingly non-Germans. In all, some 277,000 people passed through the camp and 56,000 died in it. Weimar residents later insisted, quite indignantly, that they had known nothing of all this; it’s hard to believe. The camp’s postal address was ‘KZ Weimar-Buchenwald’ and it had a Weimar telephone number. Buses ran to and from the town, and there were many links between town and camp. Buchenwald deaths were recorded in the Weimar registry; before 1940 the camp’s cremations were carried out in the town. It would have cost effort not to know what was happening, an effort many were evidently willing to make.
Weimar was in the Soviet Zone and Buchenwald became an internment camp for ex-Nazis between 1945 and 1950. A quarter of the 28,500 prisoners sent there died. The camp became part of East Germany’s anti-fascist creation myth, a site for commemorating communist victims of Hitler. Weimar was displaced by Erfurt as the seat of regional government, but the town retained symbolic importance for the GDR’s rulers. The restoration of its buildings, performances at the Deutsches Nationaltheater and the revival of the Goethe Society – all these were ways to enlist Schiller et al for the socialist cause or to cultivate ties to the West. What happened to Weimar’s cultural legacy after the Wall came down is the subject of Kater’s final chapter, which opens with a scene from Rolf Hochhuth’s play Wessis in Weimar (1993), an unflattering portrait of Western arrogance. Weimar faced many of the same problems as other towns in the former GDR, but it had the advantage of a famous name, which helped it become European Capital of Culture in 1999. It was able, twice in a row, to attract energetic, charismatic directors for its new annual arts festival. Both came from the West: the slick cultural administrator Bernd Kauffmann, and Nike Wagner, the composer’s great-granddaughter. But both came under attack as they tried to resist pressure from local right-wing politicians and to strike a balance in their programming between the contemporary and the classical. The memorialising of culture still plays an important role more than two hundred years after the Golden Age ended in ‘the great theme park that is Weimar’.