‘If you have a taste for travel you can visit the town of Weimar,’ Jorge Semprún wrote in 2001:
It’s the town of Goethe, isn’t it? Charming. There are traces of him everywhere. There are memories of Schiller, of Liszt, of Nietzsche. After a visit to Goethe’s summer house, the following day you could walk the few kilometres which separate Weimar from the Buchenwald concentration camp on the Ettersberg hill, where Goethe liked to walk with the ineffable Eckermann.
Semprún, exiled in Paris, was arrested by the Gestapo as a member of the Resistance and sent to Buchenwald in 1944. He remained there until the camp was liberated by the US army in 1945.
Semprún’s picture of Weimar has not lost its irony. The town, set in the green woods and hills of Thuringia in central Germany, has two histories. One celebrates the German Enlightenment; the other remembers the Nazi years. Reminders of both are everywhere. The walk from my hotel to the Neues Museum, which I visited this summer, passed along Gropiusstrasse and Heinrich-Heine-Strasse to Goetheplatz, and then along Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse past the Kunsthalle Harry Graf Kessler. The space in front of the museum is Jorge-Semprún-Platz.
Weimar receives several million visitors each year, most of them German. Generations have paid their respects to the shades of Goethe and Schiller; a horse-drawn carriage stands ready to take groups on a tour of the picture-postcard heritage. But this year visits have been brought into focus by two centenaries. One hundred years ago, the Weimar Republic was established. In February 1919, the first session of the National Assembly was held in the former Hoftheater. Weimar’s place in German culture made it an ideal location for the new republic; and it was far away from revolutionary Berlin. The second centenary marks the founding of the Bauhaus, commemorated with a new eponymous museum.
It is six years since I was last in Weimar. On that occasion, I visited the Neues Museum for an exhibition of the work of the Belgian designer and architect Henry van de Velde. This year, the museum has installed Van de Velde, Nietzsche and Modernism around 1900 as a permanent exhibition. The ten sculptures of Nietzsche in assorted sizes and the half-dozen death masks are enough to establish his standing as a contemporary cult figure. The ‘Red Count’ Harry Kessler is not mentioned in the title of the exhibition, but he is given his place as a key protagonist in early modernism. It was his passion for Nietzsche that brought him to Weimar: Kessler foresaw the revitalised town becoming the model and inspiration for a new German culture, and in 1902 persuaded van de Velde to join him there.
Appointed director of the Art and Applied Arts Museum, Kessler upset the chauvinistic courtiers of the grand duke by arranging exhibitions of art from Paris rather than Berlin or Munich. Van de Velde, adviser on the duchy’s artisan industries and an advocate of the ‘modern style’, opened the School for Applied Arts that developed into the Bauhaus, but as a foreigner faced steady opposition from court functionaries. The project for a new Weimar foundered on the growing nationalist conservatism of Blut und Boden before the First World War. Once war began, van de Velde, who had worked earlier as a fashionable interior designer in Berlin, became an enemy alien. He lost his home, his bank account was frozen and his savings confiscated, and he left Weimar to work abroad. In March 1920 he returned for a visit, arriving on the first day of the right-wing Kapp Putsch. Nine workers protesting against the putsch were killed by armed troops. Walter Gropius, whom van de Velde had recommended to succeed him at the School for Applied Arts, designed a memorial to them, Monument to the March Dead.
The Neues Museum has seen much of Weimar’s history. The building opened as the Grand Ducal Museum in the 1860s, was badly damaged in the Second World War, left almost derelict for years, then reopened in 1999 as the Neues Museum. In 1922 Dadaists and Constructivists posed on its steps; works by Kandinsky, Feininger and Klee were shown in its galleries. In 1939, fifty thousand Weimar citizens saw these and other artists ridiculed at the Entartete Kunst (‘Degenerate Art’) exhibition. Kessler’s progressive taste had met a similar reception more than thirty years earlier. In 1906, Rodin agreed to present the museum with a set of watercolour drawings of female nudes (they are now on display at the Neues Museum). Their exhibition caused an outrage and led to Kessler’s resignation. He returned only occasionally to Weimar, for discussions with van de Velde on a memorial to Nietzsche, for example, and died in 1937 in Lyon. The project for a Nietzsche memorial was left to Hitler.
At the Neues Museum van de Velde’s white-painted, ink-stained desk is displayed under a spotlight. It is a functional design, with a lift-up drawing board. Another example of applied ergonomics can be seen in Goethe’s townhouse in the centre of Weimar, a kind of easel-desk which he could adjust for height and incline. For around £2000 you can order a facsimile. There is also a reproduction of Schiller’s flat-topped, five-drawer writing desk. In 1942 the original was removed to Buchenwald so that a copy could be made in the camp workshop. Goebbels approved of Schiller. In his diary he wrote that Schiller was ‘a revolutionary, idealist and visionary, who, if he is not as developed poetically and artistically as Goethe, towers over him as a human being’. Kessler’s desk, designed by van de Velde, hasn’t survived. It was bought by an SS officer in 1935 and disappeared.
In the tourist office, alongside souvenirs and brochures is a sixty-page booklet, Weimar in National Socialism: A Town Map. More than a map, it lists 35 sites with accompanying photographs. The first is Jorge-Semprún-Platz. Here was the Gauforum, a complex of buildings intended to symbolise the Third Reich’s power, taking the place of the old city centre. Forced labourers from Buchenwald razed a public garden to create an open space suited to party rallies. On May Day 1937, Rudolf Hess laid the foundation stone of the Hall of the People’s Community, with standing room for two thousand. It is now a shopping centre. The huge administrative building for the local party remains, occupied by the Thuringian state government.
Weimar is a place of memories and memorials. Visitors walking from the station to the new Bauhaus Museum will find the route lined with black and white poster-sized photographs of the last Buchenwald survivors. The route from the camp to the town is marked with stones to represent the death march of weak and half-starved inmates witnessed by Weimar citizens. Every third prisoner died: worn out, shot by the SS, soldiers or the police, by Hitler Youths or by civilians.
After 1945, Weimar was in the Soviet Zone and in 1949 became part of the GDR. For five years, a new camp next to Buchenwald was used to intern Nazi officials. Almost a quarter of the 28,000 detained there died of illness, cold or hunger. A statue of the German Communist Party’s prewar leader, Ernst Thälmann, was erected in the town in 1958 and dedicated to the 56,000 communists who died at Buchenwald. Gropius’s Monument to the March Dead, which had been demolished by the Nazis, was re-erected in the municipal cemetery.
The new Bauhaus Museum is a bunker-like, grey concrete cube. Gropius’s school had a short life, defeated by conservative reaction, but the museum is part of a new identity for Weimar, the first element in what is to be the town’s Modernist Quarter (next year a permanent exhibition on forced labour will open in the Gauforum). The Bauhaus Museum is alert to contentious issues. Lectures there have included three talks by the historian Hannes Heer, whose Crimes of the Wehrmacht exhibition in 1995 opened the eyes of many Germans to their recent past. The rise of the Alternative für Deutschland makes Germany’s culture of remembrance look less secure. And there is always the danger that memorialisation becomes rote, a lesson that teaches us nothing.