Weimar: Where Goethe and Schiller found a home, Liszt blossomed into a musical genius; Bauhaus became possible, and Nazism took hold. Below: Weimar, by Michael H. Kater. The book, an absorbing history about the corruption of a once great artistic center, and two reviews of the book.
Weimar: From Enlightenment to the Present, publshed by Yale University Press, September 2014, 480pp. ISBN: 9780300170566
Historian Michael H. Kater chronicles the rise and fall of one of Germany’s most iconic cities in this fascinating and surprisingly provocative history of Weimar. Weimar was a center of the arts during the Enlightenment and hence the cradle of German culture in modern times. Goethe and Schiller made their reputations here, as did Franz Liszt and the young Richard Strauss. In the early twentieth century, the Bauhaus school was founded in Weimar. But from the 1880s on, the city also nurtured a powerful right-wing reactionary movement, and fifty years later, a repressive National Socialist regime dimmed Weimar’s creative lights, transforming the onetime artists’ utopia into the capital of its first Nazified province and constructing the Buchenwald death camp on its doorstep.
Kater’s richly detailed volume offers the first complete history of Weimar in any language, from its meteoric eighteenth-century rise up from obscurity through its glory days of unbridled creative expression to its dark descent back into artistic insignificance under Nazi rule and, later, Soviet occupation and beyond.
Michael H. Kater is Distinguished Research Professor of History Emeritus at York University, Toronto, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He is the author of Hitler Youth.
Reviews: Weimar: From Enlightenment to the Present by Michael H Kater, book review
Marcus Tanner The Independent UK August 21, 2014
The little town of Weimar has long been seen as a symbol of the “other” Germany – the nice one, which Hitler buried but which rose again after the Second World War. Home to Goethe, Schiller and a brace of other big names from the Enlightenment, its name is still attached to Germany’s bittersweet experiment in liberal democracy after the end of the First World War.
Even those bruisers, the East German Communists, did not tamper with the myth of “enlightened” Weimar. When I visited in 1987, I was struck by the care that those notoriously hard men had bestowed on Goethe’s town. No Socialist makeover for Weimar. I wandered contentedly around the Liszt House, the Goethe House and the Wittumspalais – the last residence of Goethe’s patron, the Archduchess Anna Amalia – feeling struck by how well preserved it all was. The comparison to East Berlin, where the regime had simply dynamited the old Prussian royal palace, was evident.
I found leafy, mellow Weimar charming – not a word I would have applied to many other towns in East Germany. It reminded me of a cross between Bath and Cambridge. But was I just seduced? Kater would suggest the latter. He goes at Weimar’s iconic status as a temple to liberal virtues with a sledgehammer. Goethe emerges as a stuffed shirt who was miserly to his servants and helped put down a peasants’ rebellion. Not that enlightened, apparently. After his death, and perhaps before it, Weimar was little more than a museum, Kater writes. The author goes further, suggesting that Weimar’s iconic reputation eventually acted against the town’s own interests.
It became a form of curse, drawing a ragbag of anti-Semites, German ultra-nationalists and racial eugenicists to the one-time “Court of the Muses” on a mission to attach the Weimar tradition – the legacy of Goethe and the Enlightenment – to their own ends.
Chief among them, he says, was Nietzsche’s sister, Elisabeth, who ensconced herself in a villa, lived to the age of 90, and devoted herself to manipulating her late brother’s ideas and lending his name to unappealing ideas. When the Nazis seized power, Elisabeth was thrilled, sending Hitler an open invitation to come and have a vegetarian breakfast with her.
Germans see the best of their soul in Weimar. Everyone else, on the other hand..
Philip Hensher The Spectator UK August 30, 2014
Thuringia, a region of former East Germany, occupies a special place in the thoughts of Germans, who like to regard it as the origin of all their best virtues. It’s an alluring place, full of wonderfully untouched stretches of densely forested hills; the occasional small historic town seems hardly to have changed for decades, and the tourist can spend a happy week pottering from Schmalkalden to Ilmenau to Eisenach in the illusion that none of those unpleasant realities of the last century ever touched this place. I once asked the guide at the Wartburg, the magnificent medieval and mock-medieval castle on a snowy crop outside Eisenach, what this place meant to modern-day Germans. It was the castle where Luther holed up to translate the Bible, where the first idealistic students swore oaths to create a united Germany, and where Wagner set Tannhäuser. She had no doubt. ‘Tausend Jahre positive Deutsche Geschichte’: 1,000 years of positive German history.
The legal capital of Thuringia is actually Erfurt, an entrancing town of considerable grandeur. But no one can doubt that its spiritual heart — and perhaps of Germany’s idea of itself — is Weimar. Outside Germany, Weimar hardly suggests a town at all. When the Sunday Times once sent A.A.Gill to write about modern-day Germany, he confessed that ‘I had no idea that Weimar was a town. I thought it must be a district or piece of paper, the Weimar Republic and all that.’
For Germans, it is the court town that created Goethe and Schiller under the enlightened sponsorship of a great prince; where Wagner found refuge and understanding, and Liszt transformed himself from a shallow virtuoso into a great musical thinker; where the Bauhaus was made possible; where Cranach, Wieland and Busoni also walked. The association with the republic that was formed in a few months of constitutional assembly after the end of the first world war comes second. Primarily, this is the town that represents the best and noblest in the German spirit.
There is something in that, of course, and a few days in Weimar will display a town not just beautiful and wonderfully picturesque, but redolent of its greatest minds’ preoccupations. You can’t visit Goethe’s house on the Frauenplan without having a sense of being admitted to the full range of his preoccupations, from colour to minerals to the classics.
The problem is that over the last couple of centuries, as Michael H. Kater explains in a racy, detailed and absorbing history, there have been all sorts of people who liked to exalt what they saw as the best and noblest in the German spirit while not exactly wanting to continue that tradition. In 1938, a gathering of 250 German authors in Weimar paid homage to the ‘town of great German poetry’ in order to denigrate the ‘madness of so-called Expressionist poetry… the work of the Jewish world enemy.’ The Nazi period was not alone in manipulating the historic achievements of the great to its own ends, without showing any interest in contemporary writers.
Kater has written a fascinating account of this extraordinary city. It is highly readable, capable of great wryness and, considering the cultural and political ground it covers, mostly very convincing. He’s clearly out of his depth when it comes to music, especially in his account of Liszt’s innovations, but otherwise we’re on solid ground.