Weimar: Between Cultural Splendor and Political Gloom

October 27, 2008 Updated: October 27, 2008
The two writer friends, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller. The monument was dedicated in 1857. (Joachim Frank)
The two writer friends, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller. The monument was dedicated in 1857. (Joachim Frank)

Those who leisurely stroll through Weimar, a city of 60,000 which has not seen much automobile traffic, may wonder how this cozy place with its provincial airs has garnered importance.

Goethe spent most of his time in Weimar. Schiller, who suffered a severe illness, lived his last, most productive years in Weimar. The meeting of these two renowned German writers, their individual genius and their harmonious, constructive working together, based on friendship, laid the foundation in Weimar for what is now known as "German Classics."

Their residency in Weimar was not an isolated phenomenon. The city held importance at different times and for varying reasons, events that relate to several of Germany's history.

The so-called Golden Age, shaped by Goethe and Schiller, preceded the "Silver Era," connected with the names of Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner, and Arnold Böcklin. The years between 1919 and 1933 are known as the "Weimar Republic." Weimar's German National Theater was the venue for the National Congress that gave the nation its first constitutional democratic document on German soil.

But the Weimar Republic failed, and the National Socialists eventually shamefully misused the city's cultural heritage. 

Hitler liked to stay in Weimar, and greeted jubilating masses from the balcony at the "Elephant Hotel." Outside the city gates, at Ettersberg, the regime constructed the Buchenwald Concentration Camp, where thousands languished in agony and met their deaths.

After 1945, under East German Communist rule, those rulers used the same facility to incarcerate and mistreat enemies of the regime.

Weimar is small, but even a short stay won't be enough to see all the sights, to take in the museums and commemorative places that are witness to her history. That is why, during this visit, my parameters were to discover what the wellspring might be for Weimar's importance. Did this happen by chance, or are there recognizable events?

More Than a Mere Stage: The German National Theater Weimar

Hotel Elephant's library from whose balcony Hitler used to speak to the masses, in the Bauhaus-Style. (Joachim Frank)
Hotel Elephant's library from whose balcony Hitler used to speak to the masses, in the Bauhaus-Style. (Joachim Frank)
I traversed the short distance between Goetheplatz and Wielandstraße, and stand immediately before one of Germany's most well known monuments: Goethe and Schiller, arm in arm, fashioned in bronze. Both are of equal height, though Schiller was actually much taller than Goethe; showing both as equal, even though Schiller was ten years younger than Goethe.

The purpose of the statue is to have the viewer see both writers as equal talents. Weimar's National Theater, so intimately connected with German history, looms behind the statue. The building has a 20th century neo-classical facade.

On orders from Herzog Karl August, the Weimarer Hoftheater was built at this spot in 1779. Goethe was its first director, and from 1799 till Schiller's death in 1805, both worked there together: Schiller produced some of his best-known dramas, while Goethe worked on innovations and changes at the theater.

Goethe quit his duties in 1817 over an incident with a young actress. The incident looks like an inane event nowadays: young actress Karoline Jagemann, the duke's mistress and Goethe's arch-enemy, persisted to make an appearance onstage with a trained poodle dog. Goethe was horrified, but even great men sometimes stumble over things concerning pretty women whom powerful men protect.

Special People Give Society Character

National Theater, Weimar. (Joachim Frank)
National Theater, Weimar. (Joachim Frank)
Five hundred meters away from the theater I came to the palace, once again open for visitors, and at one time chief residence of the former ducal family. Weimar had a scant 6,000 inhabitants in the 18th century. A few baroque structures came into being, but people in the streets still had to dodge free-ranging chickens, pigs, and geese, as happened in any other surrounding duchy.

Why is Weimar world-renowned now, while surrounding duchies like Altenburg, Gotha, or Jena have almost been forgotten? Do we find the reason for Weimar's reputation in the  presence of two 18th century personages that steered the city in a specific direction?  . View of the main entrance and tower. (Joachim Frank)”] Weimarer Stadtschloss [city palace]. View of the main entrance and tower. (Joachim Frank)

After the untimely death of her husband in 1758, Duchess Anna Amalia temporarily guided the duchy. On the one hand, she championed judicial and educational reforms; on the other, she was particular about palace life and etiquette, and looked on social interaction as a form of sensual education: culture must present one with aesthetic impressions that are to be enjoyed and serve as entertainment.

That is precisely the impression the city palace gives visitors, adorned in baroque splendor, patterned on Italian and French models, alluding to more than mere spiritual pursuits of the then ruler.

But Anna Amalia was a clever, open-minded woman. In favor of the arts, she put the education of her son, crown prince Karl August, into the hands of poet Christoph Martin Wieland, among others. He, together with Goethe, Schiller, and Johann Gottfried Herder, made up the "Weimar Triumvirate." 

The Regent and "His" Poet 

A large part of someone’s formal education in noble circles, at that time, was an educational journey. Future Regent, Karl August, undertook such travels in 1774 at age 17. But he must have been fascinated by Goethe's recently published "Die Leiden des jungen Werther," [“The Suffering of Young Werther”] because he interrupted his travels in Frankfurt, to meet the 26-year-old writer, who was born and lived there, and had suddenly become famous. This meeting led to an invitation for Goethe to come to Weimar.

The following year, when Karl August had reached legal age, and had taken the reigns, Goethe followed the duke's calling. The two developed a deep friendship, to the point where the young duke soon entrusted Goethe with high-level government appointments, and petitioned the emperor in 1782 to bestow a title on Goethe. In addition, Karl August made Goethe a gift of a palace. And I am at that place now.

Where Faust Was Created: Goethe's Residence

: elaborately renovated rooms enchant the public (Joachim Frank)”] Stadtschloss [city palace]: elaborately renovated rooms enchant the public (Joachim Frank)The dark-yellow structure with its brown windows is a baroque house in three parts, whose half-round shape assimilates nicely into Frauenplan.

The house gives this triangular plaza a special appearance, next to the adjoining inns and eateries where Goethe had enjoyed many a glass of wine. The house is not ostentatious, but has character. The inside has clean lines and is structurally functional. Goethe himself had seen to the interior and placed great importance on the proper selection of colors for each room.

Since the house has largely been preserved in it original state, each visitor, using a bit of imagination, can discern some of the aura and the mind of the noble poet. Visitors will probably be most fascinated with Goethe's study, where, among others, the German drama, "Faust," was penned.

Goethe, and his commoner wife, Christiane, lived in this house for almost 50 years. Because of her humble origin, Christiane was never received at court. They had lived together for years without benefit of wedlock, a scandalous lifestyle at that time. But even after their marriage, the royal court ignored her completely.

Weimar: Cradle of Political Freedom, Tolerance, and Liberalism

The duke's present to Goethe: the house at Frauenplan, where he wrote from 1782 to his death. (Joachim Frank)
The duke's present to Goethe: the house at Frauenplan, where he wrote from 1782 to his death. (Joachim Frank)
Goethe had different duties in the Duchy of Weimar, and had, in all likelihood, strongly influenced the thoughts and actions of Duke Karl August. He was not against employing artists at his court, but also left them leeway to create what they deemed correct and important.  

The regent was tolerant, and took to German ideas of enlightenment. He became the first monarch in 1816 to establish a constitution in his tiny state that guaranteed freedom of the press, and freedom of expression. A year later saw the commencing of a general assembly, the Wartburg Festival, where primarily students demonstrated against reactionary forces, and demanded a national union and a freedom constitution. The students' motto, "Honor, Freedom, Fatherland."

Those goals and ideals went against the prevailing state order. At that time, German soil had 300 sovereign states of various sizes whose rulers carefully watched to preserve their powers, and a national union would have destroyed the status quo. The fact that Karl August permitted this festival to be held was seen as an expression of his liberal ideas. That is why he is noted in the history books not as a political or military success, but as a patron of the intellect, the arts, and freethinking.

Friendship Between Two Geniuses: Goethe and Schiller

The duke's present to Goethe: the Schiller resided in this house for three years, until his death in 1805. (Joachim Frank)
The duke's present to Goethe: the Schiller resided in this house for three years, until his death in 1805. (Joachim Frank)
Schiller's life path was a much harder one than Goethe's, and that was one reason for him to come to Weimar in 1787, to find an advocate and promoter in Goethe, who was in Italy when Schiller arrived, but returned a year later. Then it took a while until the “Geheim Rat” [privy councilor] was willing to meet Schiller for the first time. However, once they met, they quickly found a liking to each other. Goethe recognized in the man a like-minded person.

Eventually, they had daily conversations that lead to friendship, enhancing the work of each of the men and ennobling it. And all this was happening in tiny Weimar, between two men whose worldviews and poetic creativity was quite different.

On the one hand, we have Schiller's world-encompassing flights of thoughts, as expressed in his poem "Ode to Joy," where all men become brothers, set to music by Beethoven in his 9th Symphony. On the other hand, there are Goethe's works, looking like a laser into the most inner parts of man's soul, such as in the Easter Walk in Faust I—ending with a sigh of relief, "Here I am a human being; I am meant to be here!" 

Perhaps no other line of poetry explains it more clearly than this. What one might call "typical German sentiments," but it seems a daring statement [for me] to make. 

It was stroke of luck for Germany's intellectual history that the two men met in Weimar. However, it must not be seen as a coincidence, but as a result of alliances and politics.

No Easy Life for Schiller

[caption id=”attachment_75548″ align=”alignright” width=”320″ caption=”Goethe's garden house at the park