Tuesday 19 January 2016

Weimar reflections

I'm with Alain de Botton when he says that "we're missing a trick always wanting destinations [on our travels] to be 'lovely'; it narrows where we go to an astonishing and unhelpful degree".

Visiting Weimar recently brought this point home to me - not because it is unlovely (actually it has loads of physical beauty, set in densely forested hills of eastern Bavaria), but because of the deeply uncomfortable ways in which culture and history collide here.

Goethe and Schiller outside the National Theatre

Weimar is in many ways Germany's cultural heart and pride: it's been home to many of its greatest writers, musicians and artistic movements; the place where Luther (in nearby Wartburg castle) translated the bible and sparked the Reformation.

Goethe and Schiller both lived and wrote here, as did Nietszche. 
Liszt, Wagner, Strauss, Bach and Carl Maria von Weber lived, composed and performed here. Artists from Cranach to Kandinsky painted in Weimar, and Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus school here. A pretty exceptional cultural repository then.

Schiller's home

The Anna Amalia library, with one of the biggest collections of German literature

The literary connections are heavily exploited in kaufhauser, delis and rooftop quotes

The town is small and lovely, a world heritage site - mostly due to the fact that it escaped major destruction in the war and afterwards became a kind of showcase of cultural heritage for the DDR, located deep in East Germany. 

It's full of outdoor cafés, bookshops, street music

 In Ilm park we walked across to Goethe's garden house, his retreat a short walk from his main home in the town, where he wrote and received his mistresses.

Goethe's secluded gartenhaus in the distance between trees

 Reflections in the Ilm river

An uglier, disturbing side of the place is very much here to be seen too, though. Weimar has been the site of some of some of Germany's most painful history. As the birthplace of the Weimar Republic, Hitler understood its symbolic value and made it a central meeting place for his party.

Here on the Marktplatz, the main town square ...

is the famous Elephant Hotel where Hitler commandeered mass rallies in the square from this balcony (below, designed for the purpose by his architect Hermann Giesler who he had rebuild the hotel) and plotted the Third Reich from the Keller in the basement.

The Elephant itself has a pretty extraordinary history, like the town itself, with a dizzying guest-list that includes (in random order) Goethe, Schiller, Tolstoy, Gunther Grass, Bach, Liszt, Schumann, Wagner, Mendelssohn,  Pink Floyd, Kandinsky, Klee, Walter Gropius, Hitler and Putin! After Thomas Mann stayed here he immortalised it as the setting for Lotte in Weimar. The interiors are fabulous examples of Art Deco and Bauhaus, with a huge collection of modern art.

And then, just a short drive outside of the town in jarringly-incongruent surroundings of beautiful woods (buchwald means beech forest), there is Buchenwald, concentration camp and slave labour site where 43,000 died. 

The sights and history offered inside (and there is no shying away from the facts) are literally unspeakable, so I leave with just a picture taken as we drove out, of the remains of the railway stop, the end of the line for trains.

Weimar, Germany, November 2015

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