Weimar: The glory of German enlightenment and humanism

In a three-part series, the historical and notable attractions of the cities of Weimar, Dresden and Leipzig will be explored

The interior of the the Duchess Anna Amalia Library in Weimar. (photo credit: REUTERS)
The interior of the the Duchess Anna Amalia Library in Weimar.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
From the end of World War II until German unification in 1990, the three cities of Weimar, Dresden and Leipzig were part of the German Democratic Republic, under Soviet control behind the Iron Curtain.
To begin with, Weimar is a city which encompasses the most glorious period of German enlightenment and humanism, as well as some of its darkest moments. A small city with a population of 65,000, it is situated on the banks of the River Ilm in the German federal state of Thuringia.
Its oldest records date back to 899 CE and for a long time Weimar remained a small town of fewer than 5,000 inhabitants. Throughout its history, the city has attracted notable and influential individuals: Martin Luther was a regular visitor to Weimar, one of the earliest cities to embrace the Reformation; the great painter Lucas Cranach the Elder, who was Luther’s friend, lived in Weimar in 1553, the last year of his life.
Weimar was also home to the great composer Johann Sebastian Bach, who resided there for 11 years.
This was where six of his children were born, and where he composed many of his cantatas. In 1714, when Bach was offered a better position in the town of Cöthen, the ruling Duke of Weimar, his employer, refused him permission to leave and had Bach imprisoned for a month. In the end, he relented and Bach left for Cöthen.
The city’s golden age began with the regencies of the Duchess Anna Amalia (1739-1807) and her son, Karl August (1757-1828). Under these enlightened rulers, Weimar became an important European cultural center of Europe and focal point of the German Enlightenment.
Germany’s most celebrated writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, moved to Weimar in 1775 and lived there until his death in 1832. He was also active in civic duties and served as minister to the Grand Duke. It was in Weimar that Goethe wrote Faust , as well as many of his other major works.
Goethe’s move cemented Weimar’s position as a major focus for German intelligentsia. Other intellectual giants active in Weimar included Goethe’s friend, the writer Friedrich Schiller, as well as the theologian Johann Gottfried von Herder, among many other luminaries. In 1842, Franz Liszt moved to Weimar as court conductor and established a music school which still bears his name. Composer Richard Strauss worked in the city between 1889 and 1894.
Weimar was the birthplace of the influential Bauhaus movement, founded in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius. One of the cardinal principles of Bauhaus was to create a total work of art (Gesamtkunstwerk ) in which painting, sculpture, architecture and design would all be brought together. Other prominent artists who joined the movement included Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, Oskar Schlemmer and László Moholy-Nagy, as well as many others.
After the First World War, Weimar became the capital of Germany, and the period from 1919 to 1933 is referred to as the Weimar Republic. This era was marked by constant conflict between progressive as opposed to reactionary right-wing forces; the latter prevailed and Weimar became an early center of Nazism. In 1925, due to pressure from these right-wing elements, Bauhaus moved to Dessau.
Weimar had a shameful history during World War II. More recently, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site and in 1999, was selected as a European Capital of Culture. Today, tourism is one of the city’s main sources of income.
Jewish presence Jews first settled in Thuringia in the 12th century, mainly in Erfurt, its largest city, although there were also a few families in Weimar.
With the spread of the plague in 1348-1349, the relationship between Jews and Christians deteriorated, since the Jews were held responsible for the disease.
There were pogroms and most of the Jewish communities were destroyed; survivors fled primarily to Eastern Europe.
A few Jews returned to Thuringia, but the Reformation brought harassment and led to further expulsions. A new Jewish community was established in Weimar after Duchess Anna Amalia appointed Jacob Elkan as Court Jew, and by 1880 there were 80 Jewish residents.
During the Weimar Republic period, Jews were inte - grated in every sphere of life. They were prominent in theater (Max Reinhardt), music (Arnold Schönberg), the visual arts (Max Liebermann), philosophy (Her - man Cohen) and science (Albert Einstein). Indeed, of the nine German citizens awarded Nobel Prizes during this period, five were Jewish.
Jews were also active in political and public life. One of the most prominent was Walther Rathenau, who served as foreign minister.
Despite or possibly because of the prominence of Jews in the Weimar Republic, this period was characterized by the venomous growth of severe anti-Semitism.
With the rise of Nazism in 1933, there was harassment of German intellectual and cultural figures, both Jewish and non-Jewish, and many fled Germany. Those who remained behind were often arrested, or detained in concentration camps. After Kristallnacht in November 1938, the Weimar Synagogue was destroyed and persecution of the Jews became more intense; many more were arrested and interned in concentration camps.
By 1937, the Nazis had established the Buchenwald concentration camp, 8 km. from Weimar’s center.
One of the first and the largest camps on German soil, it provided slave labor for local industry. Between July 1938 and April 1945, the Nazi regime incarcerated over 250,000 people in Buchenwald, including about 75,000 Jews. There were also prisoners from all over Europe and the Soviet Union, including the mentally ill and physically disabled, homosexuals, Roma and Sinti, among others.
The number of deaths in Buchenwald is estimated at 55,000; of these, 12,100 were Jews. Not included are the many thousands who froze or starved to death on transports to and from Buchenwald, or who died on forced marches before the camp was liberated. It has been estimated that up to 4,000 Jews died during this period.
Today, when visitors arrive at Buchenwald, they are initially confronted with the railway line from Weimar. In 1944 and 1945, trains arrived with thousands of exhausted prisoners from the east. The slogan Jedem das Seine , or “To each what he deserves,” was placed over the camp’s main entrance gate. Visitors can see the prisoner barracks, disinfection building and store - rooms, as well as the block where medical experiments were carried out on the inmates. There is also the large area between the camp gates and the barracks, the scene of severe punishments and executions, and several memorials.
The most devastating aspect of this place of barbarism and inhumanity was the building housing the crematoria ovens, with its chimney; prominently displayed on the ovens was the name of the manufacturer, Topf and Sons, Erfurt. This building was only a stone’s throw from the electrified barbed-wire fence and watchtowers which surrounded the camp. Just 15 meters away from the fence, with a full view of the crematoria, was a small zoo built for SS members and their families. While the latter were enjoying their outing at the zoo, the ill-fated, hapless prisoners were being burned just 80 meters away.
The Allies liberated Weimar in April 1945 and its residents were ordered to walk through Buchenwald, to witness the atrocities that had been perpetrated so close to their city. Currently, there is no Jewish presence in Weimar; the nearest synagogue is in Erfurt.
Tourist Sites
• National Goethe Museum: Goethe’s Baroque home is one of the city’s major tourist attractions. The man himself planned much of the residence, to house his library as well as his art and natural science collections. The interior is largely the way he left it, and the tourist can step into Goethe’s personal world with its original, preserved furnishings. Next door is a permanent exhibition high - lighting Weimar’s great cultural period of enlightenment.
• Weimar Town Castle: The castle houses the Palace Museum, focusing on European art from the Middle Ages to the beginning of the 20th century.
The gallery holds many works by Lucas Cranach the Elder, including portraits of Martin Luther and his wife. There are also masterpieces by Albrecht Durer and later artists, including Max Liebermann and Max Beckmann.
• Duchess Anna Amalia Library: In 1761, Duchess Amalia founded a library, now one of the oldest and most famous in Europe; especially noteworthy is the Rococo Hall. The library boasts an enormous collection of treasures of German and European literature, including me - dieval manuscripts as well as a priceless music collection. In 2004, a fire broke out and some 50,000 volumes were damaged beyond repair; the library still houses over one million volumes.
• Church of St. Peter and Paul: The city’s main church was originally built in late-Gothic style, but later redesigned in the Baroque mode. The burial place of Duchess Amalia, the church has been Lutheran since 1525. Martin Luther gave sermons here; Bach frequently played the organ and was the choir master, and two of his sons were baptized here.
The church’s most famous painting is the altarpiece, begun by Lucas Cranach the Elder and completed by his son. In the center background, Moses is shown teaching the Ten Commandments to the prophets; directly in front, Martin Luther is standing with open Bible in hand. Next to him, Cranach painted himself; a stream of blood from the crucified Christ splashes on to the head of Cranach.
• The German National Theater: Built in 1906 in a Neo-Classicist style, the Goethe-Schiller statue by Ernst Rietschel in front of the theater has become Weimar’s signature landmark. It was in this theater that Germany’s post-World War I constitution was drafted.
• Bauhaus Landmarks: Opposite the theater stands this rather small Bauhaus museum, dedicated to the major figures of this movement. Only a few of their works, including carpets, textiles and the graphic arts, are on view; most of the collection is in storage and will be displayed in the new Bauhaus museum, scheduled to open in 2015.
The Bauhaus University building was originally designed at the beginning of the 20th century by Henry van de Velde, the Belgian architect and painter; it was here the movement was founded. Another important Bauhaus sight in Weimar is the Haus am Horn, a simple structure of cubic design on the Ilm River.
• Liszt House: The composer lived here for almost 20 years. In his study, living and dining areas and bedrooms, much of his personal memorabilia are displayed – including his Bechstein grand piano.
• Additional sites: These include the townhouse of Friedrich Schiller, the residence on the Market Square where Lucas Cranach the Elder spent the last year of his life; and the Wittumspalais, where Duchess Amalia held her illustri - ous salons hosting Goethe, Schiller and Herder, among many others. Goethe’s garden house is situated in the park on the Ilm River.
Another famous landmark in Weimar is the Elephant Hotel, overlooking the Market Square. Originally established as an inn in 1696, it has been rebuilt many times. Throughout its history, the hotel has been home to intellectuals and politicians: Goethe celebrated his 80th birthday there, and other visitors have included Schiller, Bach, Liszt, Felix Men Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Richard Wagner, Leo Tolstoy and Thomas Mann.
The Elephant also has a dark side to its history; Hitler was a frequent guest.
Another landmark is the White Swan ( Weisser Schwan ); with an illustrious history that goes back more than 450 years, it is one of the most historic inns in Europe. Its original exterior has remained almost unchanged until this day. Among its first guests was Lucas Cranach the Elder, who drank a beer in the restaurant in 1552.
■ Part II on Dresden will appear on December 26th.
The writer was a guest of Tourismusservice, Weimar, organized by Anja Dietrich and Ehrengard Neuhaus, tour guide, and Sandra Greuel of the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorial foundation.
The writer, an emeritus professor of med - icine, writes, reviews and lectures on medical topics, music, art, history and travel (www.irvingspitz.com). He was recently recognized with the Sidney Ingbar Distinguished Service Award by the Endocrine Society for his contributions to the field. His travel images may be seen at www.pbase.com/irvspitz; he may be contacted at irving@spitz.com.