In the 1960s, visitors to Weimar, including the present writer, were regaled with propaganda about the good fortune of the little town of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, and of Martin Luther’s nearby Wartburg bolthole, in ending up in the German Democratic Republic. This, we were assured, meant that Weimar’s architectural treasures were being devotedly conserved and restored, whereas in the philistine West they would have been criminally neglected. At the Buchenwald concentration camp just outside Weimar, the visitors’ centre featured a comprehensive exhibition on the numerous ex-Nazis now holding high office in the Federal Republic, as well as the understandable memorial to the Communist leader and martyr Ernst Thälmann, killed in Buchenwald in 1944.
Such political shadows, which hung heavily over Weimar for much of the 20th century, naturally permeate Michael Kater’s thorough and thoughtful account of its history. He shows how Weimar’s “golden age” came at the end of the 18th century, when the grand-ducal court supported both Goethe and Lessing, and when substantial numbers of high-born, rich and influential citizens settled in this “German sylvan middle of Germany”. After this culturally fruitful era – prolonged in a diluted way up to Goethe’s death in 1832 – successive attempts to revive Weimar’s golden age were largely abortive, for a variety of reasons.
A whole series of eminent creative figures, aspiring to overcome Weimar’s problems of provincialism and stagnation, departed unsuccessful and disappointed. Some of them left no more permanent trace than the assembly of Berlin politicians who briefly occupied the town’s National Theatre in 1919, adopting Germany’s first democratic constitution, that of the Weimar Republic. Among the artistic leaders who came and went were the composers Franz Liszt and Richard Strauss, Weimar’s directors of music in the late 19th century (Strauss not for very long); the Belgian artist Henry van de Velde and his companion Count Harry Kessler, a cosmopolitan connoisseur, who tried to develop an art school in the years before 1914; and the architect and polymath Walter Gropius, who established his Bauhaus at Weimar in 1919, only to move it to Dessau in 1925 for reasons that included the lack of funding from an increasingly reactionary local government.
“Reactionary”, indeed, became increasingly the word for Weimar’s prevailing ethos. Many of its leading citizens held extremely right-wing and even anti-Semitic views, and a dominant intellectual influence in the town was exercised by Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, the fanatical and long-surviving sister of Friedrich Nietzsche. The Nazi Party gained a degree of power in Thuringia, and even ministerial office, some years before 1933, and it was no coincidence that Buchenwald, one of the first and the worst of the Third Reich’s death camps, was built only a short distance from the Nazi-influenced town of Weimar.
During the post-1945 years of Germany’s division, rival efforts were naturally undertaken to enrol Goethe’s cultural heritage in support of both liberal democracy and Marxism-Leninism, and since reunification in 1990 there have been impressive manifestations invoking his name. However, as Kater’s painstaking analysis shows, Weimar’s only authentically golden age occurred during the great man’s lifetime.
Kater is better on organisations and (especially) individuals of the Right than on those of the Left. His brief account of the Communist Party of Germany’s (KPD) relations with the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD) in the 1920s is confused, and he is wrong to describe the Marxist historian Franz Mehring as a “late nineteenth century author” (Mehring, although born in 1846, did much of his important writing after 1900). Sadly, however, the true story of Weimar makes Kater’s detailed presentation of reactionary groups and thinkers more relevant than fuller information on the Left would have been.
Weimar: From Enlightenment to the Present
By Michael H. Kater
Yale University Press, 472pp, £25.00
Published 21 August 2014