Michael H. Kater. Weimar: From Enlightenment to the Present. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. Illustrations. 480 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-17056-6.
Reviewed by Ulf Zimmermann (Kennesaw State University)
Published on H-German (January, 2016)
Commissioned by Nathan N. Orgill
Shades of Goethe--and of Hitler: A History of [the town of] Weimar
Michael H. Kater covers the terrain announced in his subtitle in ten chapters, slicing Weimar’s history into periods unique to the city. Thus he has, for example, a chapter specifically on the Weimar Bauhaus experiment, from 1919 to 1925, followed by a general one on the Weimar Republic, from 1918 to 1933. In addition to a chapter on the Third Reich, from 1933 to 1945, he includes a separate one on the nearby concentration camp of Buchenwald, from 1937 to 1945.
In a brief prologue, Kater explains his motivations for writing this book. As a child at his grandparents’ home in Germany he had heard much about a direct ancestor who was “a member of the circle of savants surrounding Dowager Duchess Anna Amalia and her son, Duke Karl August,” which instilled in him a personal interest in the city (p. x). His reading of David Clay Large’s exemplary history of Berlin (Berlin, 2001) then stimulated his scholarly interest. Accordingly, in the first chapter, Kater begins with this “golden age,” which was initiated with the installation in 1770 of Johann Michael Heintze as the new rector of the local Gymnasium, the only upper school in the duchy and one that taught classical languages, and ends with the death of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Heintze’s appointment was immediately approved by Anna Amalia, who, as a niece of Frederick the Great and princess of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, had a taste for culture. She was, for example, familiar with the work of Christoph Martin Wieland, then a professor of philosophy at Erfurt University who had just published The Golden Mirror (1772), a work whose pedagogical and political ideas on how a prospective ruler should be brought up and rule seemed perfect for the more exclusive education of the future duke.
By the time he became duke at eighteen, Karl August knew of The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), which had made its author famous across Europe, and wanted to bring Goethe to Weimar. Thus in 1775 Goethe was likewise brought in as an administrator of the duchy. When a new superintendent (of churches and schools) was needed in 1776, Goethe suggested Johann Gottfried Herder whom he had met in Strasbourg. These were the three stars in the firmament that would eventually attract Friedrich Schiller in 1787. Lacking the resources of a Renaissance Maecenas, Anna Amalia showed great administrative acumen, as Kater rightly points out, in hiring these “stars” for jobs in her realm but getting the cultural riches they offered for free on the side. They were part of an exceedingly small elite group surrounding the court (all having to sooner or later get titles to participate fully—except for the pro-revolutionary Wieland).
Why did Goethe, famous across Europe, take the job and stay in Weimar? Kater hypothesizes that he was tired of Frankfurt and saw an opportunity to play a larger, more influential role than he might have in one of the other major cities and at one of their courts, what with a young duke whom he could influence and a higher-level official position than he likely would have had anywhere else (not to mention a commensurate salary). And this makes eminent sense, especially when we see how energetically Goethe devoted himself to his administrative responsibilities.
The court was the town’s sole “industry” and largest employer, apart from which Weimar was basically a village populated by peasants who let their pigs and sheep out to pasture, but it did already have its subsequently famous inns, including the Elephant. Weimar had a population of around six thousand, a bit smaller than Heidelberg and only a fifth the size of Frankfurt. It was still chiefly agricultural, still feudal and extremely poor, with its sheep supplying only local textile shops and nothing for export. But by the time Goethe and Schiller finally got together in 1794, the city was becoming well known for its classic status, with four “geniuses”—hence the “golden age.”
Following Goethe’s death in 1832, the city became something of a living museum, as Kater aptly describes it, and this actually kept it from making any progress, socially because the court stuck to French and continued to exclude the increasingly emergent bourgeoisie, and economically because the new duke, Carl Alexander, was not willing to invest in it. Hence, the “silver age,” as Kater describes it in chapter 2, “Promising the Silver Age, 1832 to 1861,” did not really begin until after 1848. The “silver” was mainly due to the presence of Franz Liszt whom the grand duchess, Maria Pavlova, had offered an easy job in 1842. He took it because the three months of work it required gave him time to compose—and because his new lover from Poland might be able to get a divorce with the help of Maria Pavlova since she was the sister of Tsar Nicholas. This is the sort of intimate and pivotally important detail that Kater never fails to provide and that makes his history a savory reading pleasure. The Liszt household had many illustrious visitors though none stayed. Liszt also premiered some Richard Wagner operas there and Weimar could have become Bayreuth—but did not invest in building the theater that it required.
Liszt became, like Goethe before him, a tourist attraction in the city, as Kater writes in chapter 3, “Failing the Silver Age, 1861 to 1901,” and had a hand in founding the music school that is now named after him. Carl Alexander did found a painters’ academy in 1860 and Franz Lenbach and Arnold Böcklin were on the faculty for the first two years while Max Liebermann briefly studied there later. In 1889, the young Richard Strauss arrived, just as a Goethe revival was cresting, and he helped the city stage a brief comeback. But the Goethe revival was now part of an increasing chauvinistic—and antisemitic—trend in the new German Empire. Goethe was linked to this empire and its German “heroes” through his Dr. Faust and through other men of action, such as Frederick the Great and Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. This trend was reinforced by the distorted image of Friedrich Nietzsche that his sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche was now broadcasting from Weimar via her apocryphal compilation of the Will to Power (1901).
Nietzsche had evidently expressed a wish to retire to Goethe’s town, as Kater observes in chapter 4, “The Quest for a ‘New Weimar,’ 1901 to 1918,” so it was here that his sister built his shrine. Through her acquaintance with Count Harry Kessler, an admirer of both Goethe and Nietzsche, she got the Belgian artist Henry van de Velde to come to Weimar to open a seminar on arts and crafts in 1902. Thanks to the grand duke’s support, this became the Grossherzögliche Kunstgewerbeschule in 1907. Walter Gropius would later combine this craft school with the already established painters’ academy to form the Bauhaus School. By 1918, when the grand duke surrendered his sovereignty, about all that was left was Förster-Nietzsche’s antisemitic tarnishing of the city’s reputation.
Kater devotes chapter 5 expressly to the Bauhaus experiment, from 1919 to 1925. Gropius was already known in Berlin when he went to war in 1914, having worked for the prominent architect Peter Behrens. Van de Velde had recommended him to run the arts and crafts school (he himself had had to leave as an “enemy alien”). With this and the painters’ academy, Gropius was able to lay the foundations for the combination of art and technology that constituted the Bauhaus. Gradually it attracted more students to the design side as well as students from abroad and a goodly number of women to whom such education had just become newly open. The Bauhaus got its international cachet from a show Gropius put on in 1923, bringing Igor Stravinsky to perform along with such architects as Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier—the biggest thing to happen in Weimar in the twentieth century. Of course the locals hated the sort of foreigners (or Jews) who came as well as these long-haired or short-skirted students. And while the Bauhaus itself shunted women into the weaving and pottery workshops, the Weimar chamber of commerce would not give them apprenticeship certificates even in those fields.
In chapter 6, “Weimar in the Weimar Republic, 1918 to 1933,” Kater judiciously reminds us of another reason the parliament convened there. Apart from getting out of chaotic Berlin, many members knew of the metropolis’s dubious reputation in the South and deemed the conservative Weimar, situated very much in the center of Germany (but not too far from Berlin), more politically palatable for framing a new government. Weimar would be the capital of the new state of Thuringia and its first government was sufficiently liberal to authorize the Bauhaus to begin with. But as the economy, getting worse across the country but the worst in Thuringia, declined, its citizens increasingly turned to the radical right. By 1925 Weimar was happy to have Adolf Hitler come speak publicly (and have the Bauhaus leave) and by 1929 Thuringia was the first state to have a Nazi-controlled government.
The Third Reich, from 1933 to 1945, is covered in chapter 7, in which Kater reminds us of the first concentration camp being built near there in Nohra. While Bayreuth became more important to Hitler, he enjoyed Weimar where he had been able to restart his career in 1925. He used it to start the Reich’s reconstruction program, providing personal input to the rebuilding of the Hotel Elephant.
Separately, in chapter 8, Kater treats the concentration camp Buchenwald, beginning with its infamous entrance legend “Jedem das Seine” (“To each his own”), designed, ironically, by a Bauhaus graduate sent to Buchenwald for his Communist affiliations. This camp was located on the Ettersberg, but SS officers said it could not be named after that because of its association with Goethe. So Heinrich Himmler named it “Buchenwald” for the beech woods that Goethe was rumored to have picnicked among. After the war, the citizens of Weimar would claim no knowledge of Buchenwald activities, although many SS members lived in Weimar, prisoners walked through the town on their way to the camp from the train station until March 1943, and the camp’s German Shepherds competed in local dog shows.
In chapter 9, “Weimar in East and West Germany, 1945 to 1990,” Kater depicts the city’s bifurcated postwar fate. In the new East German regime, states were replaced with districts and in this reorganization Weimar lost its status as the capital to Erfurt. During this period, Weimar’s only distinction, Kater notes, was the dubious one of having the country’s highest rate of youth criminality. This went up everywhere in East Germany, because, given the drain of competent workers, these young people, Kater persuasively contends, knew themselves to be indispensable to the state and thus believed they could get away with anything.
The new rulers were, however, concerned about refurbishing their “classics” sites and Weimar, which had eventually been bombed, was crucial here. The theater and conservatory were restarted as was the architecture program. Apparently the best they could do for the conservatory was to appoint Hermann Abendroth to head it after he had previously done the same in Leipzig as a loyal Nazi. For architecture they actually found a faithful Communist, Hermann Henselmann, whom the party had protected, because of his Jewish father, during the Nazi reign with a job in Prague, and he brought back some Bauhaus people. (He was soon put in charge of the Stalinallee and hence taken away to Berlin where he would become East Germany’s most prominent architect.) Overall though, Kater assesses this era as a cultural low point and economically worse than under the Nazis.
Chapter 10, “Weimar after the Fall of the Wall, 1990 to 2013,” surveys the post-unification period. The new Germany resurrected the state of Thuringia, if in somewhat lesser form, but Erfurt remained the capital (though Weimar was chosen as a “European Culture Capital” in 1999). Buchenwald was now a memorial that attracted tourists, though this was not enough to stem the flow of skilled workers to the West with the only population influx coming from retiring Wessis (West Germans). As most of us know from that era, despite former Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s promise of “blooming landscapes,” the employment landscape was exceedingly bleak, with the population actually declining. Kater offers a highly telltale statistic: In 1991, the city recorded 779 deaths but only 398 births (p. 333). To help maintain at least the cultural heritage, a “Weimar Classics” foundation was underwritten with thirteen million marks from Bonn and Erfurt. Its most valuable asset was the Anna Amalia Library, which had been woefully neglected (and burned down in 2004, though to be mostly rebuilt and stocked by 2007).
But there were some young West Germans coming over to study at what had been the Bauhaus, from which the East Germans had, however, excised the art portion. In a rare case of letting the East Germans choose their own leaders, the government permitted the school to choose one of its own—Gerd Zimmermann, a specialist in the history and theory of architecture—and he cast back to the Weimar model and, in 1996, even got it renamed the Bauhaus University. With this exception, the more senior West German power elite ran the cultural show and, indeed, sought to make the city a showcase for itself, chiefly via an annual festival of the arts. A big hullaballoo ensued when the elitist West German director of the festival forbade stands selling the famous Thuringian sausage. How could one have a festival without that!? This made headlines across the country and, indeed, the common Weimar citizen could barely afford their Wurst, never mind the actual cultural events themselves.
In an epilogue, Kater concludes that Weimar was simply “a small town with a provincial mentality” and it consistently remained that (p. 373). Even when cultural icons visited, the local leadership seemed never to be interested in giving them the economic resources necessary for attaining any other status. Weimar, with the notable exception of the beginning of that “golden” era of Anna Amalia, and to a good extent her son, never again seemed to enjoy the leadership to have and follow through on a vision.
But there was also no foundation there, no infrastructure economically or socially, on which one could build and which would attract people. For a moment, when Kater cites Weimar’s rejection of Carl Zeiss’s application for a permit to open a machine shop there, we may be tempted to think, “Ah, this could have been the home of the famous Zeiss optical works!” But the fact of the matter is that if the Carl Zeiss Works had been permitted to open up in Weimar, the city would just have had another machine shop. It took the university in Jena, with which Zeiss was quite familiar from spending time there previously when he was apprenticed to the court machinist Friedrich Körner who also lectured there, and its laboratories and experimental orientation, to engender the agglomeration economies that would never have arisen in Weimar. And in that sense Kater remains absolutely right in his above conclusion.
Since the history of Weimar, therefore, does not require the kind of space Large’s Berlin does, Kater has augmented the city’s history with a series of portraits of the people who tried, for better or worse, to take advantage of that golden era and has given us an excellent and colorful social and cultural history.
. After East Germans and West Germans began interacting with one another again following the fall of the Berlin Wall, they referred, in typical German shorthand, to East Germans as Ossis and West Germans as Wessis.
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Ulf Zimmermann. Review of Kater, Michael H., Weimar: From Enlightenment to the Present.
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