Weimar: Where the Spirit of Goethe Is Alive and Kicking


“Every day we should hear at least one little song, read one good poem, see one exquisite picture, and, if possible, speak a few sensible words,” German writer and politician Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said.

Taking a stroll through Goethe’s former house in Weimar, in eastern Germany, one can see that he lived by these words. The rooms are a testament to his exquisite taste, his love for arts, culture and nature, and his passion for literature, history and science.

A visit to Weimar must be on top of the list for every admirer of German classic literature, as this small town ­— which today boasts a population of around 63,000 people — was not only home to Goethe, but also to the renowned playwright Friedrich Schiller.

Goethe lived most of his life in Weimar until his death in 1832 and was, together with fellow writer Schiller, the leading figure of Weimar Classicism, a cultural and literary movement.

In fact, during the golden age of Weimar, that began with the reign of Duchess Anna Amalia in 1758 and ended with Goethe’s death, the city attracted Germany’s most eminent luminaries, including the philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, the composer Franz Liszt and the piano virtuoso Johann Nepomuk Hummel.

Even in later years, Weimar’s reputation as a cultural center of Europe drew artists and architects like Henry van de Velde, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger and Walter Gropius to settle down and work in the city.

Despite its rich culture, Weimar’s political history was somewhat conflicting. After World War I, it was in Weimar that Germany’s first democratic constitution was signed — thus the name Weimar Republic, which was short-lived and only lasted from 1918 to 1933 — but it was also among the cities that bought into Nazi propaganda and let right-wing forces prevail.

Buchenwald, a concentration camp built during World War II, where more than 50,000 inmates were brutally murdered or starved to death, is a memorial site today just a few kilometers away. These days, Weimar fully embraces its history, both the dark and bright days.

The picturesque city center of Weimar is lined with beautifully preserved buildings; the streets are plastered with cobblestone. Many of the buildings have been inscribed on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s list of World Heritage Sites, and the majority of them are managed by the Klassik Stiftung Weimar.

“With more than 20 museums, palaces, historic houses, parks as well as literary and art collections, it is one of the largest and most significant cultural institutions in Germany,” the organization states on its website, adding that more than 700,000 people from all over the world visit Klassik Stiftung’s institutions every year.

But it is Goethe that is first and foremost connected with Weimar, and the profound influence he had on the city is still palpable in every corner of it.

Back in Goethe’s former house, now the Goethe National Museum, it is impossible not to be taken aback by the sheer genius of this grand writer. He had the rooms painted according to the theory of colors and filled them with artefacts, statues and books.

The main purpose of the lush garden, mainly looked after by his wife Christiane, was to provide the household with fruit and vegetables, but Goethe also used it for botanical experiments.

Goethe resided in this house for 50 years after it was given to him by Duke Carl August of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach.

“Shortly after the death of Goethe’s last grandson, Walther, Goethe’s historic house and his art and nature collections passed on to the trusteeship of the Goethe National Museum, founded in 1885,” Klassik Stiftung Weimar explains on its website. “More objects from the poet’s personal milieu were acquired because of the extensive donations from the Henckel von Donnersmarck family and Dr. Felix Vulpius in the same year.”

In 2012, the organization added to the annex building a permanent exhibition, which presents valuable and extensive insight into Goethe’s life and lasting legacy, as well as a dedicated section to what is arguably Goethe’s masterpiece when it comes to his literary work, “Faust.”

Just around the corner from Goethe’s house is the former residence of Schiller, which also houses a museum and is a treasure for aficionandos of German literature.

Schiller only lived in Weimar during the last years of his life, and his relationship with Goethe did not get off to a good start. Schiller perhaps envied the great success of the man 10 years his senior, and once described him as a “proud prude.” But the pair eventually forged a friendship, even collaborating on several literary pieces.

When Schiller died in 1805, Goethe wrote to composer Karl Friedrich Zelter, “I have now lost a friend and with him half my life,” thus describing one of the strongest literary bonds between two German writers.

Weimar is, of course, more than Goethe and Schiller, and the list of places to visit is long: the Duchess Anna Amalia Library with its famous Rococo Hall, the summer residence of Liszt, the Bauhaus Museum and the Nietzsche archive are only a few points of interest to visitors, highlighting the vibrant and rich history of Weimar that has lost nothing of its 18th- and 19th-century charm.

This article was first published in the Jakarta Globe on October 30, 2013.

Katrin Figge