The eastern German city of Weimar offers visitors a look at both the pinnacle of German cultural achievement and one of its lowest moments.
Leading lights: a monument to Goethe and Schiller in Weimar
Tourists come to Weimar, a city of 62,000 in the eastern German state of Thuringia, to see where the legendary poet Johann Wolfgang Goethe lived and followed his muse. They also come to see the Buchenwald concentration camp with their own eyes.
Poets, philosophers and musicians
By the early 19th century, Weimar only had some 6,000 residents, but its intellectual radiance resembled that of ancient Greece or Rome. Goethe and his colleague Friedrich Schiller lived and wrote here; Johann Sebastian Bach played the organ, Franz Liszt was a music director, and Carl Maria von Weber composed.
Later, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would write here as well. In the early 20th century, Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus here. And after the fall of the Weimar Republic, Hitler chose it as the site of the Nazi party’s first national congress.
The Schiller Museum
"Everything that makes the city famous has to do with poets, philosophers and statesmen," said Angela Jahn, spokesperson for the Weimar Culture Foundation.
The cultural richness may account for why some four million people travel to Weimar each year. Of them, about a third visit the house where Goethe lived, according to tourism board statistics.
From Schiller to Bauhaus
The Goethe National Museum is actually made up of several houses, including the Goethe House, where Goethe lived and worked. The exhibit there focuses on life in the mid 18th century and houses some of his writings. Yet the most impressive object is the desk where Goethe stood -- yes, stood -- while he worked.
Goethe wrote about his home: "Where else can you find so many good things in one spot?"
Another part of the Goethe National Museum is the Schiller House, where the author and playwright spent the last three years of his life.
Weimar was a center for the Bauhaus school
These two museums belong to the Weimar Classics Foundation, which owns and maintains 22 museums, palaces and other monuments in and around the city, including the Goethe National Museum, the Liszt House, the Goethe and Schiller Archive, the Nietzsche Archive, castles and historical parks. The Palace Museum, the New Museum, the Bauhaus (Design School), and the Belvedere Palace also fall under the auspices of the foundation.
Altogether the city has 14 buildings protected by UNESCO. Recently, Goethe's work "Faust II" was added to UNESCO's list of 100 Historical Documents on Mankind. In 1999, Weimar was dubbed a European Cultural Capital.
One of the most important projects undertaken by the Weimar Classics Foundation is the extension and restoration of the Duchess of Anna Amalia Library. The widowed Duchess Anna Amalia was a sort of 18th century talent scout, who sought cultural figures to decorate the glittering court her Saxon forbears had established.
Goethe and Schiller were among her finds. The library, which was under Goethe’s direction for 35 years, now possesses nearly 100,000 books, 2,000 medieval manuscripts, 8,400 historical maps and 3,900 various notes.
The darker side of Weimar
Weimar's legacy of high culture, philosophy and music is not the whole picture, however. The Buchenwald concentration camp, located just north of town in the Ettersberg hills, is a testament to the very darkest days of Germany’s past. Some 65,000 men, women and children were killed or died here. Visitors can reach the site by bus from Weimar.
The camp, grounds and buildings are all open to the public. There are also interpretive exhibits in English, for example on what it was like to have a death camp so close town. Visitors can also prepare themselves for a trip to the Buchenwald information center at the Marktplatz, in the middle of town.
Goethe's favorite vegetable
Onion Market queen
Some visitors to Weimar come for reasons neither historic nor literary. The 300-year-old Weimar Onion Market takes place in early October every year and the three-day festival in honor of the prosaic vegetable -- in which a local girl is named Onion Queen -- draws some 350,000 visitors a year.
Goethe was known to have been so fond of the onion and its healthful properties that he decorated his home and study with them.