Weimar: From Enlightenment to the Present by Michael H Kater, book review

Dark reality behind the myths of Weimar, home to Goethe, Schiller...and democracy
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The Independent Culture

The little town of Weimar has long been seen as a symbol of the "other" Germany – the nice one, which Hitler buried but which rose again after the Second World War. Home to Goethe, Schiller and a brace of other big names from the Enlightenment, its name is still attached to Germany's bittersweet experiment in liberal democracy after the end of the First World War.

Even those bruisers, the East German Communists, did not tamper with the myth of "enlightened" Weimar. When I visited in 1987, I was struck by the care that those notoriously hard men had bestowed on Goethe's town. No Socialist makeover for Weimar. I wandered contentedly around the Liszt House, the Goethe House and the Wittumspalais – the last residence of Goethe's patron, the Archduchess Anna Amalia – feeling struck by how well preserved it all was. The comparison to East Berlin, where the regime had simply dynamited the old Prussian royal palace, was evident.

I found leafy, mellow Weimar charming – not a word I would have applied to many other towns in East Germany. It reminded me of a cross between Bath and Cambridge. But was I just seduced? Kater would suggest the latter. He goes at Weimar's iconic status as a temple to liberal virtues with a sledgehammer. Goethe emerges as a stuffed shirt who was miserly to his servants and helped put down a peasants' rebellion. Not that enlightened, apparently. After his death, and perhaps before it, Weimar was little more than a museum, Kater writes. The author goes further, suggesting that Weimar's iconic reputation eventually acted against the town's own interests.

It became a form of curse, drawing a ragbag of anti-Semites, German ultra-nationalists and racial eugenicists to the one-time "Court of the Muses" on a mission to attach the Weimar tradition – the legacy of Goethe and the Enlightenment – to their own ends.

Chief among them, he says, was Nietzsche's sister, Elisabeth, who ensconced herself in a villa, lived to the age of 90, and devoted herself to manipulating her late brother's ideas and lending his name to unappealing ideas. When the Nazis seized power, Elisabeth was thrilled, sending Hitler an open invitation to come and have a vegetarian breakfast with her.

Kater makes a convincing case that myth and reality don't quite match up in Weimar – that for much of its history the town was fusty and reactionary. Nevertheless, at times the business of demolishing the mythology that surrounds the town is heavy going. The book also feels too long. By the early 1800s the golden age of Weimar was over, and by the end of the 19th century its so-called silver age – when Liszt and Strauss lived there – had also passed.

It was a provincial town now, a repository of memories of dead poets, philosophers and musicians. As a result, while the book opens with a portrait of a small but culturally very significant place, it ends with a mass of detail about what had become a backwater.

As Kater himself notes, the common reference to interwar Germany as the "Weimar Republic" is misleading. The politicians of the new republic decamped there for a while in 1919 because the revolutionary temper of Berlin had frightened them, but they soon went back to Berlin – very bored of Weimar, apparently.

No doubt Weimar's dark side deserves to be exposed, and Kater has certainly done that. Still, it's a good thing the myth wasn't demolished 50 years ago. Had that been the case – as Kater acknowledges – the East Germans might well have concreted the whole place over.