Goethe's city rushes to rebuild a broken heritage

Money is no object for Europe's 1999 City of Culture, writes Steve Crawshaw in Weimar
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"Where else can you find so many things in such a small place?" asked Goethe. Nowadays, the question might be rephrased: "Where else can you find so many memorial plaques in such a small place?" Goethe and Schiller, Germany's literary giants, were the most notable inhabitants. But more or less everybody who was anybody, in literature and music, passed through at some time, and left their mark. Weimar, with a population of just 60,000, is fairly drowning in heritage.

Even in East German times, the Communist city fathers - and, most importantly, the government in East Berlin - were keen to ensure that Weimar looked respectable, in order to milk the town for its tourist value. The most important buildings in the city, which suffered heavy bomb damage before its surrender to the Americans in 1945, were restored.

But that was nothing, by comparison with what is happening now. Dozens of crumbling buildings - medieval, 19th-century, art nouveau - are being restored all over the town. As one Weimarian noted: "More than 50 years of neglect are being dealt with, in just a few years."

As an incentive for the high-speed revamp, Weimar has been designated Europe's official City of Culture, for 1999 - when a raft of anniversaries come together. Above all, there is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Goethe, the town's unofficial patron saint.

In addition, it will be 80 years since the establishment of Germany's first, failed democracy, with the Weimar constitution; 80 years since the formation of the Bauhaus movement; 50 years since the creation of separate West and East German states; and 10 years since the fall of the Wall.

Last month, a City of Culture plc was created, to help things along. Last month, too, a new museum was opened, devoted entirely to Bauhaus, the influential, no-frills school of architecture and design, which had previously been almost ignored, in the city where it was born. As one Weimarian drily noted, with reference to the stark Bauhaus style of architecture: "The Communists liked to build concrete boxes. But they were not keen on free-thinkers.''

Meanwhile, however, not all are happy about the way things have gone. The cost of knocking the city into shape has been, and is, staggering. Much of the cost has been borne by Bonn (in other words, the irritable west German taxpayer, who has had more than enough of east German reconstruction). But the city of Weimar has also spent tens of millions of pounds, and has, in effect, bankrupted itself. The city's debts now stand at more than pounds 2,000 per head.

Given that less glamorous projects are therefore liable to fall by the wayside, some Weimarians are less than impressed. After German unity in 1990, a west German became mayor, promising great things for the town. But electors showed him the door last year, not least because of a widespread belief that Klaus Buttner's extravagant projects had left too little over for the ordinary voters. His opponent, Volkhardt Germer - formerly part of the Communist administration, who was now standing on a non-party ticket - was duly elected, on the platform "A Weimarian for Weimar."

Weimar has long been a city of ambiguities. The Weimarians themselves helped to destroy the democracy to which their city had given its name: the Nazis came to power in the Weimar region in 1932, a year before Hitler took power nationally.

In that same year, the novelist Thomas Mann noted, in a comment that would come to seem eerily clairvoyant: "The mixture of Hitlerism and Goethe [in Weimar] is particularly disturbing."

Most notoriously, the Buchenwald concentration camp was established in 1937, in the beech woods just north of the town. The Buchenwald legacy is one that the city has confronted, in different ways, throughout recent decades. For years, Buchenwald provided an excuse for comfortable, anti- fascist rhetoric. Now, stripped of the comfortable bombast of the Communist era, the camp's legacy is more painful.

Anne Moller, who is responsible for preparing the City of Culture for 1999, emphasises: "Weimar is a shorthand for a whole era of German and European history, with its light and dark sides - reflected in its enormous intellectual heritage, but also in the horror of Buchenwald." Seminars on Buchenwald are high on the list of proposed events for 1999, along with the art and music festivals.

For Weimar, one advantage of becoming City of Culture is that Bonn looks set to shoulder a larger share of the town's financial burden than would otherwise be the case. But the impossible choices remain, as summed up in one report, on the difficulties that will not go away: "Goethe - or garbage removal."