August 2006


Historic Weimar

During my recent stay in the States, I chanced upon a book written in 1929 by one E. M. Newman entitled “Seeing Germany.” The book was one in a series of books by the same author, including “Seeing Italy,” “Seeing Russia,” and “Seeing Egypt and the Holy Land.” (Implicitly there are other books as well.)

I was fascinated with the book, and although I only had it for a few hours, I read the entire first chapter which was all about Munich. I then realized that time was short, so I thought it would be worthwhile to see if the intrepid E. M. Newman had found Weimar.

He had, and in Chapter 9, “Weimar and Dresden,” he described his visit to Weimar.

What I found most fascinating about the book is how accurate it remains to this day. His description of what drives Weimar and its citizens remains true: Goethe. In fact, really the major difference between Weimar of 1929 and Weimar of today has been the addition of Buchenwald, the Nazi concentration camp located on the outskirts of town. Therefore either the book has withstood a remarkable test of time, or the town has not changed significantly.

I’ll let you guess what I believe to be the case.



There is at least one city in the world in which its prophets are not without honor. This is Weimar, which knows how to appreciate its great men and seems always to have done so. We read that school children who were contemporary with the great poet, Goethe, were taught to raise their hats when they passed him in the streets. Figuratively, the school children and the adults of this city raise their hats to him to-day. There may be various motives. It is possible that the proprietors of the hotels are not reading “Faust” or “Wallenstein.” It is very possible that the merchants are not spending their leisure hours with a copy of “Wilhelm Meister” in hand. It is very possible that they are unaware of the supreme literary importance of Goethe and Schiller; but they are mindful of the fact that the world honors the two men who lived here and wrote. Such brilliant luminaries were rarely contemporaries in the history of the world’s literature. And in addition to being contemporaries in they lived at Weimar—Goethe, the august Jupiter of literature; Schiller the beloved poet of the people.

I thought I had served my apprenticeship so far as pilgrimages to the homes of the great were concerned. Being in the neighborhood of Weimar, however, I could not resist the inclination to visit what I thought would be a sleepy town, the glory of which had passed long ago. Weimar was not so important until Goethe made it the cultural and intellectual center of the world. Goethe died a long time ago. Lord Byron, Carlyle, Madame de Staël, Walter Scott and all the others who wrote him letters and paid tribute to his genius have been long in their tombs. Also Karl August, who was wise enough to realize that his association with Goethe would make him immortal, that the writer would be remembered long after kings, queens, generals, and archdukes had been forgotten. Goethe and Schiller, however have done for Weimar what Shakespeare did for Stratford-on-Avon. In their day they made it the nation’s center of culture; their memory lingers, and to-day the place have become a popular resort, a place of pilgrimage and a vacation-ground.

When the train stopped at Weimar, my first surprise was to see about twenty porters wearing the different caps that named their hostelries. I had booked a room in advance, but I was surprised to find that I had arrived in something like a tourist’s summer resort. Dozens of hotels and hosts of strangers in the streets! An even greater surprised was to find that virtually all of them were pilgrims like myself. As Stratford has capitalized on Shakespeare, so Weimar has turned to account the fact that the world loves its heroes. Shakespeare may be a legend. Nobody knows. No such question about Goethe and Schiller. There are a few scratches of a quill on paper that may be Shakespeare’s signature. There is a cart-load of paper that bears the autographs of Weimar’s heroes.

There are lovely walks and drives around Weimar—so when the pilgrims come, why not hang on to them for a few days or a few weeks? Something like this seems to have been in the minds of the modern residents. And the scheme has met with tremendous success. One sees not so many foreign tourists, perhaps; but swarms of Germans from other parts of the country, who make Weimar their holiday city. Probably the first place that attracts all visitors is the celebrated Garten-Haus of Goethe, where, thanks to Karl August, he spent his summers. It is a stone house of two stories that was considered a luxurious dwelling and reflected the favor in which Goethe lived under the direct patronage and friendship of the archduke. The Garten-Haus remains much as the poet left it. The furniture has been preserved, the chairs, writing desks, and tables. Here lived the favorite of royalty, the emperor of literature; and yet this cottage did not offer the physical comforts of what we would call a “shack” in the environs of our cities. The Schiller-Haus is similarly preserved—a shrine for pilgrims to visit. On the wall of one of its rooms is a picture of the battle of Bunker Hill, placed there by Schiller himself. Many other places are connected with the lives of the poets, whose statues stand before the theater of which Goethe was director.

The remarkable tribute of the city to its great men, however, is the Archiv, where are assembled superb collections of manuscripts, letters, drawings and printed volumes, all throwing light upon some period in the lives of the city’s great men. Here are the originals of the historic letters that passed between Goethe and Schiller—they wrote to each other every day when they could not be together. I believe that the correspondence fills four volumes in English translation. Then the letters from the lords of the world. The letters of the poets to their friends. The manuscripts of most of the famous books of the two. Sentimental verses to their companions. Daybooks or journals. In one journal, which lies open, Goethe records the death of his wife. He writes that he slept well the night before. First editions of all their works; also second, twentieth and fiftieth editions. Translations into all the languages of the civilized world. Association copies bearing their autographs addressed to their friends. Copies of the books of famous authors presented to the Weimar bards. Scraps of paper upon which they made caricatures of their friends. The collection could not have been more complete, apparently, if there had been some one at hand to preserve everything, some one who realized the future celebrity of the two men and appreciated the interest posterity would take in the slightest detail connected with their lives. Here the poets still live, because on sees them intimately. The world’s library shelves are stocked with their books, but here one sees the little brick kitchen in which their meals were cooked—the table the chairs—the beds upon which they slept.

An unsentimental person might argue that Weimar’s hero-worship has been carried too far. A German actor told me that he received the remotest thrill in looking at a chair in which Goethe sat, and he added that he admired “Faust” as much as any man. A man’s books, compositions, or paintings should speak for themselves. Who should care whether the poet had ham or sausage for breakfast? That may be something of the American attitude, but it is not the prevailing German attitude. Goethe and Schiller live in their works; but there is an inspiration in their lives, and Germany wants its youth of the future to know as much as possible about what Germany produced. In a different way, cultural rather than military, she would remind her people of the past, as Mussolini constantly reminds his people of ancient Rome.

At the Archiv I saw two teachers with their classes of boys and girls. The teachers were delivering lectures upon the poets and illustrating their remarks with references to this and that letter or manuscript; pointing out how Goethe changed a line in a poem, how Schiller wrote to him begging him to get to work on his “Faust” and complete it, how Goethe turned over his Swiss notes to his friend and suggested that he write “William Tell,” altho he had thought of doing so himself.

Germans seem forever attempting to acquire information, along with their play. They have made a popular summer resort of this former home of Goethe and Schiller. They are here in large numbers to visit the shrines, and they stay on a few days to tramp over the surrounding hills and through the valley. In the evening they are ready for rather hilarious entertainment. Let’s see what’s on at the big National Theater to-night. A movie? A musical comedy? No. The bill is Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” and Ludwig Wullner as “guest” in the name-part; and you may rest assured the big auditorium will be packed. And there will be no “cuts” in the text, so that it may run for four hours, including intermissions.

Here as in the mountain resorts, the visitor observes the bands of happy German hikers. They arrive at this shrine of culture after having tramped long distances and the country roads around Weimar often have swarms of them, singing merry tunes, even playing what Americans might call “tag”—but always going forward toward the destination of a day’s hike. The miles they cover at times would stagger the championship long-distance hikers in America. At the luncheon table in a restaurant I chatted with a young fellow who told me that he lived thirteen miles outside the city; but he made practise of coming for luncheon and a few hours at least once a week. Twenty-six miles! And he thought no more of it, as far as fatigue is concerned, than an Americna who has covered that distance in a motor car or tram. The railroad stations at all the towns are crowded on Saturday with the outgoing throng. The same thing with the roads. Groups of young people. Sometimes boys and girls of school age—and always in this case with a teacher or chaperon or one who must be obeyed implicitly by all who accompany him. Usually they ride a few miles into the country, then leave the railway and begin the hike. As I write, for example, I am seated in the garden of a tavern several miles outside Weimar. Five young hikers have arrived. There is a spring, the water of which collects in a large basin. The hikers stopped here to “tidy” themselves before going in to town. They may have walked thirty miles to-day, yet they are not too tired for this fix up.

I watched them, because it was interesting to observe the contents of the kits they carried on their backs. One actually sat down on a stone, hung a mirror on the basin of the fountain and shaved his face. All washed. All had soap, tooth-brushes and towels. One took out a mirror and spent considerable time arranging his hair, which had been blown by the winds all day. Each carried a shoe-brush and polished up dust-covered shoes. Quite probably, they had cooked their own food all day and were to enjoy one full meal, with a stein of beer, before retiring.

From here the chapter moves on to Dresden, and I discontinued my photocopying.

Newman Traveltalks: Seeing Germany
By E. M. Newman
Funk & Wagnalls Company
New York and London

1 comment to Historic Weimar