Sunday, November 11, 2012

Weimar Literature

The first book dedicated to Weimar I read was Literarische Zustände und Zeitgenossen (Literary circumstances and contemporaries) written by Karl August Böttiger, a classicist. Böttiger collected gossip about tout Weimar during the time of the glorious four, Goethe, Herder, Schiller (not the Apple one), and Wieland that his son Karl Wilhelm Böttiger edited and published in 1838.

Book cover on the left: Böttiger looks with curiosity down at the glorious four with Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt standing in the back.

Most interesting is Böttiger's description of Madame de Staël's visit to Weimar. This courageous and intelligent lady had defied Napoleon, been banned from France and was traveling the few parts of Europe still unoccupied by the French at that time. Being an attractive woman tout Weimar was at her feet. Fascinated by the patchwork of small independent territories making up Germany's rich cultural variety she wrote her famous book De l'Allemagne. To a certain extent its content is still shaping the French view of Germany nowadays.

 In his book Böttiger even dares to unmask Goethe who is rocking his illigitimate son on his lap while getting bald and fat, the latter thanks to Christiane's, his concubine's, good cooking.

Genius Goethe's unmasking continues in Sigrid Damm's book Christiane and Goethe. Damm tells the fascinating story of the scandalous relation. Goethe, the Duke's State Minister, who had just returned to Weimar from his Italien journey (where a Roman girl, Faustina, had taken his virginity) made young Christiane Vulpius his mistress calling her his Bettschatz (bed darling). Goethe did not care that the Weimar society shunned him because of his concubinage as long as his friend Duke August became his son's August godfather. Goethe married Christiane only after she had courageously saved his life during an attack by some drunken French soldiers. They broke into the house following Weimar's take by the Napoleon army. The author tells us how Christiane suffered from the genius's ego during her life long relationship.

Das klassische Weimar (Classical Weimar) is a collection of texts written by contemporary witnesses. They describe Weimar personalities, the town's social life, life at the ducal court, the theater where Goethe had been director at times, Goethe's house at the Frauenplan and its inhabitants, the years of the French occupation, and people on a "pilgrimage" in Weimar.

Similarly the book Treffpunkt Weimar-Literatur und Leben zur Zeit Goethes (Meeting point Weimar - literature and life during the time of Goethe) describes Weimar's Golden Age but it is written in the style of a novel and therefore easy reading. The authors combine their text with citations from this classical period mostly taken from letters. This is a technique I use on my historical website for Freiburg too because contemporary witnesses write spontaneously and make the whole story more lively. In general only few explanations are required to clarify the embedded original texts.

Star journalist Peter Merseburger's book Mythos Weimar zwischen Geist und Macht (The Weimar myth between mind and power) looks behind what is called the Weimar myth. Merseburger analyses the Golden Age of Goethe, Herder, Schiller, and Wieland followed by Weimar's Silver Age with Franz Liszt. He continues with the Duke's abdication after the First World War, the adoption of the Weimar Constitution thwarted by the early rise of the Nazis in Thuringia, the rise and fall of the Bauhaus, the concentration camp Buchenwald, and the lost Second World War resulting in the communist takeover in the Eastern part of Germany including the continued use of Buchenwald.

The book Wege nach Weimar. Auf der Suche nach der Einheit von Kunst und Politik accompanied a exhibition of Weimar's history that took place in 1999 in the Gauforum. This building was started in 1938 with Hitler himself posing the foundation stone. Due to the fact that Nazis participated in the Thurigian government well before their Machtergreifung in Berlin in January 1933 made Weimar together with Bayreuth, Linz, and Nuremberg one of Hitler's favorite towns. On the other hand he detested Vienna because of its many Jews and Berlin because he was a native Austrian.

Consequently exhibition and catalog dealt with Weimar's history between 1919 and 1945 but they did not stop there. Both continue documenting the seamless transition from the brown to a red dictatorship. The people did not have the ghost of a chance. While the Americans taught us democracy in the West, the Soviets imposed their communist regime in the East forcing the Social Democrats into a union with the Communists Party becoming the SED (United German Socialist Party), and degraded the Christian Democrats and the Liberals to satellite parties. The catalog is a gold mine of pictures documenting Weimar's historical development during the last century.

Finally a two volume catalog of the Goethe National Museum Wiederholte Spiegelungen: Weimarer Klassik 1759-1832 (Repeated reflections: Classical Weimar) was published on the occasion of the opening of the National Museum adjacent to the Goethehaus in 1999. The catalog is a collection of pictures and texts describing the exhibition pieces. The two volumes of 500 pages each were heavy to carry home but every gram was worth the effort.

After the old exhibition was closed in 2008 a completely remodeled display opened on August 23, 2012. It is called Lebensfluten, Tatensturm (Floods of life, storms of action). There now are fewer pieces exhibited in a more modern environment concentrating on Goethe's life. Consequently the companion book is much thinner with only 288 pages.

The books:

Karl August Böttiger: Literarische Zustände und Zeitgenossen. Begegnungen und Gespräche im klassischen Weimar. Hg. von Klaus Gerlach und René Sternke. Aufbau-Verlag, Berlin 1998, ISBN 3-351-02829-6

Sigrid Damm: Christiane und Goethe. Insel Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1998, ISBN 3-458-16912-1

Heinrich Pleticha: Das klassische Weimar, Komet Verlag GmbH, Köln 1983, ISBN 3-89836-517-4

Norbert Oellers und Robert Steegers: Treffpunkt Weimar - Literatur und Leben zur Zeit Goethes, Philipp Reclam jun., Stuttgart 1999, ISBN 4-15-010449-1

Peter Merseburger: Mythos Weimar. Zwischen Geist und Macht, DVA, Stuttgart 1998, ISBN 978-3423307871

Michael Dorrmann und Hans Wilderotter (Hrsg.): Wege nach Weimar. Auf der Suche nach der Einheit von Kunst und Politik, Jovis Verlag, Berlin 1999, ISBN 3-931321-18-5

Caroline Gille, Gerhard Schuster und Stiftung Weimarer Klassik (Hrsg.): Wiederholte Spiegelungen: Weimarer Klassik 1759-1832. Ständige Ausstellung des Goethe-Nationalmuseums, Carl Hanser Verlag, München 1999, ISBN 3-446-19499-1

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