by Brooks Riley
To paraphrase Heinrich Heine, I dream of Weimar in the night—not the era, but the town of Weimar, a lovely word on its own, one steeped in intellectual significance, historical resonance, cultural audacity, political and artistic enlightenment, philosophical bravura–and in modern times monstrous atrocity.
I remember the first time I heard the word Weimar. It wasn’t that small town in Germany where Goethe, Schiller, Nietzsche, Liszt, Luther, Cranach, Bach, Wagner, Gropius, Klee, Kandinsky, Strauss, Schopenhauer and countless other thinkers and artists once lived–or even where Kafka on a visit fell in love with the daughter of the caretaker of Goethe’s house.
It wasn’t the birthplace of the Bauhaus movement. It wasn’t the place where the new German constitution was signed in 1919 launching the legendary Weimar Republic, that glittering era of promise before the darkness fell. And it wasn’t the town closest to the murderous concentration camp at Buchenwald.
It was our Weimaraner, a hunting dog my father acquired to quell his thirst for a canine to tip the balance in a feline household. But Tonndorf, named for the castle a few miles from Weimar where my father, Artillery Commander of the 6th Armored Division had quartered with his regiment at the end of World War 2, wasn’t allowed in our household, and was banished to the stable with the horses, where he spent hours hoping to catch a rat coming out of a hole in the earthen floor of a stall, successful only once in all his years, when an emerging rat took a wrong turn and landed in his maw.
Weimaraners were exotic in the mid-Fifties. They hadn’t been discovered by William Wegman or immortalized in the Museum of Modern Art. What I remember best about Tonndorf was the color of his coat, my favorite color, taupe. Taupe is the color gray with a smile, a hint of warmth that seeps through the sober neutrality of lightened black. I never think of Weimar without somehow seeing taupe, and when I look at Goethe’s color wheel, I can’t help wishing he had added that smile.
It would be many years before I actually went to Weimar, years before I began to understand the subterranean currents that would lead me there. So many interests of mine had their genesis in Weimar or were inextricably entwined with it. In college, a term paper of mine dealt with Friedrich Schiller’s Wallenstein trilogy, which was written and premiered there. In it, I posited that Schiller might have foreseen the dangers of Napoleon, and had written Wallenstein as a parable. Ironically, Weimar later briefly fell to Napoleon.
To understand Weimar, it’s important to remember how small it was, and how small it still is. At the time Goethe moved there in 1775, invited by the enlightened 18-year-old new Duke Karl August of Saxe-Weimar (who also developed the Weimaraner breed of dog, by the way), it had roughly 6,000 inhabitants, fewer than a single city block in New York. It was in the middle of nowhere–far from Frankfurt, far from Berlin, far from Munich, and very far from the other important cultural metropoles of Europe–nestled in the rolling hills of Thuringia between Erfurt and Jena. Today, it is home to around 65,000.
Even in Goethe’s time, now referred to as the Golden age, Weimar already had a rich heritage. Johann Sebastian Bach had lived there for nine years before he was jailed for a month by an earlier Duke for stubbornness and insolence (there’s more to that story), and then fired; Luther had spent time there, Cranach the Elder too.
I like small towns. After an early childhood in Paris, I grew up in a small American town and have since peppered my life’s big-city resume intermittently with residency in small towns. I live in one now. Small towns embody the promise of perfection even when they don’t or can’t live up to that promise. At their best, they are miniature well-oiled societal structures without the agonies of big-city overcrowding and logistical isolation, the kindness of neighbors trumping the kindness of strangers. At their worst, they are teapots of conflict, as anyone who’s ever seen a Western can attest.
I fell in love with Weimar when I worked there in 2008 directing the Deutsches Nationaltheater‘s production of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung for DVD. During a lunch break I once wandered into the empty Jakobskirche where an organist was practicing a prelude that Bach had written for that church 300 years earlier. At the theater itself, at work on that quintessential work of German culture, I was breathing the rarefied air of past triumphs: among them, the world premiere of Wagner’s Lohengrin, of Richard Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration (in nearby Eisenach), and Don Juan (both written when he was Kapellmeister in Weimar), of Goethe’s Iphigenia in Tauris and Torquato Tasso, of the late Schiller dramas directed by Goethe, then intendant of the theater (even if the building had been replaced).
Historical Weimar is well known and accessible. But my Weimar, and the Weimar my father saw, and that people I have known survived, form a network in my brain, that spreads far beyond the physical proximity, through many degrees of separation.
The significance of Weimar as the paradigm of German culture was not lost on Adolf Hitler, who is said to have visited Weimar 40 times before he came to power. Knowing what I know about Weimar in the years leading up to and including the Third Reich, it’s difficult not to see a cautionary tale at work, one that applies to the history now being made in America. When the Bauhaus decamped for Dessau in 1925, it was due to Weimar’s growing conservatism and hostility to anything new. Thuringia became the first German state to have a Nazi government. The Nazis tried to co-opt the great heritage of Weimar, claiming what was not rightfully theirs, the way America’s greatness is not rightfully the provenance of Donald Trump. They even distorted Nietzsche’s legacy as his own racist sister had done after he died.
C.G. Jung and the collective unconscious come to mind. What could be more emblematic than the Icarus plunge to earth of Weimar and a whole nation suddenly dominated by its Shadow? The more enlightened a culture (think Weimar), the deeper its fall when the Shadow ermerges from the recesses of the collective unconscious, when the negative aspects of personal character that are normally held in check by mutual agreement, are then suddenly unleashed (think nearby Buchenwald).
It’s difficult not to think of Weimar these days, when our own, older republic now seems on the verge of annihilation in ways not unlike the massive assault on the Weimar Republic in 1933. The new liberal constitution that launched that brief period of promise after the ‘war to end all wars’, was signed in the Deutsches Nationaltheater in Weimar in 1919. The plaque Gropius designed to commemorate that event was removed by the Nazis, and eventually replaced by a replica after the war.
The Weimar constitution was never repealed when the Nazis came to power. Instead, it was abused again and again, its loopholes wide enough to drive the panzers of perdition straight through to cataclysm, in ways its drafters could never have imagined.
The Weimar constitution didn’t take into account the possibility of a Hitler. Our own constitution too begs the question: Are there loopholes wide enough for an orange Hummer to drive through? Does our constitution take into account the possibility of a Trump? Are there safeguards against madness, demagoguery or even infantile wilfulness? Unfortunately, it takes more than one to tango and 62 million people voted for Trump in spite of his faults and limitations (or because of them). Is the Jungian Shadow reemerging at the collective level, turning our great nation into a cesspool of racism, rancor, recrimination and mean-spirited self-destructiion?
Speaking of constitutions, in 1816 Goethe’s old friend and patron, now Grand Duke Karl August of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach was the first monarch in Germany to give his land a constitution, in which he guaranteed both freedom of speech and freedom of the press, urging his people to think for themselves. Enlightened leadership always leads to a healthy society and encourages creativity and self-determination. It was true in Weimar, and it was true in America, until now. As for walls, Weimar tore down its wall in 1757 seeing no need to keep people in, or out.
During the Third Reich, Weimar’s National Theater, which had once presented the greatest works in the German canon, stooped to play host to the keepers at Buchenwald, offering them light entertainment in the form of operettas like Franz Lehar’s Land of Smiles, while the librettist of that work, Fritz Löhner-Beda, was imprisoned in the camp nearby, writing the lyrics for the astonishing Buchenwaldlied (Buchenwald song) for his fellow inmates. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fritz_L%C3%B6hner-Beda
Many years later, after a screening in Santa Fe of Marc Neikrug’s poignant musical drama Through Roses, about a violinist who had survived Auschwitz, I heard the song for the first time when an old man in the front row stood up and sang it. By the time he finished, we were all in Buchenwald somehow, the intervening years and separations of individual destiny evaporating, just as they had for the violinist in the film.
The Fifties in America could be called the Years of Silence. No one spoke of the Nazi genocide, it wasn’t taught in schools, and the words Shoah and Holocaust had yet to join common parlance. The extermination of the Jews by the Third Reich, so sensationally reported immediately after the liberation of the camps, had slipped into oblivion, remembered only by those most affected, the survivors themselves and their families.
I first learned of the Shoah from Leon Uris’s novel Exodus, which I read in high school in 1960. It would be another ten years before the Holocaust began to take hold in the American consciousness, gaining momentum as the years have gone by.
My own father, an otherwise lively storyteller, never told war stories and disapproved of those who did. After he died in 1971, I found a shoe-box full of snapshots of Buchenwald, tucked away in a cupboard in our library. The significance of those photos would not become apparent for another twenty years, when, exactly 50 years after the liberation of Buchenwald, I saw him by chance on German television, showing a French general around the camp, a month after it had been liberated.
The ensuing sadness that he’d never told me anything about that time was juxtaposed with my memory of Buchenwald survivor Elie Wiesel, with whom I once had an intense philosophical conversation about belonging. The two men breathing the same air within a few weeks in history seemed like an event of personal synchronicity.
On a day off from Wagner, I decided to visit Schloss Tonndorf , the castle on a high plateau a few miles from Weimar where my father and his men resided for two months at the end of the war in 1945. During that time, according to the Battle Book of Division Artillery, it developed into a community that boasted of ‘a laundry, a radio repair service, a tailor shop, a dry cleaning agency, a post exchange, a movie house, a beer garden, a newspaper, a baseball diamond, a military government, a police force, a photo laboratory, a ballroom, and an airport.’ And, to go with that diamond, a baseball team called Riley’s Red Raiders. A pop-up small town of men waiting to go home, grateful that the war was over. http://www.schloss-tonndorf.de/
After driving the rutted dirt road up to the castle, I soon learned that it was once again a community, now a utopian new-age commune devoted to ecological principles and peaceful co-existence. Thirty like-minded souls each paid 10,000 Euros to buy the castle in 2005. Now it produces honey, elderberry champagne, and bio milk products, offers classes in yoga, and puts on arts festivals. The only trace of my father’s sojourn there was a photo pinned to its community bulletin board, with him and his men in the courtyard saluting the American flag.
Weimar has never been more beautiful than it is today, but its beauty is tragic, forever scarred by loss of innocence. The spirit of Weimar has been embalmed, the good along with the bad, in a town that has become a museum and no longer resonates in the modern world. In 2008 Johann Sebastian Bach was officially pardoned by the nominal Prince of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. A few wrongs can be made right, but most are permanent stains that will live on in perpetuity.
What can tiny Weimar tell the vast United States of America? That no society, however enlightened, principled or idealist, is immune to the forces of darkness, as we are now reminded by the Washington Post’s new slogan, ‘Democracy dies in darkness‘.
In 1968, at a party at the Architectural League in New York, the widow of Bauhaus member László Moholy-Nagy told me that America was becoming just like Germany in 1933. ‘Wrong,‘ I countered, ‘It could never happen here.‘ Or could it?