Adam Ash

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Friday, December 16, 2005

Weimar as a new locus of the European Idea

In the Ashes of a German Past, a Vision of Europe's Future -- by RICHARD BERNSTEIN

WEIMAR, Germany - When a fire swept through the rococo library in this fabled city of Goethe and Schiller last year, the loss of some 30,000 books, manuscripts and irreplaceable, handwritten musical scores from the 16th to the 18th centuries was clearly incalculable.

But it turns out, a commission appointed by the German government reports, that faulty wiring in the library, the assumed cause of the fire, was not the only problem for Weimar, which has more great cultural monuments per capita than just about any other city in Europe.

Weimar, in the former East Germany, decayed badly under the Communists, and after reunification in 1990 the new federal government didn't do much to make things better.

But then the fire happened, and that has brought a renewed interest in redesigning Weimar, creating a 21st-century concept for an 18th-century city. The aspiration is to unite what are called the Weimar Classics - from its great Goethe and Schiller and Nietzsche archives (plus the graves of all three great figures of German literature and philosophy) to its immense art collections to its Bauhaus Museum - as a sort of restoration of Weimar as an old idea of Europe that fell victim to 200 years or so of nationalist wars and totalitarian experiments.

"Schiller said the German idea is not to be strong with the sword but strong with the word," Hellmut Seemann, the president of a newly reorganized Weimar Classics and Art Collections Foundation, which is in charge of the city's cultural institutions, said in a recent interview.

Mr. Seemann was providing a brief history not just of Weimar but of the idea of Weimar, formed by Germany's greatest figure of the Enlightenment, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, invited by Carl August, the duke of Saxony-Weimar, whose mother, Anna Amalia, created the library that was destroyed.

In large part as a reaction against the French Revolution and Napoleon, Mr. Seemann said, Goethe, Schiller and others formulated the idea of Germany, fragmented into many small states and principalities, as a cultural and spiritual project, rather than as a material and national one.

The notion bears some relationship to what came to be known as the German Sonderweg, the Special Way, the notion that Germany's uniqueness was in the depth of its philosophy, its literature and its culture - though this was an idea later deformed into an aspect of the country's destructive nationalism.

In Mr. Seemann's view, Goethe's notion is an idea whose time has come again, though in a different, expanded context and a vigorously democratic form, applicable not just to Germany but to contemporary Europe, especially the peaceful Europe of the European Union looking for ways to find a common path.

"If there is an idea of Europe," Mr. Seemann said, "then it could be centered here in Weimar, and it would be an idea of culture, not of states or military force or the commercial market."

Goethe, the author of "Faust," a cautionary tale of ambition gone mad that later Germany failed to heed, would probably have understood and approved. But it is an ambitious project and one whose difficulty becomes apparent even in a short visit here.

Weimar is stunning, an amazingly compact treasure, with Goethe's and Schiller's houses; the theater they built; the Renaissance paintings of Lucas Cranach the Elder and the Younger; the gardens, including Goethe's own; the artwork of the founders of the Bauhaus School, whose first home was Weimar.

Not least, of course, there is the ruined Anna Amalia Library, the subject of a major effort that will take decades and cost tens of millions of dollars, to scour the antique book and manuscript markets to replace the collection that was destroyed, as far as possible.

But, aside from the Goethe and Schiller houses, which have always been well maintained, most of the rest needs care and money.

The collection of about 100,000 works on paper, including drawings by Dürer, Michelangelo, Leonardo and others, are threatened because they are mounted on acidic paper. And then there is Duke Carl August's 300-room palace, "a dark and shadowed place," as Mr. Seemann put it.

One wing holds a collection of more than 100,000 lithographs, drawings and other works on paper, in rooms where the plaster is cracked and the wiring from the 1930's and 1940's runs along the scuffed floors.

One of the castle's 22 staircases, known as the Schiller staircase, is a shambles. There are growing concerns that the castle, too, could burn down, which would be a bit like Versailles, on which the castle is modeled, going up in flames.

The new Weimar concept will make the castle a focal point, the place that will tie the rest together. Already a new library has been built near the Anna Amalia Library and extending underground beneath another of Weimar's several princely castles, with the aim of making it a great collection on German literature and culture, open to everybody.

There needs to be a better place for Weimar's important modern art collection, which came about because so many of the artists associated with the Bauhaus - Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and others - lived and worked here in the early 1920's. The original Bauhaus School was established here because Weimar was where the so-called Weimar Constitution, created for Germany's failed post-World War I experiment in democracy, was drafted, in Schiller and Goethe's theater.

That too is part of Weimar's meaning, as Goethe's home and the city of the democratic republic destroyed by Hitler. The paradox is that Hitler also saw Weimar as a kind of distilled essence of the German identity, stripped of Enlightenment content.

Now the idea would be to make this city, very near the border between East and West during the cold war, serve what many in this country feel should be Germany's natural vocation in a united Europe, to bridge the East and the West - or, as Mr. Seemann put it, "to be the place where the European discussion about what Europe means," can take place, just as it did in the time of Goethe and Schiller. A rebirth, as it were.


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