There is no more potent symbol of the disaster that befell Germany when the Nazis came to power than the city that defines Germany’s Age of Enlightenment. During the 18th century’s Age of Reason, as it was also known, Weimar was the absolute epicenter of one of the greatest cultural flourishings Europe has known. It is also, famously, home of the Weimar constitution, a progressive, liberal response to the horror and turmoil at the end of the First World War.
A short trip outside the city limits though, brings you to the antithesis of everything those two historic periods represent. Weimar was an important symbol for the Nazis on both counts: a hatred of the Weimar Republic that was founded here as an enlightened, liberal response to militarism; and pride in the city as a centre of German culture. Perhaps that is why they built Buchenwald concentration camp just 10km away.
Weimar was the first stop on our one way trip from Berlin to Brussels. Our belongings were already in the back of a van en route to our new home, and we had a few days to make the same journey at a more leisurely pace – only when driving from Germany’s far east, to its far west do you realise how big it is. As someone who’s a little obsessed by the history of the inter-war years, Weimar was top of the list of places to break the journey.
Weimar is also home to another great German cultural flourishing of the time, Bauhaus. The Bauhaus School was founded here in 1919, allowing Weimar to proudly proclaim itself as the birthplace of Modernism. That though didn’t last long. The Bauhaus movement was despised by the Nazis and, when the city council was taken over by the the far-right, the school was forced to move to Dessau.
Oddly, there’s only one true Bauhaus building in Weimar, the Haus am Horn. Its flat roof and cubist shape are very distinctive. We visited it and the excellent Bauhaus Museum, opened to celebrate the Bauhaus centenary. Haus am Horn was a radical concept, shocking to some, glorious to others. It still feels special today. Weimar Bauhaus is one of the town’s two UNESCO World Heritage Site designations.
There is so much more to explore in Weimar than Bauhaus though. It quickly became apparent that the two days we’d given ourselves was nowhere near enough time to do justice to the town. One reason for that is the intellectual and creative powerhouse that Weimar became in the 18th century, a period known as Classical Weimar, also designated as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The roll call of luminaries who came to work and live in Weimar during that period is nothing less than epic: Liszt, Strauss, Goethe, Bach, Herder and Schiller. Luther and Cranach were earlier visitors. Nietzsche, Gropius, Feininger and Kandinsky came later. All men, of course, but at least in the 18th century they came to Weimar because of a truly outstanding woman.
The widowed Duchess Anna Amalia of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, was the visionary behind the procession of the greatest musicians and intellectuals of the age making Weimar their home. The Rococo Hall that houses her library is one of the highlights of Weimar. Here you can stand where Goethe and Schiller stood amidst a collection of over a million books and manuscripts.
The library stands at one end of the lovely Park an der Ilm, close to Schloss Weimar (shut for renovation). A stroll through the park takes you past numerous historic buildings and monuments, none more significant than the garden house where Goethe wrote several poems. Finally, we sat down in the historic Marktplatz to plan the rest of our visit over a Ehringsdorfer Ritterbräu, a local beer brewed to a 175 year-old recipe.