Goethe and Buchenwald

One Day in Germany

/ by Geoffrey C. Howes

May 1994. A hotel in Apolda, Thuringia, in the former East Germany. I'm escorting a group of students from their three-day field trip to Berlin back to Salzburg, where they've been spending the academic year. Today we have two stops before the bus driver takes us home: Weimar and the Buchenwald concentration camp memorial.


The travel agency booked a hotel in Apolda, not Weimar, our destination. Apolda is small, just over 22,000 inhabitants, about a half hour's drive from Weimar, where the great writers Goethe and Schiller lived and the 1919 constitution for the so-called Weimar Republic was written.


We have a 9:00 a.m. appointment to tour the house where Goethe lived for fifty years. I have to get about twenty-five young people to breakfast and onto the bus with all their luggage by 8:30. We are not coming back to Apolda.


The main reason I'm doing a good job as study-abroad director is that I spend way too much energy worrying about whether I'm doing a good job. This morning I'm already wearing myself out by making sure everyone gets breakfast, turns in their keys, and gets on the bus. But for good measure, I also think about all of it twice before I do it, plus everything that could go wrong. And then I think about it one more time after it's done.


In those days about half of Apolda had been renovated since 1990, when East Germany joined West Germany, bringing the resources needed to move the east from the 1930s into the 1990s. On one side of a street of otherwise similar buildings, everything is spruced up and painted in pastels, while the other side is gray and depressing enough to be a set for The Lives of Others. In the countryside between Apolda and Weimar there are nineteenth-century farmhouses that were last painted decades ago but are now sporting a satellite dish and a new used VW or Opel in the driveway.


We arrive in Weimar in time to disembark and meet our guide at the Goethe residence on the Frauenplan square. We won't lose our reservation. I take a deep breath. For now my job is done and I can try to enjoy the tour.


As a student I admired Goethe's writings (very generous of me), but I was suspicious of the cult of personality around him, which Alfred Polgar and Egon Friedell lampooned in a 1908 skit where Goethe appears to a student and offers to take an oral exam for him—on Goethe. Goethe can't remember the details of his own life, and fails.


And so I'm surprised when Goethe's house captivates me.


Suites of rooms visible from one to the next to the next, each painted its own hue according to Goethe's own theory of color, the colors saturated but light: sky blue, pear green, mustard yellow. The green-painted workroom where Goethe dictated his works is austere, with natural wood desks, shelves, and table. The yellow dining room would be elegant and even understated, but for the oversized classical bust in each corner. Each room focuses and confirms Goethe's personality, his thinking, his collecting, his creativity.


The basic feel is the edle Einfalt und stille Größe—the "noble simplicity and quiet grandeur"—that Winckelmann ascribed to ancient Greek art. But it is also quite intimate: not a museum, but a household, something like what after Goethe's time would be called Biedermeier. I almost feel like I'm intruding on personal space, even though the person has been gone for over 160 years.


After touring the town that will be the Cultural Capital of Europe in 1999 (the next time I'll bring students here), we buy a quick lunch at a supermarket across the square from the German National Theater, where the Weimar constitution was written and adopted in 1919. The students pose in front of the memorial statue of Goethe and Schiller.


Our five-year-old son has an uncanny sense of who's on the bus and who isn't. "Where's Andy?" he loudly wonders, as Andy finishes a cigarette before boarding. All accounted for, we wend our way through the woods and arrive at the Buchenwald Concentration Camp Memorial.


Again, the logistics of group travel have distracted me from the purpose of the field trip: to witness a memorial on the site of mass imprisonment, torture, and murder of the enemies of the Third Reich.


Buchenwald sits atop one of the many beautiful rolling, wooded hills of Thuringia. The view is stunning. I purchase tickets at the shop outside of the camp and distribute them to the group, telling them to gather here again in an hour.


As we approach the camp entrance, our son gets very upset. He doesn't want me to go in. He must have gathered from our talk that this was a place of death, and his five-year-old mind might be thinking I'll never return.


This strange moment, and the first glimpses of the brick crematoria to our right, and the hillside with the outlines of the absent barracks, give me the strongest feeling I've ever had that a place is haunted.


The students and I spread out to study the plaques and memorials to the Jews, Slavs, mentally and physically disabled, Communists, Socialists, Roma and Sinti, Freemasons, Jehovah's Witnesses, criminals, homosexuals, artists, writers, intellectuals, and prisoners of war who died here. These monuments serve to rehumanize the identities to which the National Socialists and their abettors had reduced them.


A few better-known names to stand for the many who were interned here: Jean Améry, Bruno Bettelheim, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Robert Clary, Édouard Daladier, Paul-Émile Janson, Imre Kertész, Jura Soyfer, Ernst Thälmann, Fred Wander, and Elie Wiesel.


The Depot, a four-story building at the foot of the hill, the largest remaining building in Buchenwald, contains exhibits on the history of the Third Reich and the concentration camp. Its presence somehow makes eerier the rectangular outlines of the foundations where scores of barracks once stood.


This was not a death camp, but a work camp. The distinction is a blurry one. Over 55,000 human beings died here from disease, starvation, and overwork, a 24% death rate.


It is a bright blue May day, but during our somber visit ("somber" is correct in tone but not intensity), a thunderstorm rolls in over the Thuringian hills, adding to the surrealism of this most surreal place.


"Surreal" here doesn't mean bizarre, fantastic, unbelievable. It is the surrealism of Kafka, an intensification of reality in which some insatiable logics of human desire — fear, servility, and an egotism that annihilates the self it reveres — run ad absurdum. Far from incredible, it is humblingly, overwhelmingly true to life.


Overwhelmed twice today, once by a surprising manifestation of personality in Goethe's dwelling, and once by the staggering negation of personality at Buchenwald.


Numb in the Buchenwald gift shop. What place is this, in which buying a book is almost a crime.


Two lessons:


Suffering outstrips imagination, but imagination survives suffering.


That you yourself have been there is the most important thing about visiting the Goethe House and the least important thing about visiting Buchenwald.

Geoffrey C. Howes

, professor emeritus of German at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, USA, has published widely on Austrian literature and culture, as well as book-length translations of Robert Musil, Jürg Laederach and Peter Rosei, and many shorter translations. He is assistant editor of No Man’s Land.