German war guilt is in the news again – exactly seventy years after Hitler committed suicide in Berlin. It seems that contemporary Germany has shed its burden of guilt and moved on.
Credible research reveals that only nine per cent of Germans consider the end of the Second World War to be a crushing defeat. Young people, in particular, prefer to see their fellow countrymen as the victims of Hitler and the Nazi regime. To hardliners and historians, this sounds disturbingly revisionist. To neutrals, it’s somewhat startling but understandable. To sympathisers, it’s all about German confidence, moving on from a burden of guilt that shouldn’t weigh down this generation.
My view on German war guilt echoes Schiller’s remark: “Live with your century; but do not be its creature.” Always leave space for ambivalence. Beware of complacency and peer pressure. Leave the door ajar so the less attractive truth can come calling - even if it’s only a ghost from the past.
Reflecting this new spirit of transparency, Munich has just opened a new museum dedicated to exploring its past as the birthplace of the Nazi movement. The Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism charts the rise of the Nazi party from its founding in Bavaria in 1920, a year before Adolf Hitler became its leader. All this makes me mull over a recent visit to Weimar.
Weimar – “the best and worst place in German history”
Weimar is Germany at its most ambiguous - high culture, low crimes. The city has been dubbed `at once the best and worst place in German history’. The symbolism spins such different messages at home and abroad. I see winter-wrapped citizens skittering over the frozen market square, skating over the surface of history.
To Germans, it’s `the cultural heart’ of the country, linked to rousing writers and musicians, theologians and thinkers. Classical Weimar (1775-1832) chimes with Goethe’s heyday, a time when Weimar was considered a centre of enlightenment, and a stronghold of literary liberalism.
But to us, Bach and Baroque music drown out Goethe and Schiller, Germany’s literary lions, who are still worshipped in Weimar. As for other local heroes, many of us lionise Luther, and his role in the Reformation, and Cranach, a Renaissance artist of European stature.
Yet to foreign visitors with a political agenda, Weimar was Hitler’s heartland, where the SS were based, and where Buchenwald became the largest concentration camp in the German Reich. Not that modern Weimar is tortured, far from it. On the main square, comical chargrilled sausage stands sell phallic sausages. Chocolate-box facades conceal chocolate shops, cosy coffee houses – and Hitler’s home-from-home, with its walls now adorned with the `degenerate art’ that the Nazis banned or burned. Posthumous punishment of sorts. The door is left ajar to a less attractive truth.
Part of the puzzlement is that Weimar sits on both sides of the scales of `Good and Bad Germany' - it's so evenly balanced. Bach versus Buchenwald. Bauhaus versus bratwurst. Bad Germany skating over Good Germany. What’s more, the heretical might mistakenly put Goethe in with the dumplings, bratwurst and the bad guys.
“Live with your century; but do not be its creature” (Friedrich von Schiller)
To Germans, `Classical Weimar’ is studded with Unesco sites, resolutely highbrow shrines to literature and learning, from libraries to lofty writers’ homes. Goethe and Schiller, the German giants of classical literature, are immortalised in a double statue outside the theatre and concert hall. The setting is appropriate for Goethe, the poet and polymath who inspired musicians from Mozart to Mahler. Goethe’s Home is grander than his friend Schiller’s, and designed according to the writer’s arcane `Theory of Colours’ - a dining room always had to be yellow.
Reverence for Goethe was one of the reasons behind the choice of Weimar as the seat of the fledgling German democracy we know as the ill-fated Weimar Republic. For Germans, Weimar remains a shrine to Goethe - even the Nazis never had the nerve to appropriate the Goethe mantle. Around the corner, the Schiller Home is dedicated to Germany’s greatest Classical dramatist. Friedrich von Schiller believed in liberty (`Live with your century; but do not be its creature’) but revelled in the homely restraints of his yellow townhouse. Perhaps unjustly, given his fame, there is no Bach House in Weimar, only in Eisenbach, but the composer lived on the main square, and was elected concert-master here in 1714.
Other `Classical’ treasures include patrician parks and ducal palaces. The Duchess Anna Amalia Library contains a Rococo gem, part drawing-room, part reading-room. The Duchess, and her successor, Duke Carl-August, were patrons of a cosmopolitan, liberal court that made Weimar a mecca for artists and writers, including Goethe. The Rococo Hall was where a grandstanding duchess would show off her learning. The collection also spills into the vaulted storage beneath the square, with space for over a million books, including part of the Goethe-Schiller archives.
In the Gothic Church of St Peter and St Paul, Renaissance art, Reformation fervour and Baroque music spell German high seriousness at its best. As a musical counterpoint, I choose a Bach recital in which to gaze at a Cranach altarpiece depicting the great reformer Martin Luther, the artist’s friend. The painter places Luther and himself beside Christ, stressing the intimate relationship with God, a Protestant notion. Cranach the Elder, court painter and the quintessential German Renaissance artist, spent his last years in Weimar. JS Bach also belongs here, where his children were baptised, and where his cantatas were composed. There are hardly any lightweight compositions by Bach. The composer’s high seriousness makes him the most Germanic of composers. His music is all about intensity, complexity and refinement. Add ambiguity and you have Weimar - or Weimar as a Bach fugue. Bach is a composer who would always have left the door ajar. Can modern Germans do the same?
An East End food safari turns into a story of London immigration, a tale mostly told through street food. If this is `hanging out in the hood’, I’m all for it. Faux gangsterism aside, the journey from East End boozers to bagels and baltis is compelling food history.
How Swiss is Geneva? This sophisticated, French-speaking city seems at odds with much of Swiss-German Switzerland. Geneva has French brasseries aplenty and shuns country bumpkins. Is the city too earnest for its own good or is there a subversive streak in there somewhere?