In East Germany in the late Sixties I happened to be present when an English visitor created a public scene, rare at that time, by challenging a pompous official on a matter of apparent state ideology. The official was a Communist Party hack (or maybe he was just trying to make a living) and he was showing a group of Western visitors through Goethe’s house in Weimar. The Englishman was a spirited old man on some kind of officially sponsored tour. I never saw him again and remembered him because at the time—Soviet and East German tanks had just rolled into Prague—even for eigners were trying to keep their mouths shut, at least in public.
Goethe’s house is a fine baroque mansion in the center of Weimar on the Frauenplan. The poet spent nearly half a century there until his death in 1832. The old Englishman and his group with their official host had been winding their way through Goethe’s stately reception rooms filled with beautiful objets and were just filing into Goethe’s spartan working room in the back of the house, with its rough wooden floor, bare walls, and simple standing desk at which he had written much of his poetry—his prose he would often dictate to two secretaries simultaneously. At this point the official announced in a solemn voice that in his visionary Part Two of Faust the great sage had actually anticipated the insights of “scientific socialism” and even the establishment of Communist East Germany, “the first free workers’ and peasant state on German soil.”
For the old Englishman this was simply too much. “Bullshit,” he cried. “Bullshit!” He was not going to listen to this nonsense for one minute longer. The others in his group stood around in embarrassed silence. The official offered to elucidate. The old man cut him short. He repeated his charge and said he was returning to his hotel. The rest continued their tour of the house. In the adjacent Goethe Museum I noticed several display cases that were expounding similar propagandistic messages. I remember one in particular which hailed Goethe as an early advocate of international disarmament since, as a minister in the government of the Duke of Weimar, he had advocated the reduction of the ducal army from some five hundred to three hundred men. But his proposed reforms were “thwarted by the reaction.”
Weimar is a small provincial town, still the administrative center of a small district, as it was in Goethe’s time. Some visitors wonder, as others must have done for almost two centuries, how the great man could bear to spend most of his long life in this dull bureaucratic nest. At different periods, Weimar was also the city of Schiller, Cranach, Herder, Liszt, Wieland, and Nietzsche—they all have their monuments, museums, and archives here. Before the Communist takeover in 1945 it was populated mostly by widows, retired bureaucrats, professors, and army officers. Harry Kessler, the great diarist of the Weimar period, complained that from such…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.