Features » History


The universal spirit takes a walk

Gustav Seibt pays tribute to Thuringia and Saxony Anhalt, Germany's neglected cultural heartland

Prussia is undergoing its periodic revival in historical memory. Spawned by a 200-year anniversary of its defeats and reforms, fired by brilliant portraits such as Christopher Clark's "Prussia" (more) or Günter de Bruyn's "Als Poesie gut", both of which made the bestseller lists, the public has discovered a state that was concerned with matters of the mind and spirit a far cry from militarism. The intellectual nostalgia for Humboldt and the undiminished relevance of Schinkel's functionalism haven't hurt either.

Equally relevant is that, a decade after the German capital moved to Berlin, the new arrivals have begun exploring their surroundings and are setting themselves up in the old manor houses and farms, next to the simple churches with their graveyards full of soldiers and poets. Fontane will become, for a new generation, the local historical guide to all things Prussian and everyone is just waiting for the new edition of Willibald Alexis' "Die Hosen des Herrn von Bredow," (Herr von Bredow's trousers) which never fell from grace, not even in the GDR.

But however attractive the steppes-like landscape between Beeskow and Angermünde, however tasty the organic fruit from Brodowin and charming the manor houses around Großziethen, it is primarily the quietness and emptiness that appeals to R&R hungry Berliners eager to swap the city's excesses for a weekend spent savouring a little officer's anecdote about a count who, for a change, chose to disobey the king and had inscribed on his grave: "Chose disgrace when obedience would have caused him dishonour."

If you drive two hundred kilometers south, you come to a region where a lot more was going on. Here the history is so intricate and divided that it can't be made to suit the purposes of nostalgic identification although this is where, quite literally, everything German that had a positive influence on the world, began. Between Wittenberg on the Elbe and Weimar on the Ilm are regions that get hillier to the south, in whose little cities creative production developed over three centuries with an intensity comparable only to Tuscany in the Renaissance or Greece in Antiquity. Thuringia and what used to be the regions of Anhalt are to the Germany what Umbria is to the Italians: the heart of our country. But this never acknowledged by those caught up praising Prussia.

Yet a simple listing of events reveals this to be an anomaly. This region – between Erfurt and Wittenberg – is where Luther's Reformation began, and spread around the world, making among other things, the United States what it is today. Here - between Weimar and Dessau – the Bauhaus style was developed, and continues to shape metropolises the world over. And here Bach and Goethe got to work, here Luther wrote his translation of the Bible in the German language we still write with today.

When Goethe held his eulogy for Christoph Martin Wieland in 1813, he said – referring to the battle of Jena and Auerstedt – world history has decided "to accompany us on our walks." This is yet more applicable in a spiritual sense. When Napoleon rode from Jena to Weimar in 1806, the "Phenomenology of Spirit" lay on a desk in one city, the first part of "Faust" in the other. Yet the region was not under the rule of some splendid state power but rather shared between a puzzle of principalities which anywhere elsewould have been considered little more than estates.

There was a prince on the Elbe who converted his entire property into a landscape garden and who preferred to mark all the final exams in his schools personally. The University of Jena, which four patrons had struggled to keep on its legs, became home to a revolution in the history of philosophy. The Duke of Weimar had his best poet design the interior of his castle. During the summer in a little nest called Lauchstädt, plays that would have been more at home in the "Comedie francaise" were put on before audiences of 500, featuring a cast of mostly students from Halle, while the absent theatre director, Herr von Goethe, had his partner inform him of the nightly hauls – between 350 thalers (for Schiller) and 250 (for Goethe).

It's worth taking a trip to Lauchstädt to see the virtually un-changed theatre that Goethe designed himself, right down to the colour scheme, to gauge the incredible discrepancy between the puppet-like surroundings and the spiritual heights. The universal spirit really was taking walks here and most of them ended in the same spot. In Ilmenau, in Ossmannstedt or Bad Berka – there was hardly a place that did not spawn a classical work.

What made such productivity possible? I could spin all sorts of grand theories – such as the one about the situation in a former colonial country where things that had been developed elsewhere were simplified or crystallised and tailored for export: the German language, for example, which Luther trimmed of its dialect for interregional use; or Christianity, which the very same Luther freed of its swarm of saints and religious prescriptions; or functional building practice, which manifested itself in the classicism of Wörlitz and in Bauhaus, where beauty met praticality and affordability.

More tangible perhaps was situtation arising from the smallness of the courts. This offered protection against the outside world and internal material constraints which combined to promote stubbornness and ingenuity. Without his Saxon princes, Luther would have been just another burned heretic of the late Middle Ages. And the representational needs of a dozen courts concentrated in a small area gave rise to a vast handicraft tradition and the aesthetic education of an entire region – but with the most modest means. Culture between Wörlitz and Weimar consisted largely of plaster, papier mache and local building materials, the charm had to come from the conception, the brilliant idea. The unmistakable certainty in taste, décor included, bears witness to the breadth of this aesthetic understanding.

It was similar with music, which, rather than working with the large apparatuses of the opera and courtly representation, remained within the domain of church and chamber music. The countryside that boasted a castle every fifty kilometers didn't produce a Versailles, and all that goes along with it, not even a Potsdam, but works that could be performed for the church pews or on a few planks: the "Matthäuspassion" and the "Torquato Tasso." Luther's Bible was completed in a tower and then interpreted by hundreds of students. The unique burst of productivity in central Germany stems from this intimacy.

It never meant provincialism. Court culture at any level is, by definition, internationally-networked, if only for marital reasons. The princes and princesses of Anhalt and Saxony-Coburg ended up on the thrones of Russia and England, Belgium and Bulgaria and several smaller countries.

This is the inheritance of Germany and by extension, of two of its poorer federal states - Saxony Anhalt and Thuringia. Which is why it is so problematic that we have an elegant, urban nostalgia for Prussia but no real awareness of the core zone between the Elbe and the Thuringian forest. Dresden was an asset to national efforts, aided by the TV broadcasters, but in Weimar, a library burnt to the ground because there was no funding for interim storage.

The Foundation of Weimar Classics is doing reasonably well under the circumstances. The gardens in Wörlitz are grotesquely under-funded and in Thuringia, you need only to leave Weimar for Gotha, let's say, to find unimaginable neglect. In Gotha there's a castle which dates back to 1643 and represents the first building of distinction to be erected in the aftermath of the Thirty Years War: historically a place of unique interest with heavy, bulging Italian stucco, – the first suggestion of aesthetic global traffic. But who has heard of Gotha? Nobody reads Gustav Freytag's novel "The Lost Manuscript" anymore, which is set in the castle, and the social democrats, who released their most important agenda there, have greater worries than the upkeep of tradition. Fifty years ago, when Thomas Mann was driving to Weimar via Gotha, he stopped at Freytag's grave, in the suburb of Siebleben, to commemorate his once-famous colleague.

Thuringia and Anhalt have disappeared from the public eye because they don't have a Berlin at their centre, from where curious city folk, armed with literature, can set off for their villages and royal estates. But they are the most cultivated and historically interesting parts of Germany and they don't have a Fontane, quite simply because they have so much more to tell.


This article originally appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on Thursday 6 September, 2007.

Gustav Seibt, born in 1959, studied literature and history. He was editor at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, has written for Die Zeit and currently writes for the Süddeutsche Zeitung. His most recent book "Rom oder Tod" deals with the founding of Italy in 1861.

translation: nb - let's talk european