On what has become an annual pilgrimage to the Reformation sites of East Germany during the week after Christmas, my tour group and I revel in the heroic actions of Luther at the Erfurt monastery, the Wartburg fortress, and the Wittenberg castle church; and on New Year’s Eve we meet the shade of J. S. Bach as his chorales resound through St. Thomas Church, Leipzig, announcing another year of grace. But along the way we have contact with two places whose associations are very far from the Reformation era and the great period of Baroque orthodoxy.
These two historical sites are Weimar and Buchenwald, one the center of the eighteenth-century German “Enlightenment,” the other perhaps the most horrible of the death camps of World War II. Buchenwald is on a hill just above Weimar. Thus the epitome of man’s inhumanity to man was demonstrated just a few kilometers from the city that lauded man’s perfectibility. A chance irony? On one level, yes, but on another (the level where the Lord “laughs them to derision”?), a parable of the history of a fallen race.
Even today, in the suffocating embrace of the totalitarian-Marxist German Democratic Republic, Weimar is a perfect physical expression of the eighteenth-century “Age of Reason.” Its broad streets and rationally placed buildings impress the visitor with a sense of order and humanistic self-satisfaction. It is as if eighteenth-century Freemasonry’s Great Architect of the Universe had himself been hired to lay out the town. Here Goethe, Schiller, and Herder gave expression to the German Enlightenment and to its Classical-Romantic worship of Man.
As the greatest literary representative of the era, Goethe serves as our best introduction to its central beliefs—and myths. While a law student ...1