The publication in recent years of several good books on the history of Weimar might lead one to wonder whether there was really anything more to be said on the subject. Paul Kahl’s fascinating account of the history of the Goethehaus, officially the Goethe-Nationalmuseum, manages to add a wealth of new material and to pose some uncomfortable questions. The museum comprises the house on the Frauenplan in Weimar where Goethe lived from 1782 until his death in 1832, together with extensions built in the twentieth century. The house is the core of the museum, and the rooms in which Goethe himself lived, especially his study, are advertised as being exactly as they were at the time of his death. Kahl’s book uncovers a much more complicated picture. Goethe himself stipulated that his house should not be sold and that everything was to be left as it was found for at least twenty to twenty-five years. He clearly envisaged that his house might become a museum, and there was certainly no lack of people wishing to establish such a thing after 1832. The Grand Duke of Weimar even offered to buy the property and its contents for 40,000 Reichsthaler. Goethe’s heirs, however, had other ideas. His daughter Ottilie, who administered the estate on behalf of her sons, feared that she would be left with nothing if the house was sold. Even the enquiries made between 1842 and 1845 by the German Confederation, which wanted to establish a national museum in Weimar, were fruitless. The house was closed to visitors from 1840 and inhabited variously by the family or by tenants who used Goethe’s own rooms in a variety of ways. On the death of Goethe’s last grandson Walther in 1885 most of his estate passed to the Grand Duke of Weimar; Goethe’s papers were left to the Grand Duchess Sophie. The former now sponsored the establishment of a national museum, while the latter set about commissioning a complete edition of Goethe’s works—the so-called Weimar edition, sometimes also referred to as the ‘Sophien-Ausgabe’. Even at that stage the reconstruction of Goethe’s personal rooms was based on old drawings, contemporary accounts, the post-mortem inventory and guesswork. The first half of the book provides much new material on the transformation of Weimar, and Goethe’s house in particular, into a national shrine before 1914. When Kahl turns to the twentieth century, his equally interesting account of the evolution of the Goethehaus under National Socialism and in the GDR becomes increasingly polemical. His argument here is that, in both periods, the museum was instrumentalised for political purposes in ways that have not been sufficiently acknowledged. The villain of the inter-war period is Hans Wahl, director of the museum from 1918 to 1949. Long regarded as a model Bildungsbürger who did a good job in difficult times, he has in recent years been outed as an anti-Semite and an enthusiastic National Socialist. Kahl provides important further evidence. Wahl’s declaration in 1945 that the Führer had never visited the Goethe-Museum was not entirely true. He had in fact been there once in 1925, though the forty trips he made to Weimar before 1940 were occasioned by his veneration of Nietzsche rather than any respect for Goethe. On a visit in 1934 he even donated 50,000 Reichsmark of his own money towards the construction of a Nietzsche memorial hall (which was never in fact completed). Yet he also made a crucial intervention on behalf of the 1935 extension of the museum. Following an appeal by Wahl, Hitler facilitated a grant of 160,000 Reichsmark, including a small personal donation, which ensured the completion of the project. As Kahl points out, this was the first national museum completed after 1933. While Hitler himself took little interest in Goethe, Hans Wahl lost no opportunity to present the museum as a monument to the new Germany. In retrospect it might seem puzzling how Wahl could have emerged after 1945 with the reputation of having been distant from the Nazi regime. The answer lies in the fact that much of the Weimar town elite was in the same boat: all eager to attest to each other’s innocence. Wahl was also helped by the willingness of the new socialist authorities to overlook his past in return for his help in conserving a coveted cultural asset. The war years had brought further disruption. In 1942 the entire contents of the museum were removed for safe-keeping. Inmates of Buchenwald made many of the crates that were used in the move. Part of the Goethehaus was destroyed by a bomb in February 1945. It was only in 1949, just in time for the celebration of the bicentenary of Goethe’s birth, that the museum reopened. That involved another imaginative reconstruction of the personal rooms. And the new regime in East Germany made the most of the museum. The Goethehaus, like Weimar as a whole, was presented as an island of decency and humanity in German history. The ‘classical humanism’ of the late eighteenth century was portrayed as the precursor of the ‘socialist humanism’ of the GDR. These associations were quickly removed after 1990 as the museum sought to re-position itself as a truly national museum for the united Germany and to re-establish ‘true’ lines of continuity. Kahl suggests that, yet again, provincialism triumphed and the unacceptable or awkward past was whitewashed. Once more, he believes, a rather bogus version of a ‘timeless’ and ‘unchanged’ Goethehaus was presented as authentic to an unsuspecting public. The current permanent exhibition, opened in 2012, focuses solely on Goethe’s life and work in Weimar; it does not engage with what subsequent generations made of his legacy and the uses to which they put it. The house and museum are due to be renovated again soon. It remains to be seen how Kahl’s findings may shape what results from these new works. Meanwhile we have his engrossing study of the museum’s history, which illuminates the often problematic ways in which Goethe’s legacy has been handled over nearly two centuries. © Oxford University Press 2017. All rights reserved.
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 21, 2017
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