Germany: Elephant never forgets

A view across the market square in Weimar
A view across the market square in Weimar
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In Germany’s Weimar, Jill Turton discovers a place with a thousand stories to tell – of artists, poets and philosophers and the darkest chapters of recent history.

I’m a sucker for old hotels, not those with peeling wallpaper and scuzzy bathrooms, but ones with history in their walls. Hotels like the Algonquin, New York where you can still sit at Dorothy Parker’s Round Table. Or the American Colony, Jerusalem, where generations of war correspondents have swapped tales in the vaulted basement bar. Or the Europa in Belfast, once reputedly the most bombed hotel in Europe. I recently found myself at the Elephant Hotel in Weimar, Germany and discovered another place stuffed with stories to tell.

Founded in 1696, the hotel sits on Weimar’s Marktplatz, ideally placed for the shops, cafes, bars and cultural highlights of the old town, that was once part of the GDR and now reunified is a vibrant, attractive town that in 1999 was nominated a European Capital of Culture.

A UNESCO World Heritage site, too, Weimar has culture to spare. Within a few hundred yards is an astonishing roll call of poets, playwrights, philosophers, artists and musicians associated with the town: Goethe, Schiller, Nietzsche, Bach, Schumann, Liszt, Kandinsky, Klee and Otto Dix, all of whom repaired to the Elephant.

JW Goethe, born in 1749 is Germany’s most celebrated poet, playwright and polymath. He lived most of his life in Weimar and it was said that if you needed to find Goethe, you’d find him in the Elephant Hotel. Of course, there is a town beyond the Elephant and you don’t need to know a word of Faust to enjoy the splendid, museum-like Goethe House on Frauenplan. Here are his private rooms, his garden and his vast art and nature collection.

In contrast, Goethe’s contemporary Friedrich Schilller, poet and playwright, lived in a modest townhouse of creaking wooden floors, geometric wallpaper and a well furnished kitchen. At the top of the house is the study where he wrote the words of Ode to Joy and the drama William Tell and the bed in which he died in 1805.

There is culture at every turn. Weimar was home to the Bauhaus, the radical inter-war movement that promoted a fundamental change in architectural style and design. The Bauhaus Museum opposite the Theatre (where the Weimar Republic was proclaimed), houses an unrivalled collection of Bauhaus art and artefacts. And where did Walter Gropius, the director of the Bauhaus, stay for a year when he first came to Weimar? You guessed it, the Elephant.

Nor does Weimar and the Elephant shy away from its grimmer history.

The hotel was the local Nazi party headquarters and in 1938 was demolished and totally rebuilt for their honoured guest, Adolf Hitler, bequeathing a spacious entrance hall, art deco lamps, marble door surrounds, a ballroom, library and a suite of wood paneled rooms overlooking the gardens designed especially for the Fuhrer.

By 1937 Weimar was growing ever darker. On the Ettersberg Hill just outside town, the infamous transports were bringing 250,000 prisoners from across 40 countries to Germany’s most notorious work camp: Buchenwald.

Many thousands perished and were disposed of in the ovens of the crematorium. They are still there, damningly marked with the logo of the local manufacturers, Topf and Sons.

A visit here is salutary. The gatehouse clock is permanently set at 3.15pm, when on April 11, 1945, US troops liberated Buchenwald and ordered some of the Weimar residents up the hill to see what had gone on.

Nothing here can adequately cover the horrors. For that read Elie Wiesel’s Night, an account of his time there as a 15-year-old boy, trying to save his father and his own fight for survival.

Back in Weimar it’s impossible to fathom how such a place could exist alongside generations of cultural enlightenment like the forward thinking Duchess Anna Amalia who in 1766 decreed that books from the royal collection should be placed in a library available to all. The library grew to contain a million books, including 
Martin Luther’s 1534 bible kept in the Library’s magnificent blue and gold Rococo Hall until a devastating electrical fire in 2004 destroyed 50,000 priceless volumes. A further 62,000 were severely damaged, many by water from the fire hoses. The Luther bibles were saved by the director himself entering the burning building. The building’s restoration took three years. Painstaking repair to the books continues.

Weimar has had much to repair over the years – from Nazism, from Allied bombing, from 45 years of stifling communism.

Happily, civilisation and culture has always prevailed and there is nowhere better to ponder that than the bar of the Elephant Hotel.