Germany's land of poets and thinkers
The quiet landscapes and picturesque towns of Thuringia were once home to German enlightenment and literature. (Matt Munro)
‘What does this place mean to you?’ I ask the lady at the Wartburg – the immense castle that crouches over the crest of the mountain above the town of Eisenach. She doesn’t hesitate: ‘To me? To Germans? One thousand years of positive German history.’
The stress she put on it is understandable. Against her statement, the cacophony and catastrophe of a couple of decades can seem much more urgent. In the foreground, Hitler, the Third Reich, the brutality of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR) and Erich Honecker’s Stasi. Yet centuries behind that, there is a more idealistic Germany of student brotherhood, Nobel Prize laureate Thomas Mann, German theologist Martin Luther, literary figurehead Goethe and composer Johann Sebastian Bach. To return to the warm heart of thinking, Romantic Germany, there’s no richer or more evocative journey to take than into the quiet landscapes of Thuringia.
Germany contributed an enormous amount to philosophy, learning, music, literature and independent thought. Almost all of this can be found in this small-scale land. Why here? The princes and rulers of Germany’s tiny city states were often resistant to authority and liked to support great minds. In the early 16th century, Luther was sheltered in the Wartburg when most of Europe was up in arms about his Protestant Reformation, and he worked there on the first translation of the Bible into German. The princely state of Weimar became, at the end of the 18th century, a place where great writers of the day were treated as heroes; Schiller and Goethe are forever associated with the city. Bach passed through the region in his early career, moving from one place to another as an adornment to churches and courts. There are famous universities, including the FSU in the city of Jena, where modern philosophy was forged and independent thinking nurtured.
The roots of idealism are here: the idea that through literature, writing, thinking and scientific inquiry, the human race can improve itself and individual human beings can create lives for themselves through ceaseless self-questioning and independent thought. And if that seems like an elevated reason to travel, Thuringia’s also home to the most famous sausage in Germany – a spiced Rostbratwurst that’s now protected under EU law.
This small state rests in the centre of the old East Germany. None of its cities have more than 200,000 inhabitants, and it was largely spared the ravages of war and the brutalising planning of DDR architects. To venture into Thuringia is to go into a world of enchanted forests, mysteriously folding hills and small, quiet towns with, perhaps, a grand decaying Schloss (fortress) up on the hill behind. Very few foreign tourists find their way to this part of the country, which holds a special place in the hearts of German people. Only seven of every 100 visitors are non-German – the other 93 come for a break from their busy lives, and to ask if the hands of the Schloss clock remain at 10 minutes to three, and if there will be bratwurst for tea.
Go at dead of winter, when the trees are rimmed with frost and, hanging in the sky, the snow crystals turn the light an unearthly pink, and the only noise in the remote corners is of your boots crunching through the untouched snow on the forest paths. Walk up into the hills above Ilmenau, where Goethe walked, and relish the utter stillness. Start, perhaps, with the Wartburg itself, a massive Romantic-era construction above the handsome town of Eisenach. Created by a prince called Ludwig the Leaper in the 12th century, almost everybody who matters has been through its grand halls and courtyards since. It is where the medieval guilds of singers, the Minnesingers, held competitions, and Luther took refuge under the pseudonym Junker Jorg in order to make his translation of the Bible. The study, where he contemplated a whale’s vertebra and worked, is still here, as is the ink stain on the wall where one afternoon he saw the devil and threw an ink pot at him. And also, in the magical great hall, the first vow to create a united Germany was taken by students in 1817.