Goethe's Oak

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Christopher Cook walks from the town of Weimar, home of Goethe and German culture, through the beech woods to the site of the former concentration camp of Buchenwald.

Uniting all these places and three generations of German memory and culture is the stump of Goethe's Oak, a tree whose own story branches through turbulent and often cruel history.

Oral history of survivors, including the final interview with Norwegian Reidar Dittmann, the poetry of Goethe and the fiction of Buchenwald's most powerful story teller Jorge Semprun, who also died this year, weave in and out of Cook's journey to create a powerful tale of culture and survival.

August 1944, a tree burns in Buchenwald concentration camp.

Goethe's Oak is on fire, hit by a stray incendiary bomb.

To some of the prisoners in this wretched place its final moments were prophetic.

Surely the days of the Nazi Reich must be numbered now.

Goethe's Oak, 'the Fat Oak', with its wizened and gnarled trunk had become a powerful symbol for those imprisoned in the camp at Buchenwald.

Supposedly, this was the very tree where Goethe had once sat with his love to contemplate the beauty of the woods and the world around him.

Here he supposedly wrote such poems as the immortal Wanderer's Night Song.

The woods at Ettersberg that surround the oak are just a short walk from the town of Weimar where Goethe had made his reputation as one of the great thinkers of the age, helping to define a new German culture and identity.

The National Socialists also loved Weimar.

The Hitler Youth were founded nearby; Hitler stayed there frequently and spoke at public rallies.

Then in 1937, the S.S.

decided to carve out a concentration camp out of the Ettersberg.

That was the camp's first name but local objections, uneasy about associating a camp with the revered name of Goethe, saw the camp renamed as Buchenwald.

The only tree left standing in this vast complex was the 'Goethe Oak'.

For the Nazi's it legitimated their regime, showed their love for history and German culture and their desire to incorporate Goethe's world into the Nazi one.

For the prisoners, stealing precious moments from their murderous labours, the branches offered precious shade and a reminder of the other Germany that had been imprisoned with them.

Now, twenty years after the end of East Germany and sixty-five years after the American army liberated Buchenwald, the many meanings of both tree and camp continue to occupy survivors, historians and perhaps Germany itself.

Producer: Mark Burman.

Christopher Cook pieces together the story of the ancient Goethe's Oak tree in Buchenwald.

Christopher Cook pieces together the complex story of a symbol and a place.

Goethe's Oak, 'the Fat Oak', with its wizened and gnarled trunk became a powerful symbol for those imprisoned in the camp at Buchenwald.

Supposedly, this was the very tree where Goethe had once sat with his lover and contemplated the beauty of the woods and the world around him, where he wrote poetry too.

The woods at Ettersberg that surround the oak are just a short walk from the town of Weimar where Goethe had made his home and his reputation as one of the great thinkers of the age.

Presiding over a new classical age in Germany, a country still in its infancy, Goethe helped to define a new German identity.

decided to carve out a concentration camp in the woods up on the Ettersberg.

First it was named for the Ettersberg itself.

But the community in Weimar, many of them National Socialists, were uneasy about the name with its close associations with the life and achievements of Goethe.

So the beech woods themselves gave the camp its new name of Buchenwald.

'Goethe's Oak' became the sole tree standing in the camp.

For those able to steal a few free moments from their punishing 14-16 hours work detail it offered precious shade.

And this single oak tree became a potent symbol for the prisoners of the other Germany, the Germany of Goethe, Schiller and the poet Wieland.

A place of dignity where men might be free.

But the oak was already dying, its roots were starved of water.

By August 1944 the oak's branches were bare and bleached.

An Allied bombing raid of the surrounding armaments factory accidentally reduced 'Goethe's Oak' to a charred stump.

Its destruction was for some a certain omen that the Reich would soon fall.

In secret a fragment of the charred wood was smuggled away and carved into a sculpture.

Black, smoky oak rendered into a death mask to symbolize the 51,000 prisoners who had died in Buchenwald.

And Bruno Apitz, the man who fashioned this sculpture, the so-called 'Last Face', would in time create one of the most powerful stories about Buchenwald around the heroic Communist uprising in the camp's last days.

The so-called uprising in the final days of the camp and the actions of the Communist underground within Buchenwald, both heavily mythologized, became central to the identity of the newly Communist East Germany.

Christopher Cook walks from Weimar and through the gates of Buchenwald to a place where history collides with myth.

Christopher Cook pieces together the story of the ancient 'Goethe's Oak' in Buchenwald.