Once upon a time, on top of a green hill, high above the red roofs of Weimar, there was an oak tree. So beautiful was this spot on the Ettersberg, with views all round of the rolling Thuringian countryside, that Goethe used to sit here with his friend Johann Peter Eckermann discussing literature and life. Eckermann noted down the master’s words: ‘Here one feels great and free.’

In 1937, when the forest was cleared to build a concentration camp, Goethe’s oak was protected by a special act decreed by the Nazi government. A fence was built around it. The splendid tree survived until the last year of the war, when one side caught fire during an American bomb attack. The guards decided to have it felled. An inmate of the camp, who made death masks in the medical lab, used some of the wood to carve a human face which can still be seen in the museum of the ‘Warning and Memorial Place Buchenwald’ (Mahn- und Gedenkstatte Buchenwald).

The exact spot of Goethe’s oak was pointed out to me in the winter of 1991, during my second visit to Buchenwald. My German guide was a tall thin man, whose ingratiating manner suggested nervousness. ‘Here you can see,’ he said, indicating the camp in one swooping gesture, ‘the typical German mentality. The Goethe oak: culture and romanticism. The crematorium: barbarism. The zoo: sentimentality.’

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