The grounds of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp near Weimar enclosed the oak tree under which Goethe is supposed to have written his most famous poem The Wanderer’s Night Song. The low point and high point of one culture are side by side, and the tree (or the stump, which is all that remains following an Allied bombing in 1944) represents how the same civilization can produce both systematic inhumanity and inspired creativity. Those who wish to denigrate Christianity by pointing out how it can be a source of prejudice and persecution, and those who wish to defend it by pointing out how it can be a source of transformed living and service, should tread much more warily here than we are accustomed to do.
The image of Goethe’s Oak is Timothy Garton-Ash’s. It comes from his book The File in which he traces those involved in his surveillance by the Stasi. Last week my wife and I watched The Life of Others (Das Leben der Anderen), the 2007 Oscar winning foreign language film about a Stasi investigation. Afterwards I regretted that my copy of The File has gone missing. Later in the evening she and I disappeared into separate studies, undertook separate Amazon searches, placed separate orders, and were able to give each other a surprise present of the book a few days later; we will have three copies in the house if the person who has my original one ever returns it. I’ve just re-read it. I hadn’t remembered the image of Goethe’s Oak particularly. I had remembered the humane balance as he lays out the background and the different strategies people use to justify their positions. I had remembered the careful way he looks at things which may make us want not to judge some too quickly or too harshly (without avoiding implying judgement when it is called for) and which may raise questions about our own society now and how we or it would hold up in the face of any sudden crisis (without unnecessary self condemnation).
And thinking again about all these things makes me look forward even more to the visit we have planned next month to a godchild of mine in Jena. His mother and I were students together in Ireland in 1988-9 (when her home was in West Germany), and we studied alongside another student who came from Leipzig, and it was through contact with him that the situation in East Germany seemed so much more personal and even sometimes ambiguous. It was through his hospitality I was in Leipzig the following year when all the fireworks went off at the midnight which marked German unification, and in Weimar for the Public Holiday the following day (when I took the picture above) and when I also visited Buchenwald (without noticing the significance of the stump of the oak tree).