Trees are so much more than their appearance or as parts of an ecosystem. Every tree has its own story. That story makes a tree valuable in history and everyone has its own meaning. The meaning can be positive but also sadly negative. This isn’t a hallelujah story about an amazing tree but the very sad story of a stump. The stump of the Goethe Oak in Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, a stump with a chilling history.

Concentration camp Buchenwald

Buchenwald is a concentration camp from the second world war and is situated in Weimar, in the former East Germany. This concentration camp has a dark history. From 1940 to 1945 at least 277,800 people (one of the many groups they didn’t like) were transported here by the nazi’s. These people had to work here, under pressure, for the weapon industry. More than 56,000 people died here under awful circumstances or were murdered. The camp was freed by Americans on 11th April 1945. The Dutch old minister president Drees, better known as father Drees, was one of the survivors.

A long, concrete road still leads to this desolate place with a view of Weimar. The 40 hectare camp is clearly visible and was surrounded by 3,5 km of electric fence and 22 watch towers. Now only 2 watch towers are visible and the main building with prison has been well-maintained. Where tens of wooden barracks were situated the edges of the walls have been made visible, the wooden barracks are all gone except one. On the site is a large building used for an exhibition and the crematorium with the awful original ovens and inhumane details still visible. A visit to Buchenwald is educative but also an experience never to be forgotten. Photo Buchenwald main building 


The Goethe Oak of Buchenwald

The forested area where Buchenwald is situated is close to castle Ettersberg. During the war the forest consisted mainly of beech trees and the concentration camp had one monumental oak in addition to beech trees. From 1776 Anna Amalia, the mother of the Duke of Weimar received guests in the castle. Generations of philosophers and poets from Weimar wandered through the beech forests and will certainly have stopped to admire this centuries old monumental oak with its spreading branches. Including Goethe (1749-1832) a philosopher and poet who contributed to the Weimar classicism a philosophical approach in European culture. Photo Goethe in Vienna

After the nazi’s developed forced labor camps in 1937 they later ordered the laborers to chop the beech trees. The large oak was to remain untouched as a sign of respect to the city’s most famous son, Goethe. The nazi’s saw themselves as the successors to Weimar classicism, of which Goethe was an important developer. The concentration camp was built as a sign of German power and greatness and its aim was to both multiply and destroy the so-called unworthy objects. The freestanding oak had worth to them. But what did the tree mean to the prisoners? They experienced inhumanities and hoped that they would gain freedom and a future. They called the tree ‘Goethe Oak’ in memory of the poet. But the long, strong branches where in the past the philosophers sat to think were now being used as gallows.

Photo from camp with leafless Goethe tree June 1944 (Source: Gedenkstatte Buchenwald)

The photo above must have been taken secretly by a prisoner in June 1944 and it shows the tree had no leaves. The prisoners saw this as a protest from the tree against the fact that the leaders of the camp practiced philosophical values like ‘enlightenment’ and ‘idealism’. Did the tree die in the knowledge that he has been abused when his past was so noble? The declining oak was also seen as a symbol that the reign of terror was coming to an end. My tree expertise explanation for the Goethe oak dying is that the tree went from living in a natural forest to living in a heavily populated place with lots of building activities. Both will have lead to unavoidable root death with the crown dying as a result. Considering the period between of roughly 7 years is this a real option. This is a truly sobering scenario that in no way contradicts the recorded experiences.


The end of the Goethe oak

An airstrike on 24th August 1944 brought a definitive end to the Goethe oak. In less than half an hour American planes destroyed the weapon factories in the immediate vicinity of the camp. Innumerable forced laborers and many SS soldiers were killed. The camp itself escaped relatively unscathed with only the wash house close to the Goethe oak hit and bursting into flames. From there the fire spread to the Goethe oak. The fire brigade from the prison tried to put out the fire but nobody tried to save the tree. The fire burnt all night. With it burnt the memories of the prisoners hanging on the branches. Hung up by cruel randomness by the tormentors, who maybe picked a Goethe poem from the library that evening.

In November 1945 a nameless prisoner remembers extinguishing the fire: ‘If I close my eyes, I can still see this image to this day: in the distance the roof of the wash house in flames, the shapes of the camp fire fighters on the ladders, the poor fire engines from the camp at work. Closer by the helpless skeleton of the oak with its top on fire. I hear the crackle of the fire, see the sparks flying round; the burnt branches of the oak fall to the ground, as do rolls of burnt roofing material. I smell the smoke. The prisoners form a long chain and bring buckets of water from reservoir to the centre of the fire. They save the wash house and not the oak. There is a secret joy in their faces, a quiet triumph…’.

 Photo of stump with main building in background

The tree which had meant so much to the SS-henchmen could no longer be saved. Later on, the order came to fell it completely. The torture post of the camp disappeared as did the violent use of Goethes reputation for fascist deeds. Superstitious people, heavily under the influence of what happened saw it as a premonition. A number of prisoners took small pieces of the tree with. From the remains of the oak letter openers, boxes and other memorabilia were made with the words Goethes oak carved into them. This was to confirm the prediction that Adolf Hitler would die in 1945, like the tree of the great poet.

Photo piece of Goethe oak which was taken by Nico Pols

The Dutch prisoner Nico Cornelius Adrian Pols (1923-1997) also took a piece of the tree. During his evacuation to another concentration camp and adjoining death march to Dachau when he managed to escape and keep the piece of wood with him, this piece of the Goethe oak is now in the exposition of Buchenwald. There are survivors who do not view the fall of the tree in any was as pure coincidence. According to Hubert Lapalle, a Belgian prisoner about the meaning of Goethe oak. Legend also says if the Goethe oak falls so does the German empire. Maybe this was the reason there was only one tree remaining in such a large camp?

Photo detail stump Goethe oak

When I visit the concentration camp in August 2023 the stump of the Goethe oak is still present. They have tried to preserve the stump by pouring concrete into the core. Additionally people stack stones on the stump, a Jewish tradition but also something I find a weird new tourist activity. Around 79 years later the stump is still present and reasonably intact. A large amount of the sapwood has been lost but the diameter is still easily a meter. The tree appears to have been sawn and the rays are still easy to recognize. It isn’t the technical part of this stump that impresses here, but the chilling history which the stump carries on its shoulders. The stump of the Goethe oak is one never to forget.

References: Gedenkstatte BuchenwaldHorst Heller 

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