Soothe Our Pain

The little mountain Ettersberg nearby Weimar saw the greatest of German culture and the worst. Here, Goethe created his poems, and the nazis unleashed their barbarism.

Whenever poet Johann Wolfgang Goethe was searching for inspiration, he would leave his house in Weimar and hike through the nearby forest up to the small mountain of Ettersberg where he would sit at an old oak tree and jot down whatever went through his mind. Here, in February 1776, he wrote the first of two poems, both called Wanderers Nachtlied. Many years later, Franz Schubert set this poem to music, too (see below, sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau). While the later one, beginning with Über allen Gipfeln, conveys stillness describing nature as it prepares for the night’s rest, the earlier poem is a call to God to soothe the pain; it is an expression of longing for peace in the wanderer’s restless heart.

der Himmel = heaven
das Leid = suffering
Schmerzen (pl.) = pain
die Erquickung = here: relief
das Treiben = here: hustle and bustle
der Friede = peace in someones heart or with God; normally: der Frieden = peace as a period without war

die Brust = here: bosom

stillen = here: to soothe
füllen = to fill

doppelt = double
elend = miserable
süß = sweet

Der du von dem Himmel bist,
alles Leid und Schmerzen stillest,
den, der doppelt elend ist,
doppelt mit Erquickung füllest;
ach, ich bin des Treibens müde!
Was soll all der Schmerz und Lust?
Süßer Friede,
komm, ach komm in meine Brust!

The poem is an appeal. Consequently, it must open with a sort of salutation. The wanderer could have said just one word: God! However, the addressee occupies half of the poem. In four lines out of eight the wanderer describes to whom he is calling out (informally with du), not by name but by attributes and actions—where God is and what God is doing, and who is receiving God’s action.

Where God is: der du in dem Himmel bist = you who is in heaven

What God is doing: der alles Leid und Schmerzen stillest = you who soothes all suffering and pain.

The key for our understanding is the article der. It acquires all verbs—sein, stillen—as its own. We call this “nominative,” one of the four cases in the German language. It describes the role of the noun or pronoun (er, sie, es; here: der) as the subject of the sentence, the thing or person that is doing something (sein, stillen).

The key for our understanding of the next part is den. It indicates that something masculine, here der Wanderer, receives the following action: füllen. We call this passive role of the noun or pronoun “accusative.”

In a relative clause, the wanderer qualifies the object as well: the suffering soul, the one who is miserable (elend). And when life burdens the soul with a double load of misery, the one who is in heaven will provide the double load of relief.

If we remove the explanatory parts (relative clause) we will reach the core of the statement:

Der Gott (the one who is acting) füllt (the action) den Wanderer (the one who is receiving the action). Fills with what? Mit Erquickung.

Ach! Abruptly, the wanderer lets out a sigh, not without employing another case in German grammar, the genitive. Ich bin des Treibens müde. I am tired of the hustle and bustle. 

With the genitive case, the English “of the” translates into des for masculine and neuter nouns (das Treiben) and der for feminine nouns.

We see the wanderer’s shoulders drop, see him sitting down and leaning his head against the tree; resigned, he closes his eyes. Was soll all der Schmerz und Lust?

A question that begins with was soll asks for a purpose, often in a fatalistic mood.

What is the purpose of all this pain and lust?

The poem concludes with an expression of longing we all feel when enough is enough: Sweet peace come, ach, enter my heart.

The great humanist Goethe could never had imagined that his poem could have been the comfort for thousands of tortured and enslaved human beings who suffered at the Ettersberg more than 160 years later. Exactly here, the nazis built the concentration camp Buchenwald. As if they wanted to emphasise their barbarism even more, the nazis built the camp around the very oak tree where Goethe rested, thought, and wrote.

Holding around hundred thousand prisoners, Buchenwald was the largest concentration camp in Germany. Tens of thousands were murdered. In view of the fast approaching American troops, SS leader Himmler ordered the death march of the remaining prisoners. Briefly before the prisoners were suppose to leave, a resistance group of prisoners using weapons they had built themselves or stole and hid, stormed the watchtowers, arrested around 120 nazi guards, raised the white flag, and handed the camp over to the soldiers of the 3rd American Army who arrived on April 11, 1945. And here, the survivors wrote another piece of literature, an appeal to mankind that was read at a memorial event nine days later, the Schwur von Buchenwald, the oath of Buchenwald, that ended with, “The destruction of nazism with its roots is our slogan. The building of a new world of peace and freedom is our goal.”

Today, a memorial and a museum is errected at the Ettersberg.

Published by


Bernd Hendricks. Born in Duisburg, Germany. Based in Berlin. Writer, German Language Educator. I was six years old when I went to the opera for the first time. My Grandma took me to Hänsel und Gretel at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Duisburg. The first time I met an opera singer personally was during my time as foreign correspondent in New York when at a Christmas party a baritone pelted me with questions about the language of Zauberflöte. He was preparing for his role as Papageno. After my return to Berlin in September 2010, I have been giving German lessons to singers on their audition tours. My workshops in Berlin, Vienna, and London are based on my widely read book Ach, ich fühl’s—German for Opera Singers in Three Acts: Studying, Speaking, Singing. My latest book, Die Frist ist um—Navigate the Language of 10 German Operas, takes you on a journey through the language of the most popular and often performed operas in the German-speaking countries. I am also the author of several non-fiction books and two novels.

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