The Ḥāfiẓ-Goethe Memorial and its Colonial Continuities

Lila Knape

The Ḥāfiẓ-Goethe Memorial can be found on Beethovenplatz in Weimar’s city centre, between the Dorint Hotel, the wide-open space of the square and the sloping terrain of the beginning of the Ilmpark. Two grand chairs made of granite face each other. Set up in East-West direction, they refer on one side to the Persian poet Ḫāǧe Šams ad-Dīn Moḥammad Ḥāfiẓ-e Šīrāzī, who lived during the 14th century in the region of today’s Iran and who goes by the name Ḥāfiẓ, which translates to “the memorizer”, as he knew the Quran by heart at an early age (Hameed Shaida, 2011). On the other side, the chairs allude to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a popular German poet. The memorial was set up as the German contribution for the “International Year of the Dialogue of Cultures” in 2000 and inaugurated by Mohammed Chatami, then Iranian president, and Johannes Rau, German federal president at the time. The general assembly of UNESCO proclaimed  this “Year of the Dialogue” after the request of Iran. The memorial was funded by the German UNESCO-commission and then handed over to the “Stiftung Weimarer Klassik” as a symbol of the dialogue between cultures and of cultural tolerance (Mommsen, 2002). Since 2009, there is a city partnership between Weimar and Schiraz, Ḥāfiẓ’s hometown.

The memorial was designed and built by two white, West German artists, Ernst Thevis and Fabian Rabsch. They describe it as serving as a “symbol for international understanding and cultural tolerance”[1]. The chairs are cut out of a single block of granite in a way that both parts can be put back together resulting in the original block of stone. The rough, fractured exterior of the granite is in stark contrast to the finely polished surface of the milled inside. The chairs stand on a bronze plate, in which Ghazels of Ḥāfiẓ as well as poems of Goethe are embedded. The ornaments on the plate as well as the general shape of it appropriate Muslim aesthetic of a prayer rug. The monumentality of the chairs is thought to symbolize the writer’s prevailing importance and greatness. They are set up in East-West direction. The two oversized granite blocks face each other in a way that does not allow relaxed conversation but leads to an antagonizing directionality, hindering a comfortable exchange. While aiming to argue for the equality of the poets, making the chairs look the same blurs the fact that the relationship between the two was lopsided. Ḥāfiẓ lived 400 years before Goethe; he did not know him or his writings. Nevertheless, Goethe read Ḥāfiẓ’ Ghazels at the age of 65 in the German translations and claimed him to be his “Persian twin” (ibid., p. 14). He then went on to write the “west-östlicher Diwan” in response to Ḥāfiẓ’ “Dīvān”, the collection of Ḥāfiẓ’ Ghazels and his most popular piece. Ḥāfiẓ is considered one of the most influential Persian poets in history. His Ghazels are still recited and learned today; a copy of the “Dīvān” is found in every Iranian household and inspires practices of fortune telling during Nowruz or Yaldā holidays.

Inscription on the Memorial facing West

Goethe had never been to Iran and had read Ḥāfiẓ’ texts only in poor translations. Mirjam Weber describes in her detailed and comprehensive literature analysis how Goethe’s “west-östlicher Diwan” presupposes the “Orientalist” dichotomy in its title and deepens it further by a fundamental differentiation and valuation of East and West, Self and Other (Weber, 2001, p. 13). Within this piece Goethe sets himself as a traveller, which should be looked at critically, since colonial ventures of travellers and ethnologists who set out to research the “noble savage”, stigmatized the indigenous as primitive. The public did not make any difference between scientific approaches and mere travel diaries and with Goethe’s writings, in which he sets himself morally above the reader, this is not possible either (ibid., p. 14). Goethe does identify with certain aspects of the world of Ḥāfiẓ, but only as long as he himself remains as a traveller, a visitor, a full disintegration is never allowed. Instead, he picks and selects facets he likes to present to the German reader, while setting himself as the nexus, the trading point of self and Other.

“Der selektierende Blick wählt möglichst Gleichartiges: Der eigene Geschmack wie der des Publikums werden zum Maßstab, an dem das fremde, das es wert ist, transportiert zu werden, gemessen wird.“ (ibid., p. 16)

[The selective gaze chooses what is as similar as possible: one’s own taste and that of the audience become the measure against which the Other, which is worth being transported, is measured.]

Translation by the author

To identify further with Ḥāfiẓ, Goethe refines the Persian’s writings, so the twin metaphor stays valid. He erases the – until today not easily interpretable – way of mixing the mystical-ascetic with hedonistic phrases in Ḥāfiẓ writing. Goethe was convinced of the fact that Ḥāfiẓ was, like himself, a hedonist at heart and had therefore overcome his mystical beliefs, only displaying it here and there to satisfy the powerful (ibid., p. 20). He reduces Ḥāfiẓ’ writing to what he thinks to be a good way of life. The celestial of Ḥāfiẓ becomes the terrestrial of Goethe, the own is the measure for the adaptation of the Other (ibid., p. 26). Goethe constructs at a fictious place and a fictious Other, that can neither react nor respond, and the representation of the orientalist poetry-material becomes a construct. Even though he has the ideal picture of an interwoven relationship of the East and West, he selects, decides and interferes with its pronunciation in a dominant way. At some passages, even open „Orientalist“[2] exoticization is pronounced: The “Oriental” person is described as not thinking too much, and having a wide belief and narrow thought, “Orient” and eroticism are used synonymously, and women’s roles are essentialized as easy and uncomplicated regarding erotic interaction, always accommodating the adventurous traveller, in this case Goethe himself (ibid., p. 111). He also breaks down Ḥāfiẓ’ writing through insisting on the distinction between “poet” (Goethe himself who recognizes the endlessness of things) and “prophet” (which he considers Ḥāfiẓ to be) a follower of the Islamic teaching, whose creativity is limited through religious belief (Pan, 2013, p. 333). Weber draws the conclusion that Goethe actively constructs his own “Oriental” world that fits into his essentialist and static understanding of the Other. He remains a traveller, selecting, polishing and adapting his findings to his liking to let the differences become untenable in the face of the “good” and the “beautiful” (Weber, 2001, p. 122).

„Trotz Anerkennung und Hochschätzung, trotz des Respektes und der Achtung, mit der Goethe dem persischen Dichter ‚begegnet‘, ist auch ein großes Stück Dominanz und Autorität unverkennbar.“ (ibid., p. 21)

[Despite the recognition and high esteem, despite the respect and appreciation with which Goethe ‚meets‘ the Persian poet, a large piece of dominance and authority is also unmistakably apparent.”

Translation by the author

The vicinity to the “Dorint” hotel at the Beethovenplatz serves as a symbol for the openness of the city, for inclusiveness, cultural dialogue and cosmopolitanism. It is not a collectively used place by Weimar’s locals, but rather a representative visitor’s space, frequented by tourists. What happens is that the city of Weimar coins itself as a city of the global North through this memorial. Its paternalistic way of depicting the connection of two poets, whose relationship was purely one-directional, allows for an encounter as colonizer and colonized Other, with an only deceptive node of equality. The way this memorial is set up feeds an “Orientalist” and Eurocentric narrative about intercultural relations. It honours transnational exchange just as long as the sovereignty of interpretation stays among the German erectors. Even though there are voices claiming Goethe transcends the contemporary Christian Eurocentrism by writing “Orient and Occident can not be separated anymore” (Mommsen, 2002, pp. 19–20, translation by the author), failing to reflect on his own bias and power in this account strengthens the process of Othering Ḥāfiẓ and with him Persian culture.

This translates to the Ḥāfiẓ-Goethe memorial today, which is not accompanied by explanations of the writers’ lives nor the historical or current relations of Germany and Iran. According to several reviews on Google Maps[3] and YouTube videos of visitors of the memorial who engage with its topics, the site could be considered as a space for contact of people of different backgrounds. A place that could be a productive ground for the exchange of experiences of colonial continuities, about the history and development of Weimar while implicitly assessing the coloniality of its power. But without engaging with its history in more depth, the simplistic and essentialist imagery of the memorial draws an improper picture of the relationship between Goethe and Ḥāfiẓ, as well as the worlds they are made to represent. Thus, it does not ignite critical and open dialogue. There are many places in Weimar which symbolize and visualize colonial racism and power structures: the Albert Schweitzer monument on Kegel-Platz, the former cinema at Marktstraße 20, and the racist contents of the city museum, which to this day has not come to terms with its colonial past. Some of them are openly racist in their essentializing depictions, while others are more implicit in their categorizations through internalized structures of Othering. The Ḥāfiẓ-Goethe Memorial is not a plain depiction of racist continuities but a rather implicit way of stigmatizing and essentializing its components. This deepens the “Orientalist” divide it claims to overcome.

Since 2009, the city of Weimar holds a Ḥāfiẓ-Memorial Day on the 12th of October every year. On that day, different artists of more diverse backgrounds organize additional installations around the memorial and address different topics of migration, feminist struggles, and ongoing political dialogue[4]. Through those annual events and renewed interpretations of the memorial, contemporary criticism and thoughts are considered and its monumental physicality reassessed. But as most of the talks and encounters of officials under the guise of the Ḥāfiẓ-Memorial Day are held to start a “cultural dialogue”, they mostly state the obvious and do not explain the structural problems laying underneath as cognitive processes of Othering and Eurocentrism. At the inauguration of the memorial in 2001, a panel was set up to allow for a dialogue with President Chatami, Bundespräsident Rau, and the two professors from Tübingen Josef van Ess and Hans Küng[5]. Although this could have been an interesting and appreciative encounter of representatives, it ended up being a conversation in which the German scientists showed their essentialist attitudes towards Islam thought. 

Imperialist violent ventures of many European countries, also in the region of today’s Iran, impact life in and around people in all parts of the world very differently and must be part of contemporary discussions. While not touching the subjects of early colonization utilization of Iran’s territories as military and strategic tools during the First World War by British, German, and Russian forces (Atabaki, 2017, p. 13), this memorial does allow people to get in touch with Ḥāfiẓ as a significant figure of Persian history. It is important to emphasize that we are not talking about an actor of the “Orient” or an actor of the global South – this would again strengthen the dichotomies that are to be overcome by a relational, comparative approach to the power struggles at work in this (post)colonial world. My aim rather is, as Roy so accurately put it, “to inhabit the epistemological problem that is Eurocentrism” (Roy, 2015, p. 205) and to look at the encounter of Goethe with Ḥāfiẓ as a palimpsest. The metaphor of the layer can capture the accumulative character of urban landscapes, which are the ever-changing outcomes of continuously overlaid political, social and historical structures. This memorial, depicting two poets and their work, does not directly relate to the acts of slavery, exploitation and genocide that took place by Germans in colonized territories. It supposes an equal and benevolent relationship that is constructed to the colonizers’ benefit from its roots. This memorial, installed as a place of dialogue, strengthens “Orientalist” dichotomies and therefore does not break with its colonial undertones. It does not examine postcolonial implications and contexts, and by doing so it deepens the structural network which inhabits thought, emotion, and perception of people approaching it. Through the (re)production of this discriminatory fabric, the acceptance of “Orientalist” and Eurocentric social cliches and the overall narrative of hegemony in film, literature, discourse, advertisement, commodities, and not least urban spaces, it was possible to invade other territories and economies and to destroy respective cultures. Locally cultivated practices of discriminatory thought therefore are global in their consequences. Especially because Weimar is and was very often used and abused for the national German understanding of identity, active intervention in the culture of remembrance, and thus in the relationships of local and visiting people to the Ḥāfiẓ-Goethe Memorial as a historical, cultural and social place is necessary to break up the essentializing debates around continuing imperialism and power. 

Goethe is granted the place of the gatekeeper, the heroic pacifist with sovereignty of interpretation. His attitude towards Hafiz comes across as a strange kind of “blessing” to grant the Persian poet access to the scholarly community in the German-speaking world, while Goethe never really was in dialogue with Ḥāfiẓ and never considered dichotomies to fade. The memorial wants to transcend Othering but reinforces it through this juxtaposition. Also, there is no reference to the extensive imperial operations in Iran, including by Germany[6]. A harmonious picture is drawn by two authors whose assumed differences are shown to be overcome without being explicit about its background. Germany thus presents itself as cosmopolitan, tolerant, and inclusive without naming the background and effects of Othering- and “worlding”[7] processes.

Inscription on the Memorial facing East

In 2014, between Goethe’s birthday (August 28th) and Hafiz Memorial Day (October 12th), a temporary installation alluded to the increasing number of refugees and their arduous journey across the Mediterranean. It was called „In einem Boot“ [In one boat] (translation of the author), thus supporting Goethe’s saying that is embedded in the bronze plate the chairs stand on

“Orient und Occident Sind nicht mehr zu trennen.“

Orient and Occident can no longer be separated.

Translation by the author

However, it also shows that Beethovenplatz is clearly not underwater and that white Germans are not in the same boat nor face the challenges Syrian, Afghan, Iranian, Egyptian or Ukrainian refugees do. There are differences, and they have reasons. I plead for this monument to be given context. Why Orient and Occident are not one. And why it is not up to Goethe to decide.


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[1] See the description of the artist at (accessed on 14th of March 2022, 11:55 pm)

[2] Edward Said introduced this term in his revelatory work “Orientalism”, in which he describes how “the Orient” is a European invention, serving to exoticize and dominate a constructed Other. See Said, 1979.

[3],11.3287913,17z/data=!4m7!3m6!1s0x47a41bcb62bf06d3:0x21156f61a06f9f5b!8m2!3d50.9768105!4d11.3309853!9m1!1b1 (accessed 10th of February 2022, 3:55 pm)

[4] See for example: (accessed 28th of February 2022, 1:40 pm), (accessed on 10th of February 2022, 1:46 pm)

[5] See,2.23903/Rede/dokument.htm (accessed on 1ˢᵗ of March 2022, 12:59 pm)

[6] I am referring to the undertakings of European forces in Iran during the First World War, mostly because of its rich oil resources (see Atabaki, 2017)

[7] This term is coined by Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak in her essay “The Rani of Simur” (1984) and means the process of world-making through a hegemonic power in this case colonialists in India, who inscribe meaning to places through maps for example to have power over its definition and the people in it.