A bust of Germany's most revered son comes in orange plastic that glows in the dark, his poems adorn ladies' stockings and a cookbook lists the great man's favorite recipes.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe--poet, novelist, scientist and all-around genius to the German-speaking world--was born 250 years ago on Aug. 28, and his adopted east German home town is leading the celebrations.

"It is all a bit primitive," admitted Juergen Seifert, president of the Weimar Classic Foundation, which preserves Goethe's legacy in the town. "But it is just this year, a sort of getting it out of our system."

Ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a considerable post-communist face lift later, Weimar has been laying bare its two historical souls--high culture and base inhumanity--as this year's European City of Culture, an honor that guarantees an influx of visitors and a stream of events.

Weimar, best known abroad for lending its name to Germany's first and ill-fated republic in the 1920s, is trying to come to terms with embodying both the best and worst in German culture. It is also trying to assess the ambiguous role that may have been played by its favorite son--whose work is as prized in the German-speaking world as William Shakespeare's is by English speakers.

Seifert argues that Weimar's checkered past, which reached its nadir in the Nazis' Buchenwald concentration camp on the town's doorstep, lies paradoxically in the nation's adoration of its most famous citizen, Goethe, who died there aged 82 in 1832.

"Weimar was a small town like so many other German towns except it had Goethe and hence the classic period of Enlightenment which political systems misused and decorated themselves with," he said. "Goethe's myth made the town something."

Honored while alive as a great writer and thinker, in death Goethe was viewed with mystical awe, making him an untouchable cultural hero and a useful rallying cry for political regimes.

"Goethe is considered a classical writer and this period in German culture is seen as a high point to which Germans turn as the better part of themselves," said Daniel Wilson, a professor of German at the University of California at Berkeley and author of "The Goethe Taboo."

"Leaders have used him to appeal for a return to a better Germany; he has been a kind of political alibi, particularly in the 20th century."

The post-World War I attempt at democracy known as the Weimar Republic, Adolf Hitler, and finally communist leaders of the former East Germany all tried to tap the nation's high esteem of Goethe to secure popular support.

Those who drafted the 1919 constitution did so at Weimar, away from the dangers of revolutionary Berlin, and hoped to draw on the spirit of Goethe's wisdom. Their design was flawed and the republic fell in 1933 to Hitler, who turned Goethe to his own uses as a model for "pure" and superior German culture.

The weekly newsmagazine Der Spiegel, which showed Goethe in a devil-like pose in a recent front cover, said: "Whether friend or foe, Goethe was the measure by which the spirit of the times but also critics . . . orientated their affairs."

Yet recently the reverence surrounding Goethe has been lifted to reveal that the man, best known abroad for his epic play "Faust," about a scholar who sells his soul to the Devil, was anything but an angel.

The author of a book arguing that Goethe was homosexual told Reuters last year: "We must pull him down from this marble pedestal and destroy the false myths created about him by a stiff academia."

"The Tiger's Tender Touch," by Karl Hugo Pruys, was criticized at the time for tarnishing Goethe's name. However, as archives held in communist East Germany have been re-investigated over the past decade, numerous revelations about Goethe's less attractive side have surfaced.

Wilson argues that, as a minister of the small independent statelet of the Duchy of Weimar, Goethe was involved in selling prisoners to the British for use as soldiers in the American Revolution. He also is accused of condoning the use of government spies and punished peasants who dared to revolt.

Other research has shown that Goethe authorized the killing of an unmarried mother who had murdered her child--much like the heroine of "Faust." He also apparently was an abrasive and unpleasant man.

While traditionalists have had a hard time swallowing these findings, others welcome them as a chance to humanize Goethe.

In April, German president Roman Herzog caused a stir when he said: "No matter how great his work was and remains, there is no reason why Goethe the man should be uncritically idealized anymore." It is an opinion shared by Seifert.

"That a great man had rough edges is to be expected. We need to work through it, open our eyes, take him off his pedestal, and concentrate on what is most important--his work. This Goethe year gives us the opportunity to do this."

This year has also been seized on by Weimar's festival director Bernd Kauffmann to highlight the town's double-edged history using Goethe as the linchpin.

"Two souls, alas, are housed within my breast, and each will wrestle for mastery there," cried Goethe's "Faust." His duality is seen as a symbol of Weimar's and Germany's propensity to aim for the stars and plunge to the depths of human depravity--something Kauffmann refers to as "typically German."

"We have swung between extreme highs of cultural achievement and the deepest, darkest lows rather than maintain a steady path through history," he said. "It seems the higher one goes the further and more hideously one has to fall."

A chilling connection between these two extremes lies at Buchenwald, where 50,000 people were killed. It was built around that same oak where, reputedly, Goethe would sit and think.

This year, a collection of his drawings and sketches was exhibited in Buchenwald. A woodland path between the camp and one of the poet's favorite countryside castles has been cleared. Works of art left by concentration camp prisoners were displayed in the house of Goethe's fellow Weimar-based writer Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller.

Such attempts to face up to Germany's dual heritage did little to convince the leader of the country's Jews that the lessons had truly been learned.

Shortly before his death earlier this month, Ignatz Bubis, leader of Germany's Jewish community, said: "Everyone feels themselves responsible for Schiller, for Goethe and for Beethoven but no one for Himmler."

Some Germans have taken exception to linking Goethe with Buchenwald.

In August, sculptures portraying Buchenwald inmates were vandalized while on display in a Weimar church garden and anti-Jewish graffiti were daubed nearby.

CAPTION: An illuminated Goethe bust, one of 250 set up in a Weimar meadow commemorating the poet's birth on Aug. 28, 1749.

CAPTION: A red rose is strewn across a bust of Goethe in Weimar's castle museum.

CAPTION: Clockwise from top, Antonio Conceicao washes a statue of Goethe; a portrait of Goethe, the pride of Weimar; and Frederike Edele of Stuttgart lays flowers on a Goethe-Schiller memorial in Weimar, Europe's "City of Culture" for 1999.