One of the first things the Germans did after marching into Greece in 1941 was to resume the excavations that had been interrupted by the onset of war. Each sector of the military pitched in: the Luftwaffe photographed classical sites; the Wehrmacht cordoned off ruins; the Kriegsmarine salvaged pieces of an ancient frieze sunk near Piraeus. There were excited communiqués to Berlin: the chief Nazi archaeologist said that if he had 1.5 million Reichsmarks to fund his work, ‘the uncontested hegemony of Germany in the study of Greek monuments would be secured … It would be so grand a gesture by the conqueror, who would show himself conscious of his cultural calling in Europe.’
Eliza Marian Butler started studying the Nazis’ designs for Europe in 1933. Born in Lancashire in 1885 and educated extensively on the Continent, she had watched Kaiser Wilhelm inspect his troops, witnessed German violence close-up as a nurse in the First World War, and later took up a chair in German at Cambridge. She was at first perplexed to find that the glad tidings of Humanitas preached by Herder, Goethe and Schiller had failed to get through to the German public, but soon came to see that this was not the problem: there had in fact been too much exposure to Ancient Greek literature and art. The result was that the German mind had succumbed to ‘the tyranny of an ideal’. The German worship of Ancient Greece had emboldened the Nazis to remake Europe in their image.
Butler blamed Luther for this. He had deprived the Germans of a system that satisfied their longing for mysticism and beauty, and sent them in search of new gods, whom they found in Greek myth and Nordic legends. She interpreted their nostalgia as misplaced yearning for the homegrown deities suppressed when the Germanic tribes were Christianised. After the Wars of Liberation of the early 19th century, young German nationalists were also attracted to the subversive democratic values they associated with the Greeks. Athenian democracy inspired liberals at odds with the retrenched Prussian and Hapsburg monarchies. Greek aesthetic ideals contrasted favourably with the baroque pretensions of the French and the vampiric commercialism of the English. The rediscovery of the classical past was a widespread European passion, but nowhere was it bound up with national identity to the extent it was in Germany. The French and English could look to their own political revolutions to find their bearings in modernity; the Germans turned to Ancient Greece for an ideal that spoke to a sense of the nation’s destiny in Europe. By embracing Greece, Romantics short-circuited what they took to be the imposed, oppressive legacy of Latin Rome and linked Germany directly with the most hallowed culture in the European past. There was an irony here, since the longing for Hellas was itself a Roman preoccupation.
When Butler’s book on all this, The Tyranny of Greece over Germany, was published in 1934, it was promptly banned by the Nazis. After the war it became a minor classic in the English-speaking world. She built on the insights of two notable predecessors, Heine’s History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany, written during the high tide of the Vormärz (the period of repression that followed the Congress of Vienna), and Santayana’s Egotism in German Philosophy, written during the First World War. All three conceived of their books as warnings of the havoc in store if German ideals were put into action; all of them agreed that the German ideal of Hellas could not bear very much reality. But Butler went beyond Heine and Santayana by tracking how German writers had tweaked their ideal of Ancient Greece over time. The version of Greece that Schiller, Goethe and Hölderlin worshipped was imaginary, and they seemed to have avoided visiting the country for fear of tarnishing their ideal. Few Germans of intellectual consequence visited Greece in the 18th or 19th centuries – not during the Greek War of Independence, or in the decades after it when Greece was ruled by a Bavarian princeling. The German aristocracy of the 18th century hadn’t been adventurous enough to expand the customary Grand Tour beyond Italy, and the German states lacked institutions of enlightened patronage like the Society of Dilettanti in London, which sent early archaeological expeditions to Greece and Anatolia. There were no German philhellenes to match Shelley and Byron, for whom the modern Greeks were live people, not the ethereal playthings they were for Hölderlin. Goethe turned down several invitations to visit Greece; he never intended to write a ‘Greek Journey’ to match his Italian Journey and thought he had found a good enough backdrop for the Odyssey in Sicily. When Schliemann started his excavation at Troy in 1871, he was widely considered a hooligan for trying to anchor his Greek ideal in solid ground.
Any story of German Hellenism must start with Winckelmann, who found in the Greeks a ‘noble simplicity and quiet greatness’, and was the first to try to persuade Germans they could recover the glory of Ancient Greece if they applied themselves. On the face of it, Winckelmann’s career doesn’t suggest authoritativeness: he mistook forgeries for masterpieces, wearily kept up the pretences of a pious Christian in Rome in order to get close to the city’s great works, and invited a dubious travelling companion to look at his box of medallions. (The man killed him and took the loot.) But the masterwork Winckelmann cobbled together, The History of Ancient Art (1764), provided the Germans with their starter kit for Romanticism and shaped the taste of the next generation of writers. Winckelmann exaggerated the serenity and high-mindedness of Greek culture, but he was at least in sympathy with the knowledge of and care for the human body that inspired its finest artists. Animated by hatred for the rococo, the Baroque, Bernini and the petty subject matter of Dutch paintings, he made art and art criticism count for something higher in the national consciousness. ‘My purpose has always been,’ he wrote, ‘to produce a work in the German tongue, the like of which has never seen the light of day, in order to show the foreigners what we can do.’ Goethe summed up his generation’s attitude to Winckelmann: ‘One doesn’t learn anything reading him, but one becomes something.’
Herder was the first to become something. He agreed that modern Europeans had nothing on the Greeks but was emphatic that there was no going back. ‘Erect Greek statues so that every dog pisses on them,’ he wrote, ‘and still you won’t give the slave who passes them every day, the ass who drags his burden, the sense that they will ever be able to resemble them.’ Like Winckelmann, Herder looked at the Germans and saw ‘half-finished features even in the most beautiful faces’. His response was chilling: ‘We must therefore be compensated for this lack of beauties by an insensitivity and a certain Northern severity that might be more of a blessing than a curse.’ The Germans, Herder said, should content themselves with having at least noticed their lack of beauty. Out of this realisation, he believed, there might one day spring a new, more authentically German understanding of aesthetic value. Against Winckelmann’s view of beauty as an objective property, Herder, anticipating Kant, thought of beauty as a quality we attribute to objects according to the experience they give us. The sheer capacity to apprehend beauty was something in which we moderns could take pleasure.
Ancient Greece may have been a high point in human history, Herder said, but it was not an absolute one. Greek art was part of its society and you could not, like Winckelmann, revive one part without the others. Hegel was making a similar point when he explained that there was no meaningful distinction between art and religion in Ancient Greece: by giving the Greeks their gods and establishing their theodicy in poetry, Homer was both Moses and Milton. Like Herder, Hegel was trying to temper German nostalgia for Greece.
Hölderlin, however, held nothing back. Throughout his life, he wanted to see the German polis renovated along democratic Greek lines – a dream gradually abandoned by Hegel and Schelling, his former radical friends at Tübingen. But Hölderlin’s spirit was broken by a world that had no place for his ideals, not even at the level of poetry. As he wrote to his stepbrother in 1799:
Oh Greece, with your genius and your piety, where are you gone? Even I, with all my efforts, can only follow groping in the track of these peerless poets; and I am but the more ridiculous and awkward in all my words and deeds because, like the flat-footed geese, I am standing in a modern puddle, impotently flapping my wings towards the sky of Greece.
For his admirers, Hölderlin was the purest of German poets, too pure for the Germany of his time. In his novel Hyperion (1799), his fictional surrogate remembers spending a dreary time in Germany before he goes off to join the 1770 Greek uprising against the Ottomans. ‘Mere intellect, mere reason are always the kings of the North,’ Hyperion says. ‘Intellect without beauty of spirit is like a subservient journeyman who constructs the fence out of coarse wood as sketched out for him, and nails the carpentered posts together for the garden that the master shall cultivate.’ This sounds like the usual Romantic complaint, but the difference is the reference to the ‘North’. For English Romantics, the question of authenticity broke along urban/rural lines; for German Romantics, the difference was ethno-historical. Hölderlin’s Germans, like Herder’s, are a stunted, half-finished people. But instead of trying to prepare the way for a cultural renaissance, Hölderlin wanted to solve the problem in his poetry. In his last works before his descent into madness, he tried to do this by synthesising the figures of Dionysus and Christ. For him, the contest between paganism and Christianity was a matter of life and death.
Like so many German poets of the generation after Hölderlin’s, Heine worshipped the Greeks in his youth, but unlike the rest, he believed the relationship was doomed. A premonition came when he visited the Louvre during the revolution of 1848:
I nearly broke down altogether when I entered the lofty gallery where the blessed goddess of beauty, Our Lady of Milo, stands on her pedestal. I lay prostrate at her feet for a long time, and I wept so bitterly that it would have melted a heart of stone. And indeed the goddess did look down pitifully upon me, yet at the same time so hopelessly as if she were trying to say: But don’t you see that I have no arms and that therefore I cannot help you.
Hölderlin ‘grew up in the arms of the gods’; Heine’s goddess didn’t have any. The Greeks, Heine said, were of no use to Europe’s revolutions; genuine political reform required a much more mundane form of national self-appraisal. Yet just as he was turning his back on the radiant, noble Greeks of Winckelmann and Hölderlin, Heine saw a new side of them: he tried to imagine how the pagan gods had coped with the victory of Christ. In his essay ‘The Gods in Exile’ (1853), he spun fragments of Plutarch’s Obsolescence of Oracles into a wry modern satire. Apollo has been executed in Austria because the sweetness of his singing has offended the monks. Mercury, disguised as a Dutch businessman, conveys souls to England, now the land of the dead. Pluto and Neptune have kept their jobs, but Jupiter is a miserable old man, marooned on an island in the Arctic. The most resilient god is Bacchus (Dionysus), who has insinuated himself into a monastery in the Tyrol and become the Father Superior. The ambiguous nature of Dionysus, combining intoxicating joy with severe cruelty and pain, vexed Heine. His descriptions of the rites of the Dionysian cults suggest that the darker elements of Greek culture could counter modern disenchantment by undermining all rationalistic assumptions about human society.
Nietzsche rebelled against Romantic idealisations and took issue with the historicist approach that had been incubating in German philology departments since the days of Friedrich August Wolf half a century earlier. As a trained classicist, Nietzsche mocked the Romantic tendency to turn the Greeks into liberal democrats, when much of their excellence, he argued, was owed to the institution of slavery and the embrace of inequality. He chided Schiller for applying the ‘art-word naive’ to the Greeks ‘as if it were an inevitable condition which we are bound to encounter on the threshold of every human culture, a human paradise’. By stressing the frenzied, Dionysian streak in the Greeks and presenting them as a people prepared to confront the abyss, Nietzsche set the course for the extreme mystics of the Weimar Republic. These included Kurt Hildebrandt and Stefan George, the symbolist poet who wore a peplos in the style of an Ancient Greek woman and saw his secret literary cult as the avant-garde of a re-enchanted world. In their journal, Blätter für die Kunst, Hildebrandt and George denounced the ‘pathography’ of modern philologists and the spiritual decrepitude of the Weimar Republic. Only through a ‘holy marriage’ between Germany and Ancient Greece, they claimed, could the Germans recover their destiny as the helmsmen of Europe.
Nietzsche had started this railing against the academic establishment. The Birth of Tragedy (1872) savaged German classicists for denying texts any social significance beyond their historical context, and rejected the narrow, bourgeois scope of Wilhelm von Humboldt’s Bildung, a theory of education which had inspired the Gymnasium system responsible for propelling philology in Germany to such a dominant institutional position. Despite the sensation this caused – Wilamowitz made his name attacking The Birth of Tragedy – Nietzsche’s radical views were quietly incorporated by German classicists in the following decades.
By the 1930s, Werner Jaeger, a leading Greek scholar in Berlin, had formulated a supposedly more vital humanistic programme that he believed answered Nietzsche’s criticisms. Jaeger agreed that German classical education needed to abandon its historicist modesty and see itself as embodying permanent values, but saw no need to knock Humboldt’s neo-humanism off its pedestal. The importance of Greek culture did not lie in its unconscious stylistic unity, complete in itself, but in its system of education, which was designed to pass on its knowledge to posterity. Humboldt’s idea of Bildung was the modern incarnation of Telemachus’ coming of age in the Odyssey. Jaeger hoped to usher in a renaissance in Germany, with the Greeks helping Germans to establish a deeper civic culture. The vacuity of his programme for a Third Humanism was confirmed when he attempted to accommodate it to the needs of National Socialism. With the Gymnasium system threatened by Nazi populism, Jaeger wrote a strained article, ‘The Education of Political Man and Antiquity’, outlining its relevance to the National Socialist project. Greek literature provided ‘a gallery of incomparable monuments to heroic-political mankind’, he claimed, that contained important lessons about hard work and the submission of the individual to the civic good. In 1935, Jaeger brought out the first volume of his Paidea, an extensive reflection on the cultural nature of education in Ancient Greece. No one was much interested and Jaeger moved to Chicago. Paidea had a better reception in the US, at the time in the mood to celebrate its role as guardian of Western civilisation.
In Nazi Germany two strains of Hellenism vied for primacy: the racialist variant of Alfred Rosenberg and company; and the more genteel version of Gymnasium graduates like Martin Schede, the chief Nazi archaeologist, who didn’t subscribe to any Nordic-Greek theory and thought of themselves merely as adding Greek grace-notes to the German triumph. Hitler was closer to the second group. He called Rosenberg ‘a narrow-minded Baltic German who thinks in horribly complicated terms’, and was surprised anyone had bothered to buy The Myth of the 20th Century. When Hitler thought about the Greeks at all, it was of Doric buildings and Spartan bodies, whose forms he expected Germans would soon approximate. Leni Riefenstahl, when she discovered that the first runner in the torch relay at the 1936 Berlin Olympics was the olive-skinned Konstantinos Kondylis, replaced him with a more suitable Nordic specimen in Olympia. (In an attempt to lend the Games ancient provenance, she also had the five Olympic rings scrawled onto a stone block at Delphi.)
The racial-linkage theories of Rosenberg may have been the most retrograde strain of Nazi Hellenism, but a watered-down version found support across the academic spectrum. ‘In the struggle for a racial entity of our own, we cannot dispense with the assistance that Greek-dom offers us,’ a memorandum issued by the philosophy department at Tübingen asserted in 1942. Suzanne Marchand, in her excellent book Down from Olympus (1996), quotes the medieval historian Josef Strzygowski, writing of the necessity of studying Greek in secondary education, for Greece, ‘next to Iran, will be the most important basis for the knowledge of all Nordic Being’. The Nazis’ political and racialist purges severely weakened the tradition of German classics and the work of scholars in the 1950s and 1960s no longer read as if burdened by a Greek ideal. Classics in Germany became a field like any other, and it wasn’t until the late 1970s, with the publication of Volker Losemann’s Nationalsozialismus und Antike, that a reckoning between the discipline and its compromised past could begin.
There was one German Hellenist who survived the war and for whom the Greek ideal never faded: Heidegger. No philosopher besides Nietzsche mentioned the Greeks more often in his works, and no one else made such peculiar use of them. He believed the Greek language had privileged access to the nature of reality as it was before its wholeness was fractured by the travesty of Socratic rationalism. He attributed near talismanic properties to certain Greek words – aletheia, noein, legein – and used Greek vocabulary and grammar as tools to displace a modernity that had forgotten the nature of Being. If Germans could cast off 2400 years of error, he suggested, they might find a way back to Being through their own language, using the buried grammar of the Greeks as a guide. Like a Christian preacher parsing the gospels, Heidegger preferred fragments to whole works, and single words to fragments. For him, a word like aletheia contained the hidden sense of knowledge as unforgettingness, something the Romantic poets had intuited. ‘Heidegger’s Greeks do not so much compose literary or philosophical texts,’ the classicist Glenn Most has written, ‘as rather simply enounce to one another these primal philosophical terms. They look at one another, say phusis, and nod slowly.’ In such Presocratics as Empedocles and Heraclitus, Heidegger found early traces of the qualities he most wanted Germans to take on: reflectiveness, openness to the world, love of nature, receptivity to native meanings. In Hölderlin and Novalis, he found the two German visionaries ahead of him on the way back to Being.
In 1962, Heidegger boarded the cruise ship Yugoslavia bound for Greece. He was worried about ‘whether what is attributed to the land of the fled gods is not perhaps something imagined and might prove one’s path of thinking to have been a wrong road’. After the second night on board, he sighted Corfu, ancient Corcyra, land of the Phaeacians. While the other passengers glanced at ‘informative guidebooks’ and ‘amusing books on Greece’, Heidegger reread Book Six of the Odyssey on the upper deck and was disappointed by how little it corresponded with what he saw. Was Goethe, he wondered, correct to proceed no further than Sicily? When they reached the coast, he boarded a bus to Olympia, now a tourist town ringed with half-finished American hotels. ‘Did Olympia offer the insight that we have sought into what is proper to the Greek world?’ Heidegger asked himself. No was the answer. On the Acropolis he elbowed past tourists taking endless photographs, all but blind to the ‘feast of thinking’ before their eyes. On Rhodes he found the Greek element having to struggle with the Asiatic element. But finally, on the bare island of Delos, Heidegger found what he was looking for. ‘The veiledness of a former beginning spoke from everything,’ he wrote to his wife.
In the postwar era Germany stopped looking to Ancient Greece. The country now takes pride in having purged itself of foundation myths and having banished the notion of historical destiny once and for all. But this supposedly liberated mindset brings new problems. The European Union’s cultural deficiency stems partly from the fact that it acknowledges no need for a common historical underpinning. ‘Should the EU ever decide to concern itself with more than agricultural policy, military interventions and the standardisation of tax rates on interest income,’ the German classicist Christian Meier writes in From Athens to Auschwitz (2005), ‘it would be wise to draw on the Greeks for inspiration about how to expand civil society and civic freedom.’ The Greek experiment with democratic politics shaped the achievements in other fields that served to distinguish them from their neighbours, according to Meier. Europe has repeatedly returned to those achievements, sometimes extending them, sometimes betraying them. The problem, as he sees it, is that Germans have become too wary of appropriating any historical legacy because of the shame and infamy that still attaches to the last attempt. Is the EU, he asks, really to be the first political entity with no use for historical precedents?
It is a well-meaning, even decent sentiment, but there is enough modern history to draw on if you want to build a case for a common cultural foundation for Europe. Indeed, modern Greek history contains an exemplary episode. The passion with which the Greeks fought for their independence against the Ottomans, and later shook off the influence of the Great Powers, inspired democratic partisans across the continent. The Greek victories became common European property, as would the triumphs of the Italians and the Hungarians. After these trials, the Greeks have never taken their place in Europe for granted. They have not forgotten how often they have been subordinated to the political and economic calculations of others. Some Western Europeans, and even a few Germans, helped Greece shore up its European identity in its earliest days as a modern state. In the 1820s, on the eve of the War of Independence, the German classicist Friedrich Thiersch, the ‘tutor of Bavaria’, visited Greece several times. Thiersch was an ardent, and unusually practical, philhellene. He wrote the standard modern Greek grammar, and conducted surveys of the country’s education system and the state of its political and financial arrangements, its natural resources and social conditions. In 1833 he published his findings in a two-volume work, The Actual State of Greece and the Means by Which It May Be Restored. It makes for uncanny reading:
Greece is a country that, more than any other, in its native genius and character, and in its values and institutions, resembles no other part of Europe. This people, however, is in need of being remade: everything there is backward or in a state of decay. Regeneration only seems possible by introducing laws and customs that belong to a civilisation foreign to its soil … Nothing would be easier than starting such a transformation, and with decrees and incentives much could be accomplished quickly.
So far, so German. But then Thiersch pivots:
Happily there is another way to proceed, without eliminating Greece’s originality. It would mean studying the country, penetrating its character, and determining its true needs. Proceeding in this way, far from destroying what is indigenous and authentic, we will endeavour to profit by our experience, and repair what is damaged by restoring the missing parts without deforming the elements that have come together through centuries of hardship. We will thus find a new strength in the people, not by imposing foreign customs, but by developing native institutions and the vigour of national feeling. It’s true this way is harder than the other, not least because it means indulging the detours of Greek history and traditions. Once we begin to follow it, the more painful it will be to proceed. We will need to forget about ourselves for a moment and above all love Greece in order not to abandon this arduous path. But the outcome will be for the best.
All the faults of Hellenism are in attendance: the romantic appeal to the soul of the people, the call for historical continuity, the faith in national destiny. But here they are bound up in a spirit of goodwill. Germany could do worse for an ideal.