The Greek Ideal And The Making Of Modern Germany

Digging into the intellectual history of Germany and Greece, ancient and otherwise, adds yet another level of irony to Europe's current struggles.

The Greek-inspired Brandenburg Gate in 1928
The Greek-inspired Brandenburg Gate in 1928
Joëlle Kuntz

GENEVA — In 1833, Munich scholar Friedrich Thiersch was preparing the Germans for the election of a Bavarian king for newly independent Greece. "Through its genius and its character, its values and its institutions, Greece looks like no other part of Europe," he wrote. "The people, however, need to be reformed. Everything over there is archaic and dilapidated. Regeneration is possible only by introducing the laws and the usages of a civilization that is foreign to their territory."

This was the German in him speaking. But history and his love of Greece intervened. "Fortunately, there's another way to proceed, without excluding the Greek originality: studying the country, penetrating its character, determining its real needs," Thiersch continued. "We will then find a new force within the people, not by imposing foreign customs, but by developing local institutions and the strength of national identity."

He acknowledged that this issue would be the hardest, that the Germans would have to forget themselves and learn to love the Greeks, but that the result would only lead to better things.

When his book, The Current State of Greece, was published, Thiersch was immersed in the mystical Hellenism that took hold of the German intelligentsia through the study of literary texts. And he transferred onto the Greeks the people's romantic appeal and its historic continuity that the Germans took on for themselves by aligning with Greek antiquity.

Between Germany and Greece, it's a long, deep and complicated history.

In 1809, Wilhelm von Humboldt, then-chief of Prussian public education, put forward the creation of a national identity (Bildung) by drawing directly on Greek sources. "Only in them can we find the ideal of what we want to be and what we want to produce," he said.

He drew on a renowned predecessor, the philologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who wrote in 1755 of a singular guiding statement: imitating the Greeks to become inimitable; becoming German through the Greeks, like the Romans became Roman through Greece. Artistic perfection and political freedoms are linked; the absolute of beauty goes hand in hand with the absolute of politics and democracy.

Humboldt and Nietzsche

With his History of Ancient Art (1764), Winckelmann shaped the interests of a generation of artists and thinkers, Goethe, Lessing, Schiller, Hölderlin and many others. Goethe said about him: "Reading Winckelmann, we do not learn anything, we become something."

For Alexander von Humboldt, Prussia defeated by Napoleon could learn lessons from ancient Greece's eventual defeats. "The decline of Greek states under the Macedonian and then Roman assaults must be an example for the German states under Napoleon's assault. The victors are always inferior to the defeated."

Friedrich Nietzsche mocks the Humboldtian ambition to turn students into decent Germans raised with classical philology. But it was in the name of another Greece, the one before Socrates and Euripides, the Greece that didn't rationalize, denying the world's tragic destiny, that he wrote The Birth of Tragedy.

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Nietzsche in 1869. Photo: Wikipedia

Whether you were Hölderlin, Nietzsche, Humboldt, Thiersch or Heidegger, Greece was never far from your thoughts. In 1912, Friedrich Léo, a Latin professor at the University of Gottingen, talked about the "Greek-German renaissance" of the end of the 18th century, that moment when German became aware of its "original Greekness," beyond its Romanity.

In 1933, while she was studying the Nazis' plans for Europe, the British Germanist from the University of Cambridge Eliza Marian Butler realized that, far from having absorbed the Classics according to Goethe, Schiller or Herder, the German public found itself the victim of the "tyranny of an ideal": the one that was instilled in them by the prolonged and excessive elevation of Ancient Greece.

And, indeed, by deriving classical philology, the Nazis used Greek Antiquity to their own advantage to reshape Europe to match their own image. Butler put forward this argument in a 1934 essay, The Tyranny of Greece Over Germany, which was a modest success in the English-speaking world but forbidden in Germany.

After invading Greece in 1941, the Third Reich launched new archaeological excavations. The Luftwaffe photographed sites, the army isolated ruins, the navy pulled up ancient friezes that ran aground near the Piraeus. The head archeologist declared that, with 1.5 million Reichmarks at his disposition, he "would demonstrate Germany's unquestionable hegemony over the study of Greek monuments."

After the war, having had its fill of supposed ideals, Germany fully abandoned its search of Ancient Greece. Hellenist Christian Meier would later accuse Germany of refusing history, including Greek history. He wrote in his book, From Athens to Auschwitz (2005), that "it would be wise to draw on the Greeks for inspiration about how to expand civil society and civic freedom."

In recent years, Greeks haven't really interested the Germans, much beyond their beach holidays. Former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt was opposed of Greece entering what would become the European Union. "I insisted," former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing said in private. "Surely we couldn't imagine Europe without Greece." Germany could: contemporary economics had come to replace the ancient thinkers.

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