German Philhellenism: PEGS Volume 82, Issue 3

Guest-edited Special Issue of Publications of the English Goethe Society, October 2013.

This volume of Publications of the English Goethe Society was inspired by the proceedings of a colloquium on ‘German Philhellenism’, which was held at the Faculty of Classics, University of Cambridge, on 15th December 2012. The speakers included Simon Goldhill, Katherine Harloe, Damian Valdez, Stefano-Maria Evangelista and Helen Roche. 

The colloquium was intended to stimulate dialogue and debate about the meaning and importance of German philhellenism as a concept. How and why might philhellenism in Germany during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries differ from expressions of the phenomenon in other European nation states during this period? Could the ‘transnational turn’ help us better to comprehend and respond to the on-going cultural traffic in philhellenism between Germany and France or England? Furthermore, have we all too often been seduced into conceptualising German philhellenism as a single, monolithic entity, with Winckelmann as its guiding star, when such idealizing and romanticizing views were actually created long after the fact (and, indeed, are still being forged in the present)? If so, who (or what) is primarily responsible for this invention of the philhellenist tradition, and what is its authorizing function? Ultimately, should we conceive of “philhellenisms” in the plural, rather than “philhellenism” in the singular?

While this volume does not pretend to provide a definitive answer to all these questions – and while  there are many relevant spheres which it cannot touch upon at all, such as the role played by material culture – the essays presented here are intended to provide a stimulating springboard for those who wish to explore such issues in the future.

The first article, by Felix Saure (Lüneburg) explores the ways in which Wilhelm von Humboldt’s philhellenic poetry can be used to shed new light upon his concept of Bildung. Saure argues that, despite their perceived artistic inferiority, Humboldt’s poems connect his hellenizing view of history, his educational ideals, and his cultural critique of contemporary life, and that they have therefore been unjustly neglected. In these works, Humboldt generally places himself in opposition to the contemporary fascination with exotica – whether in the form of the glamorously outlandish culture of the Indian subcontinent or the mysteriously remote Christian Middle Ages – and turns instead to the Classical world for inspiration. The pièce de resistance of this engagement with Graecophilia can be found, despite its title, in his lyric poem Rom, the only piece of poetry to be published during his lifetime. For Humboldt, Hellas is the eternal home of art and culture, while the Roman world plays an at best subsidiary and at worst highly destructive role, as the purveyor of Greek culture to the modern world. The superiority of the Greeks’ well-rounded and harmonious individuality, as opposed to the Romans’ will to power, is absolute. In this fashion, Saure’s contribution not only explores a less well-known facet of philhellenism in Humboldt’s thought, but also highlights the continual importance of conceptual oppositions in the construction of ‘Hellas’ – the conception of ‘Greekness’ as a discrete entity only makes sense at some level if it can fruitfully be contrasted with ‘Romanness’, ‘Germanness’, or even ‘Orientalism’.

The second article, by Stefano-Maria Evangelista (Oxford), moves forward in time and outward in space to consider an important aspect of Anglo-German cultural traffic in the nineteeth century – namely, the impact of German philhellenism on the English Aesthetic movement. While proponents of the movement during the late-Victorian decades are generally regarded as drawing on the work of French writers such as Baudelaire and Gautier, Evangelista seeks to shift the geography of English Aestheticism by demonstrating that late-nineteenth-century theories of art for art’s sake also have their roots in German Hellenism. In this reading, the 1870s in fact inaugurate a new phase in the English reception of Goethe, with its own distinctive characteristics, which has hitherto been overlooked by critics. Censorious reviews in the Victorian conservative press also testify to the fact that the Hellenophile aesthetes successfully challenged the moral conventions of their times. Whilst exploring the ways in which the Aesthetes presented Goethe to their readers, therefore, Evangelista’s contribution also greatly enhances our understanding of the complex relationship between English and German philhellenism during this period. Furthermore, it conspicuously demonstrates the phenomenon’s multifaceted nature, since the English Aesthetes were able to use their readings of these philhellenist texts to propagate a clearly counter-cultural and anti-Establishment message.

The third article, by Helen Roche (Cambridge), examines the appropriation of Graecophile figures such as Winckelmann, Goethe and Hölderlin by authors writing in educational periodicals during the Nazi period. Often, scholars and educators under National Socialism attempted to construct a model of philhellenism for the ‘Thousand Year Reich’ which explicitly defined itself as descended from, yet opposed to, earlier manifestations of the phenomenon. These Nazified authors therefore tended to see the ‘great’ eighteenth-century philhellenists as providing an important legacy on which the National Socialist Weltanschauung could draw, yet, at the same time, they often vociferously decried their perceived intellectualization of philhellenism, and their ‘blindness’ in terms of racial theory. The paper also considers the ways in which National Socialist educators often attempted to turn the ideal of the Humboldtian Gymnasium on its head, proclaiming instead a return to the true, ‘living’ spirit of the original Greek gymnasion. In this instance, it becomes extremely clear how invested in the ‘invented philhellenist tradition’ these Nazified pedagogues were. Even in their most strenuous attempts to revise philhellenist attitudes radically in accordance with Hitlerian ideology, their greatest hope seems to have been to find a ‘new Winckelmann’ who could hold their ‘revolutionary’ banner high, or to recast the Enlightenment philhellenists as proto-National Socialists.