Xenophon and the Nazis, or: How to read the 'Anabasis' in the Third Reich, and other Classical classroom propaganda

Presented at the 81st Anglo-American Conference of Historians, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, 6 July 2012.

In Hitler’s Germany, every possible academic field was compelled to submit to the ideological demands of Nazism. For Classicists, the Führer’s admiration of Greek culture offered a host of opportunities to snatch the burning brand of German nationalism back from the fanatical adherents of völkisch, Germanic culture, and to hail the National-Socialist revolution as a true ‘rebirth of Greek antiquity’.

Nowhere was this tendency to adapt the Classical past for contemporary political ends more apparent than in the classroom. Textbooks were rewritten to present the ancient Greeks themselves as the true forefathers of the German race, and to portray the Greek polis as the ideal precursor of the Nazi Volksgemeinschaft (national community). Teachers therefore had to interpret Greek literature and history in new, explicitly politicised ways. For instance, Greek tragedy could be used to prove the Greeks’ commitment to Blut und Boden (Blood and Soil) ideology and racial clan-preservation, and Plutarch’s Lives provided paradigmatic examples of ‘Führer-personalities’, leaders whose greatness could be seen as prefiguring the advent of Hitler himself.

Using newly-researched, original material from a number of National-Socialist teachers’ periodicals, the first part of this paper provides an overview of the manifold ways in which works by Greek authors were presented as foreshadowing the Nazi worldview, and in which Greek literature was interpreted to serve Nazi ideological tropes.

These general tendencies are then illustrated by means of a more detailed case-study. In 1937, a pedagogue named Kurt Schmidt wrote an article for the popular Classics-teachers’ periodical Die Alten Sprachen, entitled ‘Xenophons Feldzugerinnerungen im Unterricht der nationalsozialistischen Schule’ (‘The Teaching of Xenophon’s Anabasis in National-Socialist Schools’). Schmidt describes in detail how Xenophon’s work should be interpreted, in order to instil pupils with the correct political Weltanschauung. The second half of this paper therefore provides an analysis of Schmidt’s article, highlighting the ways in which his ideas and assumptions are paradigmatic of more universal attitudes towards Classical literature during the Third Reich.

An article based on this paper, entitled ‘Xenophon and the Nazis: A case study in the politicisation of ancient Greek thought through educational propaganda’, has now appeared in Classical Receptions Journal 8 (1), 2016 (special issue on The Legacy of Greek Political Thought, edited by Barbara Goff and Miriam Leonard), pp. 71-89.

Further material from this paper has also been published in an article entitled Classics and Education in the Third Reich: Die Alten Sprachen and the Nazification of Latin- and Greek-Teaching in Secondary Schools’, in Brill’s Companion to the Classics, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, ed. Helen Roche, Kyriakos Demetriou, Leiden 2018, pp. 3-29.