Classics and National Socialism

Review of Klio und die Nationalsozialisten: Gesammelte Schriften zur Wissenschafts und Rezeptionsgeschichte (Wiesbaden: Harassowitz, 2017), published in The Classical Review 69 (2), October 2019, pp. 666-7.

Volker Losemann’s work has rightly been hailed as pioneering in its efforts to bring to light the ideological distortions and academic opportunism to which Classical and ancient historical scholarship were subjected during the Third Reich. Losemann’s doctoral dissertation, completed under the supervision of Karl Christ (1923-2008) at Marburg, and published in 1977 under the title Nationalsozialismus und Antike. Studien zur Entwicklung des Faches Alte Geschichte 1933-1945, was groundbreaking in ways which many German scholars found deeply uncomfortable, at a time when the process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung in German universities had barely begun.

One of the great strengths of this collection of essays, brought together here for the first time, is the self-reflexive insight which it brings to our understanding of the history of the discipline: Losemann does not shrink from discussing some of the ‘grotesque’ difficulties, or even censorship, which he and other likeminded colleagues faced when pursuing their research on the history of Altertumswissenschaft under National Socialism. As a case in point, the rejection of Christ’s funding application for a major grant from the Deutsche Forschungsgesellschaft on this topic in the late 1960s was instant and unequivocal; the proposal was turned down within a week. Losemann was able to deduce from his own personal research at a later juncture that the grant proposal must have been the subject of heated oral discussion, due to the lack of written documentation surrounding its unconscionably swift rejection (p. 168).

Although the two encomiastic prefaces by Hans-Joachim Drexhage and the editors, Claudia Deglau, Patrick Reinard and Kai Ruffing, constitute the only completely new material in the volume, its service lies rather in the fact that it draws together a corpus of Losemann’s most seminal essays, many of which were originally published in fairly obscure journals or edited volumes, as well as providing a complete bibliography of his scholarly output. Chapters representing all of Losemann’s most prominent research interests are included, from the Nazi reception of Sparta and Karl Otfried Müller’s Die Dorier, and the treatment of Arminius and the Germanic tribes in German nationalist and memorial discourse, to the organisation and role of the National Socialist Dozentenlager (indoctrination camps for aspiring academics). In this fashion, Losemann’s work can be viewed more holistically (although it might have been helpful if the editors had included short reflections on the genesis of each piece, or updated some of the references, where appropriate). Even those essays which were first published nearly half a century ago are still worthy of appreciation – both in their own right, since the findings contained therein remain unsuperseded, and as key texts in the construction of contemporary Wissenschaftsgeschichte.

From this perspective, two of the most significant contributions are chapters 1 and 8, ‘Programme deutscher Althistoriker in der “Machtergreifungsphase”’, first published in Quaderni di Storia in 1980, and ‘Nationalsozialismus und Antike: Bemerkungen zur Forschungsgeschichte’, which originally appeared in Beat Näf’s edited volume Antike und Altertumswissenschaft in der Zeit von Faschismus und Nationalsozialismus (Mandelbachtal and Cambridge, 2001). Both of these essays engage in telling detail with the accommodations which many Classicists were prepared to make with the Nazi regime – partly due to the general prevalence of German nationalist sympathies in the academic milieu after the First World War. Even scholars who were later persecuted, or forced to emigrate on racial grounds, were often initially willing to swear allegiance to National Socialist ideals. In part, this can also be ascribed to the growing sense of existential threat experienced by adherents of the discipline since the late nineteenth century – exacerbated by the loss of the humanistic gymnasiums’ monopoly over higher education, as enforced by the Wilhelmine educational conferences at the turn of the twentieth century.

After the Second World War, there was a widespread and longstanding unwillingness to engage with the ‘unfortunate errors’ which many professors of Altertumswissenschaft had engaged with or published in the form of highly ideological scholarship; a fact which was aggravated by the successful ‘second careers’ which scholars such as Helmut Berve (1896-1979) and Josef Vogt (1895-1986) were able to enjoy in the Federal Republic of Germany. It was only after the death of this generation of ‘Doktorväter’ that more radical research questions could be posed, and even in the 1980s and 1990s, some former disciples sought to uphold unblemished the reputations of their academic patrons through skulduggery and subterfuge, such as the acolytes of the Berlin ancient historian Wilhelm Weber (1882-1948), who demanded that professors’ elderly widows return all of the letters which Weber had once sent to their husbands during the Third Reich.

All in all, then, despite containing no new or revised material by Losemann himself, this volume will be of great value to all scholars with an interest in disciplinary history, twentieth-century intellectual history, or the history of higher education. Hence, it is likely to remain an important contribution to the history of Altertumswissenschaft for many years – or even decades – to come.