Goebbels' Grecian Obsession: Philhellenism and the leaders of the Third Reich

Presented at the Classical Association Conference 2013, University of Reading, 5 April 2013, as part of a panel organised by the Legacy of Greek Political Thought Network.

This paper forms part of an ongoing research project concerning the influence of philhellenism on politics and diplomacy during the Third Reich, with particular reference to its impact on the leaders of the Nazi regime. 

Using material from speeches, private diaries and other documents, the paper attempts to reconstruct the ways in which an idealised view of ancient Greece influenced National Socialist leaders’ political actions and attitudes, using the thought of the Nazi propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels, as a case-study.

Of particular interest in this regard are Goebbels’ accounts of two visits which he made to Greece, in September 1936 and April 1939 respectively. In his “diary” entries (which he wished to be recorded for posterity), Goebbels repeatedly dilates, with quasi-religious fervour, upon his desire to recreate and relive the glories of ancient Greece. Opportunities to view the Akropolis and the Parthenon – which he describes as ‘the most powerful monument to Aryan creative power’ – or to visit ancient Sparta (‘thrilling’), and the site of the Battle of Marathon – where he is visited by ‘visions from history’ – are depicted as the fulfilment of his deepest dreams. The impact of this idealisation of ancient Greece on Goebbels’ virulently racist view of the modern Greeks (whom he castigated as an ‘oriental swarm’), and on his later propaganda campaigns, including the presentation of the catastrophic Battle of Stalingrad as a new Thermopylae, will then be analysed in depth.

By shedding light on some of the ways in which the leaders of the Nazi regime adopted ancient Greece as a model and a possible paradigm for the Third Reich, this paper provides a case-study of the politicised influence which philhellenism has exercised upon the modern world.

Some of this research has now been incorporated into an article entitled ‘The Peculiarities of German Philhellenism’, The Historical Journal 61 (2), 2018, pp. 541-60.