Philhellenism and Laconophilia in Nineteenth-Century Germany: Some nationalist perspectives

Presented at an international conference on Graeco-Roman Antiquity and the Idea of Nationalism in the 19th Century, University of Durham, 22 June 2013.

Idealised notions of ancient Greece have arguably been of paramount importance in the cultivation of German notions of cultural nationalism. Certainly, from the end of the eighteenth century onwards, the idea that there was a special affinity between Germans and Greeks became a commonplace, and the nineteenth-century ‘Drang nach dem Griechischen’ [quest for Greekness] was seen as intrinsically bound up with the rise of German national culture.

If, as Harold James has argued, nationalism ‘works through a powerful, but nevertheless usually highly fictional, account of shared historical, linguistic and cultural identities’, then we can see the appropriation of Greece in Germany during the long nineteenth century – particularly in terms of Athens and Sparta – as an interesting and unusual extension of the inherent fictionality of this kind of nationalist construction.

Using a variety of original source-material, this paper will explore some of the ways in which philhellenist and phillaconist tropes were used during this period in order to foster nationalist sentiment (whether in terms of individual German states, or from a pan-German perspective). Often, appeals were made to the supposed deep spiritual and cultural kinship between the Greek and German peoples, and the martial virtues of the Spartans were seen as a crucial model for instilling patriotic values in soldiers and officers alike.