Wanderer, kommst Du nach Sparta oder nach Stalingrad? Thermopylaean topoi in the twentieth-century imagination

Visiting Lecture, given to the TOPOI Excellence Cluster: The Formation and Transformation of Space and Knowledge in Ancient Civilizations, Freie Universität Berlin, 27 June 2013.

Since antiquity, the heroic fight to the last of King Leonidas and his three-hundred Spartans against the overwhelming military might of the Persian Empire in 480 B.C. has often been considered the ultimate expression of sacrificial patriotism, and Simonides’ epitaph to the fallen heroes has since graced countless European war memorials, as well as inspiring myriad military orations.

More recently, Zack Snyder’s reinvention of the Thermopylae myth in the film 300 (2007) has stimulated controversy and heated debate concerning the politicisation of notions of ‘Western civilisation versus Oriental evil’, and their possible value to the U.S. administration during the aftermath of 9/11 and the continuing war in Iraq.

This paper explores the juxtaposition of supposedly ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’ notions of patriotic self-sacrifice which were employed in German military propaganda during the twentieth century, focusing on the recurrent trope of the Spartans’ Thermopylaean sacrifice as a paradigm for contemporary martial endeavours, especially during the Second World War. In particular, the paper considers the extent to which such legitimising propaganda was accepted or rejected by its intended audiences.  

An article based on this paper, entitled Wanderer, kommst du nach Sparta oder nach Stalingrad? Spartan ideals of self-sacrifice and German military propaganda’ has now been published in Making Sacrifices: Visions of Sacrifice in European and American Cultures (Opfer bringen: Opfervorstellungen in europäischen und amerikanischen Kulturen), ed. Nicholas Brooks, Gregor Thuswaldner (Vienna, 2016), pp. 66-86.