Another Greece: Unexplored aspects of 19th and 20th-century German philhellenism

Panel presented at the European Social Science History Conference (ESSHC) 2014, International Institute for Social History, Vienna, 23 April 2014.

The concept of ‘The Tyranny of Greece over Germany’[1] has almost become a cliché of scholarship on German philhellenism, which has traditionally focused upon that brand of eighteenth-century Athenophile Graecophilia endorsed most famously by Enlightenment figures such as Goethe, Schiller, and Winckelmann. In contrast, this panel seeks to explore the cultural ramifications of divergent or anti-establishment notions of philhellenism in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Germany, spanning transitions which are normally perceived as definitive caesuras in German history and historiography. Neither German unification, the abolition of the monarchy and establishment of the Weimar Republic, nor the Nazi ascension to power, seem to have had a decisive effect in excising philhellenism from the German cultural consciousness. Indeed, philhellenist considerations even continued to motivate German philosophy and intellectual thought after 1945. By examining such disparate spheres as sexual theory, military policy, aesthetics, and pedagogy, this panel suggests that philhellenism should be considered a more widely-prevalent notion in Germany during this period than has hitherto been supposed.

Sebastian Matzner‘s paper examined Karl Heinrich Ulrich’s theory of same-sex attraction, investigating how the ‘other Greece’ of Benedict Friedländer and the Gemeinschaft der Eigenen was constituted; he compared and contrasted their stance with the (homo-)hellenism of Ulrichs and the sexologists. Ideas from Greek literature and thought were crucial to this group’s wider vision of a cultural and political revolution.

Whilst also considering the hellenisation of homosexuality, Norman Domeier‘s paper concentrated upon the military sphere. Domeier focused on the development of notions of the ‘hypervirile’ homosexual, which drew on an idealization of Spartan and Theban military practices. These ideas were eagerly taken up not only during the Wilhelmine era, but also during the Weimar Republic and the early years of the Third Reich.

Moving beyond the issue of remasculinising the military to consider the emerging biologistic discourses of race and eugenics, Lara Day examined manifestations of philhellenist thought in artistic and architectural criticism between 1913 and 1928, comparing the work of Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, Karl Scheffler and Paul Schultze-Naumburg. The treatment of Wilhelmine and Weimar theory serves as a timely corrective to the overwhelming scholarly focus on the philhellenist tropes exemplified by such later figures as Josef Thorak, Arno Breker and Leni Riefenstahl.

Helen Roche considered a further little-explored aspect of Nazi philhellenism – namely, the stance of National Socialist educators towards the great philhellenists of the Aufklärung. These Nazified authors tended to celebrate figures such as Winckelmann and Goethe as providing an important legacy on which the National Socialist Weltanschauung could draw, yet, at the same time they often vociferously decried their intellectualisation of philhellenism, and their ‘blindness’ in terms of racial theory.

Above all, this panel aimed to draw attention to aspects of philhellenism which have as yet been neglected, demonstrating that this graecophilia was in fact a much more widespread phenomenon in Germany than has previously been assumed, and demonstrating the variety of cultural discourses in which such tropes appear. Not only was philhellenism a crucial element in popular as well as intellectual discourse on sexuality, the arts, and philosophy, but it was paramount to the development, discussion and contestation of policy issues concerning the military, pedagogy and eugenics. The resulting culmination of these philhellenist discourses in National Socialist policy is well-documented; however, their ultimate ‘Nazification’ should no longer be emphasised to the exclusion of their origins and development in German culture long before the Third Reich.

[1] The title of Eliza Marion Butler’s controversial analysis of German philhellenism, first published in 1935.