'Xenophon and the Nazis: A case study in the politicisation of Greek thought through educational propaganda'

Classical Receptions Journal 8 (1), 2016 (special issue on The Legacy of Greek Political Thought, edited by Barbara Goff and Miriam Leonard), pp. 71-89.

During the Third Reich, radical reinterpretations of Classical texts were always on the agenda. The Reich Education Ministry decreed unequivocally that only those ancient texts which were deemed of value for the National Socialist regime’s new ‘national-political’ education should be taught in schools, and many Nazified school teachers were all too eager to follow this prime directive. Interestingly, this sometimes led to the pre-eminence of texts which had previously been considered of rather lesser worth – the writings of Xenophon being a case in point.

This article will consider a number of articles on Xenophon published in the Nazi Teachers’ League (NSLB) Classics journal, Die Alten Sprachen, in order to illuminate the ways in which unexpected aspects of Xenophon’s thought could become ‘politicised’. While we might anticipate that the figure of Xenophon himself would be transformed into a ‘Führer-personality’, an ancient Greek avatar of Hitler himself, or that potentially ‘racial’ aspects of his work (such as the untrustworthiness of the Persians, as depicted in the Anabasis) would be brought to the fore, there are also more sophisticated analyses to be made.

For instance, Adolf Krüger’s article on ‘A state-political evaluation of Xenophon’s Hellenica’ (1938-39) takes selected passages from Xenophon’s history and weaves them into a treatise on ancient and modern political theory, condemning individualism and providing a systematic indictment of the dangers of democracy. This authoritarian interpretation demonstrates the infinite malleability of Greek ‘political thought’, asking questions of the text which readers of a more liberal age might never have thought to pose. Similarly, Wilhelm Rögels’ article on Xenophon’s Lac. Pol. elevates aspects of the Spartan constitution to the status of contemporary political principles, placing Sparta (rather than Athens) at the centre of the German political imagination.

As a whole, this article seeks to reveal the contingency of political analysis based on the ancient world, and the ways in which, in the ‘right’ (or wrong) circumstances, almost any aspect of Greek thought can become ‘political’. As the volume in its entirety will demonstrate, an authoritarian regime can just as easily style itself as an heir to the legacy of ancient politics as a democratic one, and Greek thought can ultimately be mobilised for almost any ends – however attractive or rebarbative these might seem to observers in today’s society.