A Love-Hate Relationship? The impact of historical philhellenism on Germany's view of the "Greek Crisis"

Presented at a workshop on ‘Renegotiating History in Light of the Greek Crisis’, Taylor Institution, University of Oxford, 16 March 2016.

When the “Greek crisis” is discussed, the urge to reach for historical parallels is never far away. As Daniel Knight has convincingly shown in his recent work on History, Time, and Economic Crisis in Central Greece (2015), inhabitants of rural Thessaly constantly draw on historical experiences of the cruelty of Ottoman landlords, the suffering of the Great Famine, and the devastation of Nazi occupation to explain their present woes. Such collocations offer a way to rationalise the ramifications of the crisis, which has reduced them in a few years from prosperity to penury. This kind of recourse to history is often evident in a more virulent form in the national press and media – for instance, in portrayals of Angela Merkel as an SS-guard – or in official rhetoric concerning German war-guilt, and the need for reparations to balance the books.

Interestingly, however, other countries are also prone to reflect on the Greek past – ancient and modern – in their coverage of the “crisis”. This tendency has been especially marked in Germany, whose long and somewhat chequered love-affair with Greece, in the guise of philhellenism, can lend a particular piquancy to comment and criticism. Since the eighteenth century, when figures such as Goethe and Winckelmann held Greece up as an inspiration and aesthetic ideal for Western culture, the idea of Greece had exerted a particular hold on the German imagination. Under the Third Reich, this “elective affinity” was transformed through racial chauvinistic ideology into a supposed ethnic relationship between the Germans and the ancient Greeks, who were deemed to have been impeccably “Aryan”. Arguably, German brutality during the war years was at least partly fostered by contempt for the “non-Aryan” nature of the modern Greek population. This toxic train of thought has now surfaced again in some arenas of comment on the “crisis”; the Greek people may be castigated for mismanagement because of their racial makeup, even in the mainstream media.

This paper examines such uses and abuses of history in German coverage of the “crisis”, placing them in their philhellenist historical context – whilst also contrasting such attitudes with those found in the British press.

You can watch a vodcast of the talk here.