Half-Finished People

Thomas Meaney

  • The Tyranny of Greece over Germany by E.M. Butler
    Cambridge, 351 pp, £23.99, March 2012, ISBN 978 1 107 69764 5

One of the first things the Germans did after marching into Greece in 1941 was to resume the excavations that had been interrupted by the onset of war. Each sector of the military pitched in: the Luftwaffe photographed classical sites; the Wehrmacht cordoned off ruins; the Kriegsmarine salvaged pieces of an ancient frieze sunk near Piraeus. There were excited communiqués to Berlin: the chief Nazi archaeologist said that if he had 1.5 million Reichsmarks to fund his work, ‘the uncontested hegemony of Germany in the study of Greek monuments would be secured … It would be so grand a gesture by the conqueror, who would show himself conscious of his cultural calling in Europe.’

Eliza Marian Butler started studying the Nazis’ designs for Europe in 1933. Born in Lancashire in 1885 and educated extensively on the Continent, she had watched Kaiser Wilhelm inspect his troops, witnessed German violence close-up as a nurse in the First World War, and later took up a chair in German at Cambridge. She was at first perplexed to find that the glad tidings of Humanitas preached by Herder, Goethe and Schiller had failed to get through to the German public, but soon came to see that this was not the problem: there had in fact been too much exposure to Ancient Greek literature and art. The result was that the German mind had succumbed to ‘the tyranny of an ideal’. The German worship of Ancient Greece had emboldened the Nazis to remake Europe in their image.

Butler blamed Luther for this. He had deprived the Germans of a system that satisfied their longing for mysticism and beauty, and sent them in search of new gods, whom they found in Greek myth and Nordic legends. She interpreted their nostalgia as misplaced yearning for the homegrown deities suppressed when the Germanic tribes were Christianised. After the Wars of Liberation of the early 19th century, young German nationalists were also attracted to the subversive democratic values they associated with the Greeks. Athenian democracy inspired liberals at odds with the retrenched Prussian and Hapsburg monarchies. Greek aesthetic ideals contrasted favourably with the baroque pretensions of the French and the vampiric commercialism of the English. The rediscovery of the classical past was a widespread European passion, but nowhere was it bound up with national identity to the extent it was in Germany. The French and English could look to their own political revolutions to find their bearings in modernity; the Germans turned to Ancient Greece for an ideal that spoke to a sense of the nation’s destiny in Europe. By embracing Greece, Romantics short-circuited what they took to be the imposed, oppressive legacy of Latin Rome and linked Germany directly with the most hallowed culture in the European past. There was an irony here, since the longing for Hellas was itself a Roman preoccupation.

When Butler’s book on all this, The Tyranny of Greece over Germany, was published in 1934, it was promptly banned by the Nazis. After the war it became a minor classic in the English-speaking world. She built on the insights of two notable predecessors, Heine’s History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany, written during the high tide of the Vormärz (the period of repression that followed the Congress of Vienna), and Santayana’s Egotism in German Philosophy, written during the First World War. All three conceived of their books as warnings of the havoc in store if German ideals were put into action; all of them agreed that the German ideal of Hellas could not bear very much reality. But Butler went beyond Heine and Santayana by tracking how German writers had tweaked their ideal of Ancient Greece over time. The version of Greece that Schiller, Goethe and Hölderlin worshipped was imaginary, and they seemed to have avoided visiting the country for fear of tarnishing their ideal. Few Germans of intellectual consequence visited Greece in the 18th or 19th centuries – not during the Greek War of Independence, or in the decades after it when Greece was ruled by a Bavarian princeling. The German aristocracy of the 18th century hadn’t been adventurous enough to expand the customary Grand Tour beyond Italy, and the German states lacked institutions of enlightened patronage like the Society of Dilettanti in London, which sent early archaeological expeditions to Greece and Anatolia. There were no German philhellenes to match Shelley and Byron, for whom the modern Greeks were live people, not the ethereal playthings they were for Hölderlin. Goethe turned down several invitations to visit Greece; he never intended to write a ‘Greek Journey’ to match his Italian Journey and thought he had found a good enough backdrop for the Odyssey in Sicily. When Schliemann started his excavation at Troy in 1871, he was widely considered a hooligan for trying to anchor his Greek ideal in solid ground.

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