Germany’s Tyranny over Greece? The philhellenist roots of the current financial crisis

For centuries, Greece has held powerful sway over the German literary and cultural imagination. Now, however, the roles seem to have been cruelly reversed, with a promethean Greece bound in an ever-more arbitrary and archaic form of debt-bondage to the German fiscal giant.

Tsipras_PrometheusTo many of her inhabitants, Greece now appears to be no less under Germany’s whip-hand than she had been during the Nazi occupation of the 1940s, with starvation and civil war no longer a distant memory, but a distinct possibility on an increasingly gloomy horizon. The rise of political extremism and ultra-nationalism, especially in the form of the odious Golden Dawn party, whose peculiar brand of neo-Nazi, neo-Spartan racism has raised hackles across the globe (and deep-seated fears among much of Greece’s population), is seen as just one consequence of recent German financial demands. Small wonder that, in desperation, Greek politicians are grasping at historical straws, raising the spectre of reparations and German war-guilt in a futile attempt to hold back the European juggernaut which they believe is set to crush them.

But how to disentangle the complex and, currently, ineradicably poisoned relationship between these two countries, both of which are crucial to Europe’s future fate? When did Germans cease to venerate Greece as a hallowed place of cultural pilgrimage, portraying her instead as an indolent liability of a country, whose ancient heritage should instantly be sold to make good her mounting debts? Ultimately, how did the intellectual and artistic ‘tyranny of Greece over Germany’ come to such a sad and sticky end?(1)

Focus_VenusArguably, today’s toxic Greco-German relationship can only be understood within a far broader historical context, drawing on an understanding of Germany’s adulation and idealisation of Ancient Greece from the 18th century onwards – and her subsequent inevitable disappointment with Greece’s all-too-real modern incarnation. Philhellenism was admittedly widespread in Europe during the Enlightenment and its aftermath, but many giants of German culture caught the bug particularly badly, with even such exalted figures as Goethe claiming that ‘Everyone should be Greek in his own way – but he should be Greek!’ Many leading German figures ultimately believed that there existed an ultra-special relationship, even a ‘Wahlverwandtschaft’, or a spiritual kinship, between Ancient Greece and modern Germany.

Such discourses eventually reached a peak of ideological and chauvinistic excess during the Third Reich: now the ancient Greeks were alleged to be not only spiritually, but also racially, related to the modern-day Germans – since clearly they had always been the purest of Aryan races. In Hitler’s worldview, the forbears of Plato and Aristotle could easily have hailed from deepest darkest Thuringia; meanwhile, the Spartans were evidently akin to simple peasants from Schleswig-Holstein – as proved definitively by their mutual predilection for black broth(!).

In political terms, policies ranging from new Nazi inheritance laws to the Generalplan Ost, Hitler’s blueprint for imperial conquest and extermination in Central Europe and Russia, were inspired by ancient Spartan practices. Thus, the idea that the Slavic peoples of the East could be termed ‘Helot-peoples’ slipped into popular parlance – after all, they would soon be conquered in similar fashion by the neo-Spartan warriors of the Third Reich.(2)

Meanwhile, philhellenist propaganda was used unsparingly on the eve of the German invasion of modern Greece in 1941, in order to convince Wehrmacht soldiers to consider themselves the ancient Greeks’ spiritual and biological heirs. Indeed, one could even argue that the brutality which German troops visited upon Greek civilians during World War II was in some cases a direct product of their disappointment at the modern Greeks’ failure to embody that heroic ideal which they had been conditioned to expect in the inhabitants of their ‘ancestral homeland’.(3) Angela Merkel’s routine portrayal as an SS-guard by the Greek press today is therefore, in some sense, a symptom of Greece’s troubled relationship with Germany’s philhellenist past, as well as with the memory of Nazi atrocities.


Now, however, similarly racialised views of the modern Greeks are becoming increasingly common currency amongst German politicians and pundits. Just to take one example, Berthold Seewald, Die Welt‘s lead cultural history editor, recently fulminated against the treacherous absurdity of ‘the idea that the modern Greeks would comport themselves as descendants of Pericles or Socrates, and not as a mix of Slavs, Byzantines and Albanians’ (Geschichte vor Tsipras: Griechenland zerstörte schon einmal Europas Ordnung, Die Welt, 11 June 2015). In so doing, he is merely rehearsing the thesis put forward by the 19th-century Orientalist Jakob Phillipp Fallmerayer (1790-1861), who claimed that the blood of the ancient Hellenic race had been utterly expunged from Europe by an influx of Slavic immigration, and whose theories were eagerly appropriated by leading National Socialists to explain the unenthusiastic reception given by the modern Greek population to the invading Wehrmacht.

With the situation in Greece and in Europe generally becoming increasingly volatile, and the comment on both sides increasingly vitriolic, we urgently need to reconsider these discourses as a matter of necessity – as well as properly investigating their causes, and the deeper historical context which surrounds them.

(1) cf. Eliza Marian Butler’s seminal work on German philhellenism, The Tyranny of Greece over Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1935, repr. 2011).

(2) cf. H.B.E. Roche, ‘”In Sparta fühlte ich mich wie in einer deutschen Stadt” (Goebbels): The Leaders of the Third Reich and the Spartan Nationalist Paradigm’, in Felicity Rash, Geraldine Horan, and Daniel Wildmann (eds.), English and German Nationalist and Anti-Semitic Discourse, 1871-1945 (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2013), pp. 91-115.

(3) For more on this phenomenon, see Mark Mazower’s Inside Hitler’s Greece: The Experience of Occupation, 1941-44 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995); for some specific examples, see Hagen Fleischer, ‘Die “Viehmenschen” und das “Sauvolk”. Feindbilder einer dreifachen Okkupation: Der Fall Griechenland’, in Wolfgang Benz and Gerhard Otto (eds.), Kultur – Propaganda – Öffentlichkeit. Intentionen deutscher Besatzungspolitik und Reaktionen auf die Okkupation (Berlin: Metropol, 1998), pp. 135-69.

This post was originally written for History Today magazine.

Some examples of “curious Denglisch”…

Humorous examples of Chinesified English – Chinglish – have recently become a global phenomenon, and the inimitable Miles Kington popularised mangled mixtures of French and English in his hugely popular Let’s parler Franglais series. However, unfortunate fusions of German (Deutsch) and English – i.e. Denglisch – haven’t yet become quite as well-known.

In order to make a pint-size contribution to remedying this deficiency, here are some prime examples which I’ve come across during my recent travels in Germany (all on my way to the archives, of course!):

Curious Denglisch #1: Would you trust this coiffeur with your lovely locks?

If only they’d called it “”, they’d have been fine…

Respectively, the signs in the window are advertising the

Respectively, the signs in the window are advertising the “Men-Style-Killer-Paket”, the “Big-Killer-Paket”, and the “Basic-Killer-Paket”… Enough said?

Curious Denglisch #2: The interestingly-named clothes shop, “mister lady”, advertising a “Freaky Sale”, Bahnhofstraße, Nordhausen.


Sadly, all the clothing on sale inside was disappointingly normal…

Curious Denglisch #3: That unfortunate neologism, Verkaufshits

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As my friend James Bramley put it: “It’s what happens when you accidentally eat it…”

On this note, Jeremy Leaman of Loughborough University comments:

“Not exactly Denglisch, but nevertheless a source of much hilarity on first acquaintance: in a Service Station heading east out of Zürich (Thurau, I think), the menu included the alluring item of ‘Sonntagshit’ one year and, the next, ‘Tageshit’. I was fed up to discover this year that the place has been taken over by McDonald’s. Sic transit etc!!”

Any other examples of curious Denglisch to report? If so, do share them…

A Tale from the Third Reich’s Interior Ministry…

A few days ago, I happened to be working through a seemingly innocuous file from the German Interior Ministry during the mid-1930s, collated by one Hans Pfundtner, who was a Staatssekretär (a very high-ranking civil servant) in the Ministry. It contains a series of letters to (and about) Pfundtner’s son Reinhard, who has just been sent to a Napola, one of the Nazi elite-schools which I’ve been researching for the last few years.

Some of the father’s letters to his son are so banal, but also so strangely familiar to anyone acquainted with boarding-school life, that from time to time one can’t help inwardly exclaiming in recognition: stern admonitions for having left an expensive piece of sports-kit behind somewhere; responses to constant requests for more pocket-money…

There are also some odd moments of humour – for example, the father’s keenness on huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’, such that he won’t even be home to welcome his son at Easter because he will be off hunting capercaillies instead…!

A photograph of Hans Pfundtner (1881-1945), taken at some point before 1935

A photograph of Hans Pfundtner (1881-1945), taken at some point before 1935

And yet… as we read through the file, small intimations of Pfundtner’s engagement with the Nazi regime begin to mount up – enough to give us pause. Firstly, in a letter dated 12 January 1935, we learn that he has been nominated as Gauehrenarbeitsführer – certainly some indication of a high degree of political loyalty to the Nazi state, over and above his status as a civil servant.

He is also heavily involved with organising the forthcoming Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen – something which later leads him to send a press release to the Headmaster of the American school where Reinhard spends several months as an exchange student (Tabor Academy in Massachusetts). The content of this missive may or may not have had some small role to play in persuading U.S public opinion of the rightness of sending teams to the Berlin and Garmisch-Partenkirchen Olympic Games, despite suspicion of Nazi atrocities.

But it is on 25 September 1935 that Pfundtner drops what, to anyone unacquainted with his biography, must be the ultimate bombshell:

“… the Party conference went splendidly. No one else in the world could have given a speech to equal the one the Führer gave. The sitting of the Reichstag in which the Jewish Laws were passed was an experience. I had played a substantial role in formulating the laws, and because of this had an especially great deal to do…”

Pfundtner isn’t just a family man with four sons, who signs off his letters “your loving father”, and ticks Reinhard off for spending his pocket money too quickly. He is also one of the key architects of the Nuremberg Laws, which demoted Jews and Gypsies to a pariah status within Nazi Germany, and which were instrumental in the genesis of the Holocaust.

This damning ambiguity in historical actors’ personal lives is one of the things which any historian of the Third Reich has to deal with on a daily basis. Still, that doesn’t make it any easier to reconcile two such conflicting images – the Schreibtischtäter, the murderer at his desk, formulating the laws which destined whole “races” to persecution and death – and the harassed, sometimes stern, but ultimately affectionate father.

Is this the banality of evil? Or something far less iconic?

Ancient Spartans and 17th-century harpsichordists: What’s the connection?

My friend (and fellow baroque musician) John McKean and I have recently been having fun trying to find aptly idiosyncratic translations for some of the prefaces to 17th-century German treatises on harpsichord-playing which he’s analysing for his PhD. The amount of vitriol which these keyboardists were prepared to expend on their rivals – and the mordant wit with which they plunge in their poisoned rhetorical  daggers – has to be seen to be believed.

However, as someone who has always been incredibly interested in the reception of Sparta in the modern world (viz. my own PhD thesis), I was literally left speechless for a few moments when John showed me the following extract from the preface to Wolfgang Caspar Printz’s Satyrischer Komponist, first published in 1677.

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Printz, writing under the pseudonym “Phrynis of Mytilene”, addresses the dedication of his volume to one Herr Emerepes, the ‘well-cultivated and gravely-hated Ephor of the famed city of Sparta’. The entire two pages which follow constitute a sustained attack on the old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy mores of this pseudo-“Emerepes”, and conclude by dedicating the book to every man living – apart from ‘His Lordship’, Emerepes himself.

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So, how to tease out this rich tangle of allusions?

It seems that Phrynis of Mytilene – along with other key figures such as Euripides – was the leading exponent of a new, modernising movement in art and music which began to gain ground in the years before Sparta’s crushing victory over Athens in the Peloponnesian War in 404 B.C. The musical world apparently became more professionalised, and innovations in form, expression, melody, rhythm and chromaticism became de rigueur.

Emerepes, in this connection, was notorious for having cut off two new strings which Phrynis had added to his lyre, with the laconically cutting comment (immortalised in Plutarch’s Spartan Apophthegms) “Do not abuse music!”

For Printz, the reigning style of composition and playing represents a Spartan-style tyranny which is trampling upon his newfound creative freedom. It’s hard to know whether Emerepes is envisaged as the avatar of a specific detractor, or merely represents all of Printz’s musical enemies, but in any event, he stands for the old, the philistine, the stick-in-the-mud critic, whose anger at Printz’s innovations may even end in apoplexy (my gloss for the ‘troublesome illness’ he mentions).

So, it’s for this reason that “Phrynis” turns his dedication around, declaring that he would rather dedicate his work to anyone in the world but “Emerepes”. Instead, he instructs him to sell the book on, or even throw it on the fire, rather than trying to read it through, if it should come into his hands. Printz has more confidence that the rest of humanity will have understanding for his new, experimental ideas about style and musical mores. Thus, in ‘true laconic fashion’, in as few words as possible, he dedicates his book to ‘Everyman’, whom he is ‘eager to serve’.

Is this a common trope in this kind of artistic literature, or an isolated, polemical example of Classical allusion taken to satirical (or satyrical) extremes? Since I’m far from an expert on this period, or this genre, I’m hoping that others may be able to fill in the blanks…