Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.02.06


Karl Christ, Geschichte und Existenz. Kleine Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek 34. Berlin: Klaus Wagenbach, 1991. Pp. 89. ISBN 3-8031-5134-1.


Reviewed by William M. Calder III, The University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign.

Karl Christ (b. 1923) is emeritus professor of Ancient History at Marburg. He is the leading practitioner of modern Wissenschaftsgeschichte among the Germans. The center of his interest has been the history of ancient history, both the subject and the men who practiced it from Gibbon to Syme. His only rival was Momigliano. He is superior to Momigliano because he treats a narrower field more thoroughly, because he controls archival material which Momigliano simply ignored and because he has created a school, that is Nachwuchs, e.g., Johanna Jantsch and Volker Lösemann, who have themselves published dissertations and books of lasting value. His scholarly articles have been collected: see Karl Christ, Römische Geschichte und deutsche Geschichtswissenschaft (Munich 1982) and Römische Geschichte und Wissenschaftsgeschichte III Wissenschaftsgeschichte (Darmstadt 1983), both already standard authorities. Here he publishes four papers (three new) of a more general nature. They are thoughtful, filled with ideas that can only enrich the content of one's lectures. They touch throughout the way we treat our subject. Because C. is an historian, free from jargon and not a theorist, what he writes is concrete and intelligible. We are spared new historicism here.

His unity is man as a product of his past. "He is in his life already formed by history. He is born into a linguistic, cultural, social and economic context which he did not create and from which he can profit as well as be harmed or exploited" (7). History is the formative, inescapable past. Professional historians, he writes, as well as philosophers, theologians and sociologists have sought, often very abstractly, to show the connection of history to life. C. deals with the problem as an experienced university teacher and historian of scholarship. He progresses in four contributions from the general to the specific and concrete. They are: "History and Life" (11-24); "History and the History of Scholarship" (25-34); "Antiquity in the Nineteenth Century" (35-49); and "The Displaced: on the Historian's Life" (51-89).

In his first essay C. argues that modern Europeans live for the present, a contrast, e.g., to the mores maiorum of the Roman Republic. Monarchy and aristocracy required historical legitimization. Elective democracy needs only the last election. In a post-literate society history has become a meaningless series of haphazard anniversaries (12) or museum exhibitions, films and television programs, all limited to the visual. He approves von Ranke's axiom that history is first there "where the monuments can be understood and trustworthy, written records are available." A history of the Bronze Age with the limited literacy of Linear A or B is elusive. He warns against the modern loss of literacy (e.g., airport signs) while stressing the enormous intellectual effort of gaining it (the equation of sounds with marks and the analysis of language required to do so). He recalls Richard Harder's emphasis on what it means that the Greeks called both letters and atoms stoicheia. In contrast to the Romans the Greeks were never encumbered by writing. It played no important role in their religion or cult. Plato was against it. He might have said more (17) about the beginning of history in epic (genealogies, removal in time, Helen [Il. 6.357-8] on preserving the memory of great events for later generations).

History is not only recovery of facts. Virtue is to be extolled and evil exposed (Tac. Ann. 3.65). Theodor Mommsen put "the moral and political message" of his Roman History above its scholarly worth (22). History is an endless dialogue between present and past. That is almost Croce's contention that historians make history, not generals and kings. C. urges along with the recovery of details the value of an historical understanding of the present.

Pharmacology, medicine, technology have long encouraged their own histories. The history of historiography is a new discipline. C. seeks in his second paper to look at ancient history, especially Roman, historically. He sees three tendencies: positivism, modernism, and dialectical criticism. Mommsen said of less gifted colleagues that they were "as stupid as an epigraphist." Wilamowitz and Diels spoke of "DM-Wissenschaft," the mindless editing of dis manibus inscriptions. Wilamowitz would say "dumm wie Hiller." An epigraphist never went beyond letters. Hence his work never led to anything. But C. reminds us of the enormous intelligence and erudition (think of Louis Robert!) required to restore a lacunose text or even to evaluate a numismatic hoard. Further pure positivism can survive political change. The CIL began under the Prussian monarchy and survived the Weimar Republic, National Socialism, and Stalinism. It was not dangerous. Use of documents edited by the positivists was something else. The West Berlin leftists decided upon an index to Libanius. That could endanger no one. But not enough evidence has survived to allow a positivistic history of Rome, a handbook, as Bachofen wanted. What in any case would be its point?

C. reminds us of a great virtue of positivism. The Academy (one might add libraries and archives) provided a legal shelter and livelihood for scholars who could not approve the system and so were forbidden to educate the young both under Hitler and in communist Europe. They edited inscriptions and medical writers or compiled lexica. Modernism seeks to make the ancient important by making it relevant. That means commitment and often a sermon. Mommsen's History outlined the rise of a nationalist state and for generations influenced our approach to Rome. Some German ancient historians in the thirties taught the Roman-Carthaginian conflict on purely racist grounds. Marxists saw ancient history in terms of the Klassenkampf, slaveholders against slaves. Now there is women's history or ancient sexuality. C. warns with the wisdom of experience (29): "In all fields the 'purely fashionable' soonest becomes obsolete." He cites Benn on "the mongrel cowardice" of intellectuals who thoughtlessly accept political fa shion. One thinks of Germans, except von Fritz, in 1933; Americans in the McCarthy time and PC today.

The compromise is the dialectical-critical approach. This begins already with Thucydides, Polybius, and Tacitus, who recognize that values change. C. might have noted Tacitus' use of saeculum in the sense of Hegel's Zeitgeist to explain historical causality. In modern times there is a dialectic between the historian's treatment of his subject matter and the prejudices of his own time. C. notes changes in fashion within Roman historiography: the idealizing of the peasantry, emphasis on constitution and law, on Roman virtues and the ruling class, the analysis of power and imperial structure, attention to Roman society and now the oppressed, slaves and women. The historian must have the courage to say nothing false but as well to tell all the truth (Cic., de orat. 2.15). The latter has become difficult (31). I may recall that ca. 1969 Bickerman was refused by the American Historical Association a panel on the subject "The Beneficial Effects of Colonialism." The subject was as welcome as an article arguing the influence of Isaiah on V. Ec. 4 in 1940 Berlin. From such constraints to the freedom of the historian, holds C., Wissenschaftsgeschichte was born: the evaluation of great scholars, the histories of institutions and departments, or the history of specific areas of research (e.g., the rediscovery of Euripides at the end of the nineteenth century). One must control both the subject matter (e.g., Roman history) and those who worked upon it (e.g., Mommsen and Rostovtzeff), the men and their intellectual and political context. This new area of research is demanding but rewarding and growing.

The third essay (35-47) concerns the nineteenth century reception of antiquity in Germany. C. brilliantly analyzes a complex subject under three headings: antiquity as ideal; the transformation of antiquity into scholarship and the political use of antiquity. The idealizing of antiquity was begun by Winckelmann, perfected by Goethe and justified by Wilhelm von Humboldt. Greece was the ideal from which all else has declined. I should note two reasons for the success of this endeavor unnoticed by C. After the atrocities of the Napoleonic invasion of Prussia the traditional (Frederick the Great!) adoration of everything French could not continue. Greece filled the vacuum: for the generation gap see Wilamowitz, Erinnerungen, 54. The sexual permissiveness of pre-Christian Greece was undeniably a factor. The homosexual Winckelmann found Athens more agreeable than Lutheran Saxony: see David Constantine, Early Greek Travellers and the Hellenic Ideal (Cambridge 1984) 107. This colors his description of Apollo cited by C. (36). This idealizing tendency survives in K. O. Müller's Sparta (preferred also by our Founding Fathers to the permissive Athens), Ernst Curtius' Athens and Th. Mommsen's Roman Republic. Boeckh's protest that the Greeks were not as fortunate as one hoped went unheeded.

Antiquity as the focus par excellence of scholarship soon followed. With F. A. Wolf the Totalitätsideal begins. One must know everything to interpret anything. This is embraced by K. O. Müller and Niebuhr. F. G. Welcker, however, tutored Humboldt's children and corresponded with Goethe (he decisively influenced Wilamowitz) and really was a bridge between the two. This in turn led to Harnack's and Th. Mommsen's Grossbetrieb der Wissenschaft with its journals, handbooks, the Teubner library and RE. C. omits one crucial name, Friedrich Althoff, the architect of the Prussian research university (the model for Hopkins and Chicago) and the uncompromising advocate of excellence: see Bernhard vom Brocke (editor), Wissenschaftsgeschichte und Wissenschaftspolitik im Industriezeitalter: Das "System Althoff" in historischer Perspektive (Hildesheim 1991). Wilamowitz in 1900 stated the ironic truth that Wissenschaft had destroyed antiquity as ideal and unity (see Wilamowitz, Kleine Schriften 6. 79, a reference to add at C. 48, n.28). The three tendencies survived into the twentieth century: the ideals of the George Circle and the Third Humanism; computers that continue earlier filecards (Mommsen wrote all he wrote with a quillpen, his grand-daughter told me); for politics you may choose de Ste Croix' class-struggle or Kagan's Republican Pericles.

The last and longest chapter concerns exile and expatriate historians. First is a brief treatment of antique prototypes (Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius with a few words on Roman senatorial historians). Emphasis is on selected modern historians Rostovtzeff (see BMCR 2 [1991] 158-162), the problematical Beloch and the refugee Jews Bickerman, Eugen Täubler, Richard Laqueur and at length Victor Ehrenberg. The treatment is biographical with references to major publications. Laqueur (71-73) remains a puzzle. He was well published in Greek historiography, especially DS with many RE articles. He was a charismatic teacher. He had a distinguished military record in WW I and like Paul Friedländer was one of those rare Jews allowed to become an officer. He was forced to retire from Halle on 31 December 1935 and emigrated to the US aet. 58 in 1939. No American university would hire him. He survived as a packer in a large bookshop and eventually secured a minor post at the Shakespeare Library in Washington. Why did no one help him alone of the refugee classicists? We have no answer yet. He must have had enemies in high places but who and why?

There is a long and useful discussion of Ehrenberg (74-83). For the first time the racist attacks by the Nazi Berve are openly discussed. Berve held that because Ehrenberg was not an Indoeuropean, he was constitutionally unable to understand the Greeks and Romans. The idea has resurfaced. I have been told that Robert Ackerman cannot understand Jane Harrison because he is a man. I fear that C. overestimates the importance of Ehrenberg's books on Aristophanes and Sophocles. The latter is forgotten wholly today and has exerted no influence. It was fundamentally naive. The Aristophanes book, if read at all now, is read for non-Aristophanic reasons. Unexpectedly, C. does not know Ehrenberg's Personal Memories (Privately printed 1971). Although often self-deprecating and shallow, they are honest and provide a revealing critical view of Ed. Fraenkel that must be evaluated against uniform Oxford panegyric.

C. is apt to ignore unwelcome facts. Beloch can only be understood if it is stated clearly that his "fanatical anti-semitism" (63) derives from his Selbsthass. Like Felix Jacoby, Friedrich Leo and Eduard Norden, he was the anti-semitic semite. Hence his scandalous verses against Hirschfeld: see BiogJahr 254 (1936) 63. I cannot prove Charles Edson's assertion that his name originally was Bloch. In his autobiography he suppresses his genealogy. Nothing is said of Momigliano's early allegiance to Italian fascism. I find this easily explicable; compare Ludwig Curtius' and Eugenie Sellers Strong's fascination with Mussolini. Classical scholars were attracted by his encouragement of archaeology and Latin studies. Momigliano becomes more complex and therefore interesting, when this is known. His attack on Berve was an attack on himself.

Moses Finley is briefly discussed (84) as the only American classical victim of political persecution. C. does not know the authoritative discussion of his American dismissal: see Ellen W. Schrecker, No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities (New York/Oxford 1986) 171-179. The Rutgers Board of Trustees fired him in a document of 12 December 1952 because on 28 March he had refused to tell the SISS whether he had earlier been a communist or not. The assumption was that he took the fifth to avoid admission of guilt. Evasion was safer than perjury. He was then blacklisted and in 1958 was denied appointment in history at Cornell by President D. W. Malott on the basis of "secret and presumably damaging information" (Schrecker, 273) from New Brunswick . He sought refuge in England. Unlike the liberal Gilbert Murray who refused knighthood, the leftist Finley took it when offered. These are details. The book is written by a master. One learns repeatedly from it. I urge even busy people to read it. It is short and filled with ideas and informed hints for further reading.