BMCR 2015.01.49

Le Mythe grec allemand. Histoire d’une affinité élective. Histoire

, Le Mythe grec allemand. Histoire d’une affinité élective. Histoire. Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2013. 404. ISBN 9782753528796. €22.00.

Table of Contents

From the late eighteenth century down to the 1940s, the Hellenic paradigm was decisive in the shaping of Germany’s political and cultural identity. Conversely, German influence in the shaping of classical Greek scholarship during that same period can hardly be overestimated. Both cultural phenomena respond to a peculiar “elective affinity” between Germans and ancient Greece, first brought to light by the Goethezeit and ever since bequeathed through generations of scholars. The historical recurrences and actualizations of this affinity, from the Aufklärung to the Nazi period, are the subject matter of Anthony Andurand’s book, which originated as a doctoral thesis at the University of Toulouse. The author’s objective is twofold: on the one hand, he examines the social function of philhellenism in the construction of Germany’s self-perception as a nation; on the other hand, he explores the emergence and institutionalization of Altertumswissenschaft as a consequence of the German-Greek elective affinity. This approach is clearly indebted to Suzanne Marchand’s pioneering monograph on the same theme.1 Although sharing a similar perspective, the scope of the two works differs: whereas in Marchand’s opinion Greek art lies at the center of German philhellenism (hence her focus on the cultural history of classical archeology), Andurand focuses instead on the cultural history of Altertumswissenschaft as a whole. Paradoxically, such a vast scope weakens this otherwise remarkably informative book. If the author has valid reasons for considering Altertumswissenschaft as a coherent epistemological unity, the historical account of its successive transformations and sociopolitical implications in the longue durée cannot be covered consistently in one single monograph.

The first chapter traces back the origins of German Graecophilia up to the reception of Winckelmann’s Gedanken (1755) in the late eighteenth century. In this respect, Andurand does not depart from scholarly consensus. The change of aesthetic paradigm—from Roman to Greek—advocated by Winckelmann receives a political reading in Germany shortly after the French Revolution. Whereas the French actively draw their political models from Roman antiquity, the Germans, horrified by the Reign of Terror in revolutionary France, will seek their own models in Greek antiquity, of which Winckelmann gave a characteristically “serene” image. In this chapter, Andurand also discusses the prominent part played by Wilhelm von Humboldt in providing a theoretical foundation for the Greek affinity in the early nineteenth century. In Humboldt’s philosophy—only superficially discussed by Andurand—the topic of a linguistic kinship between Greek and German is coupled with a kinship of “national characters”. At a less speculative level, Prussia’s defeat by Napoleon at Jena (1806) offers Humboldt a concrete analogy to his theory: Jena is to Prussia what Chaeronea was to Greece in 338 BCE. In both cases, the lack of a solid national unity and the cult of individualism led to the loss of political independence. Like Greece, Germany is a politically fragmented nation which nevertheless manifests a cultural unity. In Humboldt’s opinion, political division, far from being an obstacle, is a condition for the achievement of a superior culture: one embedded in agonistic emulation—a topic later developed by Burkhardt. Greece thus provides the model for a Bildung that will ultimately help Germany define itself not as a Staatsnation (exemplified by Rome and France), but as a Kulturnation. This chapter, which betrays the influence of Jean Quillien’s remarkable work,2 argues in favour of a strong influence of Demosthenes on Humboldt’s historical model.

The institutional context of Humboldtian neo-humanism is treated in chapter 2. Some very interesting pages are devoted to the reform of the Prussian educational system (1809-10), oriented by the classical Bildung ideal. Not only does Graecophilia become a national institution, but Prussians use it as a dialectical vehicle for better knowledge of themselves. As E. Curtius (1853) will famously put it: durch die Griechen zu uns selbst zurück (quoted in p. 79). The German specificity, theorized in those years by J. G. Fichte (1807-08), mirrors itself in the Greek specificity scrutinized in philology seminars. One may regret, however, that Andurand’s otherwise fine analysis of the classical Bildung does not take into account its confessional dimension. In order to fully grasp German philhellenism as a cultural phenomenon, it should be situated within the larger context of Kulturprotestantismus. Greek was, to some extent, the language of Protestantism; in Catholic Germany, piety prevented access to Greek culture without Roman mediation.

The constitution of the Altertumswissenschaft as a coherent epistemological totality is the subject matter of chapter 3. Not surprisingly, a fair amount of the discussion concerns the role played by F. A. Wolf’s Darstellung (1807) in the definition of the object of study of the new science. In Wolf’s programmatic text, Antiquity is not only a historically determined notion, but also a normative one, to the extent that it excludes Oriental civilizations for not qualifying as Geistkulturen, a status only attained by the Greeks and Romans. Within the sciences of antiquity, philology, defined as the historical science of texts, ensures the unity of the whole, therefore subsuming all the other classical disciplines. Thought-provokingly, though not totally convincingly, Andurand argues that the unity of Altertumswissenschaft in the intellectual sphere reflects the aspirations of the Germans in the political sphere.

In the context of Prussian militarism, Humboldt’s ideal of a Kulturnation compensating for the lack of a Staatsnation had, predictably enough, a limited ideological impact. Within that historical context, chapter 4 discusses other modes of German identification to the Greek paradigm. One of them was provided by J. G. Droysen’s valorization of the Hellenistic period (1836-43). Considered by previous scholarship as a period of decline, the Macedonian rule becomes in Droysen’s perspective—strongly influenced by Hegel—the model of an accomplished political unity under a single authority. The Hellenistic model, however, will not prevail in mid-nineteenth century Germany. The reason for this, Andurand argues compellingly, is that prominent German classicists (F. A. Wolf, K. O. Müller, et al.) considered Macedonians not as Greeks, but as barbarians. As only a “purely Greek” model could adequately serve Germany’s political aspirations, Pericles’ Athens will remain the governing idea for national unity, at least until the end of the First World War.

Chapter 5 is devoted to the historicist dimension of Altertumswissenschaft and its effects on Romantic Graecophilia. From the perspective opened by the works of A. Boeckh and J. G. Droysen, to name just two examples of nineteenth-century historicism, the Greek equation between beauty and liberty falls apart. In Andurand’s opinion, a historically based knowledge of Greek art and society, as opposed to the idealized constructions of the Romantics, led to the “disenchanted” and “pessimist” image of Greece that characterized fin de siècle German scholarship, embodied by Burckhardt and Nietzsche. The causal connection proposed by Andurand between the triumph of historicism and the “pessimist” Greece championed by Burckhardt and Nietzsche seems rather far-fetched. In order to understand these authors’ “pessimist” Hellenism properly, their work has to be situated within the larger context of German Kulturpessimismus. How this Zeitgeist modeled Burckhardt’s and Nietzsche’s perception of the Greek past is, in my opinion, the question that needed to be addressed here.

Chapter 6 examines the significant transformation of the Greek paradigm witnessed in the period going from the foundation of the Wilhelmian Reich (1871) down to the First World War. A considerable amount of research is devoted here to U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff who, besides being the most accomplished philologist of his generation, reshaped the Greek paradigm in order to fit Prussia’s imperial aims. Within the new national Bildung that resulted from the Gymnasium reform of 1880-90, the status of classical Greece changed from cultural ideal to imperial model. A most engaging section of this chapter is dedicated to the active part played by Wilamowitz and other prominent classicists such as E. Meyer in the promotion of German expansionism in 1914-18. To use Wilamowitz’s own terms, a “fraternal alliance ( Verbrüderung) between militarism and science” prevailed in those days.3 On the other hand, when faced with an unprecedented conflict that actually ravaged the cultural unity of Europe, classicists would turn in despair to Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War as a source for understanding their present tragedy. Classical Greece will provide Germany with yet another convenient analogy to overcome political failure: 1918 was to Imperial Germany what 404 BCE was to Imperial Athens.

As shown in the seventh and last chapter of the book, the post-war period favored a renewed interest in Greek political and pedagogical thought, exemplified in Wilamowitz’s Platon (1919) and W. Jaeger’s Paideia (1934- 44). Plato, read mainly as a political philosopher, becomes a central figure of German philhellenism in the interwar years. Some interesting discussion is devoted to Jaeger’s ephemeral “Third Humanism” movement, its early critics (notably B. Snell) and its “adaptability” to the Third Reich’s objectives (revealed by W. M. Calder III). Concerning Jaeger, one may regret that Andurand did not take into account A. Follak’s study of the German reception of Plato’s pedagogy. 4 Her book provides an excellent analysis of the intellectual background — namely F. Schleiermacher and P. Natorp — against which Jaeger inscribed his own “Platonic” ideal of education. The last section of the chapter is devoted to the Nazi ideology’s relationship to Altertumswissenschaft, a complex subject on which the author confines himself to re-interpreting the findings of V. Losemann and B. Näf.5 As the latter conclude, although a large percentage of the classicists remaining in Germany after 1933 were not actively hostile to the regime, only a minority made actual attempts to Nazify Altertumswissenschaft. Reaching the end of this last chapter, one cannot help thinking of the prominent role that Greek themes played in Heidegger’s philosophy, which goes unmentioned in this book. But that is perhaps a case study in itself, one that deserves its own monograph.

In its aim to define the interactions between cultural forms and sociopolitical phenomena in the longue durée, a study of this kind courts a considerable risk: that of failing to establish the complex balance between the social impact of ideas and the influence historical events have on them. Andurand, aware of this risk, succeeds nevertheless in providing us with a remarkable study, not lacking in original insights and thought-provoking suggestions.


1. Suzanne Marchand, Down from Olympus: Archaeology and Philhellenism in Germany, 1750-1970, Princeton (1996).

2. Jean Quillien, G. de Humboldt et la Grèce, Lille (1983).

3. Cf. Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, “Wissenschaft und Militarismus”, in Reden aus der Kriegszeit, Berlin (1915). Discussed by Andurand on pp. 294-303.

4. Andrea Follak, Der “Aufblick zur Idee”. Eine vergleichende Studie zur Platonischen Pädagogik bei Friedrich Schleiermacher, Paul Natorp und Werner Jaeger, Göttingen (2005). See BMCR 2006.01.19.

5. Volker Losemann, Nationalsozialismus und Antike. Studien zur Entwicklung des Faches Alte Geschichte 1933- 1945, Hamburg (1977). Beate Näf, Von Perikles zu Hitler? Die athenische Demokratie und die deutsche Althistorie bis 1945, Bern, Frankfurt am Main, New York (1986).