BMCR 2020.03.30

Brill’s Companion to the Classics, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany

Helen Roche, Kyriakos N. Demetriou, Brill's Companion to the Classics, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Brill's Companions to Classical Reception, 12. Leiden: Brill, 2017. xiii, 471 p.. ISBN 9789004299061 €182,00.

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

In the last two decades, a growing number of monographs, articles and conference proceedings dedicated to the use and abuse of the classical past have seen the light. This volume is a welcome addition to that body of work and offers fresh perspectives on the (mis)appropriation of the classical past by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

One of the strengths of this companion is the inclusion of work by scholars from a wide variety of fields: cultural and modern historians, classicists, an ancient historian, a specialist in film history, an archaeologist, a philosopher and an architectural historian. The editors themselves reflect this balance as well. Helen Roche (University of Durham) was trained as a classicist in Cambridge and specializes in modern German history. Her research focusses on German Philhellenism and the role of the Classics in the educational system of Nazi Germany. Moreover, she is co-founder of the international research network ‘Claiming the Classical. Classics and Politics in the 21st Century’. Kyriakos Demetriou is an intellectual historian working in the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Cyprus. His main research interests are Reception Studies (Plato in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the classical heritage in Victorian Britain) and the history of political thought. The result is a companion that “aims to present the reader with a smorgasbord of varied case studies, each of which can arguably offer a unique perspective on the matter in hand” (p. 17), an objective that is fully met.

The sixteen chapters by fourteen contributors are all well-written, relevant and carefully edited. Some offer useful overviews of broader themes (e.g. the fine chapters by Nelis and Arthurs), whereas other contributions discuss more specific topics in detail (e.g. interesting chapters by Wildmann, Piovan, and Porter). Only two chapters, however, discuss both Germany and Italy (Pomeroy, Fortuna). The volume is divided into three parts, ‘People’, ‘Ideas’ and ‘Places’, which at first sight appears to be a rather loose way of organizing these widely diverging contributions. Most of the chapters could have been placed in one of the other parts of the volume as well, but that is first and foremost a reflection of the multi-faceted character of the topics discussed.

In her excellent Introduction Roche offers a balanced overview of recent research, with the valid observation that until recently scholars working on fascism tended to neglect the appropriation of the classical past in Germany and Italy. These appropriations were much more than mere window-dressing, not least because in many instances such uses of the classical past were bottom-up phenomena, reflecting the totalitarian grip upon all levels of society achieved by the Fascist and Nazi regimes. Indeed, many intellectuals working in academia, education, public administration, or the cultural world at large in Italy and Germany were not forced to appropriate classical antiquity for contemporary agendas, but rather appear to have felt the need to do so themselves.

The aim of the volume (p. 3) is “to present an illuminating (if necessarily inexhaustive) survey of the whys and wherefores of this phenomenon of totalitarian Classicism”. Roche first highlights some of the most salient examples, such as the ‘Spartan paradigm’ in Nazi Germany, in which Sparta was praised as ‘the purest racial state in history’ and Spartan helotry became a source of inspiration for the ‘Generalplan Ost’, the Nazi master plan for the violent occupation of eastern Europe. In what follows, Roche offers a potential explanation for such appropriations of the comparatively remote classical past. In both Germany and Italy a more recent past that could serve as a grand narrative for the nation and its citizens was lacking, due to the fractured statehood and relatively recent unifications of both countries. Hence, romanitàwas both a logical and ideal vehicle in Italy in the painstaking process of nation building and in forging a national identity from the nineteenth century onward, especially since the Roman past was a heritage shared by all ‘Italians in the making’. In Germany, Philhellenism since the late eighteenth century and the Romantic idea of ‘elective kinship’ made all sorts of identification with, and use of, the classical (Greek) past relatively easy, despite the distance in a geographical and chronological sense. A notable example is the prominent role of Greek and Latin in the curriculum of German secondary schools, instigated by the reforms of Wilhelm von Humboldt, which was both an expression and a reinforcement of the neo-humanist fascination for Greek and Roman culture, and of Philhellenism in particular.

Likewise, using the Romans as a model was certainly not an invention of the Italian Fascist regime of the 1920s and 1930s, but a phenomenon with firm roots in the country’s Risorgimento. As the Fascist regime liked to present itself as the Risorgimento’s final stage and the fulfilment of Italy’s unification, it appropriated much of the Risorgimento legacy, including its use of the concept of romanità.

At the end of her Introduction, Roche identifies three overarching themes present in the contributions offered in the volume (pp. 20-22): firstly the complex relationship between the ‘academic’ and the ‘ideological’, secondly the deep roots of appropriations of the classical past, and thirdly the many instances of blending past, present and future, which resulted in the forging of a “novel historic imaginary in which antiquity was perceived as utterly contemporary, and the quintessentially fascist “new man” could appear in the guise of an ancient Greek athlete or a Roman legionary without any sense of anachronism” (p. 22). The fusion of past, present and future and the myths of continuity and eternity were greatly enhanced by classical imagery.

Wiedemann’s chapter that follows the Introduction (and in fact develops ideas that are crucial for nearly all later chapters) is a brilliant example of the first theme, the complex relationship between academic research and ideology, that is, ideological discourses which claim to have a scholarly basis. In a discussion of what he calls ‘historiographical narrative types’, Wiedemann meticulously analyzes the genesis and development of the term ‘Aryan’, which would become so heavily charged under the Nazi regime. Originating in the field of linguistics in the nineteenth century, he observes that ‘Aryan’ was initially used as a synonym of ‘Indo-European’ (or ‘Indo-German’). In the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, the concept became confused with ideas stemming from nationalistic and ideologically charged discourses, resulting in historiographical accounts about Aryans as a people of ‘noble warriors’ (members of a so-called ‘Herrenschicht’) and founders of culture and states (‘Kulturgründer’, ‘Staatengründer’). The changing notions in philology of the original Aryan homelands (‘Urheimat’) resulted in a shift from the East to the North. Hence, the terms ‘Germanic’, followed by ‘Nordic people’, replaced ‘Aryan’, especially in Germany, even if in popular discourse ‘Aryan’ remained. The final stage of his argument is an exploration of the distinctions made between these ‘Nordic’ (‘Aryan’) and ‘Semitic’ peoples (Semitic being a term that stemmed equally from linguistics and theories on the families of languages), and Wiedemann traces how the uses of ‘Semitic’ became increasingly restricted until the term was applied only to Jews in a pejorative sense. Wiedemann’s plea for a careful analysis of both terminology and discourse is convincing and clarifies “the ideological attractiveness and persistence of the Aryans in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries” (p. 50).

Other stand-out chapters in this volume include Rebenich and Kim (Chapters 8 and 9) on the role of Plato in the circle of the German poet Stefan George and the highly selective appropriation of Plato by the Nazis respectively, which work very well as a pair. Their analyses are complementary, with a full and articulate explanation of how George’s ideas spread from his immediate circle into academia at large. For George and his followers, ‘Plato the Poet and Priest’ was more important than ‘Plato the Philosopher’, resulting in the idea of ‘Plato as the ultimate leader’ (‘Führer’), an idea picked up by Nazi ideologists and then fueled by scholars who took these ideas even further. Moreover, Kim offers a convincing and fascinating account of how and why the ideas of Werner Jaeger (author of, among other works, the highly influential study Paideia, published in three volumes, 1933-1947) were able to inspire both Nazi and liberal, anti-fascist intellectuals. Taken together, therefore, these chapters elegantly show how the distortions of Plato’s ideas within specific works of literature and scholarship serve as a reflection of the interplay between academia and society at large. The following chapter by Roche shows how such distortions were deliberately exploited in the Nazi educational system. Reading selections of Xenophon’s Anabasis, for example, was recommended as a fruitful training for pupils in the military spirit. The text (‘Feldzugserinnerungen’) should be treated as a ‘war story’ with its protagonist Xenophon as a prototype ‘Führer’. Analyzing the subject-matter of articles in the teacher’s periodical Die Alten Sprachen (published by the National Socialist Teachers’ League) she makes clear how and why the Classics taught in secondary schools were Nazified.

The last section, ‘Places’, opens with a brilliant chapter on Classical Archaeology in Nazi Germany by Stefan Altekamp, who critically assesses still tenacious assumptions, such as the myth that Classical Archaeology, as opposed to Prehistory and Ancient History, kept a safe distance from the Nazi regime and had nothing to offer to support its ideology either. Altekamp not only shows how teaching was often influenced by ideological considerations, especially in seminars offered by younger scholars (who had received their own education during the regime), but also convincingly shows with clear examples how the research agendas of these years reflected contemporary ideological concerns.

Three fine chapters on civic architecture and urban planning in Fascist Italy and its capital Rome, and Nazi Germany respectively (chapters 13 and 14 by Flavia Marcello and chapter 15 by Iain Boyd White) are followed by James Fortuna’s critical discussion of neoclassical form and the construction of power. One of the merits of this excellent concluding chapter is the fact that Fortuna’s contribution actively seeks a dialogue with the previous chapters, offering reflections that underline the high quality of this last section, and of the companion as a whole.

Table of Contents

1. Helen Roche, “Distant Models?” Italian Fascism, National Socialism and the Lure of the Classics (pp. 3-28)
Part 1 People
2. Felix Wiedemann, The Aryans: Ideology and Historiographical Narrative Types in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries (pp. 31-59)
3. Daniel Wildmann, Desired Bodies: Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, Aryan Masculinity and the Classical Body (pp. 60-81)
4. Dino Piovan, Ancient Historians and Fascism: How to React Intellectually to Totalitarianism (or Not) (pp. 82-105)
5. James I. Porter, Philology in Exile: Adorno, Auerbach, and Klemperer (pp. 106-129)
Part 2 Ideas
6. Jan Nelis, Fascist Modernity, Religion, and the Myth of Rome (pp. 133-156)
7. Joshua Arthurs, Bathing in the Spirit of Eternal Rome: The Mostra Augustea della Romanità (pp. 157-177)
8. Stefan Rebenich, “May a Ray from Hellas Shine upon Us”: Plato in the George-Circle (pp. 178-204)
9. Alan Kim, An Antique Echo: Plato and the Nazis (pp. 205-237)
10. Helen Roche, Classics and Education in the Third Reich: Die Alten Sprachen and the Nazification of Latin- and Greek-Teaching in Secondary Schools (pp. 238-263)
11. Arthur J. Pomeroy, Classical Antiquity, Cinema and Propaganda (pp. 264-285)
Part 3 Places
12. Stefan Altekamp, Classical Archaeology in Nazi Germany (pp. 289-324)
13. Flavia Marcello, Building the Image of Power: Images of Romanità in the Civic Architecture of Fascist Italy (pp. 325-369)
14. Iain Boyd Whyte, National Socialism, Classicism, and Architecture (pp. 404-434)
15. James J. Fortuna, Neoclassical Form and the Construction of Power in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany (pp. 435-456)
Index of Names (pp. 457-462)
Index of Subjects (pp. 463-471)