Germany's Tyranny Over Greece?

The philhellenist roots of the current financial crisis.

Helen Roche | Published in 26 Aug 2015

Cover of German magazine Focus, February 2010

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.

To 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?

Arguably, 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.

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'. 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.

Helen Roche is Alice Tong Sze Research Fellow at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge.