Katharina Schön

Anchoring the classical languages in National-Socialism – an analysis of compliance patterns and resistance movements

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Anchoring the classical languages in National-Socialism –  an analysis of compliance patterns and resistance movements

My project will concentrate on the manifold uses and the malleability of the languages Latin and Ancient Greek during the rise and heyday of National Socialism (1933–1945): I will examine their implementation as literary, cultural, historical, political and educational tropes (a) in NS ideology and propaganda and (b) in concurrent resistance movements.

While the concept of ‘Romanness’, romanità, was extremely popular in Italian Fascism and flexible in its use, based on a selective and creative reappropriation of ancient Rome as a trope, the rise of National Socialism was accompanied by a heightened interest in Philhellenism. For several centuries and in various priorizations, this concept had already dominated German intellectual history, be it in terms of the Grecophilia of Goethe and Schiller, the Grecomania of Hölderlin and Schelling or the Grecogermania of Wagner, Nietzsche and Heidegger. For the National Socialists, Philhellenism was a ubiquitous point of reference, which they strategically implemented in their propagandistic policies, for instance in the creation of the Aryan-race myth or in the invention of a biography for the German Urvolk whose lineage supposedly dated back to the Dorians. Moreover, the Spartan warrior ideal and Leonidas’ heroic death in battle were hailed as a model worthy of emulation for the nation’s youth.

The evocation of the Germans’ glorious ancient past was not only a suitable method to support their hegemonial claim to power, but it also featured prominently in educational discourses: In the years 1933–1945, two influential classicist journals, the more didactic Die Alten Sprachen and the more scholarly Gymnasium, were put under the aegis of members of the NSLB, i.e. the Nationalsozialistischer Lehrerbund, who tailored the proposed pedagogical ideas to their political convictions and laced their texts with buzzwords that aimed at persuading readers to adopt a National-Socialist ideology. An all-pervasive tendency among National Socialist classicists, who were obsessed with the idea of rebirth of national greatness, was to distort historiography by adapting it to current propaganda needs, while reinforcing a cyclical view of the past. In a school setting, several ancient heroes, both mythical and historical (e.g. Prometheus, Alexander the Great, Arminius), were cast as Führer-personalities anticipating the rise of the German leader: Adolf Hitler. However, we can also trace resistance movements in the heyday of National Socialism: Prolific contemporary poets and scholars, most prominently Hermann Weller, but also Julius Stern, Emil Besser and Gerhard Kahlo, subtly positioned themselves as opponents to the emerging totalitarian regime and frequently voiced their critique of the precarious political circumstances in their Latin poems, which they submitted to the prestigious Certamen Poeticum Hoeufftianum, hosted annually in Amsterdam by the Dutch Academy of Sciences (1844–1978).

In my project, I intend to pursue and answer (among others) the following research questions:

  • To what extend could the classical languages be used as a symbolic space to anchor (a) regime-supportive genealogical narratives and (b) discourses of political and/or military hegemony?
  • In which ways were the cultural meanings of the classical languages Latin and Ancient Greek re-politicized in the National Socialist regime in an educational setting and beyond (e.g. in sports, architecture or public displays of the German nation’s historical heritage) to legitimize the rise of a regime that was not invested with traditional authority?
  • Which mechanisms of ‘mythopoiesis’ – related to the ‘rebirth of the classics’ – were used (a) as propagandistic tools in NS-media or (b) as counter-ideologies in resistance movements?