• Email
  • Print

Slouching Toward Athens

1.

In 1933 an obscure English scholar named Eliza (E.M.) Butler began writing a book she called “a warning.” Born in England in 1885, Butler had the unusual good fortune to be educated on the Continent, mainly in Germany, where she spent many years. After her return to Britain she was to devote her entire professional life to German literature, eventually becoming Schröder Professor at Cambridge. Yet despite her devotion to its literary legacy, her experiences in Germany before and after the Great War, as well as her researches into mysticism and myth, had filled her with foreboding about how that legacy had shaped the German political mindset. With Hitler’s rise to power she decided to put pen to paper and the result was The Tyranny of Greece over Germany, the first English-language study of German “Graecolatry.”

In slightly florid but vigorous prose Butler traced the development of the German literary obsession with ancient Greece, beginning with Winckelmann in the mid-eighteenth century and ending with Stefan George in the Weimar period. These writers, she suggested, were the prisoners of a fantasy, of “a Greece that never was on sea or land,” but to which they turned to orient themselves in the modern age. For Winckelmann, the Klassiker, and the early Romantics, the study of Greek art and literature began as a search for models, and what they thought they discovered in the ancients was a noble simplicity and quiet greatness free from the heavy, false contortions of the baroque and rococo. This Apollonian image began to change with Heine, who discerned a darker, Dionysian spirit in Greek art and drama that soon began to attract writers of the mid-nineteenth century, and by the Weimar period totally inebriated them.

In this attraction to the dark side Butler discerned a yearning, at once apocalyptic and messianic, to reenchant the modern world and return the exiled pagan gods—and that worried her. Though she said little about contemporary Germany in the book, her implications were clear: Hellenophilia had fed a cultural mood that was now taking ghastly political form. Few in England were prepared to understand her message when the book appeared in 1935, but it came through loud and clear in Germany. The Nazi government banned it immediately on publication.

After the war Butler’s prophetic work spawned imitators and grousing critics but her main point has never been challenged. If anything, by focusing exclusively on literary figures she underestimated the wider influence of Greek fantasies on the German imagination throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This influence was spread mainly through the educational establishment, beginning with the Gymnasium system established by Wilhelm von Humboldt just after the Wars of Liberation. As Prussian secretary of education, Humboldt constructed a curriculum aimed at developing the talents of a new, nonaristocratic elite through humanistic study, which was to be grounded in the rigorous study of ancient languages.1 He worked the same transformation on the German university system, beginning with the University of Berlin, which he helped to found, and soon Germany became the premier center of classical studies in the world.

The turn to classical antiquity was a pan-European phenomenon in the nineteenth century, including in England, where the study of Greek and Latin became a rite of passage for young men destined to run the empire, and remained one until World War II. But only in Germany was the rediscovery of antiquity wrapped up with national identity. This is a curious fact, given that Germany was well outside the orbit of classical culture in antiquity, and on the periphery of its revival in the Renaissance. Yet perhaps it was just this distance that made imaginative identification possible. The German national awakening that took place after the defeat of Napoleon happened to coincide with the height of cultural Graecomania, and a melding took place. The French and English could look to their modern revolutions to explain what they were as nations and where they had come from; the Germans had had no revolution, so could not. What, then, could they look to? Some nineteenth-century thinkers and historians, taking a page from Tacitus, turned to the German forest in search of a Teutonic Urvolk, but the dominant tendency throughout the nineteenth century was to look to Greece and Rome as forerunners of the revived Reich.

There were different ways of doing this. One, inspired by Herder’s and Goethe’s notions of individuality, was to look upon Greece and Rome as models of strong, independent cultures confident of their own mores and achievements. Historians who took this tack suggested by analogy that Germany could equal the greatness of the ancients, not by imitating them, or by aping the shallow cosmopolitanism of the moderns (read: the French), but by cultivating and remaining true to its own Volksgeist. Another approach was to link ancient history to Germany through a kind of continuous, dialectical narrative. The master of this approach was Hegel, whose immensely influential Lectures on the Philosophy of History described how the baton of the world spirit had been passed from the Greeks to the Romans, then to Catholic Europe, and finally to the modern, rational, bureaucratic state of the “German world.” This was just a new form of theodicy, as Hegel admitted in the introduction to his Lectures. But that was more than acceptable to working historians, who were grateful for a frame in which to place their researches. Germany may have missed out on classical antiquity, the Renaissance, and the age of revolution. But now it was prepared to stride onto the world-historical stage and represent the modern age, just as the Greeks had represented the summit of the classical age.

When the early Church Father Tertullian asked the question “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?,” his answer was: nothing. When German historians asked what Hellas had to do with Berlin, their answer was: everything. This was unique to Germany in the nineteenth century, and it did not survive into the twentieth. After the unification of the Reich in 1871 there were already dissident voices, like those of Burckhardt and Nietzsche, criticizing the uses to which ancient history was being put. After the First World War any attempt to map a progressive path from antiquity to modern Europe began to look absurd; after the Second it was grotesque. The last gasp of Greece’s tyranny over Germany was, paradoxically, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s neo-Marxist cult classic The Dialectic of Enlightenment, which traced the collapse of bourgeois civilization in the Nazi period back to the quest for enlightenment. The book does not begin with Descartes or Voltaire, but, in typical Gymnasium fashion, with Odysseus.

Explaining die deutsche Katastrophe as a modern phenomenon was the central preoccupation of the German historical profession for over half a century. There have been two general approaches to it, one concentrating on the dynamics of modernization that swept through all Western countries since the eighteenth century, the other on Germany’s alleged uniqueness, the Sonderweg (i.e., “special path”) hypothesis. But until now no postwar historian of any standing has tried to reconnect the German story to ancient Greece in the old style. Christian Meier’s From Athens to Auschwitz is the first such attempt, and to judge by the meager results, should probably be the last.

Meier is one of Germany’s most distinguished ancient historians and a frequent contributor to public debates there. Besides writing with equal ease about classical Greece and Rome, he played an important moderating role in the bitter Historikerstreit of the mid-1980s, which concerned the correct attitude to adopt toward the Nazi past. His new book is surprisingly bad: it is lazy, disorganized, at times conceptually confused, and riddled with platitudes, non sequiturs, rhetorical questions, and clichés. It leaves the impression of a fine mind ringing its hands. Yet for all these reasons, it is also oddly intriguing. There is a class of bad books that fascinate because the author finds himself entwined in a genuine difficulty he cannot get free of. From Athens to Auschwitz is one of those books. If nothing else, it teaches us something about the difficulty of being a German European today.

Meier begins by announcing that it is not Germany’s Sonderweg that requires explanation but rather Europe’s “special path,” which according to him began in Athens. This would hardly be a noteworthy claim if he merely meant that the Greek legacy in philosophy, science, and the arts gave shape to later European developments in these areas. But at times he speaks in Hegelian fashion of history as a process, a live “thing” that moves in time throughout the entire world.

In an earlier, stimulating book, The Greek Discovery of Politics, he wrote that “the Greeks became the eye of the needle through which the whole of world history had to pass before it could arrive at the modern European stage,” and now he repeats the point, speaking of the “process of Europe’s special path, which had been operating since antiquity and gained renewed momentum repeatedly in the modern era.” This kind of language is unfortunate. Meier makes a good case that the Greek experience with politics, particularly democratic politics, shaped their achievements in other fields, and that all these achievements, taken together, distinguished them from their contemporaries. And he is right that the West has repeatedly returned to those achievements, sometimes extending them, sometimes betraying them. But as soon as he speaks of a “process” he begins to lose his way.2

This is an old problem in historiography and leads to many distortions. One is that commitment to seeing history as a “process” usually means that the account of origins will be tailored to make the present appear, if not foreordained, then at least anticipated from the outset. From Hegel to Heidegger, and passing through innumerable working historians, that was the parlor game German thinkers played with Greece: connect the dots. If they saw the end of the story as a happy one, they would begin, “Once upon a time….” When it finished in disaster, they would start, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

Christian Meier’s story ends with the darkest chapter of modern history: “Auschwitz,” a term he uses as short-hand for what happened in Europe between 1933 and 1945. When he writes about this catastrophe he is at his best—sensitive, sober, complex. But according to the rules of the parlor game, Meier is obliged to explain how Europe got “from Athens to Auschwitz”—that is, what it was about the Greek achievement that not only distinguished the West from the rest, but prepared the cultural and political self-immolation of the twentieth century. This he never does. All he can do is repeat, endlessly but tentatively, that “it cannot be totally wrong to place Athens at the start of Europe’s ‘special path’ in world history and to regard Auschwitz as its definitive end.” Were Meier a disciple of the Frankfurt School following the “dialectic of Enlightenment,” or a Heideggerian convinced that Greek metaphysics unleashed modern technological madness, this would make some sense. But he is neither. He admires the ancient Greeks (except for slavery and their treatment of women, he nervously assures us). He just thinks that Europe at some point went off the rails, though he cannot really figure out why.

So the reader is left to wonder why he speaks of a historical process at all. If Athens is not implicated in Auschwitz, except in the banal sense that, like the Battle of Hastings, it preceded Auschwitz, then why has Meier given his book its provocative title? Once readers realize that he cannot deliver on that title’s promise they are likely to put the book down. But for those concerned with the contemporary European mood, this is where it begins to get interesting.

2.

Meier’s portrait of contemporary Europe is gray on gray. We Europeans live, he says, in a world becoming progressively dehistoricized and depoliticized. The pace of social and technological change keeps accelerating, traditional institutions and habits have disappeared, society is atomized, the law of large numbers triumphs over the actions of isolated individuals, bureaucracy and economic forces trump political action, national and class identities are disappearing, travel and immigration are uprooting us, people are ignorant of the past, they have lost a sense of progress, homo sapiens has become homo telephonans, all that is solid melts into air, the center will not hold—you get the picture. Meier knows these are not new complaints. He quotes often from Robert Musil’s Weimar-era novel The Man Without Qualities, a long, highly ironic meditation on what it is like to live trapped within such a picture of the world. He also lingers over the letters of Gottfried Benn, who after the war wrote:

If we are honest, as creatures and existences we no longer see ourselves in relation to anything at all, either in the past or in the future; we stand alone, silently but also trembling in ourselves.

Curiously, Meier does not look at statements like these as a historian might, as expressions of the Weltschmerz that served as backdrop to the German catastrophe. Instead, he sees them as uncannily prophetic of the way we live now.

So Christian Meier is a worried man. And what seems especially to worry him is that the historical “process” that ended in Auschwitz is now ignored—though he cannot decide if that is because contemporary Europe has so changed that it doesn’t need its history, or only mistakenly thinks it doesn’t. He is convinced that “something is coming into existence that defies definition in traditional categories,” which is why “Europeans have a sense of themselves as survivors of a history they have left far behind them; they do not see history as their origin or the foundation on which they stand.” And this sense is deepened by embarrassment, by the popular sentiment that European history is, as Meier puts it, “a desolate field of ruins, with a whole chain of further ruins stretching behind it.”

It is difficult to know just what Meier’s attitude toward this sentiment is. He quotes with approval the novelist Peter Esterházy’s pronouncement that “we avert our eyes in shame and look down at the ground—that is what it means to be a European today,” and even wonders whether “it might have been better for the world if the Chinese or Indians had conquered it, either directly or indirectly.” But his writing is also tinged with a kind of intellectual Heimweh for a Europe that once saw itself as proud heir of its own past. In his last and best chapter, “A Legacy Without Heirs?,” he appears to have swallowed the bitter pill and accepted the demise of European historical consciousness. He declares that “the culture handed down to us from earlier millennia is dead”—in the objective sense that Europeans seem to want nothing to do with the cultural inheritance that first began developing with Athens. And he believes he understands why:

The normal view is that if a person receives something, he or she owes a debt of gratitude to the giver. But what if the legacy includes not only love, but also infamy and shame, or a highly uncomfortable role in the world? In that case the recipients may not feel all that grateful.

We are familiar with this problem in the psychology of individuals, but it also can be seen in that of nations and cultures, Meier thinks. And he understands, as any psychologist does, the pitfalls in trying to address it. On the one hand, Europeans must take responsibility for the past; there is no one else to do it. On the other, “one cannot demand that people devote their whole lives to serving the dead.”

Meier proposes no solution to this problem. He just states it, then stops cold in his tracks. And perhaps this is as it should be, for there is no good solution to it, only awkward compromises that satisfy no one. The real interest in his book is that he stops where so many Europeans (especially older ones) stop today, and thereby captures the pessimistic, deflated mood that colors European cultural activity at present. In a recent article in The New York Review, Tony Judt argued that, contrary to what one hears, Europe is now in relatively good economic and social shape, and the United States has begun to decline.3 This may be so, but one would never guess it by reading the latest European novels, works of history, popular journalism, or watching the (increasingly rare) recent films made on the Continent. The sense of confidence exuded by American culture, even in our politically hollow and aesthetically vapid time, is nowhere to be found in continental Europe today. This may reflect perceptions rather than reality, but when perceptions feed cultural optimism and pessimism they soon become reality. We have seen that in our own country in recent years, and can see it in Europe if we pay close enough attention.

Later historians will need to explain why the end of the cold war and the effort to forge a European Union, far from restoring cultural confidence to the Continent, have plunged it into a funk. Meier thinks there is some connection with the fact that “the European Union is emerging as the first political entity of the modern era that has no need for its own history and for a historical orientation.” One wonders whether this is entirely correct, since the Union’s main aim is to ensure that twentieth-century European history never repeat itself. But it is true that, beyond this negative self-definition, Europe remains a maddeningly vague notion. There are, as yet, no “European” symbols or culture worth speaking of. Take a look at any euro bill and you will see abstract, placeless images of classical arches and medieval pointed windows, but no historical figures—no Socrates, Descartes, or Newton, no Homer, Dante, or Cervantes, and certainly no Charlemagne, Napoleon, or Bismarck. As Régis Debray once remarked, the euro looks like play money printed for a virtual community called “Euroland,” not the coin of a political entity that knows what it was and what it wishes to be.

Nowhere is this vagueness more palpable than in Germany, where many of the most distinguished writers and thinkers received the good news of the collapse of communism in 1989 with profound embarrassment. Fifteen years later there is still no great German novel or film dealing with the events of that period, just occasional forays into sentimental Ostalgie. Perhaps it is too soon, but it is remarkable how, despite the drama of Germany’s recent history, attention continues to focus on hackneyed themes: on Weimar and the Nazi period, or on the Sixties generation as the delayed anti-Nazi resistance. Even books and films that take up contemporary questions like the place of Turkish immigrants in German society do so with the long shadow of historical anti-Semitism hanging over them. (The recent hit film Gegen die Wand (Head On) is one of the rare exceptions.) One hears that things are, or soon will be, different for younger Germans. But for the moment it is striking how consistently the present is still seen through the lens of those twelve awful years of twentieth-century history. However morally necessary this scrutiny of the past may be, it is culturally and politically stultifying, and provokes unhealthy responses, from grumbling about the tyranny of Auschwitz over Germany to the mantra-like invocation of a “Europe” that doesn’t exist on sea or land.

Though Christian Meier may not have intended it, his book gives a very good sense of what it is like to be caught in this conundrum. What is curious is that he felt the need to turn back to the Greeks to understand it—and then comes up dry. As someone committed to seeing Greece as the source of a historical “process,” he finds it impossible to connect historical periods and make the classical world again relevant to his own. He can convince himself, if not his readers, that some sort of line runs from Athens to Auschwitz, but has trouble making it continue into a reunited Germany full of Germans who want to be Europeans, nestled in a Europe that doesn’t know what it wants to be. Hence his cultural pessimism and anxiety about living in a world “without history.”

Meier is suffering from a hangover, having drunk a little too deeply from the cup of historicism, which persuaded generations of German thinkers that societies can only really be understood in light of their development. The nineteenth-century conviction that German identity was wrapped up with Hellas was linked to another, which was that all social identity, in a post-religious age, must be based on a sense of history. And if you share that conviction, the loss of “history” will be as disturbing as the loss of God.

What seems not to occur to Meier is that Europe might still learn from the ancients, not by imitating them or revering them as ancestors, but by exploring with them the question: What do we wish ourselves to be? Athens cannot help to solve the riddle of Europe’s history; there are no keys to that lock. But the philosophy, literature, and art of the classical world grapple with problems that all societies have always faced. What constitutes a good life? What do human beings owe one another? What is justice? What are the ends of politics, and what are its limits? Neither the “process” of history nor the catastrophes of the recent past have changed those fundamental questions, which remain the central ones Europeans will have to confront. In a good sense, Athens still hovers over Europe, not as a reminder of what led to Auschwitz, but of everything human that will always rebel against it.

  1. 1

    The first curriculum unveiled in 1812 established a ten-year program with the following distribution of weekly class-hours over that period: Greek and Latin 126, German 44, mathematics 60, history and geography 30, religion 20, science 20, drawing and calligraphy 18. See Joachim Wohlleben, “Germany 1750–1830” in Perceptions of the Ancient Greeks, edited by K.J. Dover (Blackwell, 1992), p. 199.

  2. 2

    One reason is that any account of the “process” beginning in classical Greece has a hard time making sense of the distinctiveness of Catholic Europe. For an appreciation of the Catholic contribution, see Robert Bartlett, “Off to a Good Start,” The New York Review, June 9, 2005.

  3. 3

    America vs. Europe,” The New York Review, February 10, 2005.

  • Email
  • Print