Slouching Toward Athens

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. He worked the same transformation on the German university system, beginning with the University …

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