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Reception of Sparta in Germany
and German‐Speaking Europe
Stefan Rebenich
In the last days of the Second World War, amidst the bloodstained collapse of the Third
Reich, a fatally injured ex‐sixth‐former is brought to an emergency hospital close to the
front line. Hastily carried through narrow corridors and crowded halls into the operating
theatre, the wounded boy realizes that he is back in his school which only three months
before sent him out to die in a futile fight. He recognizes the place from a truncated
epigram which he had himself written seven times on the dirty blackboard of the ‘good
old Humanist gymnasium’: ‘Traveller, if you come to Spa …’ (Wanderer kommst du
nach Spa …).
The German writer Heinrich Böll (1917–85), who was awarded the Nobel Prize for
Literature in 1972, published this story soon after the foundation of the Federal Republic
of Germany (Böll 1950). He echoed the National Socialist use of a famous epitaph
attributed to the Greek poet Simonides which glorifies the battle at Thermopylai fought
in 480 bc by Leonidas and his brave comrades against the Persian host:
Ὠ ξεῖν’, ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε
κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι. (Hdt. 7.228)
Foreigner, go tell the Lacedaemonians
that we lie here obedient to their commands.
The Nazi elite had abused Simonides’ words and invoked supposed Spartan ‘virtues’ to
drive army corps to their doom. In the last days of the battle of Stalingrad, the Reichs‐
Field Marshal Hermann Göring reminded the troops of the hopeless fight of Leonidas
A Companion to Sparta, Volume II, First Edition. Edited by Anton Powell.
© 2018 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Published 2018 by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Stefan Rebenich
and his 300 comrades, pointed to this heroic example of ‘highest soldiership’ and
­predicted a new reading of the epitaph: ‘If you come to Germany, tell them you have
seen us fighting in Stalingrad, obedient to the law, the law for the security of our people’
(Kommst Du nach Deutschland, so berichte, du habest uns in Stalingrad kämpfen sehen,
wie das Gesetz, das Gesetz für die Sicherheit unseres Volkes, es befohlen hat) (Watt (1985)
874; Albertz (2006) 296–7).
On 20 April 1945, the cream of the Nazi regime met for the last time in Berlin to commemorate the Führer’s birthday. It was a sad celebration in the air‐raid shelter underneath
the Reichskanzlei, since the Red Army was inexorably marching on the capital. Hitler was
contemplating retreat to the Alps, but then decided to stay in Berlin. ‘A desperate fight
will always be remembered as a worthy example’, he said to Martin Bormann. ‘Just think
of Leonidas and his 300 Spartans’ (Bormann (1981) 51; Fest (1973) 989).
In the immediate post‐war years, Heinrich Böll, in his short story, did not eternalize
the heroic self‐sacrifice of brave soldiers, but epitomized the interior monologue of a boy
with torn‐off limbs and a bleeding body. Böll aptly chose the epigram – appropriately
broken – as a symbol of a failed political morality and education, which has resulted in
the useless destruction of the young. The comfortless fragment crystallized the rejection
of classical education by German intellectuals and authors who, after thirteen years of
Nazi barbarism and the holocaust, could no longer believe in the force of the humanist
school training.
Hardly any other ancient polity has been more admired or rejected in Germany than
Sparta. From the revival of classical studies in the Renaissance until present times we can
identify antithetic models of perception, which originate in the traditional dichotomy
between Athens and Sparta. The latter evokes images and stories completely different
from those associated with the Athenian democracy. German writers and artists praised
the harsh Spartan education and the austere Spartan way of living, while philosophers
and historians were intrigued by the mixed constitution and the class system of society.
The conceptualization of Spartan history in general, and the interpretation of the battle
at Thermopylai in particular, was determined by contemporary political, aesthetic,
anthropological and philosophical ideas and ideologies.
27.1 Sparta Rediviva: The Early Modern Period
The recovery of Greek and Latin authors in the Renaissance instigated a new interest in
Spartan history. The works of Xenophon, Plato, and Plutarch underpinned the discourse
on the ideal state and the best education (Rawson (1969) 130–57). Martin Luther, the
German reformer, referred to the toughness of the Spartan ‘ironmen’ (homines ferrei)
(Weimarer Ausgabe, Schriften, vol. xliv, p. 564). More influential, however, was the
emphasis in the context of republicanism on the Spartan ephors, who were understood
as a controlling body limiting the kings’ power. In particular the Monarchomachs in the
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, who adopted Calvinist and, later, Lutheran doctrines, integrated the ephors into their theories of tyrannicide and the right of rebellion.
The tradition that in Sparta the kings exchanged oaths with the ephors each month, the
kings swearing to rule according to the polity’s established laws, the ephors swearing on
behalf of the polity to accept the king’s outstanding position so long as he observed the
Reception of Sparta in Germany and German‐Speaking Europe
laws (cf. Xen. Lak. Pol. 15.7), could be interpreted as a contract; whenever a monarch
did not abide by the contract, the subjects were allowed to overthrow his government
(Nippel (2008) 98–101). In Germany, the Calvinist jurist Johannes Althusius (1563–
1638), who was influenced by the Monarchomachs, systematized the diversification
of competences between the monarch, the highest representative of the community, and
the ephors, the second highest representative. He argued that the right of rebellion and the
tyrannicide was institutionalized in the ephorate (cf. Rawson (1969) 166–7).
In the eighteenth century, all over Europe Spartan history was connected with the
ideals of liberty, virtue and patriotism. Republican debates about civic participation and
political representation relied upon the Spartan model (MacGregor Morris (2004)).
English and French literature had a strong impact on the reception of Sparta in early
modern Germany. Richard Glover’s famous poem on Leonidas, composed in 1737, was
translated into German four times, and two English editions were published to celebrate
the Spartan king for having died for the salvation of his native land. The first German
version appeared in Zurich in 1766; the preface was written by the historian and
­prospective publisher Johann Heinrich Füssli (1745–1832), who had studied with Jean‐
Jacques Rousseau in Geneva and travelled with Winckelmann through Italy; he was a
member of the Zurich youth movement that attacked the moral corruption of the
political elite and the commercialization of public life, advocated republican virtues and
civil liberty and argued with examples derived from ancient and Swiss history. Füssli used
Glover’s Leonidas to encourage the young to repel oligarchic oppression and to promote
the moral and political modernization of state and society (Rawson (1969) 308;
MacGregor Morris (2000) 211).
Already two years earlier, in 1764, the Swiss pedagogue Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi
(1746–1827), then living in Zurich, had written a play entitled Agis about the Hellenistic
King Agis IV, who ruled at a time of domestic crisis, tried to reform the state, but failed
and was killed by his opponents. For Pestalozzi Agis stood for the Spartan youth, and in
restoring the alleged Lykourgan order he wanted to overcome the severe crisis of his city
and establish an egalitarian community among the citizens. The tragedy is a masterpiece
of radical republican rhetoric written in support of the Zurich youth movement; it
impugned the rotten elite, lamented the decline of patriotism, deplored the attrition of
civil liberty, and ­culminated in a fiery vindication of tyrannicide.
In 1745, the German author Johann Christoph Gottsched (1700–1766) composed
his play Agis König zu Sparta (‘Agis, King of Sparta’), which heavily relied upon
Plutarch’s Life of Agis, followed the laws of French classicism, exemplified the rules by
which a perfect playwright should be bound and was meant to serve the purpose of the
German stage. In his play, Gottsched encapsulated his criticism of contemporary absolutism; but in contrast to Pestalozzi he did not plead for far‐reaching political, economic
and social reforms, but propagated the young king’s moral superiority, i.e. the idea of a
ruler who is legitimized through moral perfection. Agis is to be read as a rather traditional and sometimes even tedious work offering moral instruction for rulers and
­transmitting Gottsched’s concept of political ethics.
In the age of Enlightenment, Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–1768) developed
the most influential theory of classicism, which advocated the idea that art has a
fundamental and moral significance for life itself. He celebrated the edle Einfalt und stille
Größe (‘noble simplicity and solemn grandeur’) of Greek works of art and demanded the
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Nachahmung (‘imitation’) of the Greeks in order to become great oneself. Winckelmann
thought that in Sparta, due to the simple and natural way of life, the normative Greek
concept of beauty had been unfolded which was the prerequisite for the perfection of
Greek art. Although Sparta was described favorably, he gave his highest approval to the
Athenian art which emerged after the fall of the tyrants during the rise of democracy.
In the second half of the eighteenth century, Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803)
and Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805) admired the political virtue and patriotism of the
Spartans. But they also criticized the Lykourgan constitution and praised the enlightened citizenship of Athens. In an essay on Lykourgos and Solon, Schiller distanced himself from the Lykourgan order, because it failed to meet the proper end of mankind
(Zweck der Menschheit). ‘Since Lykourgos sacrificed all other qualities to patriotism, the
durability of his institutions simply prevented progress and called a halt at immaturity
and imperfection’ (Rawson (1969) 313). To Schiller we owe the well‐known German
translation of Simonides’ epitaph quoted above (cf. Baumbach (2002)):
Wanderer, kommst du nach Sparta, verkündige dorten, du habest
Uns hier liegen gesehn, wie das Gesetz es befahl.
27.2 The Rise of Altertumswissenschaften: Sparta
in the Nineteenth Century
About 1800, German writers, artists, scholars and philosophers were more interested in
Greece than in Rome. The concentration on the Greeks intended to embrace Greek
culture in its complexity and Greek character in its totality. In Germany, the reflexion on
Greek history disseminated a new understanding of the notion of Bildung (‘education’)
and Wissenschaft (academic study, scholarship, science), but also of nation, state, and
society. The Neo‐Humanist ideology focused on the formation of individuality; education aimed at evolving talents and mastering the world. Under the influence of the
French Revolution, ancient Greece became the most exalted historical showcase for
reason‐based individuality. The concept of a politically active citizen and the model of a
developing bürgerliche Gesellschaft (‘civil society’) was based upon an ideal projection of
political activity in the Greek city‐states. This programme, on the one hand, postulated
a non‐vocational scholarship and supported the rise of the historical disciplines at German
universities, but on the other, it assessed the individual on the basis of cultural abilities,
created new strategies of social inclusion and exclusion, and contributed considerably to
the homogenization of the German bourgeoisie and to the constitution of a middle‐class
mentality (Rebenich (2011)).
The new German image of antiquity was characterized by a latent tension between
neo-classical aesthetics and enlightening rationalism and wavered between the canonisation of an idealized Greek antiquity and the acceptance of other cultures’ independence.
The ‘classical’ German view of antiquity was inspired by Winckelmann, as Goethe’s
(1749–1832) famous book on ‘Winckelmann and his century’ (Winckelmann und sein
Jahrhundert) demonstrated, published in 1805. For the representatives of German
­classicism (Weimarer Klassik) Athens was far preferable to Sparta. In Goethe’s Faust II
Sparta is just the home of Helen, who symbolizes ideal Greek beauty.
Reception of Sparta in Germany and German‐Speaking Europe
Athens and Sparta represented the two eternal poles of human development, i.e.
enlightenment and patriotism, as Herder already had emphasized. This polarized
classification also characterized Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s (1770–1831) approach,
according to whom Athens was superior to Sparta. In Athens – at least in the fifth
century bc – democracy, expressing the objective will, guaranteed individual freedom,
strong community feeling and the active pursuit of beauty and truth, or in Hegel’s
words: freie Individualität and Sittlichkeit. In Sparta, an artificial equality destroyed
liberty, while an over‐powerful state suffocated civil responsibility and intellectual life.
The Spartan character was shaped by inhuman severity, and the Spartan state was best
described as a slave ship. In his lectures on the philosophy of history Hegel dedicated
only a marginal note to Leonidas and Thermopylai when describing the Persian War as a
battle of Asiatic despotism versus Greek culture and individuality (Sämtliche Werke,
vol. xi, Stuttgart 1928, 335–6).
Hegel’s dialectic rendering of the two Greek poleis is also to be read as a response to a
new understanding of the Spartans proposed by the philosopher Friedrich Schlegel
(1772–1829) and, above all, by the classicist Karl Otfried Müller (1797–1840). The
younger generation of German intellectuals reacted against Weimar classicism. They felt
an ever stronger affinity to ancient Greece and struggled to compensate for the bloody
consequences of the French Revolution and the national disintegration of Germany. This
tradition of German Romanticism, which later became most influential in political theory
and classical scholarship, perceived the Dorian tribe as the most authentic of all the
Greeks. Sparta was the paradigm for reconstructing the institutions and customs of the
older and purer Hellenic past. Hence the Spartans were converted into the Dorians par
excellence. In Leonidas’ sacrifice Schlegel recognized not a patriotic deed, but a symbol
of the Dorian obedience to law. ‘Their holy death was the pinnacle of all joy’ (Ihr heiliger
Tod war der Gipfel aller Freude), he exulted (Kritische Friedrich‐Schlegel–Ausgabe, vol. i,
Paderborn/Munich, Vienna 1979, 42).
Müller adopted for his Geschichte hellenischer Stämme und Städte (‘History of Hellenic
Tribes and Cities’) Schlegel’s concept of tribes (Stämme); part of this never‐­finished
enterprise were two volumes on the Dorians (Die Dorier, 1824; 2nd edn 1844; English
translation: The History and Antiquities of the Doric Race, 2 vols, Oxford 1830). In his
most important work Müller wanted to reconstruct the history, the religion, the politics,
and the culture of individual Greek peoples. He distinguished the Dorians from the
other Greeks and defined Dorian Sparta as a model Greek state, praised the subjection
of the individual to the community, and emphasized the conservative orientation of
Sparta’s institutions. His romantic idealization was successful in the first place because it
echoed the new political feelings of his age, and also because he combined mythology
and religion, archaeology and geography, philosophy and philology, political and institutional history (Calder and Schlesier, eds (1998)).
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, an aestheticizing enthusiasm for Greek
antiquity, rational criticism as already developed by the Enlightenment, the apotheosis of
the creative individual and an educational concept borrowed from Neo‐Humanism
formed the basis for the interpretation of ancient Sparta. A new type of classical studies
(Altertumswissenschaften) was committed to understanding and explaining the ancient
world, and the scope of the material eligible for scrutiny was redefined; no longer was it
to be solely a matter of textual evidence, but the totality of Greek and Roman remains
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was now eligible to be examined by the historical discipline of philology. The first
modern, one may say ‘critical’, history was written by Johann Caspar Friedrich Manso
(1760–1826), a Prussian schoolteacher and patriot (Sparta. Ein Versuch zur Aufklärung
der Geschichte und Verfassung dieses Staates [‘Sparta: An attempt to Illuminate her
History and Constitution’], 3 vols, 1800–1805). The author integrated the enlightened
rationalism of the eighteenth century and the political liberalism of the nineteenth;
Sparta was meant to be an instructive example for a Prussia fragmented as Greece in
antiquity had been. But Manso did not present a harmonizing and idealized image of
Sparta. On the one hand, he praised the perfect democracy the Spartan citizens could
enjoy, on the other hand he severely criticized the most appalling despotism the helots
had to suffer.
Classical scholarship received an unparalleled impetus in the nineteenth century, which
brought about internal differentiation and specialization. Ancient history split from both
universal history and classical philology. Archaeology was founded as an independent
discipline. The first systematic archaeological campaigns and an intensified Quellenforschung
gradually transformed the picture of Sparta. A long series of ‘Histories of Greece’ tried
to reintegrate the fragments generated by ever more specialized academic research. The
historical narratives were based upon detailed source criticism and hermeneutic understanding (Rebenich (2010)).
There were, of course, different shades and emphases. Most German historians
defended a pro‐Athenian perspective and were hostile to Sparta, as Barthold Georg
Niebuhr (1776–1831) in his Lectures on Ancient History. Rather influential was the
History of Greece (1846–1856) in twelve volumes by the London ex-banker George
Grote (1794–1871), which was soon translated into German (1850–59). ‘Under Grote’s
archonship a new era started’ in German‐speaking Europe, since ‘all […] studies on
Greek history of the last fifty years of the nineteenth century are either for or against
Grote’ (Momigliano (1955) 225). In accordance with Perikles’ funeral oration, which
Thucydides, the greatest of Greek historians, reported, the most liberal of Victorian historians praised Athens and argued that the troubles of Athens originated not in too
much democracy but in too little. Grote showed little sympathy for Sparta, criticized the
educational system and the suppression of individual freedom, and questioned the equal
division of land and property. Grote’s anti‐Laconian scepticism had a strong impact on
the German perception of the ancient polity (Cartledge (2014)).
Ernst Curtius (1814–1896), a pupil of K.O. Müller’s who later became Professor of
Classical Archaeology at Berlin, wrote a somewhat rhetorical History of Greece (Griechische
Geschichte, 3 vols, 1857–1861; 6th edn, 1887–1889), which was very popular among
general readers in the nineteenth century while establishing a close relationship between
classical Greece and contemporary Germany. Although Curtius formulated a moderate
criticism of the Athenian democracy, he revered Perikles and the Athenian culture of the
fifth century bc. The Spartan constitution, on the other hand, reflected the outstanding
prudence of Lykourgos, but the military character of Spartan life caused narrow‐mindedness, stiffness and rigidity, so that the city‐state was not able to unify Greece in the fourth
century. For Curtius, Sparta could only take without giving anything. She knew perfectly how to suppress free states with brute force and establish oligarchic governments.
But Leonidas and his fighters were transformed into the embodiment of self‐sacrificing
courage; their tomb was, according to Curtius, ‘an everlasting monument of heroic
civic virtue’ (Griechische Geschichte, vol. ii, 5th edn, 70f.). The historian exemplifies the
Reception of Sparta in Germany and German‐Speaking Europe
reinterpretation of Thermopylai in the context of nationalism. Already in 1812, the poet
Theodor Körner had praised the ‘bloody valley of Thermopylai’ (das blut’ge Tal der
Thermopylen) to encourage his compatriots in their fight against Napoleon.
While Georg Busolt (1850–1920), in his erudite but unexciting History of Greece
(Griechische Geschichte, 4 vols, 1885–1904), used contemporary political terminology to
describe Athens as ‘liberal’ and Sparta as ‘conservative’, Karl Julius Beloch (1854–1929),
an ardent nonconformist and bête noire of the academic establishment (Polverini, ed.
(1990)), disliked the polis on the Eurotas and deconstructed many certainties of classical
scholarship. Lykourgos never lived, Beloch argued, and the Great Rhetra was a later
invention. He also made a clean sweep of the legend of Thermopylai. His de‐mystification
resulted in the conclusion: ‘The catastrophe at Thermopylai had only one advantage for
the Greek cause: it liberated the Greek armed forces from an incompetent commander’
(Griechische Geschichte, vol. ii, 2nd edn, 104f.). Most of Beloch’s colleagues were indignant. Eduard Meyer (1855–1930), for example, who since 1902 had held the Chair of
Ancient History at Berlin, refused any serious discussion of Beloch’s position. Instead,
he celebrated ex cathedra Leonidas’ heroic death, which was ‘a shining example showing
the nation the way it had to go; this example made men realize more deeply and more
vividly than any words that the only choice was to gain victory or to die with honour’
(Geschichte des Altertums, vol. iv.1, 3rd edn, 1939, 361).
The crisis that spread through the various fields of classical studies at the end of the
nineteenth century had an effect on the perception of Sparta. Critical voices denounced
classical studies that in their eyes only produced pale imitation and were in danger of
fragmentation. Jacob Burckhardt (1818–1897) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)
discussed the question of the correlation between historical research and living reality.
They criticized the legitimacy of a classical discipline that saw its purpose in scholarly
productivity and undermined the normative function of antiquity. Both advocated new
approaches to the ancient world, which strongly influenced later perceptions of Greek
and Roman history. Although they emphasized positive elements of Sparta, they did not
admire its polity. Jacob Burckhardt, in his Griechische Kulturgeschichte (1898–1902),
described Sparta as a nearly perfect Greek polis, admired the ephorate and extolled the
homogeneity of the leading aristocratic class, but was full of distate for the educational
system and its inherent brutality, denounced the concurrent oppression and exploitation
of perioikoi and helots and accused the Spartans of blind egoism in the Persian War. They
had deliberately sacrificed Leonidas so that Sparta could retain her honour and protect
the main force of her army from being defeated. Nietzsche, following K.O. Müller,
­idealized the Dorian conditioning of Sparta, but he distanced himself from cruel features
of society and the harsh education.
New theoretical approaches were developed in leftist philosophy, where a sociocritical
reading of antiquity was postulated. Marxist and socialist authors were fascinated by the
egalitarian community in Sparta and discussed the form of property in the Dorian state
and the organization of public life. Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) discussed ancient
Sparta in his treatise The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), as
did the Marxist politician August Bebel (1840–1913), one of the founders of the Social
Democratic Party in Germany. The latter also noted that ‘the free condition of women
under the mother‐right promoted her beauty, raised her pride, her dignity and her ­self‐
reliance’ (Women Under Socialism, New York 1904, 42). Any such attempts at politicizing ancient Sparta were ardently rebutted by the conservative historian Robert von
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Pöhlmann (1852–1914), who, in his History of Ancient Communism and Socialism
(Geschichte des antiken Kommunismus und Sozialismus, 2 vols, 1893–1901) introduced
a modern terminology into the writing of ancient history, but tried to prove that there is
no evidence whatsoever for communist ideas in ancient Greece. Although he detested
social reforms and economic equality, he closely analysed the ‘social revolution’ of the
Hellenistic kings Agis and Cleomenes, whom he stigmatized as naive romantics who had
failed because they ignored the harsh limits of reality.
27.3 The Hellas of the German People: The Image
of Sparta from 1900 to 1933
The First World War intensified the crisis of classical studies. The military failure of the
German Kaiserreich and the democratic revolution in November 1918 had deep consequences for the subsequent political, social and intellectual development of Germany.
The old system had collapsed, a new one was to be built up. In this time of transformation, historians and classicists categorically demanded a prominent position for their
subjects as leading disciplines (Leitdisziplinen) to give guidance and orientation to the
masses. The majority of university teachers did not identify with the Weimar Republic
but advocated an anti‐parliamentary, autocratic system and glorified the Empire.
At the same time, a large number of new approaches attempted to overcome the ethical
relativism that was associated with classical and historical studies (Flashar (1995)). The various disciplines were forced to confront the urgent question of how to bridge the gap between Wissenschaft and life. The majority of the concepts developed under this leitmotif
shared a desire to re‐establish antiquity as a meaningful historical epoch but rejected a
return to traditional scholarship. Classical philologists remembered Friedrich Nietzsche’s
‘philology of the future’ and defended him against Wilamowitz’ verdict. Adepts of the
Stefan George circle searched for ‘inner form’ and ‘spiritual’ substance. Historical understanding of individuality and the ‘spirit’ was demanded in various studies. The criticism
levelled against the supposed degeneration of scholarship and against the cult of individualistic subjectivity increased in the 1920s and 1930s. A deep‐rooted sense of crisis, the
rivalry between the prevailing scientific and political, anti‐democratic and anti‐parliamentarian ideologies and the declining significance of antiquity caused some scholars to absorb
nationalistic and even National Socialist ideas in their search for a new image of antiquity.
The majority of German philhellenes of the nineteenth century had admired Athens:
six years after the proclamation of the German Empire (Kaiserreich), in 1877, Ulrich von
Wilamowitz‐Moellendorff (1848–1931) exalted the glory of the Athenian empire (‘Von
des Attischen Reiches Herrlichkeit’, in Reden und Vorträge, Berlin 1901, 27–64), derided
the intellectual culture in Sparta and denied any affinity between the Dorian and the
German people. After the First World War, Sparta was rediscovered and became one of
the most popular paradigms of classical antiquity, not only among professional historians.
Political opposition against the democratic system of the Weimar Republic focused on the
moral nobility and racial superiority of the aristocratic society of Sparta. The Athenian
democracy, the cultural and intellectual centre of the enlightened Ionians, was obsolete.
Instead Sparta was integrated into different models of a utopian state which were based
upon anti‐modernism, anti‐parliamentarism and Social Darwinism. All these models
shared the impetus to articulate a political and cultural critique of the present.
Reception of Sparta in Germany and German‐Speaking Europe
In the German Youth Movement (Jugendbewegung), the leader of which had returned
disillusioned from the war, Nietzsche was read, archaic Greece rediscovered and heroic
Spartan life revered. Some groups and associations yearned for the resurrection of
German youth in the spirit of Dorian youth and idealized a competitive male community
which practised eugenic selection and pederastic sexuality. The Hellas of the German
people was sought under the olive trees of Sparta (Cancik (2001) 121). Many believed
that in historical Sparta, that object of yearning, harmoniously educated Spartiates were
characterized not just by physical prowess, but also by highest racial and moral standards.
Spartan homosexuality, anti‐feminism, and heroism were also topics German authors
dealt with. They turned to Sparta as an example of Dorian manhood and elitism. Here
Theodor Däubler’s (1876–1934) essay on Sparta, written in 1923, should be mentioned, which praised the fictitious homoerotic couples killed at Thermopylai for the
sake of their country. Some years earlier, Erich Bethe (1863–1940), in his controversial
article on Doric pederasty (‘Die dorische Knabenliebe – ihre Ethik und Ideale’, Rheinisches
Museum 62 (1907) 438–475) had introduced this topic into scholarly discourse and
struggled to overcome grand simplifications such as that of Karl Otfried Müller. The latter
had ­suggested that the Dorians, in early times, considered an intimate friendship between males as necessary for their education, whereas Knabenschänderei (’pederasty’) was
an un‐Hellenic habit introduced from Lydia (Die Dorier, vol. ii, 1824, 296).
Gottfried Benn (1886–1956), a doctor of medicine and an influential poet, claimed
lyrically in his essay on the ‘The World of the Dorians. An Investigation of the Relationship
between Art and Power’ (Die Dorische Welt. Eine Untersuchung über die Beziehung von
Kunst und Macht), that the Dorian’s ‘dream is reproduction and ever‐lasting youth,
equality with the gods, strong will, strongest aristocratic belief in the race, care for the
entire tribe’, and ‘Doric is pederasty […], Doric is love of fighting, such couples stood like
a wall and fell’ (Das Hauptwerk, vol. ii, 1980, 151). Benn’s essay adopted categories of
Nietzsche and Burckhardt and propagated a twisted image of Sparta, saluting Apollo as a
quasi‐Fascist god and Sparta as the prototype of the new National Socialist community.
But it was not only poets who adored the Soldatenstaat (‘soldier’s state’) and the
Männerlager (‘men’s camp’) on the Eurotas. Sparta seems to have been a model for a
whole generation of academics who were shaped by the terrible experience of the
trenches in the First World War and could not accept the military defeat of Germany.
At the same time, the battle at Thermopylai and the famous epigram were integrated in
the political cult of the dead (Albertz (2006) 277–92). The German War Graves
Commission (Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge), founded in 1919, transformed
the historical event into a ubiquitous example of patriotism. The slogan ‘obedient to the
orders’ reflected the code of honour of common soldiers and classically‐trained officers,
who were ready to die for the sake of their fatherland. On numerous cemeteries commemorating the dead of the First World War Simonides’ saying, in the original Greek
and in German translation, gave sense to the doom of thousands and thousands of
German soldiers. But the Spartan heroism of the perished regiments was for males only.
It glorified the perfection of man’s existence in fighting and dying.
At German and Austrian schools, too, the brave Spartan fighters were present. In the
Bundesgymnasium Feldkirch in the western Austrian state of Voralberg, seventy‐two
alumni and two schoolteachers, who were all killed in the First World War, were remembered on a stone tablet which was dedicated in 1922 and stressed the obedience of the
Spartan soldiers who died at Thermopylai (see Figures 27.1a and 27.1b). The Greek
Figures 27.1a and 27.1b Memorial to the dead of the First World War, with Simonides’ lines
commemorating the Spartan dead of Thermopylai. Courtesy of Gymnasium Feldkirch, Rebberggasse
(Austria): photo Hans‐Peter Schuler.
Reception of Sparta in Germany and German‐Speaking Europe
epigram of Simonides was engraved underneath two figures. The stony scenery depicted
a wanderer with pole and bag who listens to the message of the dying Spartan. The
expiring soldier lies on the ground, holding his sword in his right fist, while, with his left
hand, he seems to point to his dead fellow‐combatants. At the inauguration ceremony
the director of the gymnasium drew attention to the ancient hero serving as a paragon
of ­patriotism and dutifulness.
In scholarship, however, the discourse about Sparta in the 1920s and 1930s was
mainly influenced by the accounts of two ancient historians, namely Victor Ehrenberg
(1891–1976) and Helmut Berve (1896–1979). Ehrenberg, a liberal Jew, had studied
classics at the universities of Göttingen and Berlin. In his research, he combined traditional Quellenforschung and historical interpretations with new methods and approaches.
Already as a young scholar he tried to synthesize political history and the history of ideas.
He was influenced by his teachers Eduard Meyer and Wilhelm Weber, and by Jacob
Burckhardt and Max Weber. Like so many other German classicists of the time, he was
attracted by the male community of the Spartan citizens. In 1925 Ehrenberg published
his book on Sparta, Neugründer des Staates, in which he developed the famous theory of
a single Spartan legislator who in the 6th century bc refounded the polis on the Eurotas
and, at the same time, attributed his legislative reforms to the statesman Lykourgos.
He also wrote the historical part of the Pauly‐Wissowa article on Sparta. There one could
read: ‘The one‐­sidedness of this race indicates its greatness. Never again has the ideal of
disciplined ­manhood been set down in such purity. But the greatest achievement is that
this masculine and soldierly society devotes itself to unrestricted service of the Nomos
[“law, custom”], which as incarnation of their state, their religious belief, their customs
and tradition is their only sovereign. Only thus was this society able to sacrifice almost
entirely its individual existence to the state’ (P‐W iii.A.1, 1929, p. 1383).
After the National Socialists came to power in Germany in 1933, Ehrenberg, Professor
of Ancient History at the German University in Prague since 1929, felt their impact on
the social and intellectual life of Czechoslovakia. His family suffered from the effects of
antisemitism, and it eventually became impossible for him to go on teaching at the
­university. In 1939 he decided to emigrate to England. In the same year, in a radio talk
in Prague, Ehrenberg sang the palinode of his colourful picture of a ‘totalitarian’ state in
antiquity and warned the audience about contemporary representatives of totalitarianism, who used Sparta as a model for their own inhuman policy (cf. ‘A Totalitarian
State’, in id., Aspects of the Ancient World, Oxford 1946, 94–104).
Ehrenberg’s famous theory of a single Spartan legislator met the immediate disapproval of Helmut Berve, who held the Chair of Ancient History at the University of
Leipzig from 1927. He declared: ‘The strange kosmos and the Spartan spirit […] were
not made, but grew from the ultimate, timeless depths of a collective soul (Volksseele)
[…]’ (Gnomon 1 (1925) 311). Berve formulated his concept of Sparta in the twenties
and popularized it in his Greek History (Griechische Geschichte), the first volume of which
appeared in 1931. The brilliant and innovative historian successfully introduced the
concept of the history of peoples (Volksgeschichte) into the historiography of the Greek
world. At the same time, Berve’s view of Sparta depended on the idealizing tradition
which derived from Schlegel and Müller and thus advocated a strict dichotomy between
Dorians and Ionians. The battle at Thermopylai was the culmination of Doric identity:
‘The Spartans … sacrificed themselves deliberately, not only out of strategic necessity
but for the law of Dorian manhood. With good reason they are considered as the true
Stefan Rebenich
fighters at Thermopylai. They were the ones in whom autonomous Greek man
­consciously opposed fate, they were prepared to be defeated but were not prepared to
submit themselves to their fate’ (Griechische Geschichte, vol. i, Freiburg im Breisgau
1931, 248–9).
Many others besides Berve were influenced by Karl Otfried Müller’s book on
Die Dorier. In the 1930s, the subject made a comeback and was now connected to the
racial concept advocated by the Nazis (Losemann (1998) 333–8). The classicist Werner
Jaeger (1888–1961), who developed a programme of ‘Third Humanism’ (Dritter
Humanismus) to preserve the traditional humanistic Gymnasium, advocated the Spartan
educational system, which was controlled by the state, praised the ‘ethical greatness of
the Dorian people’ and pointed to the sharp distinction between ‘the nature of the
Dorians and the Ionians concerning the character of their states’ public life and
the spiritual physiognomy of the polis’. He explained that the poet Pindar, who was not
a Dorian, represented the archetype ‘of the Hellenic aristocracy of race’ and that ‘the
Dorian race gave Pindar his ideal of the blond high‐racial type of man’ (Paideia. Die
Formung des griechischen Menschen, vol. i, Berlin 1934, 115f. 118. 271).
One may add that, in the English version of the book which was published after the
author’s emigration to the United States in 1936, some observations have been differently translated: for instance, das Ideal des blonden hochrassigen Menschentypus (‘the ideal
of the blond, ethnically‐superior, human type’), which the Dorian race suggested to
Pindar, was altered into the ‘ideal of the fair‐haired warrior of proud descent’ (Paideia:
The Ideals of Greek Culture, vol. i, Oxford 1939, 81). Jaeger’s concept of παιδεία and his
Third Humanism ‘served – in the short run – German philhellenism less by politicizing
classical studies than by dehistoricizing the Greeks’ (Marchand (1996) 329) and reflected
the aristocratic creed of an elitist scholar, which glorified Sparta as an Aryan‐Nordic
warrior state and matched Nazi ideology (von See (2003) 84–8).
27.4 Adolf Hitler’s Sparta: The Dorian Polity
in National Socialist Germany
National Socialism provides the most striking examples of political promotion and
exploitation of the supposedly Spartan way of life. The ancient city was now thought to
form an important paradigm for the individual and collective existence of Germans in the
future. So it is hardly surprising that already in the 1930s British intellectuals noted analogies between Sparta and Nazi Germany (Hodkinson (2010)). Between the North Sea
and the Alps, the Dorian polity was transformed into a utopian model for racist and
eugenic projects and for ‘blood and soil’ programmes (D’Onofrio (2007)). Politicians
and scholars applauded an effective militarism, the disciplinarian educational system and
the subordination of the individual to the state. As major symbol of Spartan ‘virtues’ the
myth of Leonidas was exploited in National Socialist Germany. The city state on the
Eurotas was integrated into the concept of Nordic world history (Nordische Weltgeschichte)
and a pseudo‐scientific biologistic approach propagated close racial relations between
Deutschtum and Hellentum (Losemann (2012)).
Adolf Hitler approved of Sparta (Näf (1986) 117). His admiration is evident in his
written work, but also in some of his public speeches. While spelling Spartiates as
Reception of Sparta in Germany and German‐Speaking Europe
‘Spartjaken’, he was fascinated with Spartan birth policy, since ‘the exposure of sick,
weak and deformed children, i.e. their eradication, was the best example of the racial
policy in the earliest racially pure state’ (G.L. Weinberg, ed., Hitlers Zweites Buch. Ein
Dokument aus dem Jahr 1928, Stuttgart 1961, 56). In Sparta, Hitler found the prototype of a society that executed eugenic selection, the military education of the young
generation, the ideal of preserving a small ruling warrior class of best racial quality, and
the readiness to sacrifice oneself for the sake of the country (Christ (1986) 51; Demandt
(2002) 293). In the Second World War the Führer observed that 6000 Spartan families,
i.e. a small aristocratic elite, dominated 340,000 slaves; Germany corresponded to the
Sparta of the Spartiates, while the helots were foreign peoples who should be enslaved.
Thus ancient Sparta, ‘the purest racial state of history’, became an example for the future
structure in eastern Europe (Losemann (2007a) 449–50).
Although the Nazi leadership propagated rather disparate attitudes towards history,
Hitler’s main conviction was never disputed: that the key to world history was the
racial question. The Reichsbauernführer (Imperial Farmers’ Leader) and Minister of
Agriculture, Richard Walther Darré (1895–1953), saw Sparta as a model for the new
state, as he had explained in his book Das Bauerntum als Lebensquell der Nordischen
Rasse (‘The Peasantry as the Life‐Source of the Nordic Race’), published in 1929
(Losemann (2017) 175–212). Darré proposed the idea that Sparta was not a state of
warriors but rather one of farmers. He thought that the decline of Sparta was not caused
by military defeats so much as by the abandonment of Nordic laws which had guaranteed
that the Spartans were tenants of inalienable and indivisible state‐owned lots. Economic
deterioration started at the moment when individual Spartans were allowed to acquire
more than one lot and became large landholders. The process resulted in biological disintegration, since with the concentration of land the number of births declined, and the
decreasing number of children made ‘health‐bringing selection’ impossible (Hodkinson
(2000) 14; Losemann (2007b) 310–1). Darré’s views on Spartan land tenure strongly
influenced the Nazi Reichserbhofgesetz (Imperial Law of Hereditary Entailment), which,
in 1933, introduced state control over peasant farms, interdicted sale, and established
single‐heir inheritance (D’Onofrio (1997); Losemann (2005)).
Richard Walther Darré’s blood and soil mysticism, and his interpretation of Sparta as
an ideal peasant society (Bauernstaat) not only corresponded to the ideology of some
members of the Nazi elite, but influenced an academically trained public. In 1937, Hans
Lüdemann, a member of Darré’s staff in the Ministry of Agriculture, wrote a book on
the peasant state entitled Sparta. Lebensordnung und Schicksal (‘Sparta: Way of Life and
Fate’), and in the following years a whole range of monographs discussed ancient Sparta
referring to Darré’s theories (Losemann (2007a) 453). But scholarly discourse about
Sparta was shaped by Helmut Berve. Although some Nazi bureaucrats had personal reservations about Berve’s political loyalty, he identified himself entirely with the ‘national
revolution’ of 1933 and strongly influenced the academic development and profile of his
discipline in the Third Reich (Losemann (1977); Rebenich (2001)). He became first Dean
(1933–5), then Prorector (1936–9) and finally rector magnificus (1940–3) at the university
of Leipzig and was appointed Kriegsbeauftragter der deutschen Altertumswissenschaft (War
Representative of German Classics). But the historian, who had warmly welcomed the
National Socialist re‐evaluation of history, did not hesitate to criticize the eccentric concepts of Darré’s lesser followers and other ignorant zealots (cf. Gnomon 17, 1941, 1–11).
Stefan Rebenich
At the same time he, like Fritz Schachermeyr, Hans Oppermann, Joseph Vogt and others,
adopted racist categories, developed by Hans F.K. Günther (1891–1968), the notorious
Rasse‐Günther, to interpret ancient history (cf. H.F.K. Günther, Rassengeschichte des
­hellenischen und römischen Volkes, Munich 1929).
In his little book on Sparta, which was aimed at a general audience, published in 1937,
reprinted in 1944 and in 1966 (H. Berve, Gestaltende Kräfte der Antike, Munich1966,
58–207), Berve depicted Sparta as an ideal historical model for National Socialist
government. He conjured up the Nordic spirit embodied in the aristocracy of Sparta and
idealized the institutions and customs of the Dorian polis, above all the racial laws which
were consequently applied, and the elitist tribalism which efficiently suppressed every
individualistic notion. Consequently, he eulogized the heroism of the 300 Spartiates
who were killed at Thermopylai; their eternal glory was based upon the fact, ‘that they,
far away from their home, at a place where the command had put them, took their stand
for no other reason but the command’. And Berve continued:
How could a Lacedaemonian king, how could troops of Spartiates have left their post to
save a life whose highest fulfilment was to stand in battle regardless whether they won or
died! Unthinkable the return of such a company! Certainly, the sacrifice was of no avail for
central Greece and the Lacedaemonians themselves, whose aristocratic troops lost one
twentieth of their numbers; but he who, in this case, asks for such a shallow benefit or even
bases his judgement upon it, misunderstands Spartan warfare and fails to appreciate the
strength which finally enabled Hellas to gain the victory over the Persian. The greatness as
well as the impact of the deed lay in its futility (Wie die Größe, so lag auch die Wirkung der
Tat gerade in ihrer Nutzlosigkeit. (Sparta, Leipzig 1937, 78–9)
German historiography, after the hiatus of the First World War, unanimously transformed the polity on the Eurotas into a positively‐viewed historical model of a Führerstaat.
After 1933 scholars who identified themselves with the new regime defined Sparta as a
quasi‐National Socialist institution. The former pluralism of approaches and judgements
was liquidated, academic discourse was allowed only within the ideological lines of the
system. Sparta barely mattered as historical formation, but was integrated by intellectuals
into a religious system which, as Arnaldo Momigliano once put it, ‘had its major sanctuaries at Dachau and Auschwitz’ (Momigliano (1966) 707–8).
Berve, like other prominent German Ancient Historians, was prepared to offer an
interpretatio fascistica of Spartan history which corroborated the ‘Aryan’ and ‘Nordic’
view of the past and was easily adopted by schoolteachers and classicists who hastily
embraced the National Socialist Weltanschauung, ardently advocated racist theories and
opportunistically emphasized the central importance of antiquity for the proper education of German Volksgenossen (Apel and Bittner (1994)). In those days pupils had to
write essays on ‘Xenophon in the Anabasis and Adolf Hitler in his struggle for and in
power’ or ‘The heroism in the Odyssey and today, especially as embodied in the Führer of
ancient and modern times’ (cf. Deutsches Philologenblatt 42, 1934, 148–9). The warrior
state of Sparta was an important subject in history teaching. Contemporary curricula
reflected the relevance of Sparta to Nazi Germany. The tough military aristocracy commanded respect. Sexual asceticism and the bringing up of children were praised, the laws
concerning marriage were approved as an outstanding means of eugenics. Scholars
pointed to the freshness and youth of an uncivilized ‘barbarian’ community, but
Reception of Sparta in Germany and German‐Speaking Europe
homoerotic and pederastic relations were only briefly mentioned or completely ignored,
and Sparta’s fall was reduced to the process of degeneration (Entartung) and denordicization (Entnordung).
Already in 1934, Berve had postulated that a classical education ought to produce a
man like Leonidas (cf. ‘Antike und nationalsozialistischer Staat’, Vergangenheit und
Gegenwart 24, 1934, 270). In the same year, a teacher at a Humanistisches Gymnasium
interpreted Greek history as the grand fight of the Nordic race against the aliens from
Asia and Africa and praised the spirit of Leonidas and his followers: ‘Spirit of the spirit of
our youth who, at Langemarck, died for Volk und Reich, spirit of the spirit of the heroic
souls who, in the last fifteen years, have sacrificed blood and life to the revival of the
German nature’ (H. Holtorf‚ ‘Platon im Kampf gegen die Entartung der nordischen
Rasse’, Deutsches Philologenblatt 42, 1934, 270). Thermopylai was compared with
Langemarck in Flanders where in the autumn of 1914 thousands of badly‐trained and
poorly‐equipped young German soldiers were sent to their slaughter.
One year later, 1935, in an official journal, it was suggested that of all political
­organizations in Greece Sparta, under the aspect of racial history, must be most carefully
scrutinized (‘Deutsche Wissenschaft, Erziehung und Volksbildung’, Amtsblatt des
Reichsministeriums für Wissenschaft, Erziehung und Volksbildung und der
Unterrichtsverwaltung der Länder 1, 1935, 28). At the Nazi elite school in Weimar, the
Adolf‐Hitler‐Schule, an essay was written shortly before the outbreak of the Second
World War, which was entitled ‘Spartan Pimpfe’; the ‘Pimpfe’ were the youngest subsection of the Hitler Youth. There one could read: ‘After lunch, which consisted of a simple
blood soup, they used to steel their bodies in sporting competition. One of them was
missing. He had been bloodily whipped, because he had been caught stealing. […] The
boys perhaps did not yet know why they enjoyed such an education. But we know that
Sparta remained strong, as long as the young people were educated in that way’
(Losemann (2007a) 454–5; Roche 2013).
The case of Sparta clearly proves the influence of a Nazified classical scholarship on
school teaching in the Third Reich. Berve also provided the ideological legitimation for
teaching pupils the new image of ancient Sparta, since as he wrote in the preface of his
little book on Sparta: ‘The education of youth, the spirit of community, a soldierly way
of living, integration and heroic testing of the individual, tasks and values indeed which
have again arisen for ourselves, seem to have been coined here in such lucidity, and
became infused so deeply and absolutely, that how this unique state was created is a vital
topic for us to study’ (Sparta, Leipzig 1937, 7). Hence W. Schröter, Studienrat at the
Altes Gymnasium in Bremen, collected, in 1937, the most important sources for the
battle of Thermopylai; the booklet, entitled ‘Leonidas’, was published as the third
volume in the series Führergestalten des Altertums. Finally in 1940, the archaeologist
Otto Wilhelm von Vacano (1910–1997) edited the pamphlet Sparta: Der Lebenskampf
einer nordischen Herrenschicht (‘Sparta: The Struggle for Existence of a Nordic Master
Race’), which was meant to be a textbook for the Adolf‐Hitler‐schools and gave Leonidas’
final struggle a most prominent place. His example was exploited to justify heroic self‐
sacrifice and to encourage last‐ditch resistance. Among the contributors were Richard
Harder, Franz Miltner and Helmut Berve.
Following the end of the First World War, in German historiography the pluralist
interpretation of Sparta, which had characterized earlier research, was abandoned.
Stefan Rebenich
German over‐enthusiasm for Sparta was based on the conviction that the peoples on the
Rhine and on the Eurotas were racially closely connected and had a common Nordic
background. It was argued that the ancient Spartans liked a strong state and took care of
the Volk as the modern Germans did. However, the new image of Sparta, which was popularized through a flood of racist and völkisch publications (Puschner (2016)), was not
the result of the ‘national revolution’ of 1933, but emerged from a complex amalgam of
ideas and ­ideologies which were virulent long before the Nazis came into power. The
vision of Sparta, propagated in the Third Reich, was essentially influenced by the
adaptation of obscure racial categories, the revival of the Romantic dichotomy between
Dorians and Ionians, the idealization of military duty and sacrifice after the military
disaster of the First World War, the yearning for a strong Führer instead of a democratic
government and the glorification of the Volk. Professional historians and classicists
painted the new picture of Sparta as a proto‐National Socialist state.
27.5 A Topic for Very Few Specialists:
Sparta after 1945
Helmut Berve announced his last lecture on Sparta on 2 May 1945 (Losemann (1977)
231). It was never delivered. As Moses I. Finley argued in a radio talk in 1962, entitled
‘The Myth of Sparta’ and broadcast on the BBC Third Programme, there had been a
deliberate revival of the myth of Sparta in Nazi Germany:
A number of Spartan qualities were singled out: the sharp division between a ruling élite and
a subject population; total control by the state of all aspects of life and the suppression of all
opposition; the rejection of ‘softness’, the conscious encouragement from childhood
onwards of the need to be hard toward oneself, toward subject peoples, toward the enemy;
the insistence that the state was an entity outside and above its individual members, with
absolute priority in interests and demands over any and all requirements or desires of the
individuals; the idea that a Heldentod, a hero’s death, was the highest achievement to which
a man could aspire. (cf. Hodkinson 2010)
After the failure of the Third Reich the racist manipulation and ideological monopolization of Spartan history was de‐legitimized.
In German scholarship Sparta was not very popular after 1945. For the majority of
historians the history of the Athenian democracy was now far more interesting. It was
not until 1983 that a professional historian wrote a concise ‘History of Sparta’ in German
(Clauss (1983)). In the years between, some older contributions, e.g. Berve’s Griechische
Geschichte (2 vols, Freiburg im Breisgau 1951–52), were reprinted, even translated into
other European languages, and were not warmly welcomed everywhere. Momigliano for
instance harshly attacked Berve in his review of the Italian version of the latter’s Greek
History (cf. Momigliano (1966) 699–708). But at Erlangen, where Berve taught Ancient
History in the 1950s and early 1960s, and once again secured a leading position in the field,
a younger generation of academics wrote some important studies on Sparta (Christ (1986)
222–3; Rebenich (2017)). The National Socialist manipulation of history led scholars back
to specialized research; Quellenkritik instead of ideology and political commitment were now
Reception of Sparta in Germany and German‐Speaking Europe
demanded. At the same time, the traditional Volksgeschichte, the ‘history of peoples’, was
transformed into structuralist and social history. That process is reflected in Franz
Kiechle’s (1931–1991) postdoctoral dissertation (Habilitation) on Sparta and Laconia
(Kiechle (1963)), where the ethnic and social structures of early Sparta and the interdependencies between political, social, constitutional and economic developments are
reconstructed. Kiechle emphasized the social differences within the Spartan elite, advocated the existence of a Spartan aristocracy, questioned the otherness of Sparta in the
archaic age, discussed the relation between social diversity and political chance and
argued that the transformation of the Spartan kosmos was a result of inner tensions. In
short, he supplied the missing link between traditional Volksgeschichte and modern social
history in German historiography on Sparta.
Some years earlier, Detlef Lotze (born 1930) had written his doctoral thesis on the
dependent rural population in Greece (Lotze (1959)). The author discussed the legal
status of helots and other similar groups and described the situation of helotry as a form
of collective slavery. Although Berve supervised graduate students from the university of
Jena in East Germany, Lotze, who was an independent scholar, was strongly influenced
by Finley and materialistic theories of history. Kiechle’s and Lotze’s approaches were
innovative, but isolated. Textbooks and general accounts of Greek history normally presented an old‐fashioned image of Sparta. Only in the 1990s did a new generation of
German historians rediscover ancient Sparta, adopting perceptions and ideas which were
now introduced to the international discourse mainly by French and British scholars.
Through the pioneering studies of Karl Christ (1923–2008) the reception of Sparta in
German scholarship also became a topic in the history of historiography (e.g. Christ
(1986); Christ (1999); Losemann (2003); Losemann (2007a); Rebenich (2002)).
Well before classical scholars, other writers reflected upon the deliberate revival and
excessive instrumentalization of Sparta in Nazi Germany, as Roderick H. Watt has shown.
Here ‘we find the paradox that for the generation of writers who had experience of Nazi
Germany the epitaph for the Spartans originally perceived as a monument to willing
self‐sacrifice for a common ideal transcending narrow national interests, has become a
leitmotif, indeed a literary commonplace, to express dismay at the misrepresentation of
that spirit by a militant nationalism and warped patriotism in the cause of a totalitarian
ideology’ (Watt (1985) 877). In other parts of German‐speaking Europe the handling
of Spartan history was less inhibited. ‘The ancient ideal encapsulated in the myth of
Thermopylai’ was still present: ‘it is the concept that there are some values that are worth
dying for, as well as living for’ (Cartledge (2006) 213). In Switzerland, in 1951, a
booklet for young people was published which praised the Spartan state as a factory
(Werkstätte) for the formation of man. Modern youth was encouraged to internalize
Spartan virtues. The historical background of the story was the Persian War, when
­passionate patriotism (leidenschaftliche Vaterlandsliebe) defended freedom against bloodsucking imperialism (blutsaugerischen Imperialismus) (Schläpfer (1951)). But there are
less martial reminiscences of the Greek city. On 6 June 1946, the academic football club
‘SC Sparta Bern’ was founded in the Swiss capital. The club members addressed each
other as ‘Spartans’ and published a newsletter, also entitled ‘Spartaner’. Unfortunately,
the club did not win its last battle; after the season 1993/94 it merged with another
football club and the name disappeared. At least in Bern, Spartans are no longer fighting
for victory on the field.
Stefan Rebenich
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