Anti-Hellenism (1)

Why don’t we study anti-Hellenism?

This question came again to my mind as I finished reading an excellent review essay by the Cambridge historian of classical reception Dr. Helen Roche, “The Peculiarities of German Philhellenism” (2017), which surveys studies published from 2004 to 2016 in several disciplines in order to revisit the question of what makes this phenomenon so distinctive.

In the last section of her essay, which touches upon developments in Hellenic studies, Roche cites various scholars to stress that, well into this century, the modern Greek continues to be seen as a “dirty descendant” of glorious antiquity, experiencing a “deficient modernity” and eliciting a “racially legitimized contempt,” and she reminds us that “the disappointment felt by members of the German occupying forces during the invasion of Greece by the Wehrmacht during the Second World War clearly had an impact on the readiness with which some were ready to condone atrocities against the indigenous population” (The Historical Journal, 17). The critique of this (idealist) Hellenism without (living) Greeks has prevailed since the emergence in the 1980s of post-colonial studies of modern Greece (16).

The next sentence, though, takes a puzzling turn: “This was the dark side of that philhellenic kinship which was supposed to exist between ancient Greeks and Germans, but which left no space for modern Greeks” (17). Why is contempt and hatred for the Greeks “the dark side” of Philhellenism? This is like saying that owning human chattels was the dark side of the Enlightenment. It was not the dark side: it was plain slavery. Disdaining living Greeks, and committing and condoning atrocities against them is not the “dark side” of Philhellenism but a supremacist bigotry and brutality for which we could easily use the term anti-Hellenism though we do not. With no such term in common use, however, can any violence against the Greeks be accepted and discussed as discriminatory, racist, and colonial?

Roche proceeds to criticize what she calls (note her scare quotes) a “hyperbolic definition of ‘violence’ against Greek culture” (18), and she explains (using double scare quotes): “In this reading, the supposed ‘colonial violence’ imposed by European artists, scholars, and archaeologists in their appropriation of Greek antiquity (and its surviving material antiquities) could, under the wrong conditions, descend into the perpetration of literal violence against the oppressed inhabitants of an occupied nation” (17-8). If attitudes to Greeks may be discussed only under the rubric of Philhellenism, with its bright and dark sides, under what conditions is it possible to speak about committing atrocities against them and exercising colonial violence?

If the European cultural and material appropriation of Greek antiquity “could, under the wrong conditions, descend into the perpetration of literal violence,” what might it turn into under the “right” conditions?  Here Roche seems to foreground the civilizing mission of the Bavarian regency, arguing that “it was German wealth and architectural expertise which endowed the city [of Athens] with all its crowning glories of a self-respecting European capital: a state university, library, museum, public gardens — not to mention the royal gardens” (18-9). I am sure the author does not mean it this way but this sounds like the argument of the British Empire’s apologists that the colonies should be grateful for the railways.

Roche suggests that, even if at times the idealization of Greece had “singularly destructive” effects, it should not be taken to “its most racist and belligerent extremes,” and should be instead qualified by “the emergence of a more subtle and complex picture” (20) of Philhellenism — a suggestion foreclosing the mention of anti-Hellenism, let alone its study, and keeping it a scholarly taboo.

It remains unthinkable to discuss an attack on Hellenism as anything but a betrayal of Philhellenism. I am not talking here specifically about ethnic discrimination or persecution targeting Greeks, such as anti-Greek bashing, but the very opposite of Philhellenism, the Hellenophobic ideology that treats Hellenism in all its intellectual or material manifestations as corrupt and dangerous. Why is there no monograph, edited volume, conference, bibliography, or course on the major cultural phenomenon of anti-Hellenism, tracing it back either to early modernity or to antiquity?

Every time we walk around Vienna’s Greek Quarter, Pantelis Polychronidis, my other self, will ask me: “With all his strong interest in the Greeks, did Freud ever meet any in his city?”

January 16, 2018

This entry was posted in Culture, Hellenism, Literature, The Arts and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.