Julius Caesar, Pericles, and the Rise of Hitler

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Much has been written about the conditions that made possible Hitler’s rise and the Nazi takeover of Germany, but when we tell the story of the National Socialist Party, should we not also speak of Julius Caesar and Pericles? Greeks, Romans, Germans argues that to fully understand the racist, violent end of the Nazi regime, we must examine its appropriation of the heroes and lessons of the ancient world. Below is an excerpt from author Johann Chapoutot’s introduction.

What strange mania could have pushed the leaders of the Nazi regime, in the midst of the twentieth century, to talk—and to talk so much—about the Greeks and Romans? Or to commission neoclassical works of art and publish articles on the Rome of the Fabii? Or to subject research and education on antiquity to such ideologically driven revisionism?

We think of National Socialism as the apotheosis of racism in both words and deeds. But racism is an exclusionary practice: it is the distinction between friend and enemy based on a strict biological determinism that, taken to extremes, separates those who get to survive from those who must perish—among both the living and the dead. The biological transmission of racial traits precludes any casual dalliance outside the kinship group, any genealogical digression, and demands extreme vigilance and severe patrilineal discipline. There may be several branches of the racial tree, but the integrity and purity of its rootstock must be verified historically. The Germans thus traced their line far back into the distant past of paleontology and the primeval forest (Urwald), through the Teutonic Knights and the Brothers of the Sword (Fratres Militiae Christi), Frederick the Great and Bismarck, to Hindenburg and, finally, Hitler—the chosen one of the prophets and acme of the race. . . . When Rosenberg and Hitler spoke of the Greeks as a “Nordic people,” they did not simply claim their heritage, but rather asserted a form of paternity that turned the concept of lineage on its head: what if they had all come from Germany? This appropriation of the Aryan myth, which had not previously circulated beyond a few nineteenth century German linguists and historians—who had wistfully imagined that the Dorians of Sparta came from the North—was legitimized and racialized by the Nazis in their desire to give credibility to the idea that Germany possessed such greatness that it had given birth to Western civilization. In this way, Rosenberg argued, imitating antiquity was neither “shameful nor incompatible with national dignity,” since it was actually a legitimate reassertion of Indo-Germanic cultural patrimony. . . .

National Socialism offered a myth. Its narration, by the state and its institutions—and especially its artistic and academic organizations—was presented as reality. Its lies were passed off as truth: Nazi discourse did not adapt to describe an external, objective reality; rather, discourse was shaped, internally and self-referentially, to fit the preconceived notions underlying the discourse itself. . . . It was not just the past, and the legitimate pride that one could take from it, that was at stake here, but the future as well. Germans’ new identity, built upon the Nazis’ version of antiquity, was at once a story of origins and an indication of future horizons.

In Greeks, Romans, GermansChapoutot analyzes a wide range of sources to show the Third Reich’s systematic appropriation of antiquity, including the canonical texts of National Socialist ideology, the speeches and theoretical writings, journals, memoirs, and “table talks” by Hitler, Rosenberg, Goebbels, Goering, and Himmler—the men who created and framed Nazi dogma.

Johann Chapoutot is Professor at the Sorbonne, where he teaches contemporary history.