On Germans and Other Greeks

“There was a time when Richard Wagner wrote no music for almost six years. He was thirty-six, and had completed three of his ten major operas. The Flying Dutchman and Tannhiiuser had been launched, with varying degrees of success, in Dresden, but Lohengrin had not yet found its way to any stage. There was a price on Wagner’s head. He had been involved in the 1849 Dresden uprising – providing places for secret meetings, supplying grenades, reporting on troop movements from the tower of the Kreuzkirche, watching the opera house where he was employed go up in smoke. When the uprising failed, he was charged with treason and forced to flee from Germany. Some of his associates were caught and sentenced to death, though the sentences were eventually commuted to long prison terms. Wagner, with forged papers and an assumed name, took up temporary residence in Switzerland. There, beset as he was by political, personal, and financial difficulties, he found he had come to an artistic impasse.

He could write no music. Instead, as the four operas of his Ring cycle gradually took shape in his head, he turned out volume upon volume of rabid, fevered, tortured prose. Much of it was political, and all of it touched on the nature of art. Partly to convince others but largely to convince himself, he fashioned an artistic creed so comprehensive and demanding that, when he turned to write music again, that music – the opening pages of the Ring – was like nothing he or anyone else had written before.”

In “Athena Sings: Wagner and the Greeks“,  M.Owen Lee traces the influence of ancient Greek tragedy on the great musician.  As nationalistic fanaticism rages today around the Euro 2012 football match I though we should remind ourselves that these two countries have pretty deep ties.

“By the time Nietzsche begins writing The Birth of Tragedy (it would be published in 1872), the question of tragedy had already been firmly established in Germany. In less than a century from the appearance of Schelling’s reference to Greek tragedy as the site of a solution to the enigmas of post-Kantian philosophizing, the topic of tragedy had taken root in German thought so deeply, so fundamentally, that the history of its presence in nineteenth-century German thought was almost as important as the original history of Greek tragedy that belongs to fifth century b.c.e. Athens (curiously, when Nietzsche first confronts it, the first life of this question—as it is found in ancient Athens and played out in the theater—is only as long as the second life of the question—-which is found in Germany—and is played out in academic publications). By the time Nietzsche broaches the question of tragedy and its relation to the modern world, the history of the second life of this question is, by and large, for better or worse, owned by Hegel. When the young Nietzsche begins to take a serious interest in Greek art, especially Greek tragedy, Hegel’s argument (or, better, the Hegelian argument as it was canonized by his epigones) that the structure of tragedy was ultimately a dialectical structure had become something of a commonplace.”   (On Germans and Other Greeks – Dennis J. Schmidt)

But is is not just about ancient Greeks and romantic German intellectuals.

“An important aspect of Greek identity involves the extent to which it can be considered an Eastern or a Western country. Today, when Greeks prepare to go abroad to Germany, England, or France, many say, “We are going to Europe.” This may seem odd, given that Greece is a full member of the European Union, and most people think of Greece as the cradle of Western civilization. It is ironic that while the West looks to Greece for the source of its own identity, for most of its history the sights of Greece have been turned toward the East. In ancient times, Alexander the Great turned his back on what he considered a barbarian West and spread Hellenism to the East as far as India. When Constantine established his religious headquarters, it was the growing town of Byzantium that he chose, not the small village of Athens, with its few houses spread beneath a forgotten Acropolis.   The Orthodox Church, which was the primary force behind Greek identity for nearly 1,500 years, has always maintained a strongly anti-Western stance.”

Exploring the Greek Mosaic: A Guide to Intercultural Communication in Greece – Benjamin J. Broome

As Greeks prepare for the match and even decide not to buy German beer today they forget just how much Germany has helped many Greeks that went there as guest workers.   Trying to rally up memories of the second world war and the atrocities is out of place.   Here are a few British reports:

“122. The German occupation, whilst rigorous, has exasperated the Greeks less. The change when passing into the German from the Italian zone is very noticeable. The Germans forfeited their considerable popularity by their callous behavior during the famine and their wanton looting of public and private property. The removal of art treasures to Berlin and the flagrant commandeering of luxury goods and furniture, which could have no military justification, disillusioned the Greeks. Lastly, they showed that they were the Herrenvolk in many infuriating ways, by knocking Greeks off trams, by hitting them in the streets.

123. But latterly the Germans have only behaved harshly when they had some pretext. German troops have been instructed to behave properly to the civilian population and they seem to have fraternised with the Greeks. It is possible for 20 Germans to visit a village in circumstances in which the Italians would only go 1,000 strong.”

British Reports on Greece 1943-1944 -John Melior Stevens, Christopher Montague Woodhouse, David John Wallace, Lars Bærentzen

So call me a traitor if you want.  I will be cheering for the Greek team tonight but fully expect the Germans to trounce us as they are systematically better at football of course.   And for all my German friends, all those great people I have met around the world who happen to come from that part of the world, there are many of us over here who love you, Merkel and all.   Maybe we should all be reading more from our great thinkers …

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