It all started with Wilhelm von Humboldt. In defeated Prussia, he was only able to get his educational reform off the ground in such an astonishingly short time because it took up existing currents and aspirations. Education should no longer be the reserve of class privileges, but a process in the course of which a bourgeois society could grow. It aimed at reflexivity and progress by enabling scientific productivity.
In the land of Winckelmann, Schiller, Goethe and Schleiermacher, it was obvious that the classical, especially Greek, antiquity should take center stage. But it was only when they were integrated into the institutions of civil society – in schools, universities and certificates as well as in the bookcases – that antiquity in Germany became a formative force on the way to modernity.
Tensions and paradoxes were inevitable. A normative model could not long withstand the dissecting knife of science. An antiquity, increasingly differentiated in terms of disciplines, was historicized in research, becoming one of several epochs that followed its own laws of development.
How antiquity has been constructed, received and transformed in Germany since 1800, in school education, academic research and in interaction with politics and the zeitgeist, that is the subject of the studies that the Bernese ancient historian Stefan Rebenich has shaped into a large synthesis in this book. Concentrated overviews of epochs – for example on ancient studies in the 19th century, after the First World War, during National Socialism and in divided Germany – are interwoven with case studies on pioneering researchers such as Johann Gustav Droysen, Theodor Mommsen, Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff and Alfred Heuss.
Particular attention is paid to the institutional framework at universities and academies as well as to the national and international communications that are so important in the context of large scientific enterprises. New fields of research such as Egyptology, late antiquity or the church fathers are gaining a profile as are ambivalent concepts, for example in research on value concepts and the history of concepts.
The critical retrospective allows the author to look optimistically into the future: the simplistic appropriation and desolate condemnation of Greek and Roman antiquity never lasted. The specifics of the epoch will become more clearly recognizable through the global comparison. Above all, however, the ancient legacy can continue to free people from intellectual, political and moral immaturity, because it says something to each individual, regardless of origin, religion, nation and skin color, which lasts beyond the day.
Review: Prof. Dr. Uwe Walter
The Germans and their antiquity
An eventful relationship
Verlag Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2021, 496 pages, € 38, –