Classical Reception in German Exile Literature, 1933–48

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis, over six chapters, explores the reception of Latin and Greek literature in the writing of exiles from Nazi Germany. Noting that a number of leading literary figures turned to antiquity during the years of emigration, it examines Classical Reception in the exilic oeuvre of Bertolt Brecht, Lion Feuchtwanger, Stefan Zweig, Anna Seghers, Robert Neumann, Hermann Broch and Ödön von Horváth. It critically assesses the factors that catalysed their engagement with antiquity, outlining which facets of the Classical past they were drawn to. Do they use antiquity in a mood of affiliation, emulation and exemplarity — or rather one of opposition, repudiation and warning? What are the broad commonalities and patterns across Classical Reception in German-language Exilliteratur? Conversely, what are the characteristic approaches of particular exile writers or groups? In addressing these questions, the thesis argues that émigré Classical Reception can be viewed as a mode of literary resistance — as a powerful intervention into a battleground of cultural conflict. It further argues that exilic recourse to the Classics reveals much about these authors’ sense of self, and their conception of literature in times of crisis.

Chapter 1, informed by recent scholarship on the Classics under Fascism and National Socialism, argues that there was a sustained, public and ideologically driven appeal to Classical antiquity within the Third Reich itself. National Socialism recast the Greeks and Romans as ‘Nordic’ forebears, and this doctrine was adopted and reflected across diverse channels of public life — from the academy to popular literature, from educational curricula to public art and propaganda. An exclusivist vision of the ancient past, marked by its monumentality and totality, provided a highly visual distillation of Nazi pretensions of grandeur, conquest and national rebirth — against which authors of exile could write. Émigré authors’ challenge to this totalitarian appropriation of the past forms a unifying strand across my thesis.

Chapter 2 examines how Bertolt Brecht uses antiquity in a mode of contestation, gainsaying received narratives and deflating the claims of ‘great men’. Building upon, but moving beyond, Martin Vöhler’s framework of (Mythen-)Korrektur, it demonstrates how Brecht intervenes into established traditions, across varied genres and media — from poetry, to the short prose narratives Berichtigung alter Mythen and ‘Der verwundete Sokrates’, to the plays Die Horatier und die Kuriatier and Das Verhör des Lucullus, to the unfinished novel Die Geschäfte des Herrn Julius Caesar. Embedded in the structure of Brecht’s texts themselves is, the chapter argues, a methodology of scepticism, honed upon and targeted towards myths constructed around (and on the basis of) antiquity. This critical standpoint could then, in turn, be directed towards the political situation of the present.

Chapter 3 is concerned with the historical novels of Lion Feuchtwanger. Beginning with Feuchtwanger’s theoretical principles, as set out in his Centum Opuscula, it then traces how they are borne out in Der falsche Nero and the Josephus trilogy. Feuchtwanger’s novels strongly thematise history-writing itself, revealing the subjectivity of the historical record, and thus (like Brecht) fostering a standpoint of scepticism. Feuchtwanger’s focus differs from that of Brecht, however, in his overarching conception of history as a conflict between the poles of rationality and irrationality, internationalism and nationalism. My readings explore how Feuchtwanger’s vision of the ancient world is innately transcultural, dwelling on the borderlands of the Roman East, the diverse peoples of the Hellenistic world, and the Jewish experience of rebellion and repression. In this regard, Feuchtwanger’s presentation of antiquity is revealed as a close reflection of his own avowal of cosmopolitan ideals — ideals that were existentially threatened in the 1930s and 1940s.

Chapter 4 examines the evocation of intermediary traditions: Stefan Zweig’s appeal to Humanism in his Sternstunden der Menschheit (specifically the Sternstunde ‘Cicero’), Bertolt Brecht’s innovation on Hölderlin’s Antigone, and Anna Seghers’ commingling of Greek myth with the landscapes of central Europe in the Sagen von Artemis. Comparing and contrasting these three cases, the chapter sets out a typology of different intermediaries — whether values, literary works and authors, or specific evocations of place and time. The traditions are evoked in a mood of reclamation, renewal and innovation, and my reading demonstrates how they set the present experience (both political and exilic) in a wider context, gesturing towards more optimistic transcultural and transtemporal

Chapter 5 considers how émigrés use Classical exempla to reflect upon the modern experience of exile. With reference to Anna Seghers’ Die drei Bäume, Lion Feuchtwanger’s Odysseus und die Schweine, and Robert Neumann’s An den Wassern von Babylon (specifically its ninth chapter, ‘Marcus — oder die Emigration’), it demonstrates that the figure of Odysseus looms especially large, and argues that mythical archetypes are not deployed in a mood of affiliation alone: on the contrary, the principle of contestation predominates. If émigré writers problematise the mythical models of wandering and nostos, however, they also draw closely upon themes innate to the Odyssean tradition: questions of homecoming, narrative construction and self-perception, and the sense of a Heroic Age in decline. The chapter closes with an analysis of Seghers’ Das Argonautenschiff, elucidating how these themes are reprised to convey the uncertainties of the exile’s return in the immediate postwar period.

Chapter 6, with reference to Brecht’s ‘Die Trophäen des Lukullus’, Hermann Broch’s Der Tod des Vergil and Ödön von Horváth’s Pompeji, assesses how the Classical inheritance offers the possibility of optimism, of hope for a world remade in the present. In Brecht’s ‘Die Trophäen des Lukullus’, there is a utopian vision of peace and class solidarity, articulated with reference to the philosophy of Lucretius; Broch’s Der Tod des Vergil gives an idiosyncratic reading of Augustan Rome through the lens of Epochenwechsel and the hope of salvation, informed by postclassical reception of Virgil; Horváth’s play Pompeji begins in the slave milieu of Roman comedy and ends in the Christian catacombs with the promise of emancipation. These texts, the chapter argues, are richly allusive, combining disparate genres from varied points in history, and by looking backwards also look forwards to the future, imagining new ages of renewal to come.

Exilic Classical Reception, my thesis argues, is characterised neither by idealisation nor imitation, but rather by a willingness to probe, re-write and contest received truths. It is sceptical of archetypes, sceptical of the ‘great’, sceptical of established accounts. This is not to say that it rejects tradition outright: on the contrary, each of the authors in this thesis signals affiliation with models both Classical and postclassical. But it utilises these sources in a dialogistic mode: reworking them to foreground parallels with the contemporary experience, or re-imagining the past through modern ideological standpoints — and thereby incorporating new voices and new perspectives. In this respect, it enacts a principle of oppositional reading; and, by fusing the Classical canon with the unique insights of exile and the anti-Fascist perspective, it opens new avenues of interpretation on antiquity and its ongoing relevance in the modern age.
Date of Award1 Oct 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorBen Schofield (Supervisor) & Sebastian Matzner (Supervisor)

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