When we reflect on Nazi Germany, the first images that often surface are its iconic symbols and grandiose architecture, heavily inspired by the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome. These visual cues are widely recognized, but beneath the surface lies a lesser-known aspect of Nazi ideology: their distorted interpretation of ancient history.
This article delves into how the Nazis, under Adolf Hitler, selectively admired and appropriated aspects of ancient Greece and Rome, often glorifying elements that are widely considered the worst of these civilizations.
The Nazi regime systematically reinterpreted historical narratives and figures to fit their ideologies. This perspective on history reveals a deeper layer of understanding about how the Nazis envisioned their role and destiny in the world.
Hitler’s racist interpretation of Ancient History
Adolf Hitler’s interpretation of ancient history, particularly his views on Greece and Rome, was deeply influenced by his racist ideology. Unlike his contemporaries in the educated German middle class, Hitler lacked a formal education in Latin and Greek, shaping his perspective on these ancient civilizations not through scholarly understanding but through a lens of racial prejudice.
Aryan Ancient Greece
Firstly, Hitler believed that the ancient Greeks were part of the Aryan race. This view framed his understanding of Greek history, attributing their achievements and cultural advancements to their so-called Aryan lineage.
He considered modern Greeks to be racially impure, a mixture that, in his eyes, diminished their connection to the glories of their ancient past. To Hitler, this meant that contemporary Greeks were unworthy descendants, merely occupying the lands of their superior ancestors.
Roman Patrician class
Hitler’s perception of ancient Rome was similarly skewed. He revered the Roman upper patrician class, considering them the epitome of Aryan purity. This selective admiration was less about Rome’s cultural and political influence and more about upholding his racial ideals.
The works of Roman historians, especially Tacitus, played a significant role in shaping these views. Tacitus’ account of the Germanic tribes, which suggested they were indigenous to their land and had remained racially pure by not mixing with other races, was interpreted by the Nazis as historical validation of their ideology. Hitler saw this as evidence of the racial purity of the ancient Germani, an idea central to Nazi doctrine.
Sparta – the perfect racist society
Hitler regarded Sparta as an exemplar of the principles he wanted to instill in Nazi Germany: extreme militarism, eugenics, and the subjugation of conquered peoples.
The Spartan practice of eugenics resonated with his own beliefs in racial superiority and the need to maintain a pure Aryan race. The way Spartans occupied territories and reduced the native populations to helots, a class of serfs or slaves, was viewed by Hitler as a model for how the Nazis could dominate and exploit their conquered lands.
The Krypteia, an elite Spartan institution, was particularly revered by Hitler. Members of the Krypteia would systematically eliminate the strongest and most rebellious of the helots, a practice Hitler saw as a way to maintain control over a subjugated population and to ensure the dominance of what he considered a superior race.
Spartan fitness in Nazi Germany
The Nazis’ obsession with physical health and fitness also drew inspiration from Spartan society. The Spartans were renowned for their rigorous physical training and martial prowess. Plutarch’s writings highlighted that Spartans saw war as a respite from their intense training. This sentiment resonated with the Nazi ideal of the physically superior Aryan warrior—this belief in physical excellence manifested in Nazi policies and institutions.
In 1922, the establishment of the Hitler Youth exemplified this ideology. This organization focused on developing German children and adolescents’ physical and mental fitness, emphasizing exercise as a fundamental part of public health.
This focus on physical training was not just about health; it was steeped in Nazi propaganda, promoting the concept of Aryan racial superiority. By 1933, this had evolved into an “Aryans only” policy in all German athletic organizations, further entrenching the notion of racial superiority through physical prowess.
Rome and the Third Reich
The concept of the Third Reich finds its roots in the works of Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, a German cultural critic. In 1923, Moeller published “Das Dritte Reich” (“The Third Empire”), coining a term that would later become synonymous with Hitler’s Germany.
Moeller’s works emerged during the unstable times of the Weimar Republic and advocated for a profound transformation of German society, emphasizing intellectualism and nationalism.
Rejection of “Western Values”
Moeller’s vision of the Third Reich was imagined as a harmonious fusion of Germany’s socialist and conservative movements. He saw Marxism and Western-style democracy as major impediments to Germany’s ascension to European supremacy. His concept proposed a final Empire to restore Germany’s cultural and political dominance.
Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, already harboring similar nationalist and supremacist ideals, found Moeller’s concept aligning perfectly with their views. They adopted the term “Third Reich” to signify their regime, the successor to the Roman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire.
Greece – Rome – Germany
For Hitler, this historical lineage established a perceived continuity from the greatness of ancient Rome, through the Holy Roman Empire, to the Nazis, thereby justifying their aspirations for German expansion and dominance.
To solidify this connection, the Nazis incorporated Roman symbols, like the Roman legionary eagle, into their iconography. Hitler’s interpretation of this progression from ancient Greece to Rome and then to the Third Reich was used to frame the Nazi agenda as a revival and enhancement of a glorious past, setting a historical precedent for their ambitions.
How Hitler Tied the Fall of the Roman Empire with Judaism
Hitler faced a paradox in his ideology: if the Spartans and Romans were ideal Aryans and Aryans were a superior race, why did their societies collapse? His solution to this conundrum was to blame Christianity and, more specifically, the Jews.
According to Hitler, the downfall of Rome was precipitated by the spread of Christianity, a religion he believed was fundamentally weakened by its Jewish origins. He particularly targeted Saint Paul, viewing him as a figure of envy and jealousy against Roman strength and success.
In Hitler’s eyes, Christian ideals like the equality of all people under God were antithetical to the principles of a strong, hierarchical society and thus contributed to the weakening and eventual collapse of the Roman Empire.
Rewriting the Bible
This belief led to a complex stance towards Christianity and Judaism in the Third Reich. Hitler saw Jesus Christ as a Jew, placing the blame for the inception of Christianity on the Jewish community.
However, the Nazis also propagated the belief that Jesus was the son of a Roman soldier and thus of Aryan descent. This narrative was used to justify a certain level of tolerance towards Christianity – albeit a heavily manipulated version – while simultaneously reinforcing their anti-Semitic policies.
The idea that Judaism and its offshoot, Christianity, were responsible for the decline of great civilizations like Rome became a key component of Nazi propaganda. It served to rationalize the exclusion and persecution of Jews in the Third Reich, as Hitler and his followers believed that preventing the influence of Jewish thought was essential to avoid the fate that befell ancient Rome.
The flexible nature of Greek and Roman Influence in the Modern World
Hitler’s interpretation of ancient Greek and Roman history highlights the subjective nature of historical analysis. His views were deeply biased, crediting every success to Aryan lineage and attributing failures to Jewish influence. This lack of objectivity reminds us of the importance of examining our biases when studying history.
During World War II, both the Allies and the Axis powers drew inspiration from classical antiquity yet interpreted it in vastly different ways. The British Empire modeled itself after the Roman Empire. Still, while Britain and America idealized the virtues of the Roman Republic, the Nazis admired the strength of figures like Augustus and the impact of authoritarian rule.
This divergence in interpretation illustrates the malleability of historical narratives. Rome, a single civilization, has been used to justify both fascist, genocidal ideologies and staunch republican, democratic values. It shows that the lessons we draw from history often reflect our current values and beliefs.
Our interpretations of these histories are often colored by contemporary biases and ideologies, leading to vastly different understandings and applications of the past. This phenomenon underscores the importance of critical thinking and objectivity in historical study, reminding us to question our perspectives and the lenses through which we view history.
Guest post written by Tom Curley, the creator of HistoryHogs.com, a blog dedicated to ancient history, with a particular focus on Roman civilization.