In a German-language book whose title translates as Moses and Homer: Greeks, Jews, Germans: A Different History of German Culture, the historian Berndt Witte examines the ways great German thinkers from the late 18th century onward idolized ancient Greek civilization. While the subject—what one British writer in 1935 dubbed “the tyranny of Greece over Germany”—is nothing new, Witte’s argument that this Hellenophilism went hand in hand with a rejection of Judaism, and ultimately the Jews, is indeed new. Steven Aschheim writes in his review:
Goethe, Schiller, Hegel, Herder, and [others] valorized Grecian ideals as part of their modernizing zeal, while attacking the God of Judaism and Christianity. But, Witte argues, because Christianity was supported by state power, their rhetorical onslaught was concentrated on Judaism. Under the rubric of ancient polytheism, these thinkers promulgated the worship of the cosmic forces of “Nature” and set the autonomous person—typically in the form of the conquering warrior—as their crowning ideal.
Homeric history, Witte asserts, is one of murder, war, and death. Positing society as a ruthless site of struggle, German Hellenophiles promoted a worldview that increasingly suppressed the Judaic affirmation of God-created life and the proscription, “Thou shalt not kill.” In its place, they constructed a ruthless image of society. This, Witte argues, was the other side of the Enlightenment, and it left a deep mark on 20th-century German culture.
Although warning that this argument lends itself to exaggeration—can Nazism really be blamed on the 18th-century archaeologist and art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann?—Aschheim finds much to praise in this book.
Witte . . . draws our attention to the fact that Jewish chosenness came to be represented [by Witte’s subjects] as a kind of arrogant and aggressive separatism—a cunning move whereby the victims were transformed into putative perpetrators. Even more challengingly, he suggests that there was a kind of ironic interdependence between the Jewish and German notions of the Chosen People. German racists often borrowed from the Jewish example in a kind of perverse usurpation. Thus, Hitler himself invoked a distorted Judaism, writing that “no one knows better than the Jew” about blood purity.
I believe that a subtle, unstated, scholarly polemic runs underneath the text of Homer and Moses with regard to these issues. . . . [I]t seems to me that the entire work stands as an intriguing refutation of the famous German Egyptologist and cultural theorist Jan Assmann’s most provocative thesis. Assmann has argued that it is precisely the “Mosaic distinction”—between the one “true” God and “false” religion—that stands at the root of Western “conflict, intolerance, and violence,” whereas ancient polytheism rendered different cultures mutually compatible. Some have read Assmann as arguing that because Jews initiated the “first distinction” and have been resented for it ever since, they may have been, in some sense, partly responsible for the ghastly fate that overtook them.