“The haughty arrogance of the Nordic people”: A Scandal in the German Colony of Athens on the 20th of April 1935.Posted: December 1, 2018
Posted by Alexandra Kankeleit
Alexandra Kankeleit here contributes an essay about an unknown episode, almost a scandal, which took place in 1935 in the German community of Athens and involved the local Catholic church and members of the German Archaeological Institute. Alexandra, an archaeologist who specializes in the study of Roman mosaics, has also since 2016 been part of an extensive project of the German Archaeological Institute (Athens and Berlin), titled The History of the German Archaeological Institute at Athens during the National Socialist Era. As part of the project, she has examined a host of bibliographic and archival sources in both countries that document the activities of the German archaeologists in Greece from 1933 until 1944. A list of her most recent publications can be found on Alexandra’s own website.
A recently discovered episode from 1935 offers a striking picture of the predominant mood in the so-called “German Colony” in Athens following the National Socialist seizure of power in Germany. (“Deutsche Kolonie” was the official name of the German-speaking Community in Greece until the end of WWII.) It illustrates in dramatic fashion what battlefronts were being drawn up at the time and what the representatives of the German Archaeological Institute at Athens (DAI Athen hereafter) saw as their role in this critical period.
I stumbled more or less by chance upon this incident while carrying out research at the Politisches Archiv des Auswärtigen Amtes (Political Archive of the Federal Foreign Office). The relevant documents are to be found in a folder that deals with the “Schwarze Front” (“Black Front”) in Greece, an underground organisation that was opposed to Hitler and his policies, and which was founded in 1930 by Otto Strasser (1897-1974), brother of the infamous Gregor Strasser (1892-1934). From 1934-1937 members of the “Schwarze Front” were based in Greece publishing illegal flyers and articles, and encouraging Germans living in Greece to turn away from Hitler.
It seemed unlikely that information about German cultural policy in Greece, and in particular the DAI Athen, would be hidden amongst such material, but I was in luck and a search in the proverbial haystack yielded a small but successful result. A short time later I discovered supplementary material in the archives of the DAI, the Deutsche Evangelische Kirche (German Evangelical Church) in Athens, and the Bundesarchiv (Federal Archives) at Koblenz. These materials round out the picture and allow me to report on this interesting story here.
This episode is naturally embedded in a broader context, titled History of the German Archaeological Institute at Athens during the National Socialist Era. This project was created in 2016 on the initiative of Professor Katja Sporn, Director of the DAI Athen. (I am immensely grateful to both her and the staff in charge of the above-mentioned archive ‒ Lucia van der Linde, Johanna Müller von der Haegen and Hilde Hülsenbeck. I also want to thank Neil Bristow, who is responsible for the English translation of this article, and Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan for presenting it in her blog.)
A Casual (?) Evening Lecture
On 20 April 1935 there was something of a scandal among the German community in Athens: to mark Hitler‘s birthday the German prehistorian Peter Paulsen (1902-1985) gave a talk in the Gesellschaft Philadelphia (a German-Greek Association named “Philadelphia”) on the topic “Cultural Policy in the New Germany.” Unfortunately the text has not survived (or at least it has not been discovered in the relevant archives), but fortunately there are testimonia concerning the varied reactions of the audience. All Germans living in Athens were invited to attend the event (as part of a so-called “comradeship evening”). It is not clear exactly how many people turned up. At this time approximately 600 Germans lived in Athens (out of a total of 1,000 in Greece), while Greeks with an interest in Germany also often attended the community evenings in the “Philadelphia” association. The talk dealt with, among other topics, the reintroduction of German cults and neo-heathen rituals to supplant Christianity. The response of the attendees appears to have been mixed: some offered wild applause, others were shocked by and rejected Paulsen’s theses. Reports on the evening offer no consistent picture.
Only three persons in attendance voiced criticism and demonstratively left the hall before the end of the talk. According to the sources, the persons in question were Father Richard Liebl, Dean Gödicke, and Ms. Sörgel. For Ms. Sörgel, this action was to have consequences: Johann Friedrich Crome (1906-1962), researcher at the DAI Athen and regional group leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP hereafter), threateningly reminded her “that her case […] in relation to the party has not yet been settled.” The exact repercussions for Sörgel are unfortunately not known.
In the case of Father Richard the situation was more complicated, as his position and personality made him a respected person in the “Germany Colony.” It was not so easy for over-eager party members to attack and silence him. A few weeks later, on 1 June 1935, he published an article in the Catholic community newspaper “Der Rufer” (“The Caller”) that was to provoke more consternation among National Socialist sympathisers in the community.
The topic of “Germanness versus Christianity” seems to have also occupied the Evangelical priest Carl Kindermann (1896-1936?). In January 1935 he gave a talk on the topic entitled “Does Christ still have something to say to the Germans?”. In his case, too, the text has not survived, and so we are left in the dark concerning Kindermann’s precise intention and aim.
In this era of high tensions, Georg Karo (1872-1963), First Secretary of the DAI Athen, tried to play a mediating role. Two letters survive that show how he tried to soften the increasingly bitter opposition between the two camps of Germans based abroad. One letter was addressed to Peter Paulsen, who as recipient of a DAI scholarship in the spring of 1935 enjoyed the hospitality of the German Archaeological Institute at Athens. Karo thus felt responsible for him, and it is plausible to assume that the DAI Athen provided the original impetus for Paulsen’s talk at the “Philadelphia.” The second letter was addressed to Father Richard Liebl. It is not known whether Karo’s letters were ever answered, but this one-sided correspondence nevertheless offers a window into the prevailing atmosphere in Athens at the time. Karo’s involvement is particularly noteworthy when one bears in mind that, although he was christened as a Protestant, in the eyes of the National Socialists he was classified as “Volljude” (fully Jewish). His Jewish roots led him to flee Germany in 1939 and spend thirteen years in exile in the United States. (About Karo’s escape to America, the help he received from his American friends, especially Carl W. Blegen, and his life thereafter, read Jack L. Davis, “A Preamble to the Nazi Holocaust in Greece: Two Micro-Histories from the American School of Classical Studies at Athens,” published on November 1, 2014 in this blog.)
In 1935, however, Karo still felt safe and the extracts from the correspondence that are presented here illustrate the degree to which he identified with the National Socialist regime. Karo expressed understanding and solidarity towards Peter Paulsen, while Father Richard was subject to his criticism, a fact that both the German Embassy in Athens and Peter Paulsen were made aware of. But now we will let the participants speak for themselves.
The “Schwarze Front’s” Reaction
In May 1935 an article appeared in the “Deutsche Revolution” (German Revolution) newspaper entitled “Zerfall der NSDAP in Griechenland. Hitlersystem sprengt Auslandsdeutschtum” (“Collapse of the NSDAP in Greece. Hitler System Destroys German Culture Abroad”). It was written by the “Schwarze Front” organisation, which was opposed to the regime. Here is an excerpt:
“In his talk Dr. Paulsen contends that the revolution is not yet complete, and that the bloody final reckoning still lies ahead. The main battles will be against reactionaries and the church. […] In an impassioned manner Dr. Paulsen attacked the Catholic Church and the thoroughly corrosive influence of the Pope. The reckoning with the church, which is both an enemy of the German race and alien to the German people, will soon take place and will be bloody.
The contents of the talk were coolly received by the modest audience, which reacted in amazement and silence. There was no applause. The oppressive atmosphere was only heightened when Father Richard, head of the Catholic community here for many years, and Dean Gödicke, who has quickly made himself very popular among all strands of the Christian faith in the German Colony thanks to his selfless acts, left the event in protest. Father Richard described Dr. Paulsen’s arguments as “nonsense,” and both departed while the talk was still in progress. As soon as the Deutschlandlied [German national anthem] had been sung, the old party fighters also departed. As is known, this group has become increasingly resentful and angry about the antics of the “neo-Hitlerites” over the last few months.
This event led to much lively debate. The courage of the Catholic priest was praised and compared to the cowardly behaviour of Father Kindermann, who, apparently more concerned with holding onto the privileges of his position, remained until the event was over; in recent months this individual had fought against National Socialist ideas in a caustic yet clandestine way in his newsletter “Glaube und Heimat” [Faith and the Fatherland], but is now grovelling before the new rulers.”
The Catholic Church’s Reaction
On June 1, 1935 Father Richard Liebl offered his perspective in “Der Rufer,” the newsletter of the Catholic Church in Athens:
“Among us today there are circles that reject Christianity because it came from the East. There is talk of how Christianity represents a betrayal of the Nordic-Germanic spirit, and that, instead, a faith or rather relationship to God should be pursued that is born of blood and soil. Christianity, they say, did not spring from the German race. It is a Semitic offshoot that the Nordic people must shake off if its noble qualities are not to perish. The argument continues in the same vein, its representatives convinced that they are tapping into, God only knows, what sources of wisdom.
On Good Saturday 20 April 1935 we had the pleasure of hearing one of these individuals give a talk in the large hall at the Philadelphia. The speaker was Dr. Peter Paulsen, lecturer at Kiel University. From the very beginning of the talk the promise of the material was evident: Cardinal Faulhaber had the temerity to claim that prior to its adoption of Christianity, the Germans had no culture or civilization.… The 12 minutes of the young man’s talk that I managed to force myself to listen through displayed nothing but contempt towards Christianity, priests and monks in general and the Catholic Church in particular. These 12 minutes offered ample opportunity for me to admire the paltriness of historical knowledge, the ignorance concerning the essence of the Christian religion, the prejudice towards the Christian priesthood, the deep aversion towards the Catholic Church and the haughty arrogance of the Nordic people.
Holding such talks abroad is most certainly no way to improve the world’s opinion of Germany. I would go as far as to say that if these are the characters our universities are now producing then the good reputation of German universities will soon be a thing of the past. We are already the subject of enough animosity and envy in the world without having to go and make ourselves look ridiculous as well. We will not be deprived of Christianity. Christianity alone is the religion that belongs to our race, because God Himself gave it to us. Whoever claims the opposite was either never a Christian and has never understood the essence of Christianity, or has a personal interest, due to the high demands Christianity makes, in rejecting and negating it. Such speakers, far from fostering a much-needed unity in the German nation, rather heighten and deepen what are already grave divisions. Is this man still unaware of just how much damage the lack of unity since the 16th century has done to us?“
A “Volljude” as Mediator
Georg Karo, First Secretary of the DAI Athen, reacted immediately by writing, the same day (June 1, 1935), a long letter to Father Richard:
Most Esteemed Father,
When we parted this morning I had not yet properly read your article in “Der Rufer”, but only skimmed the first couple of paragraphs. […]
While I am not in a position to get involved in affairs of the Church or the Party, this article does concern me directly, as it deals with a young scholar who was sent to the south as a recipient of a scholarship from our institution [the scholarship in question is the DAI’s Reisestipendium, or travel grant]. These recipients are selected annually, based upon them being the best of the respective year. It would truly be a sad sign for German academia if your comments were valid.
Dr. Paulsen’s specialty is that branch of German prehistory that deals with the German and Nordic Middle Ages. Of course, such research cannot bypass the religious side of the Middle Ages, and so Dr. Paulsen engaged with these matters under the guidance of his teacher, the renowned church historian Professor Scheel in Kiel, with whom he also published a comprehensive work about the sources, I refer you to the 22nd “Bericht der Römisch-Germanischen Kommission” [Report of the Roman-Germanic Commission] 1933, published by our institute. Opinions in this field are, of course, very diverse and often stand in sharp contrast to one another. However, Dr. Paulsen, who was made aware of your article before his departure this afternoon, assured me that his religious outlook is indeed rooted in Christianity, albeit not in the Church. He added that he had made it known that, following his talk, he was open to discussion regarding all relevant points, including with persons such as yourself and others who left the Philadelphia and who doubtless hold very different views to his own. He is therefore understandably hurt that nobody availed of the opportunity to talk to him at the time, and that this attack has now followed more than one month later. On a personal level, as head of the DAI Athen, I have to express my displeasure that a young specialist in my field, one whom, as recipient of a scholarship, it is my duty to protect, has been subject to attacks in the press that go well beyond the disputed religious topics in question and threaten to damage his reputation and academic career. This damage is in no way offset by the explanation you plan to give in your sermon tomorrow, but rather remains undiminished in scope and is very likely to be further exploited by the anti-German publication Prags [author’s note: the »Schwarze Front« is meant here].
Most respectfully yours,
The following day, 2 June 1935, Georg Karo composed a somewhat shorter letter to Peter Paulsen:
Dear Mr Paulsen,
I deeply regret that your stay in Greece ended in such an unfortunate manner; however, I am certain that this will in no way overshadow the pleasant memories of the weeks you spent here.
I am including here a copy of a letter to Father Richard. It resulted in a detailed talk between the two of us, which concluded with the following points:
- Father Richard was never aware of your offer to discuss the relevant questions with you. He assured me that, if he had been aware, he would have availed of the opportunity, as such a discussion would have interested him greatly.
- He thought that you were a historian, and was unaware that you were a prehistorian and recipient of a scholarship from our institute.
- He deeply regrets the incident, asked me in no uncertain terms to communicate that to you, and added that he was grateful to me for providing him with an opportunity to make up for his error in as far as it is possible. He also sent a letter to this effect to Crome.
I am under the impression that Father Richard acted impulsively in a fit of indignation – which one can understand in the case of a priest who sees all that he holds most sacred being attacked – but that he bore no personal animosity towards you. At the same time, his obliging expression of immense regret is, in light of his age and status, surely impressive evidence of his desire to achieve reconciliation.
I will not write any more today, as I want to post the letter quickly, though I just wish to add what a pleasure it is to think back on the shared weeks of travel and exchanges concerning our field.
I wish you all the best for your onward journey, regards to Lullies and Bittels and Heil Hitler
signed: Georg Karo
If there was ever a “letter of apology” from Father Richard, it has not survived. In fact, a letter from the Reichsverband für die katholischen Auslandsdeutschen e.V. (Reich Association for German Catholics Abroad) to the Foreign Office in Berlin dated 25 June 1935 suggests that Father Richard did not revise his original opinion, but rather found support within his church:
“It would be a sensible step if the Reichs- und Preussische Ministerium für Wissenschaft, Erziehung und Volksbildung [Reich Ministry of Science, Education and Culture] were advised to instruct speakers who have obtained permission to give talks abroad to conduct themselves in such a manner that similar mistakes are avoided as much as possible in future.”
Afterlives and Afterthoughts
Peter Paulsen’s biography has been relatively well researched. He was a member of the NSDAP from as early as 1928. His scholarship in 1935 preceded a rapid rise in the ranks of the SS. From 1937 Paulsen worked as SS-Untersturmführer at the Rasse- und Siedlungshauptamt (Race and Settlement Main Office) in Berlin. In 1939 he became active in the SS-Ahnenerbe, a National Socialist think tank focused on racial doctrines. In Poland he led the Reichssicherheitshauptamt’s (Reich Main Security Office’s) »Sonderkommando Paulsen«, a special unit named after Paulsen himself. While holding this post he stole the Veit-Stoß altarpiece from St. Mary’s Church in Krakow, as well as many other art works from Polish collections and libraries. (On the recovery of the Veit-Stoß altarpiece, read entry for Karol Estreicher, Jr. here.) 1941 Paulsen was promoted to SS-Hauptsturmführer, and as of 1944 he led the “Germanische Führerschule” (Germanic Führer School) in Hildesheim. After the war he went through a denazification process (BArch Z 42-II/1269). He then became a teacher and in 1958 was employed at the Wissenschaftliche Forschungsgesellschaft Syriens (Scientific Research Association of Syria). In 1961 he was appointed curator for the Early Middle Ages department at the Landesmuseum Württemberg in Stuttgart.
Very little is known, however, about Father Richard Liebl. According to individual eyewitness reports, he provided assistance to the starving population of Greece during the occupation and was held in equally high regard among both Germans and Greeks. No photographs, letters or other documents that indicate his subsequent path have been found in the relevant archives. If anyone is aware of such documentation at other locations I would be very grateful for information.
The documents that have been presented here for the first time offer us a picture of a society characterized by great uncertainty, conflicting aspirations and feelings, but still hopeful that the situation could be defused. While it is apparent that Georg Karo went out of his way to serve the new regime in Germany, behind the scenes he also tried to assist German-Jewish archaeologists who had sought refuge in Greece in the inter-war period – a topic that will be treated in a different context.
- BArch Koblenz, Spruchgerichte in der Britischen Besatzungszone Z 42-II/1269
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- DAI Berlin, Archiv der Zentrale, Biographica-Mappe Peter Paulsen.
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»Glaube und Heimat«. Monatsblatt für die Deutschen Evangelischen Gemeinden in Griechenland: Athen, Saloniki, Patras, Volo, Cavalla, Corfu, Kreta, Jahrgang 7, 1935, Nr. 4 Seite 6 und Nr. 6 Seite 5.
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Dr. Alexandra Kankeleit
Deutsches Archäologisches Institut
Fidiou 1 | GR-10678 Athen