A Mighty Forest

Nicht Originalität – Schönheit ist der Hauptzweck.
—Ludwig I

It’s easily the oldest house I’ve ever lived in—known in Kassel, until I moved into it in August 2015, as the Brothers Grimm Museum. The address is Schöne Aussicht 2, hence the building’s “official” name: Palais Bellevue (the palace with the beautiful view). The study looks east and is gorgeous indeed: ex oriente lux. I mostly see trees now: the primeval-looking forest of Grimm lore.1 The palace was built in 1714 by Paul du Ry, a Huguenot architect lured to Kassel by Landgrave Charles I in the late seventeenth century with promises of a key role in turning the middling Hessian town into a cultured metropolis; it is Charles I, in fact, who gave Kassel its totemic Hercules monument as well as the Orangerie set in the Karlsaue park, the meadow (Aue) named after him, which I can likewise see from my study window. Du Ry’s grandson Simon Louis du Ry was the architect of choice of Charles I’s grandson, Friedrich II—with Kassel’s Fridericianum, continental Europe’s oldest purpose-built museum, being the foremost fruit of their collaboration.

Sometime in the late eighteenth century, the Palais Bellevue, which had originally been conceived as an observatory, enjoyed its first spell as a museum, housing the royal painting collection of Friedrich II—now on view in the Schloss Wilhelmshöhe built by du Ry the younger and Heinrich Christoph Jussow. (Jussow’s best-known building locally is the diminutive Temple of Apollo, technically known as a monopteros, in the Schlosspark, known today as Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe. It was recently renovated in a round of restorations paid for by the Deutsch-Griechische Gesellschaft, the German-Greek Society, whose Kassel branch convenes its meetings in said structure.) Following its period as a museum, the Palais Bellevue was briefly occupied by Jérôme Bonaparte, the younger brother of Napoleon who reigned as King of Westphalia from 1807 until 1813; and it is as Jérôme’s private librarian that Jacob Grimm, the older of the two brothers, might have first set foot in what is now my home—with a great deal of reluctance and barely concealed contempt to be sure, for the Grimm brothers, no Francophiles, were passionate supporters of the dream of a unified German nation. (Jacob died second, in 1863, just seven years before that dream finally came true. In 1848, he was elected to the newly founded National Assembly in Frankfurt am Main, the first freely elected parliament of the confederation of German states: the same year, fittingly—the confluence of nation building, lexicography, and linguistics being at the heart of our concerns here—that he published his Geschichte der Deutschen Sprache [History of the German Language].)

The Palais Bellevue remained in the hands of the landgraves of Hesse after the establishment of the German Empire in 1871 and well into Germany’s traumatic twentieth century; it was in the 1930s that the palace was gradually turned into a public art gallery (from 1878 until 1908 it had already been the temporary home of the Art University Kassel under the directorship of Louis Kolitz, in whose middling proto-impressionist paintings it occasionally appears). The building survived the destruction of World War II almost unscathed and was turned over to the city of Kassel in 1956, a year after the first edition of documenta took place. Finally, in 1972, the year I was born (welcome home!) and the year of documenta 5, a documenta for the ages, it became the Brothers Grimm Museum. Today, however, it is no longer a museum—the Grimm brothers never lived here anyway2—and a year on from writing this, it will most likely be serving as an exhibition venue for the fourteenth edition of documenta, which will be organized concurrently in Kassel and Athens—the latest chapter in a long history of German-Greek relations that began on the upbeat note of that German philhellenism that gave us art history as we know it, so to speak.

Ludwig Emil Grimm, View from Wilhelm Grimm’s Room in Bellevue, Kassel (1827), pencil, pen, and watercolor on paper, 28 × 20.6 cm. Grimm-Sammlung der Stadt Kassel

Jacob Ludwig Carl and Wilhelm Carl Grimm were born in the Hessian town of Hanau in 1785 and 1786, respectively, the children of a lawyer named Philipp Wilhelm Grimm and a city councilman’s daughter named Dorothea (née Zimmer). But they were inevitably also the children—if not more so—of the rapidly and radically changing sociopolitical climate ushered in by the French Revolution of 1789: the permanent display of Kassel’s recently opened Grimmwelt, as the city’s new Brothers Grimm Museum is called, includes, among other gems, a drawing by Jacob and Wilhelm (children at the time!) depicting the guillotining of Louis XVI on the Place de la Concorde in 1793—a forceful reminder, in fact, in these times of ISIS-authored public mass beheadings, that decapitating people does not necessarily denote a return to barbarous dark ages but might rather symbolize being modern, or (in this particular case) the abrupt advent of modernity as such; a point that was not lost on Georges Bataille when he decided to name his renegade Surrealist journal and secret society Acéphale (Headless) back in 1936. There is plenty of dismembering to be enjoyed in the Grimms’ collection of fairy tales, of course, and only a little less beheading. In 1985, in conjunction with the nationwide celebrations of the bicentennial of the Grimm brothers’ births, the German writer and literary theorist Carl-Heinz Mallet published a study titled Kopf ab! (Heads off!) considering, as the subtitle had it, Gewalt im Märchen, or “violence in fairy tales.”

Among the myriad cultural, political, and social shock waves sent across the Western world by the momentous events of 1789, two concern us in particular with regard to the legacy of the Brothers Grimm: the birth of modern nationalism on the one hand, and the attendant deepening of intellectual, scientific interest in folk cultures and vernacular traditions on the other. Primarily this impulse was concentrated in linguistic research, of the kind that Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm would go on to pioneer, to a large extent invent, even—a convergence perfectly crystallized in the coincidence of Jacob Grimm’s legislative election and the publication of the History of the German Language both taking place in 1848, but most magnificently realized in the Brothers Grimm’s Deutsches Wörterbuch, still the most comprehensive dictionary of the German language in existence. The Grimms’ contributions exploited to the fullest their privileged position as citizens of a realm, i.e., early-nineteenth-century Germany, in which the aforementioned two paradigm shifts converged to such fateful, nation-building effect: from tongue to state.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, The Execution of Louis XVI in Paris, January 21, 1793 (1797), pencil and watercolor, 18.4 × 22.6 cm. Staatliche Schlösser, Bad Homburg

When Jacob Grimm’s tenure as librarian to the French king of Westphalia began in 1808, nearly all German-speaking lands were in Napoleon’s hands: only two years before, the thousand-year-old Holy Roman Empire, the first of three Reichs, had been unceremoniously dissolved by the Emperor following the French imperial army’s decisive victory over the Prussians at the battle of Jena. As is well known, among the event’s impressionable witnesses was one Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, thirty-six years old at the time, whose diary entry of October 13, 1806, reads: “I saw the Emperor—this world-spirit—go out from the city to survey his realm. It is a truly wonderful experience to see such an individual, on horseback, concentrating on one point, stretching over the world and dominating it.”3 (One year later, still in Napoleon’s thrall, Hegel published his Phänomenologie des Geistes, forever changing the course of Western thought.) As the cradle of the so-called Frühromantik—the first of many specifically German responses to the French Revolution’s sociopolitical and cultural legacy, of which the Brothers Grimm’s project is likewise a part4—Jena was a major crossroads of intellectual trade routes and a site rich in philosophical symbolism, personified above all in the achievement of the Schlegel brothers and their short-lived but hugely influential Athenaeum journal, so named, of course, in honor of the spirit of classical Greek antiquity they so passionately sought to emulate.5 After Friedrich Schlegel’s departure from Jena and the subsequent collapse of the Athenaeum project, the younger Schlegel went on to found another literary journal, much less highly regarded and successful, this time named (oh, irony) Europa.

(Though this is neither the time nor the place to recount the well-worn story of the Jena Romantics in any more detail, it is worth pointing out that one of the coterie’s founding members was Friedrich’s wife, Dorothea von Schlegel, née Mendelssohn, the eldest daughter of the great Jewish Enlightenment thinker Moses Mendelssohn. Dorothea’s first marriage was to the banker Simon Veit, a union that produced, among others, the German Romantic artist Philipp Veit. Veit is perhaps best remembered today for his monumental painting Germania, made during the heady days of the 1848 Revolution and conceived for the short-lived National Assembly in Frankfurt, where Jacob Grimm must have faced her steely, rousing stare a hundred times and more. Germania now hangs humbled in a thoroughfare of the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg.)

The Athenaeum journal—an eighteenth-century South as a State of Mind, if you will—stands halfway between the fantastical Greece of the art-historical, archaeological imagination (primarily that of the German renaissance man Johann Winckelmann, the father of art history and modern philhellenism, who, in the fashion of the true fantasist, never actually set foot on Greek shores) and another, more modern and real Greece, only half-emerging, which acted as a screen onto which the editors’ wildest dreams could be projected, leaving the nostalgic fingerprints of nineteenth-century German Sehnsucht all over the project.

Wilhelm Grimm’s studio, Linkestrasse 7, Berlin. Reproduction of a lost watercolor by Moritz Hoffmann. Museum Haldensleben

Following the French Revolution’s unleashing of patriotic passions across the European landmass, and the subsequent heightening of nationbuilding fervor in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars and their apotheosis in the Congress of Vienna (1814–15), continent-wide revolutionary enthusiasms for the (putative) people’s rights to self-governance first visibly converged around the Greek independence cause and revolt against Ottoman dominion, which inevitably resonated with the familiar echo of Europe’s ancient us-versus-them rhetoric. German efforts like the Athenaeum notwithstanding, the cause’s most famous supporter from the Republic of Letters was Lord Byron, whose sympathy with the Greek plight was triggered by the Ottoman massacre of the Greek inhabitants of Chios in April 1822—an event widely broadcast, in post-Enlightenment Europe, as yet another showdown between Christianity and barbarism. Here it is perhaps worth noting that most of the aforementioned leading lights of the early Romantic movement, many of whom were raised in the Protestant faith, later in life—the 1820s, 1830s—sought salvation in a theatrical embrace of the Catholic Church and similar symbols of the forces of reaction.6 This obviously contributed significantly to the later equation of the postrevolutionary romantic temperament with certain unsavory, regressive impulses in the German political unconscious.

It is right around the time when the European infatuation with the mirage of Classical Greek antiquity reached its apogee, intoxicating the minds of the nationless German intelligentsia more than anyone else’s, that a very different modern Greece saw the light of day—shaped, in many different ways, by German hands first and foremost. Even though Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire had been made possible primarily by the three great powers of Britain, France, and Russia, it was the Bavarian prince, Otto, son of the art-loving King Ludwig I and a scion of the House of Wittelsbach, who was made the first monarch of Greece. Still a minor at the time of his ascension to the Greek throne as Otto I in 1832, his first years in power (the so-called Bavarokratia period) were effectively administered by a cabal of robustly Bavarian grandees. It is during King Otto I’s reign, and partly at the instigation of the Bavarian philhellenes (doubtless with Ludwig I in the lead), that the capital was moved from the unassuming Peloponnese port of Nafplio to Athens. As a historian of modern Greece has noted, “The choice of Athens as capital, a town dominated by the imposing ruins of the Parthenon and with its associations with the glories of the Periclean age but in the early 1830s little more than a dusty village, symbolized the cultural orientation of the new state towards the classical past”7—i.e., away from either the Ottoman or Orthodox present and toward a past, once again, that had cast its spell on mildly delusional “Western” imaginations first and foremost. (This was not just a time of increasing East-West, North-South anxieties but also an era that saw these anxieties cast in the newly scientific mold of a novel type of Euro-racism.) And so it happened that, egged on by Otto I’s no-doubt authentic enthusiasm for his newly acquired subjects—after being deposed in 1862, he is known to have spent the last years of his life wandering the royal palace in Bavarian Bamberg dressed in the traditional fustanella made famous by today’s Evzones of the Hellenic Army—no effort was spared to transform the former dusty village of Athens, home to little more than five to six thousand souls at the beginning of the nineteenth century, into a modern metropolis—as it turned out, one of impeccably German classicist design.

Philipp Veit, Germania (1848), oil on canvas, 482 × 320 cm. Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg

For its part, in the first decades of the nineteenth century, Kassel was home to some twenty thousand inhabitants. (Substantially bigger, in other words, than Athens at that time.) Though there exists no record, to my knowledge, that such a meeting ever took place, at some point or other Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm must have crossed paths with Leo von Klenze, who was just one year older than Jacob and had been hired as Jérôme Bonaparte’s court architect in 1808, the same year Jacob had been made the king’s chief librarian. (We do know of a letter the elder Grimm wrote to Clemens August Carl Klenze, Leo’s younger brother and a legal scholar of some renown, but we do not know with regards to what.) It was in Bonaparte’s service, in fact—an association he would do much to downplay, for obvious political reasons, later in his career when he became one of the foremost representatives of Neoclassicism in the German-speaking realm8—that von Klenze saw his very first building go up: the little Ballhaus next to the Schloss in Kassel’s Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe, which over the years, decades, centuries has hosted dances, the theater performances for which it was initially intended, and princely tennis matches.9 Klenze’s stint in Kassel was brief, and the only other lasting architectural enterprise he was involved in during that time (his monumental royal stables, once sited opposite our Palais Bellevue, were demolished in the late nineteenth century to make way for the Neue Galerie, itself in turn modeled after Klenze’s own Alte Pinakothek in Munich) concerned the expansion of the Fridericianum to accommodate the institution of a proto-parliament of sorts—I am referring here to the Ständehalle, or Ständesaal, the semicircular structure in the back of the museum so familiar to veteran visitors of documenta, codesigned by Klenze and Bonaparte’s chief court architect Auguste Henri Victor Grandjean de Montigny. (Countless museums around the world are housed in buildings originally constructed to either house or represent political authority: royal palaces and the like. It is quite telling that in the unique case of Kassel’s Fridericianum, this well-established pattern was reversed: it was originally built as a museum, only to be transformed into a house of worldly power, however briefly, later on—the Stände, or “estates,” to which its name refers, conjuring the ghost of Enlightenment thought that animated Louis Bonaparte’s brief Hessian reign.)

After Bonaparte’s flight from the Prussian and Russian armies crossing into the German lands, the ambitious architect moved south, to Munich, where he was quick to work his way up within Ludwig I’s entourage. As the architect of choice to Ludwig’s quasi-pathologically philhellenic Bavarian court, Klenze was able to establish his reputation as one of the leading neoclassicist architects of his time, building everything from the Alte Pinakothek and the Ruhmeshalle in Munich to the Walhalla in Donaustauf and the Befreiungshalle in Kelheim, with momentous excursions to Tsarist Saint Petersburg (where he designed the New Hermitage, complete with its famous Atlas-like caryatids), as well as the newly founded Kingdom of Greece. Indeed, as a tireless promoter of the Greek aesthetic in art and architecture, Klenze’s first voyage to Greece in 1834 marked a high point in his career; his twenty-one-year journey from Kassel to the alleged cradle of Western civilization culminating in a city plan for an anesthetized new Athens.10 Klenze’s mission to the Greek kingdom of Otto I, undertaken at the urging of Otto’s father Ludwig I, was first and foremost a diplomatic one. One of his tasks was to dissuade Karl Friedrich Schinkel from building a new, doubtlessly neoclassical royal palace on the Acropolis. As a whole, Klenze’s time in Athens proved to be instrumental for raising art-historical awareness concerning the fate of the city’s decaying classical monuments, and his Athens city plan must be lauded for its attempt to integrate the Acropolis in particular into the planned fabric of the coming modern city.11

Not surprisingly, back home, Klenze’s sojourn in Athens made more than a merely theoretical impression. Less than a decade after returning from his first visit to the Parthenon, in 1842, he was able to open a carbon copy of this emblematic architectural marvel on a wooded hill on the banks of the Danube just east of the medieval market town of Regensburg, the wholly incongruous neoclassical oddity that is the Walhalla. A personal obsession of Ludwig’s, this hall of fame dedicated to famous speakers of the “teutsche Zunge”—celebrating the union of all German peoples in a single tongue at a time when such unity seemed politically unattainable—was in fact years in the making, its first plans drawn up as early as 1815, only months after Napoleon’s decisive defeat at Waterloo. The Walhalla’s festive opening in October 1842, handsomely immortalized by none other than J. M. W. Turner, also entailed the unveiling of ninety-six busts representing Germanophone celebrities, anyone from Albrecht Dürer to Joseph Haydn and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz—and including a seated full-body portrait of Ludwig I himself, of course. Dozens more were added in subsequent decades (the most recent inclusion a 2010 portrait of Heinrich Heine). Oddly enough, however—or perhaps not so oddly, seeing as who’s there and who’s not12—the Walhalla, this shining white fortress on a hill, does not include busts of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, the very architects of the German tongue’s most daunting edifice.

Peter von Hess, The Entry of King Otto of Greece into Athens (1839), oil on canvas, 248 × 410 cm. Neue Pinakothek, Munich

A gratifying aspect of visiting the Grimmwelt on Kassel’s Weinberg—yet another fortress on a hill13—is its attempt to present a far more balanced and kaleidoscopic portrait of the Grimm brothers’ achievement than is likely to be expected from a museum that must welcome hundreds of visitors every week presumably raised on a steady diet of the more “suitable” 1818 through 1858 editions of the Grimm-authored Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales). Indeed, a concerted effort has been made to shift the emphasis away from the Grimms’ folktale-gathering activities, so easily infantilized or spectacularized, toward their work on the mammoth enterprise that was the Deutsches Wörterbuch; their share in the densely networked intellectual culture of nineteenth-century Germany (their correspondence consists of some thirty-thousand letters divided among some 1,400 letter writers); and their political activities, which were of a kind that may accurately be called radical—not exactly a quality easily associated with the picture of Biedermeier wholesomeness the brothers have come to embody in the popular imagination. Of these many achievements and activities, it is the mighty fortress of their dictionary that deserves most attention—the project for which the Grimm brothers effectively retired back to Kassel after being ousted from their posts at the university in nearby Göttingen on political grounds in 1837. They were part of the so-called Göttingen Seven, a highly regarded group of university professors who protested against the King of Hanover’s trampling of its kingdom’s infant constitution—a dress rehearsal, in fact, for Jacob Grimm’s later involvement in the National Assembly after the revolutions of 1848. Around the same time, the elder Grimm also finished his influential treatise Deutsche Mythologie (Teutonic Mythology), and here one is reminded of the story, recounted earlier, of Philipp Veit’s Germania, whose steely, rousing stare Jacob must have faced a hundred times and more.

The story of the Deutsches Wörterbuch is well- known, but worth repeating regardless: begun in 1838 under the assumption that it would take just ten years of their lives and be contained in seven volumes—and undertaken, in no small measure, for financial reasons—the dictionary was only completed more than a century after Jacob’s death in 1863, at which point his work had come to a standstill at the entry “Frucht” (Fruit). The final, 1970s-era product sprawled out across thirty-three volumes and contained more than three hundred thousand entries listed across thirty-three thousand pages; its endless conclusion a perpetual source of inspiration for the artistic imagination (evinced most notably in Ecke Bonk’s documenta 11 installation Book of Words: Random Reading [2002], now a centerpiece of the Grimmwelt’s permanent installation). A sprawling citadel of speech, Deutsches Wörterbuch’s Byzantine-build is a true reflection of the motto under which the Grimm brothers worked all those years: die Sprache ist allen bekannt und ein Geheimnis (Language, though spoken by all, remains a mystery). Its mystery is perhaps primarily one of belonging, of what constitutes a speakers’ community. In their Deutsches Wörterbuch, the Grimm brothers found language before, and founded language as, “nation.”

J. M. W. Turner, The Opening of the Walhalla (1842), oil on mahogany, 112.7 × 200.7 cm. Tate, London

Let us leave behind the trampled paths of the nation-building nineteenth century and return to present-day Kassel to conclude, then, on the notion of nationhood and the entanglement of “nation and narration” (to borrow the title of a landmark study on the subject authored by Homi K. Bhabha). As Jack Zipes has noted in his discussion of the “German-ness” of the Grimm brothers’ literary and lexicographical project: “The obsession with fairy tales in the nineteenth century—and perhaps today as well [my emphasis]—expressed a German proclivity to seek resolutions of social conflicts within art.”14 This proclivity endures most definitely today as well, if we consider the mighty fortress of documenta to be part and parcel of this psychosocial history and think of the quinquennial mega-exhibition—from its founding in postwar, Cold War–era West Germany (and in deep Grimm brothers territory to boot), via its transformation in the globalizing 1990s, to its present-day anchorage in the unlikely coupling of Kassel and Athens—as one more expression of that unnerving German inclination “to seek resolutions of social conflicts within art.” Why such resolutions are sought in the realm of art, and how exactly they are found there are questions that must remain unanswered for now—another time, another essay perhaps?—but suffice it to say that, as far as this resident of an erstwhile Grimm brothers haunt is concerned, one could think of a great many worse ways of “resolving” social conflict in crisis-ridden contemporary society.

Leo von Klenze, Walhalla and St. Salvator near Donaustauf (1839), oil on canvas, 84 × 126.5 cm. Historisches Museum, Regensburg

1 The primeval site of German-ness that is, though as German literary historian Steffen Martus notes, “the German forests that we know today—huge woods with fir trees, and the other typical German broad-leaved trees—these were just as much an invention of Romanticism as were the fairy tales [of the Brothers Grimm]. Today’s German forests largely originated through reforestation later in the nineteenth century, and this romantic woodland project became the backdrop for literature, for fairy tales and the like.” Quoted in Neil MacGregor, Germany: Memories of a Nation (London: Allen Lane, 2014), p. 123. Incidentally, it is worth noting that in the early years of their folktale-gathering activities, the Grimm brothers briefly published a journal titled Altdeutsche Wälder (Old German forests), “intentionally recalling the title of Johann Gottfried Herder’s Kritische Wälder (Critical Forests, 1769)—Herder being the man who was responsible for awakening the interest in German folklore of the romantics.” Jack Zipes, The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), p. 68. Zipes, a leading authority on folktales, and on the Grimm brothers in particular, continues: “It was as though in ‘old German forests’ the essential truths about German customs, laws, and culture could be found—truths that might engender a deeper understanding of present-day Germany and might foster unity among German people at a time when the German principalities were divided and occupied by the French during the Napoleonic Wars. The Volk, the people, bound by a common language but disunited, needed to enter old German forests, the Grimms thought, to gain a sense of their heritage and to strengthen the ties among themselves.” As we have seen, as platforms for nation building these “old German forests”—which Zipes identifies as the source of a particularly German political sensibility, calling them “the singular place that belongs to all people, [leveling] all social distinctions and [making] everyone equal”—were in fact anything but old, ironically mirroring the essential modernity of nineteenth-century nationalism’s appeal to such exact atavistic traditions. They constitute a classic example, in other words, of what Roland Barthes has singled out as a defining characteristic of myth (as opposed to, say, fairy tale): “overturning culture into nature or, at least, the social, the cultural, the ideological, the historical into the ‘natural.’” Roland Barthes, Image Music Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill & Wang, 1977), p. 165.

2 They did live in the same street, however, their impressions and memories of it are a reflection of their complicated relationship to Kassel: “Wir wohnen in der Bellevuestrasse,” Wilhelm Grimm noted in a letter from 1825, “die schöne Weite und allenthalben freie Aussicht läßt uns vergeßen, daß wir in der Stadt wohnen” (We live in the Bellevuestrasse, and its lovely location and unimpeded view helps us forget that we live in the center of town). They despised the city’s barracks-like newer architecture: even in Berlin, that forbidding symbol of Prussian militarism, “wird nicht so niederträchtig kasernenartig gebaut wie in Cassel” (the building isn’t quite as base and barracks-like as it is in Kassel). Quoted in Annemarie Hürlimann and Nicola Lepp, eds., Die Grimmwelt: Von Ärschlein bis Zettel (Munich: Sieveking, 2015), p. 73. 

3 This well-known quote appears in virtually every biographical sketch of Hegel. For one source, see Susan Buck-Morss, Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009), p. 20. 

4 Two members of this so-called frühromantische circle, Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim, befriended the Grimm brothers in the early 1800s. Together, Brentano and von Arnim edited Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The boy’s magic horn), a landmark collection of old German folk songs and poems—a first volume of which appeared in 1805. It was in fact Brentano, whose sister Bettina went on to marry von Arnim and was later portrayed by Jacob and Wilhelm’s gifted artist-brother Ludwig Emil Grimm, who first asked the Grimm brothers to gather folktales for him to publish. One of the poems from the Wunderhorn treasure trove, “Wann mein Schatz Hochzeit macht” (When my sweetheart is married), inspired Gustav Mahler’s first major song cycle, Songs of a Wayfarer, begun in 1884, when the Austrian composer was musical and choral director at the Royal Theater in Kassel.

Title page of the inaugural issue of Athenaeum (1798–1800), edited by August Wilhelm and Friedrich von Schlegel

5 Here are two contrasting appreciations of the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century German obsession with the classical Greek example: “Hence the passion for invented forms, ideals which men make. Once upon a time we were integral, we were Greeks. (This is the great myth of the Greeks, which is historically no doubt quite absurd, but dominated the Germans in their political helplessness—Schiller and Hölderlin and Hegel and Schlegel and Marx.)” Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), p. 101. Or, alternately: “In fact, and without any exaggeration, [the Jena Romantics are] the first ‘avant-garde’ group in history. … The Athenaeum is our birthplace [my emphasis].” Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, The Literary Absolute: The Theory of Literature in German Romanticism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988), p. 8. The programmatically titled Athenaeum continues to stand as the primary citadel of German Romanticism, though the movement’s earliest theoretical articulation can actually be found in an anonymous, most likely collectively authored, fragment dating back to 1797 known as Das älteste Systemprogramm des deutschen Idealismus (The oldest systematic program of German idealism). This document was only first published by Franz Rosenzweig (whose parental home in Kassel’s Untere Karlstrasse, a little more than a century ago, stood only a moment’s walk away from the Palais Bellevue) in 1926, twelve years after that leading philosopher of Jewish mysticism found it among Hegel’s manuscripts in Berlin. The fragment is now commonly ascribed to Friedrich Schelling, another influential member of the Jena circle.

6 This adoption of Catholicism by the likes of Schelling, the Schlegel brothers, et al., was mirrored, in aesthetic terms, in an equally aggressive embrace of the Gothic style as the true face of a specifically German sense of beauty—which of course meant denouncing the classical Greek aesthetic whose promotion only a couple of years earlier had been de rigueur among German artists, intellectuals, and scholars. The painterly equivalent of this return to the church—and the Catholic bulwark of mystery in particular—can be found in the crucifixes of Caspar David Friedrich, the prime purveyor of Romantic imagery in the German-language realm for much of the nineteenth century.

7 Richard Clogg, A Concise History of Greece (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 49.

King Otto of Greece in Greek costume, ca. 1862

8 In an autobiographical sketch composed in 1836, Klenze wrote that he only spent five or six years at “einem unerdenklichen, jeder höheren Tendenz und Consequenz beraubten Hofe” (an unimaginative court devoid of all higher inclinations and import), during which time he heard or saw nothing but “französische Kleinlichkeit und Manier” (French pettiness and mannerisms). Quoted in Adrian von Buttlar, Leo von Klenze: Leben, Werk, Vision (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1999), p. 47.

9 Apparently at some time in the early years of the twentieth century, Klenze’s Ballhaus was turned into a tennis court for the benefit of Crown Prince Wilhelm, the eldest son of Wilhelm II and heir apparent to the German imperial throne. Sepia-toned prewar photographs of a racket-sporting Wilhelm in genteel, leisurely whites recall memories of other unlikely tennis enthusiasts such as Charlie Chaplin, Sergei Eisenstein, and Arnold Schönberg. Further curious reminiscences of the Wilhelmine era litter the Bergpark: on an artificial island in the park’s man-made lake lies buried Wilhelm II’s beloved dachshund Erdmann, his grave so positioned as to always be visible from the Kaiser’s bedroom in the southern wing of Schloss Wilhelmshöhe. Wilhelm II’s fondness for Kassel—he spent every summer from 1891 to 1918 in the castle—dates back to the years of his youth spent at the city’s Lyceum Fridericianum (1874–77), now known as the Friedrichsgymnasium. Wilhelm’s time in Kassel started on a fittingly Spartan note: he walked the entire distance from Berlin over the course of six days.

Title page of the first volume of the Deutsches Wörterbuch, edited by Jacob and Wilhem Grimm (Leipzig: S. Hirzel, 1854). Woodcut after a drawing by Ludwig Richter

10 We have already briefly remarked on the racialized dimension of the nineteenth-century European enthusiasm for classical Greek antiquity, which inevitably led to the coining of “le mythe de la Grèce blanche” (to paraphrase the title of a book by Philippe Jockey, the subtitle of which in turn reads: “histoire d’une rêve occidental” [A story of a Western dream]). In this regard, it is worth turning to Klenze’s own run-of-the-mill bigotry. Toward the end of his life, he actively embraced the growing racialization of existing art-historical and cultural narratives, quoting the following motto by the French historian and orientalist Ernest Renan by way of introduction to his manuscript Erwiederungen und Erörterungen (ca. 1860–63): “Dans l’art et la poesie, que devons nous aux peuples sémitiques? Rien du tout; ces peuples sont très peu artistes, notre art vient entièrement de la Grèce.” (What in art or poetry do we owe the Semitic peoples? Nothing. They are not an artistic people; our art is entirely derived from Greece.) Originally in Ernest Renan, De la part des peuples sémitiques dans l’histoire de la civilization (1862); quoted in Buttlar, Leo von Klenze, p. 314. Throughout Europe’s history of origin-obsessed self-analysis, Athens has time and again been pitted against Jerusalem: the cradle stands either here or there, even in “learning from Athens,” as the working title of documenta 14 has it. The classic text chronicling this tension continues to be Lev Shestov’s programmatically titled Athens and Jerusalem, written in Parisian exile in the 1930s—the opening paragraph of which asks of the reader: “‘Athens and Jerusalem,’ ‘religious philosophy’—these expressions are practically identical; they have almost the same meaning. One is as mysterious as the other, and they irritate modern thought to the same degree by the inner contradiction they contain. Would it not be more proper to pose the dilemma as: Athens or Jerusalem, religion or philosophy?” Lev Shestov, Athens and Jerusalem, trans. Bernard Martin (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968), p. 3.

11 The most dramatic symbol of the fate endured by Athens’s Periclean monuments during the long years of Ottoman rule continues to reside in the British Museum in the guise of the so-called Elgin Marbles: seventy-five meters worth of marble sculptures stripped from the metopes of the Parthenon by Lord Elgin’s team of robbers between 1801 and 1812 that were subsequently sold to the British Museum for less than the price of their shipment to London—where they were actually given a cool reception by a substantial portion of the museum-going population, ironically enough, for failing to meet the grossly idealized standard of classical beauty (“la Grèce blanche”). Since arriving in London in the 1810s, the Elgin Marbles have hardly moved an inch—except, that is, for one particular fragment that was controversially loaned to the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg in 2014–15. The newly built Acropolis Museum in Athens, which opened in 2009, anxiously awaits the return of its lost treasures.

12 Among the luminaries included in this self-appointed pantheon of the German Geist we also find the likes of Nicolaus Copernicus, Peter Paul Rubens, Jan Van Eyck, and others who considerably stretch the notion of German-ness, even when allowing for a flexible understanding of the reach of Germanic languages. As for who is not there—in addition to the Grimm brothers—there are too many to mention, of course, though it is worth noting that the much more recent additions of busts depicting such leading lights of German-Jewish culture as Albert Einstein and Heinrich Heine do not exactly match the lofty aesthetic standards of the nineteenth-century originals, some of which were indeed sculpted by masters like Johann Gottfried Schadow. In a famous watercolor depicting Wilhelm Grimm’s working quarters in Berlin, painted by Moritz Hoffmann in the early 1860s, a well-placed bust of Pallas Athena conspicuously looks down on Wilhelm’s empty chair. It is striking that in the heady, halcyon days of philhellenism and Europe-wide enthusiasm for all matters Greek both old and new, the foremost chroniclers of German mythology had very little to say about the world of Greek myth. Much like a replica of the Parthenon in the Upper Palatinate of Germany is named Walhalla—after the Norse name for the hall of heroic revenants. 

13 The possessors of ears both well-read and well-tuned will hopefully have detected the echoes of the famous Bach cantata “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”) scattered throughout the text. 

The most recent edition of Grimms’ Deutsches Wörterbuch (1970s) on the shelf in the home of artist Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt, Berlin, May 2016

14 The sentence continues as follows: “within subjectively constructed realms, rather than to oppose authorities in public.” Zipes, The Brothers Grimm, p. 121. Earlier on, we read, “In seeking to establish its rightful and ‘righteous’ place in German society, the bourgeois, due to its lack of actual military power and unified economic power, used its ‘culture’ as a weapon to push through its demands and needs. … One mode used by the bourgeoisie to create its own institutions and conventions was that of appropriation—taking over and assuming ownership of the property, goods, and cultural forms of lower classes and refining them to suit the sensibility and wants of bourgeois culture.” Ibid., p. 56.

Greek restaurant in Donaustauf, 2016