Monthly Archives: March 2013

Nazis and the Greek Revival in Munich

Posted by dianamuir on March 18, 2013
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An odd thing happened to the Kings of Bavaria in 1832.   Greece had just won a war of national liberation from the Ottoman Empire with a major assist form the British and French navies, and both Britain and France felt that providing the new nation state with a  constitutional monarchy would be the best way to ensure stability.   But where to find a King?   The King of Bavaria, Ludwig I, happened to have both an extra son and ancestors who belonged to Byzantine imperial families.   And so Prince Otto of Bavaria became King of Greece, and the Kingdom of Bavaria became the European state with the greatest enthusiasm for  Greek Revival architecture.

Visitors to Munich can see the Bavarian enthusiasm for  the idea that a local boy had become King of Greece on display in the Neue Pinakothek, (museum for nineteenth century art) where entire rooms are filled with views of Greece; in the Bavaria National Museum (a decorative arts museum), where a model of Otto stands in full costume tsolias; at the enormous  Hall of Fame that Ludwig built in Greek Revival style featuring a monumental statue of Bavaria cast from Turkish bronze cannon captured at Navarino (the battle that liberated Greece); and – this is the segue to Nazis –  at the Koenigsplatz (Royal Square).   Here Ludwig built a large plaza  with a monumental ceremonial arch in the style of the entrance to the Acropolis at one end, and two, grand, Greek Revival buildings facing one another across the broad plaza, one designed  to hold Ludwig’s genuinely spectacular collection of Greek antiquities.

This is how the plaza stood in 1933, three monumental sides; the fourth, an unfinished canvas when Adolph Hitler decided that he was an Aryan, somehow a descendant of the ancient Greeks.   He finished the Koenigsplatz by filling the fourth side with a pair of Ehrentempels (Honor Temples), edifices in an Art Deco version of Greek Revival dedicated to the worship of the Nazi spirit, represented by sarcophagi containing the bodies of the Nazis who died in the Party’s failed 1923 attempt to take over the government (the Beer Hall Putsch).   Flanking the Ehrentempels were a pair of large office buildings known as the Fuhrer Buildings housing Nazi Party operations,  and beyond them,  an entire neighborhood of buildings that housed Party operations.  The most notorious was the Braunes Haus (Brown House), the building that became Nazi Party headquarters in 1930.     The old Konigsplatz had become the heart of darkness, the center of National Socialism, the place where the great Nazi rallies were held.

The Baunes Haus was destroyed by war.   In 1947 the American Army of Occupation dynamited the Ehrentempels.   The art deco columns are gone, but the solid, stone foundations remain, covered by weeds.

The post-War German government altered the Konigsplatz by planting grass in place of the pavements where the Hitler Youth had marched.   The Fuhrer Buildings still look much as they did when Hitler knew them, both are still in use,  one as an art school.

Sixty years passed and the question of what to do about the foundations of the Ehrentempels remained.   To many, the best solution seemed to be to root them out of the ground and build something new in their stead.   But as time passed a consensus grew around the idea of treating them as Germany has treated its Nazi past.   That is, to admit that it happened, that Germans once enthusiastically built and worshiped at these shrines of race-hatred, face the past, and build a better future.

That future is now rising beside the overgrown foundations of the old Ehrentempels, on the site of the Braunes Haus where Hitler once had his office.   The building of the NS Dokumentationszentrum München (Documentation Center of National Socialism, Munich), a new museum of the Nazi period, is under construction.


Himyar kingdom and Bowersock’s Throne of Adulis

Posted by dianamuir on March 14, 2013
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G. W. Bowersock has written a  little book (in an Oxford series of short books about iconic objects) pegged to a sixth century monument in the form of a stone throne erected by an Axumite (Ethiopian) king in the ancient Red Sea port of Adulis.  The book is nominally about the politics of the Red sea region and Arabian peninsula in the period  shortly before the birth of Muhammad, but it is written in a way that make it appear that Bowerstock is still fighting the political battles of the sixth century, or making that century a pretext to put forward his views of twenty-first century politics.

The great powers of the period, the Zoroastrian Sassanian Empire of Persia and the Christian Byzantine  Empire were, as Bowersock has described them elsewhere, “Empires in Collision“, with all the messy wars, massacres, and refugee flows that such collisions entail.     The regional powers along the Red Sea were the Monophysite Christian Kingdom of Axum (modern Ethiopia), sometimes allied with the Byzantines.   And the Jewish Kingdom of Himyar (modern Yemen), sometimes allied with the Sassanian Persians.

Christianity was, of course, a religion of converts in its early years in Ethiopia, but in the fourth century it became the state religion.   Himyar is understood  to have followed a parallel path,  converting to Judaism by the late fourth century (p. 87).   But since Himyar did not  continue to be a Jewish kingdom, even less information about the conversion period has been preserved than in Ethiopia.

The Jewish kingdom of Himyar  arose in the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula, flourished, then fell to an Ethiopian invasion backed by the Byzantine Empire.   In the 520s it was led by  Jewish king named Yusuf (Joseph).   Archaeologists have found a fourth century synagogue in the ancient seaport of Qana in the Hadramaut. (p. 80)    But the Jewish kingdom itself left no historical records, and, while some inscriptions have been found, most of what is known of it comes from Syrian Christian sources notable for their hostility to Judaism.  Scholars in Persia and Byzantium had little interest in writing about this relatively unimportant region.

Bowerstock is part of a small group of scholars drawing on ancient sources and a growing but still small number of recently unearthed inscriptions to increase our knowledge of the Arabian region before Islam.  But the number of sources is so few, and so much of what we do have from ancient sources was produced by partisans in the clash of empires and faiths, that most scholars approach sixth century Arabia with extreme caution.

Bowerstock was asked to write a  a small book about a single very interesting object addressed to a general audience, and this may account for the oddly sweeping and definitive nature of a number of his statements.

In this period of intense competition between two great empires, it does not seem strange that the Axumite kingdom should have converted to  Monophysite Christianity, or the the Himyar kingdom should have converted to Judaism.   Each conversion event gave the converting dynasty the advantage of leaving pagan practices to join the rising trend toward monotheism, while not coming directly under the control of the Byzantine church.   And, possibly, in the case of  Himyar, of offering a new , monotheistic state religion  that would enable the small, border kingdom of Himyar to seek the Sassanian aid necessary to maintaining independence form the Byzantine Empire.   The sources are so paltry that the political and popular pressures on a fourth century Himyarite king are largely a matter of guesswork, but it is jarring to find Bowerstock describing the conversion of the Himyar kingdom to Judaism as  “improbable” and “bizarre”.(p. 4)    It is difficult to see why it is   “bizarre” that a Jewish, monotheistic kingdom (Himyar) should have arisen on the eastern side of the Bab-el-Mandeb, but not bizarre that a monotheistic (monophysite) Christian kingdom like Axum should have arisen on the western side.

Bowersock then categorically asserts –  citing scholarship on Sabaic epigraphy – that “from 380 onwards polytheism utterly disappeared form South Arabia”.(p. 83)   Even if we discount the possibility that pagan  inscriptions may yet turn up, the absence of pagan inscriptions is hardly the same as the absence of pagans.   Further archaeology is extremely likely to turn up ongoing use of polytheistic images and practices, unless Arabia is unlike every other part of the ancient world.  Such sweeping assertions may be the result of attempting to summarize great swaths of material for a popular audience, but they make thisreader acutely uncomfortable.

The “traditional Arab pagans” are portrayed in this book as passive victims of Zoroastrian, Christian and Jewish powers, Bowersock asserts that they  are  “the only losers”  (p. 5) in these wars.   Yet surely it is an an oddly exclusive judgment when writing about a Jewish kingdom decisively conquered by a Christian army, that was itself shortly to be conquered by the armies of Islam.

In a very short book with little detail beyond the in depth analysis of the Throne of Adulis itself, Bowerstock makes space to engage in extensive discussion of Jewish atrocities, including what he describes as an “anti-Christian pogrom” that attained notoriety in ancient and medieval Christian texts.   “Pogrom” is an oddly archaic term to apply, but Bowerstock cites it and a series of 38 martyred Christian bishops, priests and monks apparently killed in the early fifth century  to assert “that the Azqir and Najran martyrs constitute incontestable evidence for the persecution of Christians by their Jewish overlords.”(p. 85)   According to Bowerstock, it was  this “brutality”   – and not imperial ambition – that “provoked” the Ethiopian invasion to which Arabian Christians “owed their salvation.”(p. 86)      Christian, Zoroastrian and polytheistic armies and kings do not commit atrocities in this book.

The struggle for control of Himyar was protracted, and since few details are known, Bosersock is forced to paint with a broad brush, first “a Christian presence… somehow managed to supplant the Jewish rulers and assume control of the country in the early sixth century” (p. 93), followed by “subversive Jewish activities against the relatively new Christian regime.” (p. 95)   At this point according to Bowerstock, with a Jew again on the throne of Himyar,  “Confessional solidarity would have undoubtedly impelled the negus (Axumite/Ethiopian king) to undertake this campaign…”(p. 95)

Well, maybe, although few kings have ever waged major campaigns motivated exclusively by “solidarity” with co-religionists.   What we know about Ethiopian motivation comes from Christian  sources,  notably the inscription on the Throne of Adulis, and the text is  “triumphalist.”    Bowerstock assures us that this triumphalist “tone…  accords well with (the king’s) mission of avenging the deaths of many Christians at Narjan  and of assuring the security of many Christians who would reside in Arabia”.(p. 103)    Bowerstock  appears to this reader, at least,  to be defending an early sixth-century invasion which I will assume was as bloody and destructive as other ancient wars of conquest, on the grounds that it would make Arabia safe for the “many Christians who would reside there” once the existing Jewish kingdom was destroyed.   It sounds more like royal propaganda than historical analysis of royal reasons for conquering a wealthy neighboring kingdom, which in this case include loot, revenue, eliminating a rival kingdom, and gaining control of a major and highly profitable shipping route.

The Throne of Adulis succeeds in opening a small window into the Red Sea region before the advent of Islam, but Bowersock’s writing, especially his  hearty approval for the “energetic Christian ruler”  who attacked a Jewish kingdom in what appears to have been an unprovoked war of imperial expansion, strikes what can only be described as a very odd note.








Paint it Habsburg yellow

Posted by dianamuir on March 05, 2013
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Interesting book review on pan-Habsburg architecture.