Thursday, March 5, 2009

Goethe and Modern Greek History

Duke Carl August died in June 1828. To avoid the obsequies ("Trauerfeierlichkeiten"), Goethe fled to Dornburg, the small town in the Saale valley near Jena. Of the three castles on the mountain, Goethe stayed for two months in the so-called Renaissance castle. I had thought today to write about the two "Dornburg" poems, but I will save them for next time. For, in reading through his diary of these months, I could not help but me struck by the sheer range of his intellectual preoccupations and activities. There were his scientific interests, including, as noted on July 17, "examination of several examples of Allium cepa, one of which I cut in half." Allium cepa? A garden onion? What on earth was Goethe thinking about? Perhaps it interested him for its medicinal qualities.

Right before that entry, he noted that he was reading Niebuhr's Roman history. Barthold Georg Niebuhr's history seems "ancient" itself to us now, but Niebuhr (d. 1831) was actually a contemporary of Goethe's and his work on Rome, published from his academic lectures in 1812, is considered to have laid the foundation for German historical scholarship.

What struck me, because so unfamiliar, were repeated references to Goethe's reading of Rizo Néroulos's history of Greece. Again, this was a very recent work, by a diplomat and scholar (like Niebuhr) named Jakovaky Rizo Néroulos (1778-1849). I have found a reference to a French title published in 1828, which I suspect is the version Goethe read: Histoire modern de la gre ce depuis la chute de l'empire d'orient. Rizo Néroulos had also given a course of lectures in modern Greek literature at the university in Geneva, of which Goethe had apparently heard since he made a note about them in his diary in March 1828. According to his diary of September 5, 1829, he began reading the lectures on modern Greek literature. So, not only was Goethe keeping up with Le Globe in France, Carlyle in England, and the battle between classicists and romantics in Italy, he was also informing himself about modern Greek literature.

But back to Néroulos's history of Greece. On July 15, after consecutive daily reading of the history, Goethe notes that he has finished it. The next day, however, he mentions rereading the chapter in Rizo "from Ypsilantis's appearance until his resignation" (In Rizo das Capitel von Ypsilantis Erscheinung bis zu dessen Abtritt nochmals durchgelesen).

Another now historical figure who was a contemporary of Goethe: Alexander Ypsilantis.
Born in 1792, he died in January 1828, thus the year in which Goethe was reading of his exploits. Ypsilantis was a prince of the Danubian Principalities and had been a senior officer of the Imperial Russian cavalry during the Napoleonic Wars. During the Battle of Dresden, on July 6, 1813, he lost his right arm to a shell. Attending the Congress of Vienna, he won the favor of Tsar Alexander I, who appointed him an aide-de-camp.

More interesting perhaps for Goethe was that Ypsilantis became in 1820 the leader of a secret organization that coordinated the beginning of the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire. His plan included revolts of Serbs and Montenegrins, followed by a revolt in Wallachia, then provoking of unrest in Istanbul through the use of agents. All over Greece, in Macedonia, Crete, and Cyprus, national uprisings were planned. The revolution in Greece was to start after his arrival in the Peloponnese. Ypsilantis was counting on the support of the Russians, whom he believed would come to the aid of their fellow Orthodox.

Things didn't quite work out as planned. The tsar did not come to his aid, and Ypsilantis' forces were defeated at the Battle of Dragasani on June 19, 1821, by the Ottoman forces of Sultan Mahmud II. Ypsilantis retreated to the Austrian-ruled Transylvania, where he wrote a forged letter to his troops stating that the emperor of Austria, Francis I, had declared war on Turkey and had a Te Deum sung in the local church.

The Austrians had done nothing of the sort (not for nothing was the Holy Alliance known as reactionary). They even refused to give him asylum. He was kept in confinement until 1827, when he was released at the insistence of Nicholas I of Russia. He spent his last years in Vienna, impoverished. After his death, at his wish, his heart was cut out and sent back to Greece for burial. Quite a colorful figure.

Despite Ypsilantis's failure, Western powers began to take interest and to intervene in the Balkans after the death of Lord Byron at Messolongi in 1824. In October 1827, British, French, and Russian fleets destroyed the Ottoman fleet at the Battle of Navarino, which was decisive. In October 28, shortly after Goethe had left Dornburg and returned to Weimar, French troops landed in the Peloponnese to stop Ottoman atrocities. Greek nationalists were thus able to regroup, form a government, and begin to seize territory. It must have been very thrilling for Goethe to follow these events. In July 1832, a month before his death, Greece was recognized as an independent kingdom by the Treaty of Constantinople. How much there must have been much for Goethe to muse on, not least because of his relationship with Byron.

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