Weidenfeld & Nicolson (2022) 304pp £25 (ISBN 9781474615570)

In 1932, Maurice Bowra had been a Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford, Dean of the college, and a lecturer in Classics for ten years. He needed a holiday. He took a nine-month sabbatical, and went to Berlin, to learn German, and to sample the city’s extensive homosexual nightlife. Bowra said that there was ‘an ubiquitous air of dirt and decay’ in the city. In July 1932, Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist party had won 230 seats in the Reichstag; in 1928 they had held twelve seats. Bowra had heard of Hitler’s skill at speech-making, and, out of curiosity, he and his friend and fellow-classicist Adrian Bishop joined an audience, estimated at twenty thousand, to hear Hitler speak at a rally. Hitler told the audience the lies which most of them wanted to hear; Germany had not lost the war in 1918, everything was the fault of the ‘November criminals’, who had ruined all aspects of German life, and only the National Socialists could rescue Germany. The audience loved it. Bowra was unmoved. He wrote: ‘The faulty syntax, the involved, clumsy, often unfinished sentences, the dreary recapitulation of German grievances and Nazi doctrine, the deafening, disturbing impact of that terrible voice were not what one expected from a great orator.’

Bowra, the classicist, had the skill to analyse nonsense, and recognise it for what it was. The work of other Oxford classicists to counter Nazi pseudo-science and fraudulent use of the classics is but one aspect of D.’s well-researched, well-written, and entertaining book. The familiar figures of inter-war Oxford such as Evelyn Waugh, John Betjeman and Harold Acton are there, but D. has kept them as supporting players, and concentrated on telling less familiar stories. She paints a detailed picture of Oxford life, and concentrates on three classicists; Maurice Bowra, Gilbert Murray, the Regius Professor of Greek, and E.R. Dodds, his successor. All of them had no doubt about the importance of Classics, and the need to continue studying it.

When the Great War ended in 1918, four Fellows of New College had been killed in action. Three of them were Classicists. By 1919, the officers in training had gone, the convalescent soldiers had left Somerville and the Examination Schools, and the undergraduates had returned. Some were fresh from school, some, like Vera Brittain and Maurice Bowra, had been at Oxford before the war, and had left to serve in the Army or the nursing services. When Vera Brittain returned to Somerville in 1919, she said that ‘college seemed the one thing left out of the utter wreckage of the past’ but life in Oxford ‘felt disturbingly like a return to school after a lifetime of adult experience.’

Gilbert Murray was unusual because he did not try to compete with other scholars, but to collaborate with them in the search for truth. ‘The main work of a Greek scholar is not to make discoveries or devise new methods, but merely to master as best he can, and to re-order according to the powers of his own understanding, a vast mass of thought … and knowledge already existing … in the minds or the public works of his teachers.’ The classicists’ search for truth came into its own when the National Socialists came to power in Germany, and began to appropriate and pervert classical literature and art to further their own ends.

In 1933, they enacted the misleadingly-named ‘Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service,’ which was designed to ensure the dismissal of Jewish lawyers and academics from their posts. Bowra, Murray, Dodds, H.A.L. Fisher, and academics from other universities looked for ways in which they could help German Jewish scholars. Murray put up refugees in a cottage which he had built in his garden in memory of his daughter Agnes, and joined the committee of the new Academic Assistance Council, which, in 1936, was renamed the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning.

Between 1933 and 1939, the Society helped around 2,600 Jewish scholars, including Albert Einstein, Nikolaus Pevsner, and the classicist Arnaldo Momigliano. Bowra used his network of contacts to find jobs for Jewish academics. The University of Freiberg had sacked Eduard Fraenkel, Europe’s leading Latinist, and the pre-eminent philologist of the early twentieth century. Murray and Bowra found posts for him at Christ Church, and finally at Corpus Christi, where he became Professor of Latin in 1935. By the end of 1938, Oxford was supporting more academic refugees than any other British university. The number of female classicists increased significantly; Somerville employed the archaeologist Margarete Bieber, the Hittite expert Leonie Zunz and the Greek scholar Lotte Labowsky.

The National Socialists would use any classical source, any art, any legend, if, in their eyes, it justified their ludicrous notions of ‘racial purity’, or the murder of ‘non-Aryans’ and the ‘unfit’, and their self-created status as the Herrenvolk. ‘The Blond Hair of the Indo-Germanic Peoples of Antiquity’, published in 1935, was but one of the pseudo-scientific monographs published to justify National Socialist views. Hitler admired Greek sculpture, and, in 1938, he bought a copy of Myron’s ‘Discus-Thrower’, which he saw as an ideal of the ‘perfect’ human body. He chose to ignore Myron’s subtle distortion of the body to produce a beautiful statue which did not look like any living man, past or present, and also he ignored the Greek and Roman practice of painting statues in bright colours. He preferred white marble.

Plato was a National Socialist favourite. Pseudo-scholars distorted his Athenian aristocratic origins, and claimed that he had a ‘superior strain of blood,’ and exploited the ambiguities of his most famous work, The Republic. ‘Plato’s vision of a healthy, flourishing society, though very much the product of the war and plague-ravaged world he grew up in, proved only too easy to exploit. Arguments for euthanasia were readily extracted.’ In Oxford, Dodds, the genuine scholar, wrote that Plato was particularly vulnerable to misrepresentation. ‘Arm yourself with a stout pair of blinkers and a sufficient but not excessive amount of scholarship, and by making a suitable selection of the texts you can prove Plato to be almost anything you want him to be.’

The Oxford classicists did what all good scholars do. They searched for truth, truth for its own sake, and truth to refute the notions of the evil, the misguided, and the ill-informed, who believed that the Earth was flat, that you could make gold out of moonbeams, and that the National Socialists were the Herrenvolk. Adolf Hitler’s ‘Thousand Year Reich’ lasted for twelve years. Oxford’s classicists, and classicists everywhere, are still at work, shining lights into the dark corners of antiquity.

My one regret is that there is no illustration of Gilbert Murray’s formidable wife, Lady Mary. ‘She was not one for jokes, and disapproved of her husband’s fondness for the novels of P.G. Wodehouse.’ She was a Wodehousian character herself, and I would like to know what she looked like.

Andrew McCarthy