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Ernst Badian on Fritz Schachermeyr's Interpretation of Alexander the Great

T. Corey Brennan

This paper investigates the intellectual and personal relationship of two Austrian-born ancient historians, Fritz Schachermeyr (1895-1987) and Ernst Badian (1925-2011). The two scholars each made major contributions to the study of Alexander, Schachermeyr especially in his Alexander der Grosse: Ingenium und Macht (1949, significantly expanded in 1973), Badian in a long series of articles, book chapters and review-discussions staring in 1958.

Badian held the highest esteem for Schachermeyr, deeming him in a memorial volume he edited for the man “undoubtedly one of the towering figures in our discipline” in the 20th century, and “the greatest Austrian historian of antiquity”, and referring to him as “the Master”, whose writing on Alexander “remain…unsurpassed”(quotations from AJAH 13.2 [1996] 1-2). This attitude is consistent throughout Badian’s published work, and also can be seen in his deferential correspondence with Schachermeyr, which commences in 1969, and in numerous letters to others. The laudatory assessment is surprising, given what Badian terms in the memorial volume Schachermeyr’s “unfortunate political involvement.” Professor of Ancient History at Jena (1931), Heidelberg (1936) and Graz (1941), Schachermeyr was conspicuously precocious (already in 1932) and energetic in his efforts to put ancient history firmly in the service of the “racial sciences” promoted by National Socialism. This project culminated in his massive Indogermanen und Orient (1944), where Schachermeyr notoriously presented a “nordic” Alexander who committed “biological sacrilege” in arranging at Susa mixed marriages of Macedonian hetairoi and Persian noblewomen. Though barred after World War II from university teaching until 1952, Schachermeyr finished his career as a full professor at Vienna.

Ernst Badian had a far different perspective on the era of the Third Reich. When a 13-year old boy in Vienna, Badian experienced the organized anti-Jewish mob violence of “Kristallnacht” on November 9, 1938, and witnessed Nazis dragging away his father, whom the German government interned at Dachau on November 17 of that year. Badian took his first degrees (BA in Classics, MA in Latin, MA in French) in New Zealand and then moved to England, earning a D. Phil. at Oxford. He held academic positions at the universities of Sheffield (1952-1954), Durham (1954-1965), Leeds (1965-1969), Buffalo (1969-1971) and Harvard (from 1971 until retirement in 1998). Over his long and prolific career, Badian was to set demanding standards for the study especially of the Greco-Persian world, Alexander and the Roman Republic—and did not hesitate to offer sharp judgments on the shortcoming of modern scholars in treating these fields.  Badian’s ability to look past the odious Nazi-era views of Schachermayr even more intriguing.

In this paper, I aim to illuminate the relationship between Badian and Schachermeyr. Badian seems to have felt that Schachermeyr in the post-war period had sufficiently repudiated his earlier “errors”, but also—like himself—had learned from the events of his age and adopted his historical approach as a result. For instance, Badian writes to Schachermeyr in one letter (23 December 1969) in criticism of traditional approaches to Alexander and the post-Alexander crisis, “I don’t see how a generation that has seen Hitler and Stalin, Yalta and Potsdam, can still be so blinkered about the motive or operational forces in Macedonia and the successor states”. Rather, Schachermeyr, writes Badian, was to be admired for what he considered the “message” of his 1949 Alexander der Grosse: “to keep a sense of historical reality, and to judge (as the historian must) from our own point of view, without implying the existence or necessity of that point of view in the man’s own day.”

My discussion pays special attention to a 1975 colloquium on Alexander that Badian arranged around Schachermeyr at the Fondation Hardt (where Badian candidly assessed that scholar’s written record on Alexander). I also review Badian’s attempts to arrange a visit for Schachermeyr to visit Israel in the mid-1970’s;  and the planning and execution of Badian’s memorial volume for Schachermeyr that appeared in 1996 (with Badian’s intensely personal response to the backlash that ensued).    

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German and Austrian Refugee Classicists: New Testimonies, New Perspectives

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