German Philhellenism and the Failure of King Otto of Greece

by Jürgen Kilian (University of Passau)

When the European Great Powers proclaimed Otto of Wittelsbach King of Greece in 1832, a long-cherished dream came true for many Philhellenes. The assumed close relationship between Germans and the Hellenes of the ancient world seemed to have become reality. Yet, disillusionment was not long in coming: Bavarian rule in Greece turned out to be a strange mixture of the romantic perception of the country as a mirror image of the world of Homer and the simultaneous attempt to establish an administration following Central European examples of state-building. A lack of understanding and disappointment both of Greeks and Germans was the immediate consequence, which finally led to the overthrow of King Otto. This essay shall give some information about the public opinion in Bavaria at the beginning and at the end of his rule.

Making justified assertions about “the” public opinion concerning certain facts or events in the past poses a methodological problem which should not be underestimated in historical research. Even the identification of sources, which might be considered representative, is a problem that cannot be easily solved. In the time of consideration, the second third of the 19th century, there were neither opinion polls nor a high-circulation tabloid press. In spite of that, it is fair to say that the sovereignty of interpretation of events was primarily in the hands of the well-bred Bavarian bourgeois elite, especially the academics among them. Even though the group of possible composers of documents that were discussed in the public amounts to just one or two percent of the whole Bavarian population, an extensive analysis of their manifold statements would go beyond the scope of this essay.

One possible solution to the methodological problem is the analysis of newspapers with a large circulation in the educated classes. A good example for the ‘demanding’ reader in Southern Germany is the “Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung”. Up to 10,000 copies of it were sold at the middle of the 19th century.1 The actual readership was probably larger as buyers of this expensive newspaper gave it to others to read.2 It therefore can be argued that the “Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung” both formed and reflected popular opinions. Otherwise, the success of this newspaper would have been improbable. The following discussion is primarily based on relevant articles of this newspaper printed in the first years of the 1830s and of the 1860s, respectively.


Media coverage of the beginnings of King Otto’s rule

During spring 1832, the “Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung” reported on the events in Greece almost every day. The situation in Greece was described as insecure and complicated because the liberation struggle against the Ottomans had just ended. Even if the Great Powers had granted Greece the status of an independent nation state, the discord between the different interest groups in the country prevented an orderly course of government. The editors of the newspaper concluded that Greece would sink into hunger, poverty and chaos if the responsible actors did not take counter-measures.

Thus, the paper demanded the instalment of a sovereign and strong ruler for the Greeks, who would bring hope and integrate Greece into the European family of nations. Friedrich Thiersch, who at that time was staying in Greece, wrote articles for the “Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung”. He wrote that the message of the election of the Bavarian Prince Otto as “Hegemon” had spread like wildfire and had been greeted with great enthusiasm.3 The coverage at the beginning of the rule of the new King Otto was similar. Otto was presented as an ideal monarch despite his youth and the requirement to install a regency council until he came of age. The newspaper reported that he had been welcomed by his new subjects with enthusiasm.

This reporting was totally incorrect and biased. It corresponded to the interests of the Bavarian dynasty, as can be seen not only from the pages of “Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung”. A number of other publications in this vain helped to spread an enthusiastic atmosphere in Bavaria, encouraging many native sons to apply for public service in the administration, the army and the courts in Greece.4 The few critical voices, such as the one by Ludwig Börne, who wrote from exile in Paris, were hardly heard in such an atmosphere of general enthusiasm. Börne, for example, wrote about the “Bavarian-Greek comedy” in a letter dated December 8, 1832, and satirized Otto´s enthronement.5


Disillusionment at the end of King Otto’s rule

Comparing reports on Greece in “Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung” of 1862 with those written thirty years before, they were worlds apart.6 Enthusiasm about the situation of the country of the Hellenes had given place to disillusion and disappointment both about the attitude of the Great Powers and the supposed ungratefulness of the Greeks. After Otto’s forced abdication the blame war primarily put on British policy that was said to be responsible for the king’s fall. In an article on November 4, 1862, an unnamed author – probably Carl Nikolaus Fraas – heavily criticized the foreign powers for their unfortunate influence on Bavarian policy.7 However, at that time Greece was not such a central matter of public concern in Bavaria any longer. Therefore, not many people were likely to discuss the contents of such articles.

According to Fraas, Otto’s government could only develop during its first ten years whereas during the following decades, the Great Powers had made autonomous decision making almost impossible. Nevertheless, the Wittelsbach King had reconstructed Greece which had been widely destroyed by the liberation war. The journalist claimed that many areas of state and economy, especially agriculture, infrastructure and education had been modernized with the help of Bavarian money and to the real benefit of Greece. Yet, Fraas asserts, the Greek subjects turned out to be ungrateful and became estranged from their king. The Zeitgeist of a waning Philhellenism in the 1860s may be the reason for Fraas’ assertion of the Greeks’ disloyalty and their supposed inability to govern the country by themselves. To corroborate his assumption he refers to a controversial theory made by Jakob Philipp Fallmerayer.8 According to Fallmerayer, the Greeks were not the descendants of the antique Hellenes, but of later Slavic and Albanian settlers. So, apart from blaming English economic interests, authors in Bavaria made the national character of the “Slavic heads” (Slavenköpfe) responsible for the failure of Otto’s rule.9

Even if among ordinary Bavarians the development from euphoria to disillusion during thirty years might have not be as extreme as in the newspapers, disappointment was not only the result of propaganda. Many sobering reports of returning civil servants, soldiers and travelers to Greece contributed to this change of sentiment. Although Fallmerayer’s theory was challenged by scholars, his ideas at least temporarily became part of the stereotyped, negative picture of Greece not only in Bavaria, but in Germany at large. Obviously, Philhellenism had lost much of the appeal that was recognizable at the beginning of Otto’s rule.



  1. Horst Schmidt, Die griechische Frage im Spiegel der “Allgemeinen Zeitung” (Augsburg) 1832–1862, Frankfurt/Main et al. 1988, p. 11.
  2.  Ibid., p. 12f.
  3.  Allgemeine Zeitung, 2 May 1832 (Beilage Griechenland, 19 March 1832).
  4. For example: Georg Friedrich Kolb, Ueber eine nähere politische Verbindung Baierns mit Griechenland, Speyer 1832; Das Königreich Griechenland nach seiner neuesten Gestalt beschrieben, Kempten 1833.
  5.  Alfred Estermann, ed., Ludwig Börne. Briefe aus Paris, Frankfurt/Main 1986, p. 567 (14 December 1832).
  6.  Schmidt, Die griechische Frage, p. 704-29.
  7.  Wolf Seidl, Bayern in Griechenland. Die Geburt des griechischen Nationalstaats und die Regierung König Ottos, München 1981, p. 307-10.
  8.  Jakob Philipp Fallmerayer, Geschichte der Halbinsel Morea während des Mittelalters, Stuttgart 1830/36, passim.
  9.  Seidl, Bayern in Griechenland, p. 308.