“[…] Es lebe Ihre Heimat, die auch für mich die schonste Heimat is, die Heimat meiner Bildung und meiner Ideale!”
“Long live your Homeland, which for me is the most beautiful homeland, the homeland of my Education and my Ideals!”
Friedrich Thiersch, On the Current State of Greece and the Means to achieve its Restoration, Leipzig 1833 (1828 – 1833)
Friedrich Wilhelm Thiersch (Ειρηναίος Θείρσιος: “Ireneos Thiersios”, 1784 – 1860), the founder of Classical Philology and Humanities in Bavaria, was the leading figure of German Philhellenism. He thought of Greece as his “real” homeland, the mother of his thought and ideals, therefore Hellenized his name to “Ireneos Theirsios”, with which he is better known. He warmly defended the rights of the Greek Struggle, and was targeted by Metternich and the Prussian government as the inspirer of the “Philhellenic German Legion” and a fiery advocate of the Greek Revolution. Back in his day he was recognized as the “Praeceptor Bavariae”, teacher and founder of humanist education in Bavaria, the same way the philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) was considered as the founder of the educational system in Prussia.
Ireneos Thiersios was born on June 17, 1784 in the village of Kirchscheidungen (Sachsen – Anhalt) and was the second son of the farmer Benjamin Thiersch. One of his brothers was the classical philologist and composer of the Prussian national anthem (Preußenlied), Bernard Thiersch. The famous Munich painter Ludwig Thiersch (1825-1909) was his son, and the architect and painter Friedrich von Thiersch (1852-1921) his grandson. From 1804 onwards he studied philology and theology at Leipzig and Göttingen, and offered private lessons after 1808. During his studies at Göttingen he gained close contacts with some of his classmates, who knew Greek songs. Thus his interest in modern Greek reality was ignited. In 1809 he arrived in Munich to teach at the Wilhelmsgymnasium and from 1811 onwards the Lyceum. He founded the Philological Institute (1812), which has since shaped teacher education in Bavaria, and established the school and university system in a neo-humanitarian direction. As early as 1809 he came into conflict with his superiors at the Munich High School and the circle of Baron Johann Christoph von Aretin, who expressed pro-Napoleonic positions. In 1811 he accused Aretin’s milieu of an assassination attempt against him during the Carnival, although the attack probably had an erotic rather than an ideological or political motivation.
After the rise of the great Philhellene Ludwig I. to the Bavarian throne (October 13, 1825), Thiersch undertook the reorganization of the higher education system. He received the chair of Classical Philology after the state university was moved to Munich. In 1829 he became Rector of the Ludwig Maximilian University and founded the first seminary of Classical Studies in Germany. According to the curriculum he published for high schools in Bavaria, teaching was reduced almost entirely to the learning of ancient languages, thus satisfying the ideological program of the Bavarian monarch.
Theirsios predicted the revival of the Greek nation a decade before the outbreak of the Greek Revolution and contributed decisively to the formation of the entire German philhellenic movement. The literary activity of German academics in favor of Greece before 1821 was crucial (the whole philhellenic movement would have been inconceivable, without their activity). The circulation of information about the Greek issue, already two generations before 1821, shaped an image for Greece and a movement of support. Regarding German intellectuals, Thiersch and Wilhelm Traugott Krug (1770-1842), professor of philosophy in Königsberg, were two very important advocates of the Greek Struggle. In fact, Krug was the first German scholar to publicly advocate for the freedom of the Greeks. At Easter 1821 he issued “The rebirth of Greece” (“Griechenlands Wiedergeburt”), appealing for support of the Greek struggle. He stressed out the fact that “the sovereignty of the Turks can in no way be considered legal, it is simply illegal … nothing can legally establish the supremacy of one people over another” The leaflet travelled beyond German territory, in Holland and Poland, and was published in Greek anonymously in 1861.
Thiersch shared similar ideas; his thoughts and worldview were shaped by his political Protestantism, liberalism, neo-humanism, and Christianity. In his brochure “The salvation of Greece, the case of the obligated Europe“, he propagated his position in favor of the Greek Struggle, based on an argument of moral obligation towards Greece. Europe owed its origin and progress to ancient Greece, therefore should reciprocate its gratitude to its descendants. The Greek Revolution offered Europe an ideal opportunity to pay gratitude to Greece; his compatriots ought to wholeheartedly embrace this rare opportunity to their advantage.
As a prestigious co-worker of the “Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung”, Thiersch sought to inform the German public about Greek affairs and argue in favor of the Greeks. He maintained a network of contacts in Greece, in order to receive information from the original source. Through his series of articles in the Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper, “Von der Isar” (from Isar, 2/6 – 17/9/1821), he openly argued against the positions of the “Austrian Observer” (Österreichischer Beobachter), Metternich’s anti-Greek newspaper. Professor Thiersch’s “dangerous revolutionary games” in Germany before Vormärz, put his life and reputation in immediate danger. He became a target for the Austrian authorities as well as the, even more suspicious, Prussian government. His fiery spirit did not however bend: on 18/9/1821 he called for the formation of a Philhellenic, German Legion. The Prussian Foreign Minister Christian Günther von Bernstorff (1769–1835) reacted sharply to his proposal, publicly accusing the professor of “arrogance and complete misunderstanding of his duties“. The Prussian government recognized that an up rise of the Philhellenic movement could spark off reactions against the regime for a number of other internal issues; hence the silencing of the Prussian press on the Greek question. Feeling the need to defend himself, Thiersch renounced his plans in the Allgemeine Zeitung, without actually abandoning his philhellenic struggle.
According to Thiersch’s plans, the military involvement of a German legion in Greece would be funded by the Philhellenic Committees, and Munich would be the central point of coordination for the philhellenic movement. In order to implement his proposal, he came in contact with Greeks in Trieste and Vienna and with patriots, such as e.g. Theocharis Kefalas. The main supporter of his ideas, both in theory and in practice, was the Bavarian monarch Ludwig I. However, when the Austrian police became aware of his plans in July 1821, the execution of his project was suspended. The initial goal was to send a German military corps, with a general who would carry out the orders of the Greek government, and would undertake the military training of the Greeks. A German Legion was eventually formed by militarily untrained volunteers, who arrived in Greece in November 1822. Despite of all high expectations, it did not achieve any of its goals and was disbanded shortly afterwards.
Thiersch tried implementing his plans once again in late 1825 – early 1826, when he realized that the conditions in Europe were changing in favor of the Greeks. Although his ambition was not fulfilled, he nevertheless succeeded in founding an association for the Greeks in Munich, following the Prussian model. The Munich association undertook the collection and sending of money to the Philhellenic Committee of Paris. Ludwig himself offered large sums for the Greek Struggle. He was personally interested in the Greeks living in Bavaria, awarded scholarships to Greek students in Munich and followed their progress. Thanks to Thiersch, Alexandros Rizos Ragavis (1809-1892) and Scarlatos Soutsos (1806-1887) arrived in Munich as scholarship holders of the Military School. Ludwig adopted Thiersch’s proposal to cede the “Church of the Savior” (Salvatorkirche) to the Greek community of Munich and the consequent conversion of the church from Catholic to Orthodox. In 1826 a delegation of twelve Bavarians was sent to Greece under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Carl Wilhelm von Heideck (1788–1861), with the aim of organizing a regular army and undertaking military operations under Greek orders.
When Heideck left Greece, severely beaten by malaria, it was Thiersch’s time to visit the homeland of his ideals. The position left open was to be filled by another trusted person of Ludwig I. The monarch trusted Thiersch on educational and political matters in Bavaria. His Greek studies made him Ludwig’s only advisor in the royal court on Greek issues. On August 21, 1831 he left in a carriage for Trieste, from where he would sail to Greece. The trip’s official mission was archaeological research. He arrived in Greece just a few days before the assassination of the first Governor, Ioannis Kapodistrias (September 27, 1831), to act as an agent of the Bavarian court in the emerging Greek state.
Friedrich Thiersch arrived in Greece before the Bavarian prince Othon, and he was the first German philologist to visit the country. He stayed in Greece between September 14, 1831 and September 4, 1832. He recorded his impressions of Greece in his two-volume work “De l’état actuel de la Grèce et des moyens d’arriver à sa restauration”(1833).
With the beginning of the Bavarian period, a number of painters, architects and archaeologists arrived in Greece from Germany, thus repairing the remarkable absence of German travelers during the 17th and 18th centuries.
His lifelong acquaintance with Greeks did not overturn his philhellenic feelings, which, up to this moment, identified with his love for classical values. He recognized the spirit of ancient Greece in modern Greeks, whom he appreciated for their eagerness to learn. He saw the inner beauty of both men and women reflecting in their exterior appearance; a beauty he called classic, found “in the mountains of mainland Greece and in the families of captains and nobles”. He considered climate as a determining factor for the development of their mental abilities, their courage and their thirst for learning. His contact with modern Greeks confirmed his perception of the uninterrupted continuation of Hellenism through the centuries. For this reason he became a fierce opponent of Fallmerayer’s positions. In one of his articles in the Allgemeine Zeitung he asked him directly: “Is Othon the king of the Greeks or the Slavs?” (28.10.1835). A few days later, he attacked Fallmerayer’s follower, regent Ludwig von Maurer, for the book he published about the Greek people (01.11.1835).
There is no doubt that Thiersch had great love and respect for the Greeks. His opposition to the first Governor of Greece, Ioannis Kapodistrias (1776-1831), and his connection to Greece with anti-Kapodistrian circles, may have contributed to the neglect of his Philhellenism. His political positions offer a clearer image of him, though. An event e.g. which saddened political circles in Germany and Europe, was that Thiersch was not included as a member of Othon’s three-member Regency, despite the fact that he had contributed to the arrival of the young monarch and his regency in Nafplio in 1833. The reasons were probably political, as Thiersch was influenced by political Protestantism and early liberalism, therefore in favor of a liberal, constitutional state that would act as an obstacle for the institution of monarchy. It was probably an unfortunate coincidence that he was not included as a member of the Regency, considering the depth of his knowledge of Greek affairs, the fervent support of the rights of the Greek people, but also a series of reforms of his own inspiration, which reflect his also practical, political temperament: “austerity in the economy sector with reduction of civil servants and officers, integration of Revolutionary fighters in the Greek defense without change of traditional clothing and domestic weapons, land distribution to farmers and their protection by large landowners”.
Thiersch was a member of the Philomousos Society from 1814, he supported Greek schools in the Ottoman Empire, and had met Ioannis Kapodistrias, Ignatios of Hungary, Anthimos Gazis and Adamantios Korais. Korais persuaded him to create the Athenäum, a boarding school for young Greeks, which was founded between 1815 and 1817 in Munich. Thiersch is also said to have been the translator of Alexandros Soutsos’s novel The Exiled (1831) into German. This is the first translation of a Greek short story into a foreign language after 1830 Although the translator’s name does not appear in the German version of the text from 1837, it is quite possible that this occurred for Thiersch’s self-defense, as he was a persona non grata in Prussia.
He followed the tactic of concealing his identity anyway between 1835-1837, when his relationship with the Allgemeine Zeitung intensified; especially when referring to Metternich’s policy. The newspaper itself took care of the author, therefore published his articles unsigned. Another way for Thiersch to escape censorship was to publish letters from Greece to his wife in the literary magazine of the Cotta publishing house, “Morgenblatt für gelehrte Stände”, in which he conveyed information about the situation in Greece. In this way he continued to inform his public without openly becoming a target of the regime.
Another sign of his love for Greece was his contribution as an archaeologist. During his one-year stay he completed many small excavations in Argos, Heraion of Argos, Mycenae, Tiryns, Nemea, Aegina and Delphi. Apart from his enthusiasm for the ancient Greek culture, he was interested in Byzantine and modern monuments and was also eager to learn more about recent historical events in Greece.
In 1841 he was honored with the title of Senior Brigadier (Großkomtur) by the Greek Order of the Redeemer (Erlöser Orden), whose first leader was King Otto of Greece. When he returned to Bavaria, he became President of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences from 1848 to 1859. In 1855 he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1855 he was awarded the Order of Merit of the Bavarian Crown and acquired the title of knight (Ritter).
Friedrich Wilhelm Ritter von Thiersch died in Munich on February 25, 1860. His grave is in the Old South Cemetery in Munich (Alter Südlicher Friedhof).
His name has been given in Thierschstrasse in Munich and in “Thiersiou” Street near Attiki Square in Athens, still reminding Greeks of his contribution to the Greek Struggle.
SHP and Greece will forever honor this great man of spirit and Philhellene.
 Πρβλ. Selbmann, σ. 1.
 Τurczynski, σ. 11.
 Grimm, σ. 30, παρατίθεται στο: Τurczynski, σ. 11.
 Τράκα, σ. 53.
 Ο.π., σ. 54.
 Πρβλ. Λάσκαρι, σ. 31-34.
 Τράκα, σ. 56.
 Σπηλιοπούλου, σ. 2, 3.
 Κεφαλίδου, σ. 135 – 136.
 Ο.π., σ. 142.
 Σπηλιοπούλου, σ. 11.
 Dimadis, σ. 1.
 Πρβλ. Σπηλιοπούλου, σ. 1.
Sources and Bibliography
- Dimadis, Konstantinos A., „Friedrich Thiersch und die Voraussetzungen für die erste Übersetzung eines griechischen Romans im deutschsprachigen Raum nach 1830: Der Verbannte von 1831 von Alexandros Soutsos“, στο Blume, H.- D. und Lienau, C. (Hg): Choregia, Münstersche Griechenland-Studien (2010)
- Grimm, Gerhard, „Griechenland in Forschung und Lehre an den deutschen Universitäten vor der Ausbruch des griechischen Unabghängigkeitskrieges“, στο: Philhellenismus & die Modernisierung, σ. 29 – 46.
- Κεφαλίδου, Σεβαστή, Πώς βλέπουν οι Ευρωπαίοι Φιλέλληνες Περιηγητές και τεχνοκράτες τους υπόδουλους Έλληνες και την ελληνική πραγματικότητα (κοινωνία – πολιτική- παιδεία). Μεταπτυχιακή εργασία. Αριστοτέλειο Πανεπιστήμιο Θεσσαλονίκης, 2005
- Konstantinou, Εvangelos, Griechenlandbegeisterung und Philhellenismus, Europäische Geschichte Online, 22-10-2012
- Παππάς, Γιάννης, Friedrich Thiersch: Ο βίος και το έργο ενός κορυφαίου και αδικημένου Φιλέλληνα, bavaria.de, 25.04.2019
- Selbmann, Rolf, Kefes, Peter, „Friedrich Thiersch und der Neuhumanismus in Altbayern. Wahrheit & Legende.“, Wilhelmsgymnasium München, Jahresbericht 1991/92, σ. 94- 121.
- Σπηλιοπούλου, Ιωάννα, Το ταξίδι του Ειρηναίου Θειρσίου στην Ελλάδα (1831-1832) µέσα από την αλληλογραφία του µε τη γυναίκα του ως πηγή µαρτυρίας για τις ιδεολογικές διενέξεις αναφορικά µε τις ρίζες του ελληνικού πολιτισµού, Ευρωπαϊκή Εταιρεία Νεοελληνικών Σπουδών, eens.org.
- Τράκα, Θεολογία, H Ελλάδα και ο Ελληνικός Αγώνας για την Ανεξαρτησία μέσα από τη γερμανόφωνη πεζογραφία της δεκαετίας του 20 κατά τον 19ο αιώνα. Διδακτορική Διατριβή. Ιόνιο Πανεπιστήμιο, Κέρκυρα, 2012.
- Turczynski, Emmanuel, Anmerkungen zu den wechselseitigen Kulturbeziehungen, στο: Hänsel, Bernhard, Die Entwicklung Griechenlands & die deutsch-griechischen Bezierhungen im 19. & 20. Jahrhundert, Verlag Otto Sagner, München 1990, σ. 9-21.