Wilhelm Müller or Greek Müller


Ohne die Freiheit, was wärest du Hellas?
Ohne dich, Hellas, was wäre die Welt?
Without Freedom, what would you be Hellas?
Without you, Hellas, what would the world be like?
(“Hellas und die Welt”, Wilhelm Müller: Gedichte. Berlin 1906, S. 224-225.)


German Romanticism  was one of the cornerstones of European Romanticism, offered one of its most important lyric poets, who developed into a bard of 1821, a fiery Philhellene and the soul of the Philhellenic movement in Germany: Wilhelm Müller or “Müller of the Greeks“. He did not manage to see his beloved Greece free, as he passed away at the age of only 33 and without ever visiting his “Arcadia”. His songs about the Greeks (“Lieder der Griechen”) managed, as long as he lived, to stir up waves of excitement in the youth of his time, who were looking for their own resistance to Metternich‘s persecutions and authoritarianism. In the case of the Greek uprising, they recognized the model of the just struggle for freedom. In the poet Müller they saw the most important representative of German philhellenism.

Johann Ludwig Wilhelm Müller was born in Dessau, Germany on 07/10/1794, where he died on 30/09/1827. He lived in an era of political, as well as social and cultural rearrangements, in which he actively participated as an artist and as a citizen. He came from a poor family. The untimely loss of his mother left much space for the intelligent Müller to develop independently of any instructions a close-knit family might have, and to devote himself to his innate inclinations, e.g. in the rapid learning of foreign languages. In order to escape the family’s dire financial situation, he was encouraged early to study at the university. In 1812, at the age of 18, he enrolled at the University of Berlin, where he studied philology, history and English. He devoted himself to his historical and philological studies, and met his mentor, Friederich August Wolf, a professor of classic philology, who later encouraged him to make important decisions about his life and artistic development. However, his enthusiasm for Greece dates back to those years, which guided his interest in classical cultural goods and standards, the living literary tradition and modern German and international literature.

The beginning of his studies coincides with a period during which politics dominated the atmosphere of the university after the collapse of Napoleon in Russia. He could not find any reason to be devoted to his theoretical interests, since the youth of Berlin, together with some professors, did not miss the opportunity to openly express their anti-Napoleonic sentiments. Nineteen-year-old Müller will find a way to channel his patriotic enthusiasm when the Prussian king Frederick William III announces the creation of a fighting corps of volunteers against Napoleon (10/02/1813), to which he enlisted two weeks later. A feeling of disappointment with the outcome of the “German Liberation War” (Befreiungskriege, 1813-1815) and the decisions of the subsequent Congress of Vienna, which led to more authoritarianism in Europe, turned the Greek struggle for independence into an event which captured Müller’s and his contemporaries’ desire for freedom. Some motifs of the so-called German poetry of the Liberation Wars will revive a little later in philhellenic poetry.

During the Liberation Wars, Müller channelled his patriotic passion into poetry. In 1815 he returned to his studies. As a member of the German Poets Association, which were clearly shaped by the ideology of German nationalism, he participated in the publication of the poetry collection “Bundesblühen” (1816) and published the study “Blumenlese aus den Minnesingern” (1816); he made some interpretations about the Song of the Nibelungs (Nibelungenlied) and translated Dr. Faust (“The Tragic History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus”) by Christopher Marlowe into German (1817).

Meanwhile, Müller’s relationship with his mentor, Wolf, was going through a crisis. Müller, who seemed to be facing an internal controversy over his religious beliefs, started regarding his beloved professor as an “anti-German amoralist” because of the latter’s enthusiasm for pagan antiquity and sensual joy. Wolf, on the other hand, watched his beloved student isolate himself and sink more into his patriotism after his experience in war. With the aim to disengage Müller from what he considered to be an obsession with his homeland Germany, Wolf made a crucial suggestion for the shaping of the future of “Greek Müller”: when the Prussian Baron Albert von Sack, who had long planned a trip to Greece and in the East turned to the Academy in search of a companion, Wolf suggested Müller, but also Arnold Böckh, who was engaged in the collection of inscriptions of ancient Greek monuments. He hoped that this trip would broaden his student’s horizons, and he was not wrong. Although Müller was at the time finishing his dissertation, he agreed to accompany the baron on his journey.

The voyage began on August 20, 1817 and Vienna was the first stop on the way to Constantinople. The reason for this extended stay was that a large number of Greek intellectuals lived there. At this time, Müller was encouraged to learn modern Greek. Through his association with many exiled Greeks and members of the Filiki Eteria (Φιλική Εταιρεία: Society of Friends) in Vienna, he gained acquaintance with their political and ideological struggles, who conveyed him their burning desire for liberation from Turkish rule. His identification with the Greek struggle begun in Vienna and will demonstrate itself in his Greek songs a little later.

An outbreak of a plague pandemic in Constantinople forced the traveller and his companion to continue their journey to Italy (06/11/1817): after crossing Trieste, Venice, Ferrara, and Bologna, they arrived in Florence, then descended to Rome. The charm of Rome as well as the presence of a large German “community”, made him decide a prolongation of his stay, even when his fellow travellers left. He wrote his “Italian” book, “Rom, Römer und Römerinnen”, with which he gained rapid recognition. The book does not reflect any archaeological or aesthetic interest, but rather focuses on the national cultural life of Italy, in line with the spirit of the national / romantic ideology of the Folklore Studies. Müller let himself be seduced by the charm of customs, traditions, dances, festivals, language and folk songs. This experience provided him with important new information about Italian contemporary art which served as a substrate for the “critical” intersection of the classical ideal with the “southern” way of life: this will be crucial for shaping Müller’s image for Greece. He also developed a political mentality that severely criticized religious despotism and dogmatism and managed to combine liberalism with national romanticism.

After returning to Dessau, he will earn a living by teaching Greek and Latin. In addition to being a poet, he was a philologist, literary historian and essayist, who wrote literary critiques, translations and edited miscellaneous texts. From 1821 onwards he devoted himself to a multifaceted publishing, literary and translation work related to Greece (proving that his Philhellenism was not limited to poetry). In “Songs of the Greeks” (“Lieder der Griechen”) he found a way to open up to a “political lyricism” similar to the one of his role models, Lord Byron and Beranger, with an aim to express an equivalent liberalism. He started writing as of the beginning of the Greek revolution, when everything was still extremely uncertain about its course, and kept constantly monitoring all developments taking place in Greece. Although Metternich’s police also monitored all actions in order to protect the Austro-Hungarian throne, Müller was not discouraged from publishing the first philhellenic collection of songs (“Lieder der Griechen”). Moreover, he continued to advocate in favour of Greece, even after his poems were censored, and even after the Battle of Peta (04/07/1822), when many Philhellenes returned disappointed to their home.

The works Lieder der Griechen and Neue Lieder der Griechen by Wilhelm Müller. First edition 1821, 1823 (SHP Collection)

In the first issue of his songs, the poet erupts with lyricism in favour of the just struggle of the Greeks in ten poems: among them we find his censored poem “Griechenlands Hoffnung” (“The Hope of Greece“). In it he expresses his position that Greece must fight alone and blatantly attacks Europe for acknowledging the Turkish sultan‘s authority:

“Europe wants peace and tranquillity, why did you disturb them? / Why do you want to deliberately beguile yourself with the delusion of freedom? / Do not hope for the help of any Lord when this turns against the joy of another Lord / Europe calls even the pillows of the sultan a throne”.

(“Ruh‘ und Friede will Europa- Warum hast du sie gestört / Warum mit dem Wahn der Freiheit eigenmächtig dich betört? / Hoff auf keines Herren Hülfe gegen eines Herren Frohn / Auch des Türkenkaisers Polsters nennt Europa einen Thron”).

His unwavering support for the insurgent Greeks must primarily be read as an expression of the quest for freedom: even when his anger is expressed against the Turkish sovereignty, it is clear that the same anger is directed against the political situation in other parts of Europe and Germany.  The Greek struggle is at the top of Müller’s vision for liberation. We find many sarcastic attacks on the reactionary role of the anti-Greek Holy Alliance in his poem “The Greeks to the Austrian Observer” (“Die Griechen an den Österreichischen Beobachter”), which demonstrate how high he placed the Greek struggle for independence.

In 1822 he published a second issue with eight other poems, one of which is dedicated to Alexander Ypsilanti (“Alexander Ypsilanti aus Munkacs”), in which he links him to Leonidas and the Spartans, thus demonstrating the historical continuity of the Greeks and praising the Greek nation through the centuries. His poem “The Little Hydriot” (“Der kleine Hydriot”) became very popular in Germany, where it is still known.

In 1823 he published three issues with “New Songs of the Greeks” (“Neue Lieder der Griechen”), in which he refers again to the tolerance of European governments towards the Turks and calls for help to Greece. The first issue contains seven chants, the second eight and the third seven. Some titles that reflect the spirit of these works are the following: “Thermopylae”, “Botsaris”, “Hydra”, “Bouboulina”, “The Souliote”, “The washing of the hands of Pontius Pilate”, “The infected freedom”.

The work Neue Lieder der Griechen by Wilhelm Müller. First edition 1823 (SHP Collection)

A year later the “Latest Songs of the Greeks” (“Neueste Lieder der Griechen”) were published, a collection of seven poems, including: “Konstantinos Kanaris”, “Markos Botsaris”, “The Last Greeks” and the wonderful “Greece and the World”, in which the poet expresses his position that without Greece there can be no concept of Freedom, which in turn gives meaning to the rest of the world. And for this reason, all peoples must participate in Greece‘s just struggle:

“Come people from every zone / come and help us release her / the one who set you all free!”

(“Kommt, ihr Völker aller Zonen / Kommt und helfet frei sie machen / Die euch alle frei gemacht!”).

At a difficult time for the Revolution, Müller remains a faithful supporter.

It is also amazing, that he writes a poem about Botsaris again, two years after the Battle of Peta (which resulted in many Philhellenes returning to their homeland disappointed). The poet Müller wants to inspire the ongoing struggle of the Greeks and Philhellenes and to remind them that their courage must always be confronted with that of their fellow comrades:

“Open your high gates, Messolonghi, City of Honours / where the bodies of the Heroes lie, who teach us to die with joy! […] We bring you the noble body of Markos Botsaris, / of Markos Botsaris! Who would dare complain to such heroes? ”

(“Öffne deine hohen Thore, Missolunghi, Stadt der Ehren / Wo der Helden Leichen ruhen, die uns fröhlich sterben lehren! […] Mark Bozzari’s edlen Leib bringen wir zu dir getragen, / Mark Bozzari’s! Wer darf’s wagen, solchen Helden zu beklagen? ”)

Müller also wrote an important poem about Lord Byron, as well as four others about Messolonghi. These were published in 1825.

The work Lieder der Griechen by Wilhelm Müller. Second edition of 1825, which includes a poem dedicated to Lord Byron (SHP Collection)

He also published a work related to the Greek Bios. His death did not allow him to complete a work on Modern Greek Bios. However, some of his works were published in 1829 under the title Egeria.

His poems have been set to music by Schubert (the famous Winterreise and Die Schöne Müllerin song collections) and Brahms. The most famous of Müller’s works in Greece, is the song “The Flamuria” from his poem “Lindenbaum”: less-known are the poems for 1821. A tribute in honour of V. Müller took place in 2000 at the Technopolis of the Municipality of Athens, with a concert by the Austrian tenor Wolfgang Holzmair and the publication of an honorary volume with translations of Müller’s philhellenic poems by Alexandros Isaris.

To honour the great Philhellene poet Wilhelm Müller, Greece “gratefully” offered Pentelic marble to his hometown, Dessau, to build a bust and erect a commemorative plaque in his home. The inscription on the monument is written in Greek: “Greece offers gratefully to the poet of Greek freedom, the stone from the Attic and Laconic quarries”. Depicted on all four sides of the pedestal are Poetry, Science, Germany and Greece as female figures: Greece breaks its chains by holding a sword. The unveiling of the statue took place on September 30, 1891.

The monument of Wilhelm Müller in Dessau’s main park

The tomb of Wilhelm Müller

Greece‘s gift of return to the great Philhellene poet may be noticed by in the area of Metaxourgeio in Athens. A street intersecting the Kerameikos Street was renamed in 1884 to “Millerou Street” (Müller‘s street) after a proposal to the mayor of Athens, Dimitris Soutsos, by the founder of the Folklore Studies in Greece, Nikolaos Politis. A small offer for a great poet who was the soul of Philhellenism in Germany.

Milerou Street sign, at the corner of Millerou and Kerameikos street



  • Marco Hillemann / Tobias Roth, Wilhelm Müller und der Philhellenismus, Frank & Timme GmbH- Verlag für wissenschaftliche Literatur, 2015
  • zeno.org
  • wilhelm-mueller-gesellschaft.de
  • Ανδρέας Ν. Μακρίδης, Ο Βίλχελμ Müller και ο “Ιός της Ελευθερίας”, Λόγιος Ερμής.
  • Χριστίνα Στρατηγοπούλου, Ο Βαυαρικός Φιλελληνισμός μέσα από τον Βίλχελμ Müller (1794-1827), 24 grammata.