The captivating whiteness of the humanities in Australia

For some time now, various reactionary politicians and retired white academics have been lamenting the fraudulence of the humanities in Australia. Commonly, this high-minded coterie links the debasement to what they imagine to be the growing hostility of university humanities scholars toward Western civilisation. Even in the 1990s, Prime Minister John Howard was ruing the retreat of Western civilisation in our universities. One of his successors, Tony Abbott, often lamented that no one in the humanities these days wants to teach the rudiments of the Western canon—hence the need for the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, which he championed. In September 2023, retired sociologist John Carroll told readers of The Australian newspaper that

The humanities were driven in the past by the belief that civilisation is important, and that acquaintance with the great classical works of the West could illuminate an individual’s life, bringing inspiration and self-understanding, and making them better citizens. Most lecturers today no longer believe this and, if anything, incline to the opposite view: Western civilisation is malign and corrupt.

But what was the benign and uncorrupted humanities scholarship that Carroll and others yearn for? Is it possible that the humanities in Australia, and elsewhere, have always been political, only in markedly different ways, to markedly different ends? Specifically, how might teaching the humanities in Australia in the good old days have cultivated a sense of superior white virtue in the settler-colonial society, deflecting attention from Indigenous civilisation and the manifold efforts to destroy it?

As in other Australian universities, the parameters of the ‘human’ in the humanities at the University of Melbourne were clearly defined and restricted in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Aspiring to convey ‘the best that has been thought and known in the world’, to use nineteenth-century cultural critic Matthew Arnold’s influential formulation, scholars and teachers in classics, philosophy and history sought to implant in the new world a canon of work by major thinkers of the old world—to spread a civilisational discourse fit for conquest. Their ‘humanities’ were intended to nurture in strange, perhaps unfavourable, soils the best that white men in northern Europe and North America had thought and known. Indigenous peoples, Asians and Africans found no place in the antipodal humanities, not even as ‘barbarians’ at the classical gates. They came to signify nothing—they were not deemed to be infused with the true ‘human spirit’. Therefore, in the white nationalist university, ‘antiquity’ mostly meant oddly Teutonised Hellenic and Roman relics, not the ancient stories of Aboriginal culture. The old, hallowed humanities in Australia, even in apparently liberal and progressive forms, became a potent yet narrowly focused means of cultivating white distinction and virtue in a supposedly hostile setting.

We are familiar with the contributions of biological and medical sciences to making settler colonies seem habitable and hospitable to ‘white’ bodies and mentalities. An enormous amount of work went on at the University of Melbourne in the early twentieth century trying to invent a positive science of white settlement in Australia. While the biomedical sciences generally were predicated on implicitly white bodies and minds, they evinced at Melbourne an especially zealous attempt to acclimatise and accommodate explicitly white physiologies to new territories, first in the temperate south of the continent, then in its challenging tropical north. The whiteness of biomedical teaching and research at other Australian institutions during this period was better concealed and perhaps more modest. Few, if any, medical schools would come to flaunt their connections with white nationalism as brazenly as did Melbourne. But the prominence of these medical votaries of white Australia has obscured a more insidious program in the humanities to naturalise white civilisation at the edge of the British Empire. Extolling the accomplishments of ancient Greece and Rome or emotionally singing the Norse sagas may seem innocent, even charming, yet such devotions could covertly imply a racial agenda at least as compelling as any medical prescription.

Contemplation of Greek, Latin and the Germanic languages would provide students with historical examples of how language can fashion race and nation, whereas Indigenous languages, had they been recognised at all, would have revealed instead a grammar connecting persons and places, articulating community and cosmos. But such acknowledgement of Indigenous presence and environmental embeddedness, in any expressive form, was antithetical to the function of the settler-colonial university. Since the late eighteenth century, the comparative study of language structure, or scientific philology, or historical linguistics, had been linked to European racial projects, especially in Germany. Racial difference was fabricated linguistically as well as biologically—that is, presumed linguistic races, such as ‘Aryan’, were consummated along with biological races. Comparative linguistics, therefore, was often regarded as a bridge from the humanities to the natural sciences, generating prolific analogies and organic connections between philological racial categories and human physiological differences. Those who engage critically with the cultivation of settler whiteness in Australia, and with white strategies of authority more generally, ignore these ‘humanistic’ dimensions of white privilege at their peril.

I want to focus here on the exclusive whiteness of scholarship in the classics and Germanic languages at the University of Melbourne. Two figures take representative roles in my brief narrative: Thomas G. Tucker (1859–1946), professor of classics and comparative philology, and Augustin Lodewyckx (1876–1964), associate professor of German. An exceptionally distinguished scholar, Tucker loomed large in the decades before the First World War, while Lodewyckx took centre stage during the interwar years. Heeding the warnings of a former colleague, Charles H. Pearson, that rising Asian powers threatened European occupation of Australia, Tucker became increasingly concerned about the future of white civilisation in the country. He worried that the influence of the classics, the purest and highest expression of the civilisation he cherished, was on the wane. After the war, Lodewyckx successfully elevated Germanic or Teutonic languages to the esteemed place that classics was rapidly vacating. Inspired by his reading of the racial tracts of Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Madison Grant, Lothrop Stoddard and Oswald Spengler, and admiring Nazi initiative, the Flemish Germanist became an expert on European immigration to Australia, expounding on how Teutons might bolster and uphold white civilisation in trying circumstances. I am particularly interested in the moment before the First World War when—with the defensive founding of the Classical Association of Victoria in 1912, the removal of any Greek language requirement at Melbourne in 1914 and a rising enthusiasm for Chamberlain’s chronicling of the bonds of Hellenism and Teutonism—a crossover or chiasmus occurred, with Germanic languages and culture soon substituting for Greek in the white pantheon. Of course, just as the classics were never associated with contemporary Greeks and Italians, Teutonic culture was not closely allied during the ‘Great War’ with contemporary Germans. Teaching and scholarship in these humanistic fields strove to represent and perpetuate elite ideals of white civilisation, not to give voice to ordinary white people.

Antipodal Hellenism

In 1886, Tommy Tucker, a mere twenty-seven years old, tall and with the air of a dandy, strutted onto the campus of the University of Melbourne as the fourth professor of classics and comparative philology. His predecessors had come and gone quickly. Tucker, however, proved himself in the following decades an outstanding scholar—a prolific translator and editor of Aeschylus and commentator on Aristotle, Plato and Sappho. A compelling orator, fearless in declaring his opinions, ridiculously vain, the Cambridge graduate soon became a commanding presence at the university and in the city’s cultural life. He spoke frequently at the Beefsteak Club, the Melbourne Club, the Socialist Hall and the Medical Students’ Society; with biologist Baldwin Spencer he briefly edited the aspirational journal The Australasian Critic (1890–91). W. A. Osborne, professor of physiology, popular essayist and fierce advocate of white Australia, was a close friend. Ernest Scott, professor of history at Melbourne, regarded him as ‘the most brilliant exponent of classical literature who has taught in an Australian university’. Tucker’s stepdaughter, novelist Joan Lindsay, remembered him in later years: ‘Tall, slim, surprisingly upright even in old age and always something of a dandy, gloves and a light cane, a broad-brimmed fedora hat, patent leather shoes, large pearl tiepin and an unusually high white collar … were typical accessories of his wardrobe. The lean craggy face with its gingery grey moustache and bright blue eyes was … vivacious and … full of charm’. As Ken McKay, a subsequent classicist, put it, ‘He became a cult figure; it was fashionable to invite him, to hear him, to read him and anything he recommended’.

In his inaugural lecture, Tucker asserted in typical Arnoldian fashion that only the classics could sate the colony’s ‘craving for a higher cultivation’. Latin and Greek, he assured listeners, ‘are studied as most potent aids to logical and liberal thought, literary appreciation, elevated states, humanity of sentiment—as containing in fact all the elements of culture’. Tucker believed that the study of Hellenic accomplishments ‘tinges the mind with a rich and mellow intellectual colouring’, presumably a rather specific shade of white. The classics, he mused, ‘may be expected to create a habit of logical methods, a habit of critical discrimination, a habit of taste and propriety, a many-sidedness and liberality of interest, and what De Quincey has called a strong bookmindedness’. It was a mental training or cultivation much needed in the crude colonial city. It was, above all, an apprenticeship in ‘the art of citizenship’ in a new settler society. In later lectures, Tucker urged his white audiences ‘to go back as far into the past as we can, and to consider the mental condition of our ancestors’—by which he meant ‘Indo-European’ and ‘Aryan’ antecedents. For the classicist, ‘antiquity’ always referred to the ancient Mediterranean and environs, never to Aboriginal Australia. Progressive and liberal, Tucker instructed his many auditors in the multiple lessons of classical scholarship. It had become clear to him and other Melbourne professors that Australians needed a strong federation to resist Asian incursions, just as Mediterranean civilisations once had warded off the barbarians that surrounded them. There was still more to learn from the classics. ‘History’, he announced, ‘teaches the impossibility of realizing extreme socialistic plans. It teaches the futility of over-regulation’. Tucker was convinced that education in the classics might yet lead colonial Melbourne on the correct path to European civilisation.

In the early twentieth century, Tucker became a strident critic of degenerate vernacular patriotism. ‘The prime value of literature’, he told avid listeners in 1902, ‘lies precisely in that cosmopolitan, that universal, response’, not in the contemporary fashion for Australian ‘colour’. ‘Abandon all deliberate quest of local colour as an Australian mark’, he thundered. But Tucker did not recommend ‘the humble and servile provincial’; he did not want ‘exhibitions of obsequiousness to the social overlordship of Great Britain’. While deploring ‘the tendency to feed upon our own scanty larder of ideas and forms’, Tucker still hoped for ‘writing that is frankly true to its environment’, derived from the best classical models. True ‘moderns … [were] disciples of the “Greek” school’, no matter the country in which they dwelt. Only close attention to ancient Greeks and Romans could properly elevate the colonial mores of white civilisation. In Melbourne, ‘the standard of thinking, of conversation, of interest in things of the mind, is far lower than should be the case with a community which claims to be in the front rank of civilisation … There has been no real place in it for the idealising and reverential side of humanity, for the training of the higher emotions and sensibilities’. But the classics could remedy this, providing ‘an education of pure intellect, taste, and sentiment’. ‘It is amazing’, Tucker concluded, ‘how coldly educational proposals are received when they concern only the improvement of the culture side of humanity, and with what glib and mechanical acquiescence they are accepted when it is hinted that they may possibly have a remote bearing upon turnips or sheep-dip’.

Before the First World War, Alexander Leeper (1848–1934), the peevish warden of Trinity College, joined Tucker in advocating for more classical education and discipline at Melbourne. A bustling, interfering Oxford graduate, an anti-Catholic zealot devoted to the British Empire, Leeper translated Juvenal’s satires and mounted Latin plays in the college, while not quite forgiving Tucker for taking the job he once had coveted. According to Scott, the warden ‘never missed an occasion for striking a blow … he was ever girt for the fray’. And yet Leeper’s vision, too, could be liberal, especially before the war. In 1912, he told assembled Victorian teachers, ‘It is desirable to lead the young mind to realise, and perhaps especially in this White Australia of ours, how very much all human beings, whether white or black, or brown or yellow, whether ancient or modern or mediaeval, resemble each other. This would be likely to correct any tendency to a narrow national conceit, and to that spirit of jingoism which the exclusive study of British history might beget’. Leeper believed the teaching of classics might help in broadening civic virtue and moral development. Addressing the new Classical Association of Victoria, the irascible warden of Trinity lamented that although the University of Melbourne had been ‘one of the last to hold the fort of Hellenism’, competition from applied sciences had recently caused it to abandon the post. All the same, liberal education in a white settler society still required the training of character and elevation of the moral senses. ‘A knowledge of classics remains the essential passport to all research in those important studies called humanistic’, he told the audience. He therefore condemned the massing of ‘the armies of Philistia’ in Melbourne clamouring for abolition of the classics. Rather, they should learn from ancient Greece and Rome ‘the dangers of unbridled mob rule, the futility of fixing prices by law … the demoralising tendency of doles and bonuses, the results of creating a vast army of government servants, the folly of sacrificing the rural population to the city proletariat’. He held such classical truths to be self-evident.

Like many other pre-war classicists, Tucker and Leeper regarded Germany as the prime modern representative of ancient thought. For them, the classics passed through a Teutonic filter and came to possess a Teutonic allure, which may now seem culturally paradoxical but at the time annexed a racial logic. For Tucker, German ideals were cognate with classical thought, thus linking Englishmen hereditarily to the glories of Mediterranean antiquity. After all, he wrote in 1907, ‘the basis of the English mind is chiefly Teutonic, in some measure Celtic’. Moreover, ‘English literary history is the story of the Teutonic and Celtic tendencies “corrected and clarified”, and the Teutonic and Celtic invention immensely assisted, by influences and ideas flowing in from other sources. There have been large ingraftings from other stocks, either partially kindred or altogether alien…’ Chief among the partially kindred stocks were ancient Greeks and Romans, the origins of ‘our national genius’. Before the war, Leeper was equally enthusiastic, praising Germany as the conduit for classical thought in the modern world. But this ratification soon became a matter of some embarrassment.

The argument of Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (1899; English 1911) had greatly impressed both Tucker and Leeper. The British-born German philosopher, later a favourite of Adolf Hitler, extolled the Teutonic race as the bearer of European civilisation, handed down from Hellenes and Romans before it was deformed by ‘senility’ on Mediterranean shores or corrupted by Jews. Chamberlain even speculated on the possible influence of Teutonic blood in antiquity ahead of its ebbing in the south through race mixing, when the remaining Greeks and Romans declined into ‘half-bred souls of degenerate southern Europe’. Teutonic nations in northern Europe, the United States and Australia, now possessed of ‘the wealth of form and the creative power of the Hellenic spirit’, carried forward ‘the immortal achievements of the Hellenes’. ‘It was the Hellenes and the Romans’, Chamberlain wrote, ‘who certainly gave the greatest impulse, if not to our civilisation, at least to our culture; but we have not thereby become either Hellenes or Romans’. Instead, Berlin had turned into the new and superior Athens—the bright beacon of white civilisation. Teutons now epitomised the classics. ‘The German language has here’, he wrote, ‘as it frequently has, infinite depth; it feeds us with good thoughts which are bountifully provided, like the mother’s milk for the child’. German was becoming the new Greek.

In 1916, in the dark days of the war, Tucker lectured on German and British ideals, contrasting German love of abstraction, system and order with British empiricism, individualism and respect for fair play, derived from cricket and the great public schools. He told his audience that the British are not only Teutonic; they also boast Celtic blood. He tried out a novel term: ‘Anglo-Celtic’. ‘So far as Britain is concerned’, he said, ‘the real facts are quite sufficient to justify patriotic love and pride, quite sufficient to induce a steady confidence in our own virility’. Tucker’s lecture echoed Chamberlain’s essays on the same topic, published in English as Ravings of a Renegade (1915)— British values above German qualities—which even so were not overtly disparaged. Leeper showed no such equanimity; he had suddenly turned, becoming the scourge of contemporary Germany. Yet he too could not shake off his respect for Teutonic Kultur, deciding in the middle of the war that the University of Melbourne needed a young Belgian, Augustin ‘Kapo’ Lodewyckx, to teach German. As Greek and Latin waned at Melbourne, the civilisational baton thus was passed to representatives of Teutonism and Nordicism—just so long as they were not actually German, not while the war endured.

Teutonic attitudes

Lodewyckx became the leading standard-bearer of Teutonism in interwar Melbourne, a key figure on the frontline of white nationalism. A graduate in Germanic languages and philology from the universities of Ghent and Leiden, he had taught French and German at Stellenbosch, an Afrikaans-medium, whites-only university college in the Western Cape Province of South Africa. From 1911, he worked in the Belgian colonial service in the Congo, selecting European emigrants and caring for white settlers involved in copper mining at Elizabethville (Lubumbashi) in Katanga Province. The young Belgian became obsessed with ‘the future of the white race in this country’, concerned with choosing those European stocks most resistant to the debilitating tropical climate. He believed Germans, who proved more hygienic and orderly, were better suited to such trying conditions than inherently dirty and irresponsible southern Europeans. Lodewyckx expected the ‘white population’ of Katanga would thrive so long as they kept up morale, worked hard, stayed sober, ate well and lived in proper lodgings. But it was clear to him that ‘native children’ were ‘veritable reservoirs of malaria’ parasites, a special threat to any foreigners. He therefore recommended strict segregation of the white population, who needed to maintain ‘a certain distance from blacks’, preferably 1000 metres. He hoped to recruit and cultivate a class of white ‘dominators and aristocrats’—a select group superior to ordinary Europeans—whom Africans would respect and admire, to whom they would submit. Lodewyckx’s colonial experiences thus prepared him to take the lead in advocacy for a truly white Australia; for another fifty years he would apply to Australian conditions his knowledge of white settlement in the Congo.

Worried about the effect of the tropical climate on his own young white family, Lodewyckx decided to migrate to the United States, but he got stranded in Melbourne en route when war broke out in 1914. Leeper saw Lodewyckx teaching unhappily at Melbourne Grammar School, from where he snatched the plucky Belgian, securing him an appointment as Lecturer in German at the University of Melbourne.For the remainder of his career, Lodewyckx concentrated on expanding the teaching of Germanic languages and cultures and developing new programs in Dutch, Old Norse, Swedish and Icelandic, thereby making available to Melbourne students the full Nordic suite. His contributions to scholarship, however, remained negligible. As a proud Aryan, reserved and austere, Lodewyckx soon became a leading commentator on the benefits of German migration, pleading frequently for a more ‘Teutonic’ Australia, a purely and securely white Australia, reiterating the lessons of Katanga. After reading Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West (1923; English 1926), he felt the urgency of defending the local offshoot of organically European culture, or ‘Western civilisation’, from foreign races and degenerate whites, thus preventing or retarding its retracing of the sad destiny of Hellenic and Roman civilisations. Lodewyckx interpreted Spengler as claiming that only purity of blood could forestall the Untergang, or civilisational downfall. He found the racial mystic immensely appealing, ‘no doubt the most original thinker in Germany since the war’. ‘Spengler stirs our imagination as no other contemporary historian’, he wrote in 1935.

In 1937, Lodewyckx warned readers of The Australasian that ‘a decrease in vitality among British communities has set in’. The birth rate was dropping, immigration was slowing, urban degeneracy was spreading and race mixing was on the rise. Such were ‘the forerunners of national decay and disaster’, putting ‘White Australia in jeopardy’. The future of Western civilisation looked grim down under. The associate professor of German wanted ‘to make Australia really white by effective occupation by white people’. During the previous decade, he had illustrated the many virtues of ‘Teutonic’ migrants to Australia, focusing on their contributions to agriculture, especially in the wine and fruit industries. Pure Germans proved exemplary settlers, necessary ‘to keep Australia permanently white’. Lodewyckx feared that ‘the alternative to these European settlers is an influx of Asiatics at some further date’. After the Second World War, he welcomed the arrival of greater numbers of northern Europeans migrants to Australia, which allayed many of his pre-war concerns. He continued to extol Teutonic migration into the 1950s, publishing a major book on the subject, People for Australia, which elicited praise from Arthur A. Calwell, former immigration minister and future leader of the Australian Labor Party. According to Lodewyckx, only massive immigration from Europe—preferably from Britain, the Netherlands, Germany and Scandinavia—could ‘save this outpost of Western civilisation’, preserving ‘this continent for a pure, or at least a predominating, British-European white population’.

Like many professors at the University of Melbourne before the Second World War, Lodewyckx was eager to express admiration for Nazi ‘advances’ in population management.i As the chief advocate for Western civilisational distinction in Melbourne during the interwar years, he felt a special responsibility to explain, if not explicitly endorse, the merits of Hitler’s philosophy. ‘The Aryan alone, Hitler maintains, has creative genius’, Lodewyckx informed readers of the Melbourne Argus in March 1933. ‘To this creative genius all civilisation and culture are due’. The Melbourne professor of German rapidly morphed into a Nazi spokesman or propagandist. He went on to assert, ‘The whole world’s history is to be rewritten making the racial factor the dominating factor in all human events’. He observed: ‘During the last century the Jews had deliberately attempted to adulterate German blood with their own, and to poison the German mind with Marxian teachings. The salvation of Germany will be found only in a purification of German blood and a revival of the German spirit and ideals’. Lodewyckx therefore rejoiced in what he called ‘the German national revolution of 1933’, when ‘powerful elemental forces were at work changing the soul of a nation by moral discipline’. As a result, Germany, ‘a young nation with great reserves of energy, may yet be the educator and perhaps the saviour of the white world’—unless Herr Hitler’s current successes were ‘eaten away by the mass of small human vermin’.Even in 1938, Lodewyckx was extravagantly praising German invasions of Austria and the Sudenten territories. He urged the Volksdeutsche, Germans who were subjects of other states such as Australia, to contribute to ‘spreading German culture and aiding Germany’s economic expansion’.

Bliss was it for the Lodewyckx family to be alive in that Teutonic dawn. Anna Hansen Lodewyckx, a casual lecturer in Scandinavian languages and Augustin’s wife, and their teenage daughter Hilma Dymphna rushed over to Munich, where they spent eight months revelling in the new Aryan regime. ‘All are agreed’, Anna Lodewyckx told readers of the Argus in May 1933, ‘that it is worthwhile, and perhaps advisable, to give Adolf Hitler a chance of proving his worth’. The new Führer’s ‘many excellent intentions’ greatly impressed her. She had little sympathy with Jews who whined about boycotts and sackings, since they had brought these problems on themselves. When Anna disembarked at Fremantle, Western Australia, in February 1934, she told a local reporter, ‘I came to realise the tremendous work Hitler is doing for Germany, and the brave fight he is putting up to restore the backbone and morale of the German people … He is a great national hero’. In a talk to the International Club in Melbourne later that year, Anna also assured her audience that ‘Under Mussolini’s guidance, Italy has developed self-respect outwardly and inwardly’. Dymphna, who later married a promising young historian, Manning Clark, pointed out that the Jewish girls at her school in Munich had been treated almost as normal people, causing her to doubt any allegations of discrimination. Back in Melbourne, the rise of Nazism stoked Augustin’s interest in Icelandic and Old Norse. After visiting Iceland in 1931, the Belgian had come to feel it was his true home, his Urheimat.

Afire during the interwar years with white racial enthusiasm, Lodewyckx established the University of Melbourne as a centre for teaching and research in Germanic languages. But in the 1940s he found himself on the margins of Nordicism at the University when liberal intellectuals in the English Department poached Icelandic and Old Norse. In 1936, Keith Macartney (1903–71) had returned to Melbourne from Cambridge, where he had studied Anglo-Saxon, Middle English and Old Norse. With his Bohemian attire, tendency to wave a silk handkerchief during lectures and unabashed flamboyance, he definitely was not Lodewyckx’s kind of Teuton. As he drifted into drama studies and theatrical directing, founding the Tin Alley Players, Macartney enlisted a substitute teacher, Hendrik Egbert ‘Henk’ Kylstra (1923–2013), a Friesian anti-Nazi activist who had learned Germanic languages at Amsterdam University during the war before going underground, later surfacing briefly in Iceland. He too was little inclined to pander to the old Fleming’s racial obsessions. Kylstra initially taught Dutch, then took over Macartney’s Old Norse reading circle, teaching the language and culture to A. D. ‘Alec’ Hope, Leonie Kramer and Ian Maxwell, among other future luminaries of the humanities in Australia.

By the 1970s, the appeal of Germanic languages was waning at Melbourne. Old Norse and Icelandic were briefly revived as Viking Studies, then abandoned altogether in 2007. This decline partly corresponds with the alleged recoil from teaching Western civilisation and the rise of Indigenous Studies at the university. In any case, during the decades after the Second World War, in the long Cold War, the logos and ethos of white civilisation at the University of Melbourne were ever less likely to be set forth explicitly in a Germanic Weltanshauung or worldview, just as they had withdrawn long before from Classical Studies. Cue then the complaints from reactionary politicians and retired white professors about the new politicisation of the humanities, as if they once had been innocent.

White mythologies

In 1988, art historian Henri Zerner observed in passing that ‘classicism means nothing more than an assertion of authority, of power under whatever form’. Its continuing function as a white strategy of authority has caused dissension in North America, though less so in Australia, over the past few years. ‘The discipline of “Classics” is a bustling performance site for racecraft’, writes Princeton classicist Dan-el Padilla Peralta. ‘This antiquity has been and continues to be raced in scholarship and pedagogy’. He claims the classics continue to operate as a mode of white racial formation: ‘the production of whiteness turns [out] … to reside in the very marrows of classics’. Though the whiteness of the discipline may generally be unmarked and obscured these days, white mythologies still infuse the study of Greco-Roman antiquity. According to Sasha-Mae Eccleston and Padilla, whiteness is actually ‘baked into the habitus and hexis of classicists at every step in their professional formation’. These Afro-Caribbean Romanists, based in the United States, thus ask, ‘How can we most effectively interrogate the field’s Whiteness as a core property of its knowledge production? What would it mean, and what will it require of us, to historicize classical philology’s co-emergence and co-dependency with race science?’ Such questions are rarely asked in Australia.

The study of Germanic languages has come under similar critical scrutiny along the North Atlantic littoral. Some fifty years ago, French historian Léon Poliakov deplored the ‘tyranny of linguistics’, which had constructed Aryanism and Nordicism in the nineteenth century. German philological enthusiasm, culminating in Chamberlain’s racial speculations, had paved the road to the Holocaust. Scholars of Germanic languages were regularly scanning their texts for glimmers of the racial soul or national spirit, looking for traces of Nordic Blut und Geist, a golden age of Germanentum that might be reclaimed. Since the 1990s, critics within the field of historical linguistics have examined the complicity of Anglo-Saxonism with claims of white racial superiority and justifications of imperial possession. Thus Allan J. Frantzen, an American mediaevalist, describes how studies of Anglo-Saxon language, literature and culture were deployed to inculcate a sense of racial prestige and to instil patriotic fervour in northern Europe, and especially in England—and its settler colonies. In the nineteenth century, during the high tide of imperialism, Anglo-Saxonism became the ‘ideological partner’ of Orientalism, a mode of Teutonic dynamism posed in rousing contrast to disparaging depictions of non-white others. Philology thus lent lustre to a white mythos. Yet in Australia, we have remained mostly immune to such concerns; indeed, we are more likely to yearn for a return to the good old days when the humanities were supposedly ‘benign’ and ‘uncorrupted’, even as they were signalling white virtue and superiority.

I have focused here on the collusion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries of the humanities at the University of Melbourne with imperial and national white racial projects. The philological enterprise, expressed principally through the classics and Germanic languages, served to symbolise and to effect white intellectual and cultural distinction—to clear a white settler epistemic space—at the same time as it offered models of how to discipline and secure an imperial outpost. Respect for Aboriginal antiquity and acknowledgement of continuing Aboriginal cultural presence were unimaginable in this context. Aboriginal Australia was effaced and refused temporal depth, historical legitimacy, cultural significance and contemporary relevance. The university humanities in this period functioned as another mode of Indigenous exclusion and denial, or ‘epistemicide’, further adorning the whited sepulchre of settler colonialism. This is the acclaimed ‘apolitical’ tradition of Western civilisation that continues to captivate our culture warriors and enemies of woke.


This is a shortened version of a chapter, ‘The Lost Languages of White Settler Civilisation’, which will be published in 2024 by Melbourne University Press in Dhoombak Goobgoowana: A History of Indigenous Australian and the University of Melbourne, Volume 1: Truth, edited by Ross L. Jones, James Waghorne and Marcia Langton. I am grateful to the publisher and editors for allowing this preprint. Full references will appear in the book chapter.

i For example, in 1939 Wilfred E. Agar, the influential professor of zoology, praised Nazi eugenic programs, especially those eliminating the ‘unfit’. Similarly, A. R. ‘Chis’ Chisholm, a close friend of Lodewyckx and professor of French, was deeply attracted to the classicism of Charles Maurras, the leader of Action Française, and enamoured with the Nazi literary critic and anti-Semite Randolph Hughes, though his attitude toward Hitler became increasingly ambivalent during the war. Examples could be multiplied to include the plurality of the professors at Melbourne, most of whom are still memorialised on the campus in one way or another.

Partial Secondary Bibliography

Warwick Anderson, The Cultivation of Whiteness: Science, Health, and Racial Destiny in Australia, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.

Warwick Anderson, ‘Whatever happened to “Australian civilisation”?’ ABC Religion and Ethics, 24 September 2019,

David Bird, Nazi Dreamtime: Australian Enthusiasts for Hitler’s Germany, London: Anthem Press, 2014.

Sasha-Mae Eccleston and Dan-el Padilla Peralta, ‘Racing the classics: ethos and praxis’, American Journal of Philology, 143(2), 2022, pp 199–218.

Geoffrey W. Field, Evangelist of Race: The Germanic Vision of Houston Stewart Chamberlain, New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1981.

Allen J. Frantzen, Desire for Origins: New Language, Old English, and the Teaching of the Tradition, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1997.

Christopher M. Hutton, Linguistics and the Third Reich: Mother-Tongue Fascism, Race, and the Science of Language, London: Routledge, 1988.

Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality,Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Dan-el Padilla Peralta, ‘Anti-race: antiracism, whiteness and the classical imagination’, in Denise Eileen McCoskey ed., A Cultural History of Race, Volume 1: Antiquity, ed. Denise Eileen McCoskey, London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021, pp 157–71.

Léon Poliakov, The Aryan Myth: A History of Race and Nationalist Ideas in Europe, Edmund Howard (trans.), London: Sussex University Press, 1974.

About the author

Warwick Anderson

Warwick Anderson is Janet Dora Hine Professor of Politics, Governance and Ethics at the University of Sydney and an honorary professor in the Centre for Health Equity (which he founded) in the School of Population and Global Health at the University of Melbourne. His books include The Cultivation of Whiteness (2002, 2006), Colonial Pathologies (2006), The Collectors of Lost Souls (2008), Intolerant Bodies (2014, with Ian R. Mackay) and Spectacles of Waste (2024). In 2023 he was awarded the John Desmond Bernal Prize of the Society for Social Studies of Science, in recognition of lifetime achievement in science and technology studies.

More articles by Warwick Anderson

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