“Based on his experiments on the impact of freezing on a sheep’s tongue, Montesquieu asserted that the cold air of the Northern Hemisphere caused higher blood circulation and allowed greater, albeit impulsive, strength.” (p160)
This is the kind of random fact that you will pick up reading A Most Dangerous Book, Christopher Krebs’ new history of the Germania – or, rather, his history of the way in which readers have rewritten and exploited Tacitus’ short book about “the origin and customs of the German peoples” (de origine et moribus Germanorum).
Probably written in 98 CE (the first year of Trajan’s reign), Tacitus’ ethnographic essay describes in detail the way of life of the barbarian tribes who dwelt in Germany, frequently at war with Rome, and only partially conquered by the early Roman emperors during the first century CE. The Germanic tribes, according to Tacitus, behaved with simple and honest heroism, ordering society without money, writing or monarch – in striking contrast to the Roman Empire, where power was increasingly centred in the emperor and administered through a complicated system of bureaucracy. Unlike that of Tacitus’ urban and leisured readers, the German way of life revolved around war: education was purely physical, training students to be experts in battle; on adulthood, young men became the followers of a chief, whose courage they were expected to match (and whose death they were not expected to survive); and when there was no immediate war facing their own tribe to enjoy, these warrior-youths would wander off to join their neighbours in order to keep their fighting skills honed.
Tacitus’ sketch has inspired countless readers – among them the philosopher Montesquieu, the composer Richard Wagner, and Heinrich Himmler, head of the Nazi SS – with the simplicity, the heroism and – most dangerously, as Krebs reveals – the ethnic self-isolation of the Germanic tribes.
“For my own part,” Tacitus writes, “I agree with those who think that the tribes of Germany are free from all taint of intermarriages with foreign nations, and they appear as a distinct, unmixed race, like none but themselves.” (Germ. 4)
Unsurprisingly, the Germania became not only a key proof text, but in fact the inspiration and the “bible” of Nazi propaganda in the lead-up to the Second World War, drawn on for celebration of Germanic racial ‘purity’, physical strength superiority, high standards of morality and heroic ethos. One Nazi youth manual even opened with a quotation from the Germania: “The greatest honour and the greatest power is to be surrounded by a band of chosen young men.”
But this was not the first time that the Germania had entered discussions of German national identity, and Krebs’ book traces a compelling narrative from the text’s rediscovery in the early fifteenth century to Himmler’s hunt for the only surviving manuscript, the Codex Aesinas, some four hundred years later.
A Most Dangerous Book tracks its prey along two narrative paths: the history of Classical reception, and the evolution of German nationalist thinking. Each chapter represents a century and a phase in both of these stories: the Renaissance in the fifteenth century; sixteenth century humanism; the beginnings of German vernacular literature during the seventeenth century; the Enlightenment and the rise of a “German National Spirit” (and mythology) during the eighteenth; the welding of science to racism in the nineteenth century, when the concept of a (Tacitean) German race based on purity of blood became prominent; and finally the surge towards political revolution in the early twentieth century, when Nazi ideology leaned heavily on the idealised portrait of ancient German tribes that Tacitus’ Germania provides.
The chronological and intellectual span of Krebs’ book is mind-boggling – and, for the most part, highly successful. He introduces each phase in his story by picking out the main characters: Renaissance scholar Poggio Bracciolini and his patron, the Florentine book-collector Niccolo Niccoli; the master forger Annius of Viterbo, who wrote his own ‘ancient’ Antiquities in 1498, and duped the scholarly community for nearly three hundred years with his fake family tree claiming Noah as the ancestor of the first German king; Fichte and Jacob Grimm (of fairy tale fame) as representatives of the nineteenth century invention of the “German spirit”; and Michael von Faulhaber, Archbishop of Munich in 1933, who drew on the more barbarous features of Tacitus’ description to criticise Nazi ideology of the superiority of the Germanic race.
The massive scope of Krebs’ book inevitably means that there are gaps. Half a dozen protagonists per century are too few to flesh out the complex history of European political and intellectual development, and Krebs’ strategy is more one of joining prominent dots than shading between the lines. Major events less relevant to the Germania – the Thirty Years War (1618-1848), for example, or the fall of the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires – are skipped over with little explanation, and the interested reader will be driven to Wikipedia to elucidate the various historical strands.
Yet despite – in fact, probably because of – this simplification, A Most Dangerous Book is immensely readable. Playing sometimes teacher, sometimes journalist or detective, Krebs plots the history of a short and obscure book that made an enduring and extraordinary impact on the history of the Western world. This was, as Krebs concludes in his introduction, “undoubtedly one of history’s deeper ironies.”
Christopher B. Krebs, A Most Dangerous Book: Tacitus’s Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich (W.W. Norton and Company, inc. London and New York. 2011)
Also worth reading:
John Wilson, Germania (Key Porter Books 2008) – a fictional account of the Roman campaigns in Germany in 9 CE, from the perspective of a young Roman soldier and a German warrior fighting on the Roman side.
Timeline of the Germania
C1st BCE Germanic tribes migrate westwards.
27 BC – c. 28 CE The new Roman Empire establishes the province of Germania, but abandons attempts to secure territory beyond the Rhine.
83 - 85 CE Domitian leads inconclusive campaigns against the Chatti.
98 CE Trajan becomes emperor.
Tacitus writes the Germania.
863 CE The German monk-scholar Rudolf of Fulda borrows from Tacitus’ texts in his own historical narrative.
C15th The Renaissance: the rediscovery of Classical texts
1425 Rumours circulate about “unknown works by Tacitus”
1450s A manuscript containing these writings arrives in Rome from a German monastery (perhaps Fulda).
1450s-1500 Scholars evoke the heroic ethos of the Germania to provoke the King of Germany to declare war against the Ottoman Empire.
C16th German humanism: German historians lean heavily Tacitus’ Germania, but rewrite the unsavoury parts.
The Reformation: Luther and his followers reject the authority and decadence of the Roman Catholic Church, using Tacitus’ Germania as a source for descriptions of ancient Germanic freedom, heroism and morality, in opposition to Rome.
C17th Plagues and warfare weaken Germany. In response to waning political and military power, German intellectuals look to the German literature as the touchstone of national pride.
Authors such as Martin Opitz promote German literature, based on ancient ‘heroic songs’ mentioned in the Germania.
C18th The Hapsburg Monarchy and the Kingdom of Prussia divide Germany between them. German intellectuals seek the unity of the Volk (the “people”) – especially in the idealised warrior-farmers of the Germania.
C19th Proclamation of the German Empire: still seeking unity, scholars emphasises Tacitus’ reference to the ‘purity’ of the Germanic tribes, claiming that German strength derives from descent from Tacitus’ Germans.
Development of ‘scientific’ racism (genetic categorisation predicts intellectual and physical capabilities) and idealisation of the ‘Aryan’ race, of which the tribes represented in Tacitus’ Germania form the prime example.
C20th National-Socialism and the Second World War: Nazi propaganda idealizes the physical type, genetic ‘purity’ and warrior ethos celebrated in Tacitus’ Germania. Nazi youth manual begins with a quotation from the Germania.
1924 Heinrich Himmler, commander of the Nazi SS, records his own encounter with the Germania: “Thus we shall be again; or, at least, some of us.”