Friday, May 06, 2016

A Most Dangerous Book

Book Review:

A Most Dangerous Book – Tacitus’s Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich
By Christopher Krebs
What is Germany, and who are the Germans?  What does it mean to be German? These questions have engaged European thinkers for centuries.  In “A Most Dangerous Book – Tacitus’s Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich”, Christopher Krebs illuminates the role of that book as a central element in the struggle of the German people to define themselves, culminating in their descent into the darkness of National Socialism. A remarkable work of historical scholarship, this book deserves a place in the library of any serious student of German history.

From the introduction:  “…the ideology of Nazism did not present itself to Hitler out of nowhere…In the formation of the core concepts of National Socialist ideology – racism, the ideology of Volk and its spirit, and the selfsame Germanic myth – Tacitus’s Germania played a major role.”

He continues: “Ideas resemble viruses: They depend on minds as their hosts, they replicate and mutate in content and form, and they gang up together to form ideologies. They spread vertically through generations as well as horizontally from one social group to another.”  Krebs presents his book as an “intellectual epidemiology”, examining how the ideas in the Germania were passed down and understood through the centuries, eventually informing the ideology of the Nazis.

What is the Germania?  Written by the Roman historian Tacitus in A.D. 98, it is a booklet of about 30 pages that describes the nature, habits, and customs of the tribes that inhabited the region north of the Danube and east of the Rhine, which the Romans called “Germanien”.

Tacitus wrote that “The tribes in Germanien, not tainted by intermarriage with any other nations, exist as a distinct unadulterated people that resembles only itself. Consequently, all of them even share the same physical appearance…fierce blue eyes, tawny hair, huge bodies.”  Nobody, he said, would move to their country, as it is “wild in its scenery, harsh in its climate, and grim to inhabit and behold.”  He described their habits and morals, focusing on the values of freedom, fortitude, morality and simplicity, highlighting their connection to the climate and the soil.  He also discussed their devotion to military valor, writing that “nothing is done without weapons.”

Krebs notes that Tacitus most likely never actually visited the region, instead taking his descriptions from various sources and weaving them into a narrative “written by a Roman in Rome for Romans.” Nonetheless, his Germania would be rediscovered in the 15th century and come to be regarded as an authoritative portrait of the ancient Germans.

It is important to recognize that there was no single German nation-state until Otto von Bismarck unified Germany into the “German Reich” in 1871. During the time of the Holy Roman Empire or “First Reich” (962-1806) the region had been a bewildering checkerboard of kingdoms, duchies, counties, free cities, and other sovereign entities with shifting alliances and little in the way of a unified identity.

The central part of Krebs’s book is devoted to a detailed examination of how the Germania was treated by various writers and thinkers from the 15th through the 19th centuries.  It is a fascinating tour de force through European intellectual history, focusing on the way in which Tacitus’s work was used and abused to serve the purposes of various political and intellectual movements.  This portion of the book provides a rich source of follow-on reading to anyone interested in delving more deeply into the subject.

Successive translators of Tacitus infused their translations with their own ideas and biases. During this period, the understanding of Tacitus’s idea of the ethnological and racial purity of the Germanen evolved to include linguistic purity – the German language came to be identified as a unifying feature of German culture.  In the absence of political unity, this linguistic connection became an important defining characteristic of what constituted a German.  Teutonic mythology and Germanic folklore and literature thus became vehicles for the campaign to define a German “national character”.

Educational and other cultural and civic institutions coalesced around the idea of the Volk (people) as the centerpiece of German identity. The emerging völkisch movement in the late 19th century emphasized racial, linguistic, and cultural purity, and extolled Germanic values such as physical fitness, loyalty, martial prowess and closeness to the soil. In all of this, Tacitus’s Germania loomed large as an authoritative portrait of the ancient Germanen and the virtues they embodied.

The last chapter of the book, “A Bible for National Socialists”, details the myriad ways in which the ideology of National Socialism built on the völkisch movement and on the portrayal of Tacitus’s ancient Germanen as a source of pride in Germanic heritage and faith in their destiny as the master race.  The excesses and evils of German National Socialism and Hitler’s “Third Reich” that sprang from this belief in the superiority of the German race – racial purity laws, aggressive war for world domination, and the holocaust – are well known.

As the author writes in his closing line: “In the end the Roman historian Tacitus did not write a most dangerous book; his readers made it so.”  Modern readers seeking to understand the development of the German national character will find this book an important and rewarding source of information.

Mood: Pensive
Music: Wagner, Die Walküre


COL Bradley J. Foster, USAR, is a student of military history with a lifelong interest in the people, language, and culture of Germany.  A graduate of Northwestern University, the University of Michigan, and the U.S. Army War College, he is currently serving on active duty with the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany.


At 06:05, Anonymous Dave Sokasits said...

Excellent piece, if only a quick view into the German character (such as it is).

Long time - I had a "what ever happened to" moment and came across your blog. Nice work.
Small world - I'm working in Stuttgart through the end of May, writing this from my hotel room. Learning German and working on it regularly turned out to be a good move, though it might not have seemed productive at the time.
email me: firstinitiallastnameasoneword at geemaildotcom I'll buy the first round.
Dave Sokasits, ex-23d Engineers.


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