How did Tacitus’ Germania give the Germans such bad ideas?
Perhaps the most fateful decision in all of European history was made by Augustus Caesar, when he chose to set the border of the Roman Empire at the Rhine. As a result, the region known to the Romans as Germania would be without the products of Roman civilization – good roads and large cities, as well as the Latin language and Christianity. But he would also remain vigorous and untamed enough to threaten Roman power, and ultimately destroy it in the fifth century AD. The border between the Romance and Germanic languages, between Catholicism and Protestantism, even between the Entente and the Central Powers during the First World War, darkened the border between Germania and Rome.
It’s no wonder, then, that the feeling of being “non-Roma”, for better or for worse, has been so instrumental in shaping modern German identity. But the great irony, as Christopher Krebs shows in A most dangerous book: Tacitus Germany From the Roman Empire to the Third Reich, it was a Roman who contributed the most to defining and crystallizing this proud German otherness. Cornelius Tacitus, best known for his grimly wry history of Rome’s wicked emperors, was also the author of a short ethnographic treatise on German tribes, known as The Germany. This book, written in 98 AD, was nearly lost in the Middle Ages. But when it was rediscovered and aired at 15and century, even as the Renaissance and the Reformation gained strength, it became something like the bible of German nationalism.
Given where this nationalism has led, Krebs is quite justified in the title of his intelligent and scholarly new study, which synthesizes much of classical scholarship and intellectual history into a concise and accessible history. To drive the point home, the book opens with a vignette from 1943, when SS troops were sent by Heinrich Himmler to a villa in Italy, with orders to retrieve the oldest existing copy of the Germany before falling into Allied hands. They failed, but the The Raiders of the Lost Ark-style mission shows how much numinous power the Nazis attributed to this ancient book.
And they weren’t alone. Krebs, a German-born classicist who teaches at Harvard, shows that almost every important German intellectual movement, beginning with the Reformation, made Germany. On the basis of a simple reading of the text – and Krebs’ only fault is that by concentrating on the Germanyof the beyond, it does not say enough about what it really contains, it may seem surprising. Tacitus is hardly flattering either for the earth or for its inhabitants. It is “a hideous and coarse region, under a rigorous climate, gloomy to see or to cultivate”. The men are unruly and lazy, leaving all the manual work to the women, and they drink so much that “if you will just spare their excess drinking and supply them with whatever they covet, it will be no less easy to defeat them” . by vices than by arms.
Yet, if these are the vices of the primitives, the Germans are also credited with the primitive virtues. They are tall, beautiful and vigorous, excellent warriors, jealous of their freedom and sexually chaste. In short, they are the diametric opposites of the luxurious aristocrats of Rome, who were the first readers of Tacitus. The historian makes of the Germans noble savages, as the European writers of the American Indians will do later, to reproach them for the excesses of his own society. As Krebs sums it up, “Freedom, courage, morality and simplicity… could still, it seemed, be found, if not in Rome, at least in German.”
Fifteen hundred years later, when the Germany resurfaced in the library of a German monastery, it is still the Romans who are most anxious to read it. With a scholarly sense of the drama of bibliophilia, Krebs details the quest of Italian humanists to find the lost and unknown works of antiquity. He rejoiced at the brief note in the diary of a papal secretary announcing: “The book of Cornelius Tacitus on ‘the origin and situation of Germany’ is found; seen in Rome in 1455.
But while the Italians rediscovered Germany, the Germans made it a best-seller of the Renaissance. In an intellectual judo flip, this Roman treatise on German primitivism is taken up by Germans who want to assert their historical and moral superiority over Rome. Martin Luther’s followers “produced their own Latin editions, the first German translation, and a detailed commentary” on Tacitus’ work. Leading Lutheran Philip Melanchthon hoped the book would help readers “contemplate… the strength and virtue of ancient Germany.”
Over the centuries, Krebs shows, certain themes have repeated themselves in the way German intellectuals have used and abused the Germany. Tacitus assumes that the German tribes were autochthonous – that they originated from German soil and never mixed with any other people. After all, he reasoned, who would voluntarily leave the Mediterranean lands to live in the swamps and forests? But German writers chose to ignore the insult; they loved the idea of early siblingship and built towers of fantastic speculation on Tacitus’s shaky foundations.
“Some have proposed that German rather than Hebrew was the primary language and that ‘Adam was a German.’ Others, noting that the Jews had borrowed the name of one of Noah’s great-grandsons, Ashkenaz, to designate Germany, have suggested that this Ashkenaz was the founder of the German tribes, and that his name was a corruption of Tuisco, the god worshiped by the Germans of Tacitus. When Justus Möser, on the 18thandwriter and statesman of the last century, wanted to emphasize that the old German constitution was democratic, he turned to Tacitus’ account of popular assemblies. Did Tacitus also say that the Germans were poor farmers? Never mind, Moser replied – here the Roman was simply misinterpreting the evidence.
Thus, Krebs shows, the Germany could be made to say just about anything an interpreter wanted. But Tacitus’ most fateful misreading emerged in the 19and century, with the rise of “scientific” racism. Now the proposition that the ancient Germans were an autochthonous people was confused with the idea that they were an unmixed race, of pure Aryan stock, endowed with long skulls whose charlatanistic phrenology indicated all virtue.
From there it was only a step to the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, by which the Nazis forbade marriage between Germans and Jews. “The ideologically aligned readers of Germany viewed the laws… as “the most recent effort” to restore the racial purity mentioned by Tacitus,” writes Krebs. The Hitler Youth guide bore an epigraph from the Germany: “It is the greatest honor, the greatest power to be surrounded at all times by a huge band of chosen young men.” That Himmler himself—like Hitler, Goering, and Goebbels—presented a highly un-Aryan appearance did not diminish his enthusiasm for transforming the SS into a latter-day German aristocracy, as blond, tall, and warlike as Tacitus’ leaders. .
Can all this be kicked out of Tacitus? Was the book itself “dangerous”, or were its readers simply using it to reinforce beliefs and prejudices from elsewhere? Krebs, writing with all the horror of recent German history in mind, delivers a harsh verdict. “Ideas are viruses. They depend on spirits as hosts, they reproduce and mutate…and they gang up to form ideologies,” he writes in his introduction. And the Germany virus…after 350 years of incubation…evolved into a systemic infection culminating in the major crisis of the 20th century. Modern readers have often wished that more classic texts could have survived the Dark Ages, but the Germany may be the rare exception. If the last surviving manuscript had been eaten by rats in a monk’s library a thousand years ago, the world might have been better off.