A Most Dangerous Book

A Most Dangerous Book: Tacitus's Germania From the Roman Empire to the Third Reich, by Christopher B. Krebs

I've been pretty excited about this book.  Once I finished reading the actual Germania, so that I could understand this one, I was able to get started.  (I shall continue the chain by reading about one of the terrible consequences in Timothy Snyder's Black Earth.)  Krebs packs his book with lots of fascinating information, but it's quite dense and I went pretty slowly because I found it hard to concentrate sometimes.  The second I drifted even a tiny bit, I'd lose the train and discover that I had no idea what the last two pages had said.

Krebs starts off with plenty of background for Tacitus and what was going on in the Roman Empire at the time.  Of course, Tacitus never set foot in the unconquered territory of the barbarians; he didn't study the Germanic tribes in person or anything.  He draws the tribes as the descendants of an autochthonic earth god, Tuisto, and his son Mannus (which just means 'human'); they've remained 'pure and unmixed' with other tribes because their land is so grim and cold and unpleasant that nobody else wants to live there.  Tacitus wrote with his eye on contemporary Roman government and society, not on anthropology; he wasn't so much describing actual Germanic tribes as drawing a contrast with his own society.  Germania proved to be a popular work and hand-written copies were sold at bookstores.

We then have to skip ahead over a thousand years, to Renaissance Italians excited about finding old manuscripts in monasteries.  Books had been preserved carefully in monastic libraries, but they were not necessarily known to the outside world.  Certain Italians made something of a competition out of digging up unique books, and one of these was the Germania, hidden away in a German monastery.  This was a wonderful find, but humanists took it a little too seriously as real ethnography and went right ahead applying it to their own day.  Italians sneered at the 'uncivilized' Germans, and German humanists grasped desperately at a chance to prove that they too had a proud and ancient heritage of strong, honest, loyal warrior-farmers.  This required a good deal of twisting of the actual text, but never mind.

Krebs then traces a complex and ever-growing movement of Germanness through several hundred years.  Tuisto was remade as a Trojan prince and even as a son of Noah.  Perhaps German was the Adamic tongue?  Well, if not, it was definitely ancient and pure and passed down from the Tower of Babel.  Whatever the favorite issue of the day was, scholars could use Tacitus and their imaginations to prove that Germanness was whole, unmixed, and unique to itself (in a never-ending, endlessly expanding repetition of that one single paragraph from Germania).

In the 19th century, the racial theories came in and scholars started arguing that Aryans (what we would think of as Indo-Europeans, except racialized) were the drivers of history, and Germans were the highest example thereof, indicated by being tall, blond, blue-eyed, and dolichocephalic (that is, having a long and tall head).  "As a mythical race -- rather than as a linguistic group -- Aryans were believed to have conquered, colonized, and acculturated the world."  They'd taken an ancient belief in the possibility of an autochthonic god siring a race of humans, and turned it into a pseudo-scientific racial theory that meant nothing whatsoever.  It all intensified in the 20th century...

It's all pretty depressing, but reading it all at once like this is also a salutary exercise.  Krebs traces the development of this belief, which became pretty much a religion to some, from its beginnings, and in doing so shows how very hollow and insane the whole thing was. The whole racial superiority thing developed from a wish to show those snotty Renaissance Romans that Germans were just as good as they were, and that developed from a pamphlet written to remind a certain few ancient Romans that tyranny is bad.   I guess there's no limit to the human ability to invent and rationalize reasons to do nasty things to each other.


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