A Most Dangerous Book
By Christopher Krebs
W.W. Norton, 303 pages

In 98 C.E., Cornelius Tacitus, a young Roman patrician who would mature into the archetypal stylish historian, wrote a prolonged essay entitled Germania. It sought to describe the lives and virtues of a congeries of barbarian tribes, out of the Roman orbit, on the far side of the Rhine. Those whom Julius Caesar had failed to subdue the great conqueror lumped under the generic name Germani. In fact, they never called themselves by that title, nor was there a single country whose citizens knew it as Germania.

For the Romans, those sunless regions remained terra incognita, full of somber menace. The only serious attempt to enroll them into the Roman Empire came in 9 c.e., during the reign of the emperor Augustus. His legate, Quinctilius Varus, advanced with three legions into the Teutoburg forest. Gulled by the promise of a friendly welcome, he was ambushed by the native leader Hermann, whom Tacitus called Arminius. The Roman expeditionary force was annihilated. Augustus decreed that there should never be another attempt to recruit the Germans into the civilized world. During the following centuries, there was copious trade with the beery, bellicose inhabitants of the far side of the Rhine, but they remained fractious with each other, united only in being alien to Rome. Tacitus never went near them.

Read in his original trim Latin, Tacitus’s Germania is a work of fanciful anthropology more like Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels or Montesquieu’s Persian Letters than Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques. It purports to be about unspoiled tribesmen who have none of the Romans’ sophistication and—more important—remain immune to Mediterranean decadence. Tacitus contrasts the good faith and honesty of natural men with the urbane Romans who affected to be superior to them. Thickened with a sediment of old soldiers’ tales, Germania was an early essay in the mythology of the noble savage. Like Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s natural man, Tacitus’s uncultivated tribesman was a utopian fiction. He lived close to the soil but left it to his faithful women to till while he did manly things, mostly boozing and brawling.

It could hardly have occurred to Tacitus that anyone north of the Alps would ever read his book. He intended Germania to amuse and scarify an audience of hedonistic metropolitans whose prime activity was toadying to the emperor in order to keep their family fortunes immune from confiscation. His German clansmen had no such timidity: fierce egalitarian warriors, they served no tyrant and owned no possessions but their simple crofts and their sharp weapons. In like fashion, Mary McCarthy and Susan Sontag made paragons of the North Vietnamese and an exemplary template of Mao’s China.

So why, almost two millennia later, did the hunt for a rare 15th-century manuscript (the Codex Aesinas) become an obsession of the Reichsführer S.S. Heinrich Himmler? Himmler was a prim provincial schoolmaster, dressed as an unconvincing Aryan warrior in a uniform designed by Hugo Boss. Craving authenticity as well as power, he was known to declare that he was really a farmer, like Tacitus’s Germans of old; it just so happened that he didn’t have a farm. The mechanization of Germany in modern times went along with the Nazi’s sentimentalization of the pastoral life, which Tacitus had idealized.

Hence, in 1943, as the Third Reich was beginning to founder, a detachment of S.S. men set out for a villa not far from Ancona, in northern Italy, to purloin what amounted, in Himmler’s crackpot estimation, to a holy book, a “most dangerous book,” a scripture that supposedly confirmed that the Germans were literally a race apart, sprung from the soil on which they had always lived, their homogeneous blood untainted by non-Teutonic dilutions.

What was “dangerous” about Tacitus’s book was not what he actually said in it, but what German historians, philosophers, and ideologists could claim that he had said. Germania was the only quasi-biblical source for those who wanted to immortalize the blond, blue-eyed ancestors who left no literature, no art, no laws, and no monuments. The smart and provocative A Most Dangerous Book, by the Harvard historian Christopher Krebs, resembles its subject in being an account of outlandish and (we have to hope) obsolete theories of racial supremacy.

For some 15 centuries, Germania was a forgotten classic (hence the rarity of that manuscript, on which, in fact, Himmler never laid his thieving hands). Its alleged contents became vital to the aspirations of German-speaking central Europeans only after Martin Luther pinned his 95 theses to the doors of Wittenberg Cathedral in October 1517. There would be no unified German state for more than another three and a half centuries. Only in 1871 was Bismarck’s imperial dream realized, after Prussia’s victory in its war with France. Until then, as Friedrich Nietzsche put it, “to be German meant to wonder what it was to be German.” With the rise of German vanities, Tacitus—falsely construed and ingeniously emended—was decreed to have enshrined a wonderfully apt answer. To be German was to be magnificently unlike anyone else.

Krebs makes it clear that Luther’s rebellion against Rome was theological in form but nationalist in spirit. Luther’s ranting defiance found popular backing because the Catholic Church had turned into another Roman invasion: papal legates and officious priests took the place of legions and generals. The outlandish Germans were expected to pay excessive tribute to the Vatican in return for being absolved of their sins by unmanly, Latin-speaking professional pardoners. On this reading, the Reformation was a colonial revolt in theological costume. In the late 1800s, Bismarck’s Kulturkampf was another round in the rejection of Rome’s intrusive moralizing. In the 1930s, Pius XII’s concordat with the Nazis was a feeble attempt to stay in spiritual business north of the Alps.

Tacitus’s account was taken to be especially valuable because it was written by someone on the other side. Commentaries tacked onto it by tendentious scholars and romancing philosophers veered further and further from the original text. Misreadings and falsifications abounded to validate racial conceits; blended with Lutheran anti-Semitism, Germania was conscripted into the Aryan ideology of Alfred Rosenberg. In 1937, Thomas Mann, who was raised as a Lutheran, endorsed Nietzsche’s sardonic view of the Germans: “The prominence of Hitler,” Mann said, “is not a case of rotten luck, but directly in line with Luther and so a truly German phenomenon.”

Racism is a way of defining who you are by proclaiming who you are not. Napoleon’s conquest of Prussia, and his attempt to unify Europe under his own rational despotism, made not being French an early element in being a German. The Nazi philosopher Carl Schmitt—who is not in Krebs’s catalogue of crackpots and opportunists—insisted that political seriousness was a function of having an enemy against whom one’s own society could then be engaged in a righteous fight to the death. The Jews became the nearest instance of those whose elimination would vindicate the superiority of the factitious Aryan/Nordic “race.” The fear that Jews also had “unpolluted blood,” as a result of their endogamous habits, made them an ideally dangerous Other, the mirror image of the glorious German.

In the chorus of Wagnerian conceit, Tacitus’s Germania was taken to prove that the Germans were always harmonious, folksinging people. In fact, Tacitus wrote, even tribal kinsmen could hardly share a meal without brawling among themselves. He prayed that their discords would continue, because “fate could provide no greater favor” to Rome. In this he presaged the views of François Mitterrand and Margaret Thatcher; neither was in any hurry to have the two Germanies unite after the fall of the Berlin wall.

Krebs maintains a lightish touch as he parades the many divines, philosophers, professors, and mountebanks (not always distinct categories) who twisted Germania into a gospel bestowing quasi-divine authority on Teutonic supremacy. To avoid inconvenient blemishes, they suppressed any mention of the habit of human sacrifice. Passion for antique origins was not limited to the Germans: echoing Virgil’s Aeneid, many Europeans had an appetite for Homeric ancestry. Francus, a Trojan prince, was said to be the forefather of the French kings; Britons and Normans made similar claims.

Ancient texts, of which the Bible is only the most durable, were—and still are—contorted to certify whatever pretensions a powerful hierarchy or vainglorious patriotism can get away with.  In 1632, Justus Georg Schottelius, the erudite tutor to the son of Duke August the Younger of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel, claimed that German was spoken by those constructing the tower of Babel. Others chose to announce that they were of Spartan stock: Goebbels’s catchphrase “Make Way, you Old Ones!” was a parody of an old Spartan round-song. He would not have been amused to learn that claims to Spartan lineage had already been lodged by the Judean Jews at the time of Herod the Great.

Happily, Krebs also finds space for a few honest men, such as the great Latinist Eduard Norden who, in 1920, dared to say that the virtues supposedly specific to Tacitus’s Germania were, in truth, “wandering motifs” that other ancient writers had attached to Egyptians and Scythians. There were also brave priests, such as the Cardinal Archbishop of Munich, Michael von Faulhaber, who, on New Year’s Eve 1933, denounced the folly of “Nordic or German religion” and praised the people of Israel for possessing “the noblest religious values.”  He even dared to denounce the pre-Christian Germans, citing Tacitus’s description of their drunken carousals. The Nazi security police reported that the cardinal had excited a good measure of popular support. Imagine if Pope Pius XII had done as much, instead of so little.

So what is the contemporary moral to be found in Krebs’s crisp account of how Tacitus was hijacked, deformed, and misused? It is that academics, however good their intentions, cannot be trusted to give an unvarnished account of the foreign texts they claim to be teaching. Today’s students very often rely on translations of classics, the Bible, and the Koran. How many have the linguistic competence to verify the accuracy of an assigned translation? The more refined a version is, the less it is likely to give an accurate account of the original. Almost three centuries ago, the Cambridge classicist Richard Bentley, after reading Alexander Pope’s version of the Iliad, remarked, “It is a pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer.” Without quite spelling it out, Krebs supplies a cautionary tale that should be applied with all due tact to our own present-day professoriat.

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