From the land of gloomy forests
There can be few better times to think about the myths of the ancient origins of Germany than when listening to the second act Prelude to Siegfried. This scarcely manageable piece of music creates in some five minutes a trackless, choked, gloomy forest, menace (specifically a sleeping dragon) and a sense of waiting – the many years during which dwarves and gods have been drumming their fingers waiting for the great (if borderline silly) events at last to unfold.
It is hard to avoid a sense of irritation mixed with relief that non-Germans have such a second-hand relationship with this music. There have been many great non-German enthusiasts for and interpreters of Wagner, but none have to take quite the same responsibility that Germans do for the drama’s roots and meaning. There is something about all the elements in the forest Prelude very specific to German culture. English forests can be driven across so quickly that it’s possible to miss them – and walking in them hardly counts as a form of exercise, with a playground, baked-potato salesman or nature table every ten feet or so. But in Germany it’s still possible to stand on high hills and see nothing but trees, albeit very well-cared-for trees, rolling towards the horizon – a tiny fragment of the ancient forest. The dragon, dwarves and gods also seem convincing, part of a toy box of creatures lurking in the mountains and forests and repainted by generations of linguists, folklorists and composers, at the heart of any number of festivals and children’s books.
The Germans have invested far more in their ancient past than the English, who have always had a more restricted curiosity about their origins. The two nations share much of the same primeval ice-sheet, giving its melting as a clear start date (southern Germany was clear of ice, making it annoyingly different even in the Pleistocene era), but then we go our separate ways. Undeniably much of the national story of England’s origins is embarrassing. As a Roman colony Britannia was a hardship post and a bit of a joke. There has always been a last-ditch suggestion that the Romans may have left us at least the odd noble-browed, classically educated gene, but sheer lack of surviving information about the province shows the disregard in which its owners held it. As an obsessive fascination with the ancient past swept over Europe in the nineteenth century, British superiority complexes were simply not nourished much by such sorry stuff. And once the Romans left, Britain became a free-for-all, with wave upon wave of pleasure-seeking North Germans, Danes and Norwegians using it as a sort of chopping-board until the final ignominy of the Norman Conquest. In all this melee the figures of Arthur and Alfred bob up and down – the former invented by French poets, the latter a figure seen through so many layers of subsequent marauders that it is unclear whether modern England has any real link with him at all.
The very public and mortifying nature of England as a resort for axe-wielding immigrants has made its deep, early history almost unavailable to inspiring narrative except as a swirling and idiotic run-up to Magna Carta and then fast-forward to Macaulay’s enjoyable onward and upward. For the Germans, however, the deep past has had a corrosive and disastrous effect. There can be few stronger arguments for the damage that can be done by paying too much attention to history than how Germany has understood and taught its ancient past, however aesthetically pleasurable it can be in operas.
All over Germany, partly entwined in the same obsessions as Wagner and partly in turn inspired by him, artists and writers tried to scrape away at the wholly unrecorded wastes of Central Europe to find some clues as to where they were from. The only real document, and perhaps one of the most unfortunate in European history, was Tacitus’ On the Origin and Situation of the Germans, the Germania, a single copy being found in a Hessian abbey and sent to Rome in 1455, where its implications began to sink in. This book (far more full and interesting than Tacitus’ Agricola, with its description of Britannia) has been tugged apart phrase by phrase. Lifetimes were devoted to extracting every last piece of ambiguous information, initially by Italian humanists, who did so much unhelpful work fabricating the myth of the Ur-Germans in the forest, before then passing on this disastrous gift north of the Alps. The book’s existence is amazing – a seemingly well-informed, very precise account of what the Roman empire knew about the Germans, written in ad 100 or so and surviving, unlike many of Tacitus’ other works, in spite of fire, weather and the whims of monastic librarians and copyists, over almost thirteen centuries.
The Roman empire had famously been unable to subdue the Germans, with its northern border stabilizing along the Rhine and Danube. Generations of German nationalists saw the Germania as the founding document of a German nation – one of ‘pure blood’ (in Tacitus’ catastrophic phrase). Tacitus contrasted the Germans’ specific virtues with their effete, immoral, toga-wearing neighbours’ failings. The Germans are rugged, swift to anger, oddly honourable, simple and good fighters – albeit fighters who get rubbed out when they are stupid enough to engage with the Romans head on. The text delicately balances its impressions so that the Germans are formidable enough to explain why they lie outside the Roman empire and yet savage enough for it not really to be worthwhile subduing them. The tone is reminiscent of British anthropologists describing Africans – until very recently – giving them the same puzzlingly narrow range of designated activities (fighting, feasting, procreating) followed by great stretches of torpor.
The difficulty with the Germania is that it is in many ways a fantasy, although the book’s absolute isolation means we will never know just how much so. ‘Germania’ implies a clear geographical and ethnic part of the world, but since the text’s discovery centuries have been spent, sometimes with terrible results, trying to live up to an entity that in practice wobbles and veers about almost mockingly. Clearly many of the virtues, including the ruinous ‘pure blood’, are only there to provide a contrast with what Tacitus saw as the corrupt, polysexual shambles of Rome and are not meant as serious comments on the people who back in ad 100 lived in a vaguely understood and hostile bit of Europe. We will never be able to disentangle when Tacitus is passing on information based on a serious source (he never went near the region himself) or when he is simply making a smart point for home consumption: were German men really devoted and faithful to their wives, or is Tacitus just needling his friends?
The Germania gives a powerful sense of the inhabitants of that region being very different from those within the empire, and that must have been true. Within the empire there was a settled, road-using, tax-paying, centrally controlled population: across the Rhine were mobile, roadless, freebooting, semi-anarchic individuals in loose bands, living in clearings in an immense, thinly populated forest. The Romans loathed this forest and it was the site of one of the most famous military reverses in their history – the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, in which twenty thousand legionaries and their commander were disposed of by Arminius (‘Hermann the German’), a figure who pops up heavily moustached and frowning with rectitude in various nineteenth-century sculptures and paintings.
This Roman hatred for Germania is gleefully reconstructed in Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator, which opens with the post-Tacitus anti-German campaigns of the emperor Marcus Aurelius. When, in the opening battle sequence, the camera pans over a spectral, freezing, fog-bound forest, seemingly shot through a special depressive charcoal filter, and the caption Germania pops up, we know that we remain in the shadow of the Roman empire two millennia on. This is not the German forest of chirping birds, pleasurable footpaths and mobs of hiking old folk, but the light-deprived nightmare imagined by citrus-fruit and deep-blue-sea Romans, or indeed Californians. The success of this film has enjoyably reopened ancient and disreputable discussions about the nature of ancient Germans. Here they are shown as fabulously grungy, militarily brave but strategically idiotic, yelling mucus-flecked imprecations at the fastidious and disgusted Roman troops. Setting aside too obsessive a sense of realism, Gladiator helpfully allows us to understand Russell Crowe’s Roman general by having him speak English rather than Latin, while the poor Germans are doomed to gargle away crazily before their certain defeat, having been too stupid to post proper guards behind their lines.
But did these ancient Germans really exist? Is there anything to link the people on, say, the Frankfurt metro system today to these shaggy folk? The mischief injected by the Germania is to imply that there is – even down to the title of the book. To Tacitus ‘Germania’ simply meant an arena of un-Roman people, split into numerous tribes, often at odds with one another and addicted to fighting and feasting. It is odd in many ways that modern Germans didn’t see Tacitus’ vision as endorsing permanent backwardness, disunity, inanition and chaotic drunkenness as badges of racial pride. Instead it was used to imply a coherence and value to a block of land which to its inner depths was German. It also endorsed the idea of Germany as a land of forest and personal freedom, albeit a personal freedom confusingly entangled in contradictory idylls about unquestioning obedience to local chieftains.
But in practice so many people have wandered back and forth across the area now called Germany during the thousand years between the Germania and the emergence of a sort of real medieval Germany that the tribes talked about by Tacitus cannot be called German in any but the vaguest sense. A famous example would be the marauding but astute Vandals who seem to have migrated from, very roughly, Silesia (now south-west Poland) all the way to Spain and then on to Africa around the end of the Roman empire, imprinting, through their violent antics, their name on several languages. Or the Burgundians, whose eventual territory between what became France and Germany marks one of the great fault lines in Europe’s geography, and who wandered through Central Europe, seemingly originating from an island off Sweden. We will never know how many of them there were, how much impact they had on the other tribes they carved up or intermarried with, indeed anything much at all. With the best research possible there are whole areas of Germany where the inhabitants and their tribal names remain more or less mysterious. Some of these people must have spoken a sort of proto-German, but only alongside numerous other tribes and any number of evil-smelling incomers carving their bearded ways through supposedly impenetrable forests: Huns from Central Asia, Goths from Sweden, swarms of Avars, Czechs and Sorbs coming into Central Europe from the East, each displacing further tribes, creating fresh societies, different religions, barely getting the hang of sedentary farming before being in turn pushed westward by yet further arrivals.
Conventionally these shifts of peoples over the thousand years or so from contact with the Romans to the final fixing of the Magyars in Hungary in about 900 is seen as a process with an end. But one of the oddities of German history is the degree to which no boundaries are ever really fixed, with each major national group and sub-group gaining power over its neighbour at different points and generating a variety of tragically overlapping myths as to who rightly rules over whom and in what area. The more these ancient tribes’ barely visible trajectories were pored over, the more fraudulent, absurd, but also murderous patterns could be observed. For nineteenth-century nationalists, tensions between Saxons and Wends or Poles and Prussians which were entirely to do with modern power and privilege were instead rooted in some murky, elemental past. Everyone loved these mead-crazed ancestors in elaborate helmets banging their fists on banqueting tables and swearing eternal vengeance of some dark kind or another. There is a marvellous scene in Theodor Fontane’s 1878 Prussian novel After the Storm, where in an obscurely traditional part of Brandenburg, two old friends, a pastor and a magistrate, spend a happy evening, clearly one of many, arguing over a tiny bronze model chariot from an excavation. Is this a richly characteristic piece of Germanic artwork, decorated with Odin’s ravens – or is it the very quintessence of the great Wendish Slavic culture, the plaything of an Obotritan prince in an otter-fur cap, made at a time when the Germanic tribes ‘lived under trees and dressed in animal skins’, wielding crude flints? The two men argue back and forth drawing on an absurd range of linguistic and metallurgic evidence, with the pastor making the devastating point that even his friend’s name, Vitzewitz, itself sounds awfully Slav. There is an obvious pleasure in seeing a great novelist at the height of German chauvinism making fun of this issue, but it also compresses into one short chapter all the problems of ancient Germandom. In practice Germany is a chaotic ethnic lost-property office, and the last place to be looking for ‘pure blood’. As dozens of tribes arrived, left, intermarried and exterminated one another, it became impossible to know who spoke German as a sort of birth-right and who just decided it would be sensible to learn it – and whether the birth-right German had switched from Frankish or Danish or indeed Obotritan a generation before.
What should be local history or a fusty private interest could become horrible as state policy. At its most comic there was Goebbels’ attempt to recreate the atmosphere of pagan Germany through the building of ‘Thing-theatres’, enormous outdoor arenas incorporating heroic oak trees, craggy outcrops and the usual medley of nonsense, where people would congregate in the old northern manner and watch pageants of pure Germandom. It is a small satisfaction but a real one to imagine those who had voted for the Nazis having to sit in the cold and rain watching people in costume declaiming neo-Norse rubbish. The ‘Thing-theatres’ were not a success and only a handful were built; they are now crumbled, disregarded or used for rock concerts. Infinitely worse was the neo-paganism of the SS, with its obsession with blood purity, runes, oaths, flames and temples. If the Third Reich had survived then we would not now be in a position to say just how contemptible this deep German engagement with the ancient past really was.
Excerpted from Germania by Simon Winder
Copyright © 2010 by Simon Winder.
Published in 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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