Christopher B. Kreb’s A Most Dangerous Book Tacitus’ Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich (2011)

At the end of the first century AD the Roman historian Tacitus wrote a work describing people he refers to as Germans. In contrast to the Romans, these people emerge from Tacitus as a hardy and vigorous folk who had preserved their purity of blood, being free of any taint from inter-marriage. Such a portrayal was congenial to later Germans (who may have had little in common with the people Tacitus dealt with.) It allowed scholars of the Renaissance period in northern Europe to claim for themselves dignity in the face of apparently more civilized peoples to the south, and the emphasis on racial purity was taken up with a vengeance in the nineteenth century. The murky notions that developed there, among them that of the Jews as one of the racial groups within Germany, would have devastating consequences in the century that followed. It is not surprising to learn that Heinrich Himmler, in particular, was obsessed with Tacitus’ short book.

Ths is one of those sudies on a particular topic that open wide windows, and Krebs writes in a winning style: Julius Caesar is ‘the general who came, saw and quickly left Germany.’  Indeed, his conciseness sometimes suggests he is teetering on the brink of parodying Tacitus.

Krebs touches on the use made of the Germania by a scholar of the monastery of Fulda, Rudolph, who lifted material from it for a book he wrote.  I wonder whether there isn’t more to be said here. People in that part of the world were very interested in Germanic traditions just then. The Heliand, a paraphrase of the Gospels into Old Saxon, was written in the ninth century and constitutes a rethinking of the such things as the relationship between Christ and his apostles along the line of what would have been expected of a traditional Germanic chief and his band of followers (two versions of it in modern English have been published, but the job could be done again.) And one circumstance brings us almost achingly close to being able to tie the Germania and more closely to Fulda. Tacitus refers to the Germans’ ancient songs, their carmina antiqua. The learned Einhard, a product of the school of Fulda, mentions in his biography of Charlemagne that the great man ordered that barbara et antiquissima carminain which the deeds and wars of the kings of old were sung were to be committed to writing. The phrase is a difficult one, for it could mean ‘barbarous and very old songs’  or ‘vernacular and very old songs’, but either meaning would fit the epic fragment known as the Hildebrandslied, copied at the monastery of Fulda (again!) between 830 and 840. But I’m struck by the overlap between Einhard’s phrase and Tacitus’ term carmina antiqua. The similarity may well have been accidental…but need it have been?