The uses and abuses of history

How an ancient historian became a Nazi

None of the German media reports that UNESCO had named the Carolingian monastery of Corvey as a World Heritage site in late June failed to mention the abbey’s celebrated medieval library. There, lying in dusty splendour for a good six centuries, Renaissance scholars found the most famous “lost manuscript” of their day, the sole surviving copy of the first five books of the Roman historian Tacitus’s major work, Annales. Monasteries founded in Germany by Charlemagne and his successors, in fact, played a crucial role in preserving all of Tacitus’s works, major and minor, an irony not lost on Harvard classics professor Christopher Krebs. As he elegantly shows in a marvelous 2011 piece of scholarship, A Most Dangerous Book: Tacitus’s Germania From the Roman Empire to the Third Reich, it was a minor work—minor to Tacitus, anyway—also found in a German abbey, that later Germans would turn into one of the most influential ancient texts in the modern world. And mostly for ill: at the hands of German nationalists and racists, De Origine et situ Germanorum (Concerning the Origin and Situation of the Germans) became what a modern Italian scholar called, “one of the 100 most dangerous books ever written.”

Cornelius Tacitus—who survived the reign of the tempestuous and possibly downright crazy Roman Emperor Domitian (81 to 96 CE) by being very, very quiet, and flourished under the next emperors—wrote his brief, 30-page, ethnographical treatise of the inhabitants of the lands beyond the Empire’s northwest border about 98 CE. Although he certainly never went north of the Alps himself, Tacitus was aware the northern barbarians were not a single entity—he mentions more than 50 independent tribes—but the historian thought them sufficiently alike in their sheer un-Romaness to lump them under a single name in his Germania. It was a name Tacitus picked up from Julius Caesar, whose source terminology for the tribes on the east side of the Rhine—the side he didn’t conquer—remains uncertain.

Perhaps that’s why Germany as an ethnic and geographical descriptive disappeared along with Tacitus’s work after the Roman Empire crumbled to pieces. Germans and their neighbours have more names for the former’s homeland—Deutschland (German), Tyskland (Danish), Allemagne (French), Niemcy (Polish), Saksa (Finnish), to name a few—than any other European nation bears. Germany, in fact, is one of the least common names: before the late Elizabethan Age, when Shakespeare could still brag of his countrymen’s ability to out-drink “Almains,” English-speakers never used it. Its modern-day spread through the Anglo world was one of the more benign effects of the momentous rediscovery of Tacitus’s work during the Renaissance.

Krebs begins by having a field day with the feints, misinformation and bare-faced lies promulgated by a group of competitive Italian Renaissance text-hunters after they scented rumours that a copy of something unknown by Tacitus could be had from a money-hungry Bavarian monastery. (It all reads like a satire of contemporary tenure-lusting among academics.) But the real mischief began after the rumours proved true in 1455.

Tacitus wasn’t a satirist himself, but in the Germania he was working one of Western moralism’s most enduring tropes: contrasting the noble savage beyond the border with the decadent civilized man within. The Germans, he wrote, were all of a phenotype, red-haired, blue-eyed and huge in stature; they were warlike, but honourable and loyal to death, fighting only for truth, justice and the German way. Overall, their moral standards put Romans to shame: “nobody laughs off vice, and to corrupt and to be corrupted is not called ‘modern times.’ ” As that line reveals, Tacitus meant his work as a call to Roman renewal, not a paean to the barbarians, whose faults as he saw them—in culture, manners and personal hygiene—drew sneers to match his praise for their virtues.

But the sneers were easily ignored in the first stirrings of the German nationalism that would prove so potent during the Reformation, especially among intellectuals envious of the French and English nation-states. One of the few to play both themes was an Italian papal envoy sent north to rally support for a crusade against the expanding Ottoman Empire. In public he stressed German warrior prowess as set out by his illustrious Roman predecessor; in private the envoy sent whining letters home, begging his friends to pull enough strings to get him out of a frozen hellhole of inedible food and “dead men who are still farting.”

German thinkers simply embraced the positive aspects. By the 19th century, racial theorists were taking Tacitus’s judgment that the ancient Germans preserved their virtues through their refusal to intermarry with other peoples as Gospel—and as proof that Jews were poisoning the very blood of the volk. By the time the Third Reich arose, Nazi theorists considered the Germania “a bible that every thinking German should possess,” in the words of one, and its author supremely trustworthy because he was both ancient and an admiring enemy of the Germans. Nazi gatherings had “Tacitus rooms” with particularly choice quotations about blood purity and the supreme virtue of manly loyalty unto death written on the walls for the contemplation of young. Adolf Hitler aimed to call the new capital he aimed to build Germania.

For true believers like Heinrich Himmler—who sent an SS team to steal a manuscript copy of the Germania from an Italian villa even as the Allies were advancing up the peninsula—Tacitus was a racial genius on a par with the Fuhrer himself, and his work one of the foundations of Nazism. Some of the old monks of Corvey, those who agreed with the long-running medieval argument that no good could come from preserving the works of pagan authors, would have said “told you so.”

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