On the scholarly trail of a first-century CE Latin text that became the bible of the Nazi party.
Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus’ short early work Germania, written just after the reign of the tyrant Domitian and probably as a political challenge in the ongoing war against the northern barbarian tribes, had been lost during the Dark Ages, then resurrected during the Renaissance and eventually enlisted in the multifaceted effort to shape a national German identity from the 15th century onward. Krebs (Classics/Harvard Univ.) does an impressive job wading through the obscure texts in Latin, German and French by writers who picked and chose from Tacitus what they needed for their own agendas until the text played fluidly into the hands of Heinrich Himmler and the Nazis. For general readers, a familiarity with Tacitus’ text is recommended, though Krebs quotes liberally from the Roman and other primary sources to help clarify matters. Considering Tacitus probably never ventured north of the Alps, his portrait of the Germanen (the people) strike the modern historian as a “mosaic of Greek and Roman stereotypes” concerning amorphous warrior tribes whose qualities of “raw bravery, moral integrity and passionate striving for freedom” clearly moved the writer at a time of Roman excess and calamity. Tacitus gives the original Germanic god as Tuisto, along with his earthborn son Mannus, thus introducing the dubious creation myths which later writers would elaborate on wildly, while his claims of the Germanen’s “not being tainted by intermarriage with any other nations” would give rise to subsequent writers’ fantasies involving Aryan purity and superiority. Krebs moves from the rediscovery of Tacitus’ work by Italian humanists to the appropriation of the text by the Lutherites during the Reformation, Montesquieu’s depiction of Germania as fashioning the “blueprint of a free society” and Romantic formulations of the German legends as presented by Richard Wagner. It’s a scholarly journey, to be sure, but a fascinating one.
A deeply chilling, enlightening story of the long, inexorable buildup to National Socialism.