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A most dangerous review

Get your classic thinking caps on!

Books for days. / Haley Klassen
Books for days. / Haley Klassen

Author: Neil Middlemiss

“With the speed of those who know that their days are numbered, the SS detachment charged up the pebble-and-sand-covered driveway….But with the object of Himmler’s desire safely out of reach, they could not find what they had come for.”

What could so deeply interest the Reichsführer of the SS and a leading member of the Nazi party? Of the many possible answers, a book seems most improbable. Yet, as Christopher Krebs (Classics, Stanford University) shows in A Most Dangerous Book (2011, W. W. Norton & Company Inc.), this is one of many examples in which Gaius Cornelius Tacitus’ Germania served an ideological purpose far surpassing what one might expect from a book written almost 2000 years ago by a Roman who, by all accounts, had never visited the area he wrote about.

Krebs traces the history of the text from the context in which Tacitus wrote through to the post-Nazi era. Krebs claims that Tacitus wrote of the “Germanen” as if they were a monolithic culture that could serve as the foil to his concerns about the Roman Empire.

These essentially mythical, pre-historical Germanen, famed for their improbable victory over Varus in the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD, could exemplify the “raw bravery, moral integrity, and passionate striving for freedom” that the Romans of Tacitus’ time allegedly lacked.

At the same time, the Germanen lacked the refinement and intellectual sophistication of Rome. This way of presenting the Germanen allowed Tacitus to challenge the Romans without diminishing their sense of superiority. Many readers of Germania have failed to appreciate this context; Krebs provides a laundry list of examples, but I will mention two in particular.

Germania was “re-discovered” in 15th century Italy, when ancient Classics dominated the studies of the Italian Renaissance. Giannantonio Campano, a speaker for the future Pope Pius III, implored the Germans to recapture a long-lost warrior’s spirit, while turning the alleged moral purity of their ancestors into a contemporary religious purity that demanded German cooperation against the Turks who were seen as a threat to Christianity.

Tacitus had also written that these ancient Germans were geographically isolated and thus ethnically pure. By the late 19th century, this isolation had long since diminished and a unified German state had only just come into existence.

Nonetheless, many associated this ethnic purity with their fellow contemporary German citizens, perhaps best encapsulated in the calls for a movement of “Blut und Boden” (“Blood and Soil”).

Krebs’ book is a well-referenced race through a 2000-year period that culminates in one of the most horrific periods in human history. The narrative occasionally feels forced. This book reads very quickly and can easily capture your interest, but the title is misleading.

Krebs closes with the claim that there is nothing dangerous about the book at all: the problem is that so many have made Germania apply to their time without an understanding of how it was produced or what was meant. This book leaves open some serious questions about how interpretation works, but is intriguing if only as a testimony to the continuing influence of Classical texts.

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