Christopher Krebs' A Most Dangerous Book: How did Tacitus' Germania give Germans such bad ideas?

Reading between the lines.
July 25 2011 6:47 AM

Ideas Are Viruses

How Tacitus' Germania became the bible of German nationalism.

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Over the centuries, Krebs shows, certain themes repeated themselves in the way German intellectuals used and misused the Germania. Tacitus speculates that the German tribes were autochthonous—that they sprung from the German soil, and never mixed with any other people. After all, he reasoned, who would voluntarily leave the Mediterranean lands to live in swamps and forests? But German writers chose to ignore the insult; they loved the idea of primeval Germanness, and built towers of fantastic speculation on Tacitus' flimsy foundation.

"Some proposed that German rather than Hebrew was the primary language and that 'Adam was a German man.' " Others, noting that the Jews had borrowed the name of one of Noah's great-grandsons, Ashkenaz, to refer to Germany, suggested that this Ashkenaz was the founder of the German tribes, and that his name was a corruption of Tuisco, the god worshipped by Tacitus' Germans. When Justus Möser, the 18th-century writer-statesman, wanted to emphasize that the ancient German constitution was democratic, he turned to Tacitus' account of popular assemblies. Did Tacitus also say that the Germans were poor farmers? Never mind, Moser replied—here, the Roman was simply misreading the evidence.

In this way, Krebs shows, the Germania could be made to say just about anything an interpreter wanted. But the most fateful misreading of Tacitus emerged in the 19th century, with the rise of "scientific" racism. Now the proposition that the ancient Germans were an autochthonous people blended into the idea that they were an unmixed race, of pure Aryan stock, blessed with the long skulls that quack phrenology made the index of all virtue.

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From there it was a short step to the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, by which the Nazis banned marriage between Germans and Jews. "Ideologically aligned readers of the Germania considered the laws … as the 'most recent effort' to restore the racial purity Tacitus mentioned," Krebs writes. The guidebook for the Hitler Youth carried an epigraph from the Germania: "It is the greatest honor, the greatest power to be at all times surrounded by a huge band of chosen young men." That Himmler himself—like Hitler, Goering, and Goebbels—presented a highly un-Aryan appearance didn't diminish his enthusiasm for turning the SS into a latter-day German aristocracy, as blond, tall, and warlike as Tacitus' chieftains.

Can all this be laid at Tacitus's doorstep? Was the book itself "dangerous," or were its readers simply using it to reinforce beliefs and prejudices that came from elsewhere? Krebs, writing with the full horror of recent German history in mind, delivers a harsh verdict. "Ideas are viruses. They depend on minds as their hosts, they replicate and mutate … and they gang up together to form ideologies," he writes in his introduction. And "the Germania virus … after 350 years of incubation … progressed to a systemic infection culminating in the major crisis of the twentieth century." Modern readers have often wished that more classical texts could have survived the Dark Ages, but the Germania may be the rare exception. If the last surviving manuscript had been eaten by rats in a monk's library a thousand years ago, the world might have been better off.

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at the New Republic.