A most dangerous book: Tacitus’s Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich

TollundmannenWhen I was in my early college days, rather than wasting time on boys, I spent my time in libraries immersing (you’ll get the pun shortly) myself in tomes on the bog people – iron age corpses beautifully mummified in peat bogs throughout northern Europe. If you’ve known me for any length of time I’m sure you’re aware of my connoisseurship in mummies. Anyway, in my research I was referred to Tacitus’ short and entertaining ethnography Germania about the ancient tribes inhabiting the region “east of the Rhine, roaming an area enclosed by the Baltic Sea to the north, the Alps to the south, and the Vistula River to the east”. Christopher Krebs’ volume A Most Dangerous Book: Tactitus’ Germania From the Roman Empire to the Third Reich analyses the use and abuse of this short work by powerful leaders since its “rediscovery” in the 15th century up through the Third Reich.

Written under emperor Nerva in the first century by the voluble historian Publius (or Gaius) Cornelius Tacitus, Germania can be considered a minor work. The author we call Tacitus is better known for his Histories, Annals, and his biographical tribute to his father-in-law Agricola. What earns Tacitus’ little book the description of “dangerous” is that it was used to validate certain beliefs about the origins of “German people” in order to justify Third Reich era ideologies and nefarious socio-political agenda. The reality is that this was not Tacitus’ intent and is in fact a total misinterpretation of the work. It is likely that Tacitus wrote Germania, not from personal experience, but as a subtle stab at the lows to which Roman society and culture found itself in the post Julio-Claudian years.

Though Krebs’ dry wit and professorial voice may bring back collegian memories, he entertainingly describes how copies of Germania were frantically sought by Third Reich leaders; how its themes were bastardized in Nazi party literature; and how social clubs were formed that celebrated “German virtues” and “ancient superiority”.

As Krebs’ book is an academic treatment, some readers may get lost in the details, particularly since the actual text of Germania is not included but that’s a problem easily remedied in this day and age. One can easily secure a copy at your local library or online at Project Gutenberg.

The snippets of the original text provided by Krebs are not enough for the layman reader to truly understand the work and Krebs’ points. On the whole however, A Most Dangerous Book is a most worthwhile read particularly if you enjoy classic texts and are interested in understanding them (like all literature and intellectual creations) as a product of their time and culture. Third Reich scholars will also appreciate this unique angle into the Nazi worldview.

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