Monday, 21 September 2009

Hermann was not German

2009 is a very "German" year - it sees the 20th celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall (which I already addressed), the 60th anniversary of the foundation of the German Federal Republic (a point which I will address in a future post), the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War (a point which I will probably come to at some point as well) and the 2000th anniversary of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.

The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest is something that has moved German historians and nationalists alike for nearly two hundred years now. Many have called it the "Big Bang" of German history, and named Arminius, the battle's protagonist, the "first German". When I read things like that, I personally wish these historians and journalists have their respective degrees and/or licenses revoked. But first things first: What was the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest?

When Julius Caesar conquered Gaul, he set up a border between the Roman Empire and what he defined as Germania (I will not come to the details and inaccuracies of this, it may be the subject of a later post as well), which was essentially the course of the Rhine river. Caesar himself had led two expeditions to the Germanic territories, which lay east of the Rhine, but not with the intention to conquer them, but to keep his back free for his Gaulic campaign; Germanic forces had repeatedly threatened the Romans at that time.

A few decades later, emperor Augustus wanted to end the latent threat Germania posed to the Roman Empire, and decided to conquer the territory. The initial campaign was successful, and a new province, Germania Magna was established, that ranged from the Alps and the Rhine to the Elba river. German archaeologists have uncovered numerous remains that suggest profound Roman colonisation deep in this territory, which is not mentioned anywhere in the written sources we know.

Like anywhere else, the Romans commanded the new province by the means of divide et impera, much rather allying themselves with local Germanic tribes than implementing direct military control, even though the number of Roman legions garrisoned within the province (mostly around the Ruhr area) was comparatively high. But had the conquest and subsequent pacification of Gaul been completed within a mere eight years, the new Germanic province proved to be much more troublesome. The string of military operations did not end, and new troublespots appeared almost constantly. Eventually, as in Gaul in 53 BC, a new character appeared that posed a serious threat to the Roman forces.

This man was Arminius, a nobleman of the Germanic tribe of the Cherusci. He had served the Roman army for a while, was a Roman citizen and considered an ally by the Romans. Arminius saw the possibility that lay in unifying various Germanic tribes under his command. This unification is seen as the first idea of a German nation by modern historians - a view that is not only anachronistic, but a gross distortion of the facts. Anyway, in 9 AD, this Germanic confederation lured three Roman legions under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus into the deep Germanic forest and practically annihilated them. Although this did not mark the end of the Roman occupation of Germania, it was a turning point, and the province was eventually given up by emperor Tiberius, and nobody ever spoke of it again.

Although archaeological surveys have uncovered several battlefields in the region of the Teutoburg Forest, none of them could ever be positively identified as the site of the Varus-Battle, as it is called in Germany. This did not prevent German nationalists of the 19th century to declare the town of Detmold to be the battlesite, and erect a huge monument dedicated to Arminius - or Hermann the Cheruscian as he was now called - here. Incidentally, this monument is known as Hermann the German in the English-speaking world.

Notwithstanding the fact that Arminius was murdered several years after the battle, and the Germanic coalition broke apart over the question whether it should turn into a big Germanic empire, and the fact that a German nation state was founded only 1862 years after the battle, the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest is, in the same vein as 19th century nationalism, now again considered the foundation of the German nation by many.

Let's dig a bit deeper here. It is not so obvious in English, given that Germany and Germania are technically the same word - or at least the one is derived from the other - but they describe two completely different things. It becomes much clearer when you consider the German word for Germany: Deutschland. Germania, for that matter, is referred to in Germany as Germanien. So what do these two words mean, and what is the difference between them? Let's start with the term German.

When they did not simply call them Barbarii, or named them by their individual tribal names, the Romans referred to the Germanic people as Germanii. That name was and is applied to Goths, Vandals, Franks, Langobards and whatnot, and is now even used to refer to the Norse people. For once, this is not a stupid idea the Romans came up with, but Caesar (who introduced the term to the Roman world) took that designation from the Celts. In truth, the Germani were one of the many tribes that were later lumped together under that term. They were simply the ones the Celts had the most to do with, and so they started using that name for all the people who lived east of their territories. Germania was then used by the Romans to name the territory of uncertain boundaries that was inhabited by these tribes. That's quite simply all there is to it.

And it is in fact not very different with the term Deutsch either. The word has been around in one form or the other since antiquity, and was used during the Middle Ages mostly as a name for the German language(s), and then as a rather obscure term for "people". The word derives from Teuton, the name of a Germanic tribe that settled in the far north of modern-day Germany and parts of Denmark. They had their fifteen minutes of fame when they (along with the Cimbri) migrated south around 100 BC and threatened the Roman Empire, but were decisively defeated by the Roman general Marius. This was the first contact the Romans had with any Germanic tribe, and so the label Teuton kind of stuck and never quite went away. By the Middle Ages, Teutonic had become the self-designation of the Germans, while Germanic or German was the word foreigners used for them.

Now the bulk of what the Romans knew as Germanii migrated from their homelands (which were by no means identical with modern-day Germany) in the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries AD. They founded kingdoms in what is now France, Spain, Italy, Britain and Tunisia, some short-lived, others, like France, in essence still existing today. Some Germanic tribes however remained where they were, in the area between Rhine and Elba. Those were different tribes than those the Romans had met in classical antiquity. Gone were the Cheruscans and Marcomanns, who had been the prominent antagonists of the Romans back in the day. The tribes who now resided here were basically new ones: Saxons, Thuringians, Baiuwars and Allamanns. The political body they were now to live in was forged by the Franks, another Germanic tribe. So can we call this "Germany"?


The people of that time called it the Frankish Empire (Regnum Francorum). That is, until 800. Then people called it- the Roman Empire. Confused yet?

Charlemagne, the king of the Frankish Empire, was crowned Roman Emperor by the Pope in 800. By definition of the time, the Roman Empire had never fallen. And it would have been pretty terrible if it had, because the Biblical prophet Daniel had predicted the end of the world after the fall of what was interpreted to be the Roman Empire (Dan:2). So the people of the Middle Ages were pretty keen on keeping the Roman tradition alive, and believed in the end that Rome had changed from a political entity with a number of religions inside to a religious entity with a number of political ones (translatio imperii). Moreover, the Roman Empire had passed from the hands of the Romans themselves to the Greeks (Byzantines), to the Franks, who were Catholic, and hence more true to the faith.

But that is not all. When Charlemagne died, his empire got divided among his sons, according to Frankish tradition. Only one of them, however, could carry on the heritage of the Roman Empire. After what is essentially a huge mess, it turned out like this: The Frankish Empire was permanently divided into two separate ones, the West Frankish one, which would go on to become France, and the East Frankish one, which was now considered the Roman Empire, because it also contained large parts of Italy, including Rome itself. Control of the Roman Empire soon passed from the Frankish Carolingian dynasty to the Saxon Ottonic dynasty. Then the Frankish Salians took over, and eventually the Swabonian Staufers (who renamed the thing into Holy Roman Empire), and so on.

So can we finally call this Germany? I wouldn't. Some do, however. Fact is that throughout the Middle Ages, it was only called the (Holy) Roman Empire, and the word German or Deutsch was merely used to distinguish one part of the population from others, such as Italians or Slavs. In fact, one of the major principalities of the Holy Roman Empires was Bohemia, basically the modern-day Czech Republic. It was later acknowledged that the Holy Roman Empire was in possession of the Germans by extending its name to Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, but that never quite caught on. By that time, the Empire itself was not of any importance anymore, and the individual principalities tended to go their own way without even thinking about whether they were German or not. In fact, in the years prior to Napoleon, Prussia was at the verge of developing for itself a combined German and Polish identity.

It was only during the French occupation of the Napoleonic Wars that the Germans started developing the idea of their own nation, and the desire to create one unified German nation state. So while there has been a distinguished German culture for many, many centuries, and you can speak of a German history ever since the days of Charlemagne or perhaps prior, you cannot speak of a history of Germany before the days of Napoleon. Any attempt to trace this idea to an earlier moment in time is, in my opinion, a gross falsification of history.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Thermopylae: Killing a Sacred Cow

The Battle of Thermopylae hardly needs any introduction. It is one of the most famous and inspiring battles in European history. The last stand of three hundred Spartans against an overwhelming force of Persians, facing certain death, yet willing to remain free to the last breath… alright, let’s cut that crap.

The battle wasn’t all that great. It has been romanticised on end, and I know everybody who is reading this will first think of the film 300 that was all the rage and led everybody who has never known the first thing about ancient Greece to scream “This is SPARTAAA!!!!111 LOLZORZ!!!” And along came the amateur historians, who have read parts of the historical background section in the Age of Empires Help file and have it all worked out now. You can read their comments on Youtube, and random internet forums that have a History section.

I liked the film, even though I had turned in a term paper named Sparta in the Persian Wars the same day I saw the movie, and am now doing Iranian Studies. I liked it, and I thought it was pretty cool, but that is because I can separate history from fantasy. The film took a historical subject that wasn’t really all that cool, but had already been distorted in collective memory anyway (it’s not like 300 popularised the battle, it merely brought its popularity to the 21st century), twisted it some more, added a queer Persian King and a giant with scissors for hands (I suppose Johnny Depp wasn’t available that day?) and cashed in on the success.

When it came to the story itself, the film, and I suppose the comic it was based on, is surprisingly close to what has been written about the battle. You can read the accounts of the battle in the Histories of Herodotus and the work of Diodorus Siculus. Even some of the one-liners are there, including “Tonight, we dine in Hell!” Believe it or not.

So, why wasn’t the battle all that great? I am not going to recount the entire story, which you can read up on thousands of pages on the net. But I am going to point out some of the things that are sometimes a bit disregarded. First of all, the Persian army did not consist of millions, as some of the more dramatic accounts like to say. Modern historians have well-reasoned estimations of perhaps 200,000 men under Xerxes’ command. Mind you, that is still an amazingly big number, even by today’s standards. Then, the Greek army that stood at Thermopylae wasn’t that small. Yes, there were 300 Spartans, and they were the ones in command. But for some reason, people always forget the several thousands of other Greek soldiers that were there. While it is true that many had left or died by the final day, and that the 300 Spartans all died, there were still up to 1,500 Greeks left then. I don’t even know why people keep forgetting them, even Herodotus mentions them.

So if we go by the numbers of 200,000 vs 5,000 to 11,000 according to various Greek accounts, it doesn’t look that spectacular anymore. The spectacle fails especially when you consider that it was not an open battlefield, but a narrow pass that was deemed impossible to surround. Battles like this happened every once in a while in history, because passes are so amazingly easy to defend. They held up Alexander the Great, Hannibal and the entire British Empire. Mountain passes have always been the ideal defence position, and numerical superiority loses much of its effect here. In fact, at Thermopylae, it became completely irrelevant, until the Persians managed to surround the pass.

More importantly, the motivation that the Greeks would stand there to their death and take as many Persians with them as possible is plain wrong. The strategy behind Thermopylae was very pragmatic, and in fact, by today’s standards would be considered pretty ruthless. The idea was that the Greeks hold up the Persians at Thermopylae for several days so the city of Athens could be evacuated. Then they would retreat to the Isthmus of Corinth, which was an even better defence position, especially when considering that the entire Peloponnesian Peninsula with enough back-up troops was at their back, so the Greeks could simply drive the Persians to the sea if they had enough. The destruction of Athens was, well, taken into account.

In romantic distortion, Thermopylae is a nice and inspiring story. In historical fact, it is still pretty impressive, but not all that great indeed.