Thursday, October 22, 2009

After 2,000 Years, Hermann is Followed by Ghosts

This autumn is the 2,000th anniversary of the battle when German tribes decisively defeated 20,000 Roman soldiers in the Teutoburg Forest.

But the anniversary--particularly the memory of the leader of the German commander, Hermann (Arminius)--is a complicated thing in Germany.

The events surrounding Hermann, though, are a weird mix of the two, presenting a revised, sanitised, consumer-friendly warrior, a national hero recast as neither “national” nor a hero. “To me, he is just a garden gnome,” Schafmeister said during an interview in his office, his desk piled with Hermann chocolate bars and other paraphernalia. The exhibits and plays organised for the anniversary no longer depict Hermann as the founding father of the German peoples: instead he appears as a minor warlord who got lucky, an interesting figure with no relevance to the present. 

“He is really history,” says Herfried Münkler, a historian at Berlin’s Humboldt University and the author of The Germans and their Myths. “He is no longer relevant to the question of German identity.” 

"It’s a thin line to walk – a year of festivities for a man no one thinks is worth celebrating. “We don’t even call it an anniversary, because that implies a celebration,” said Schafmeister. “It is just a recognition of something that happened from 2,000 years ago.”

The religion journalists at Get Religion often talk about "ghosts" in news stories--a religious element or motivation that the journalist fails to see or explain. (The news media, in other words, do not "get" religion.)

Do you see a religion ghost or two here also?

A few years ago, I was talking with a German student of mine at the university and her boyfriend. The boyfriend had wanted to read a diary kept by some of my own German ancestors about their immigration from Lower Saxony to Missouri in 1843.

I mentioned how Germans who came to Missouri had established vineyards, and how a center of wine-making was the town of Hermann.

"Hermann, of course!" said my student, rolling her eyes.

Had she been one of the schoolchildren who "learnt what a shame it was that the erstwhile hero had prevented Latin culture from reaching northern Germany"?

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Blogger Yewtree said...

I imagine the embarrassment is caused at least partly by the fact that he was lauded by nationalists as a great hero, and is therefore suspect. Still, resisting the Roman Empire seems like a good idea to me.

2:16 AM  
Anonymous Rombald said...

I'm with Yewtree here. There was an interesting TV series in Britain a few years ago, arguing that the Roman Empire set progress back by a millenium. It was refreshing to see a non-Mediterraneocentric non-Renaissance view of European history, with the contributions of Finns, Latvians, etc., looked at in their own rights.

However, the objection to Hermann is not only links to Germany's, err, #problematic# recent history, but that Germany has little history as a nation. Germany is an early-modern invention, and the idealisation of Hermann comes from that. It's not even certain that he was called Hermann - the records only have him by the Latinised name, Arminius, and scholars just picked on Hermann because it was the most similar-sounding German name.

In a way, it would be quite nice to see him celebrated more as a sort of freedom-loving, Pagan anarchotribalist defending the woods against decadent imperialist aggressors. That wouldn't necessarily be any more accurate of course, but it would be a nifty bit of reclaiming. After all, why should the Celts have all the good music??

3:35 AM  

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