supported by first-hand reports from soldiers and merchants who had travelled in the region. Accuracy did not matter much. As Christopher Krebs argues, Tacitus was less concerned with conditions north of the Alps a century earlier than with the Rome of his own day (he lived from AD 56 to AD 117). By creating a barbarian ‘other’, he delivered a not-so-subtle indictment of the luxury, decadence and immorality of his Roman contemporaries. Especially striking was the implied contrast between the despotism of Rome – Tacitus was born under Nero and lived through Domitian’s reign of terror – and the liberty of the Germans, who elected their chieftains, voted on their actions, and preferred good habits to prescriptive laws. More important still in the long run was Tacitus’s depiction of the Germans as dedicated to ethnic purity.
TEUTONIC TROUBLES A MOST DANGEROUS BOOK: TACITUS’S
GERMANIA FROM THE ROMAN EMPIRE TO THE THIRD REICH
By Christopher B Krebs (W W Norton 303pp £18.99)
NOT MANY FOREIGN sobriquets sound better in English than in their original language. One of them is Herman the German, which i s cer tainly more catchy than Hermann der Cherusker. Leader of the Cherusci, a Germanic tribe, he lived from 17 BC to AD 21, and in AD 9 inflicted a crushing defeat on a Roman army led by Publius Quinctilius Var us a t the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. Although next to nothing is known about him, he was to enjoy colossal posthumous fame as a s ymbol o f re s i s t ance t o imperialism. Mythmaker-inchief was the Roman politician and histor ian Tacitus, who hailed him as ‘Germany’s liberator’, a mighty hero who had successfully challenged the Roman Empire a t the peak of its power.
The appeal this stereotype would have for subsequent generations of Germans is easy to appreciate. They could ignore Tacitus’s remarks about their ancestors’ illiteracy, squalor, alcoholism and addiction to gambling, and cherry-pick the positives. Whenever there was a
Although Herman’s success was short-lived and he died at the hands of his own people, Tac i t u s en s u re d t h a t he would come to personify the special virtues of the ancient Ger mans. He d i d t h i s by wr i t i ng Ger mania , which purported to be an account of the customs, laws, social relations and physical environment of the German tr ibes living beyond the Rhine. His message was mixed. On the one hand, the Romans could count themselves l ucky not to have added Germany to their empire, because it was ‘wild in its scenery, harsh in its climate, and grim to inhabit and behold’ as well as ‘horrid because of its forests and ugly because of its marshes’. However, despite – or perhaps because of – these unappealing conditions, the people who lived there possessed many striking virtues. They were brave, tough, loyal, virtuous, modest, industrious and handsome (blue-eyed blondes). The women were chaste; adultery was virtually unknown.
A Germanic feast, from Clüver’s ‘Germania Antiqua’, 1616
surge of German nationalism and its first cousin, xenophobia, Herman the German and the Germania he personified enjoyed a fresh lease on life. For many c entur i e s t hey were both forgotten. Indeed, Tacitus’s Germania survived the Middle Ages in just one manuscript copy. First published in 1476, it was then taken up by nationalist German humanists looking for a stick with which to beat the large if flabby target of the Renaissance papacy. By 1500, Krebs writes, it had become ‘Germany’s founding document’. Among others to make use of i t s s tereotypes were Mar t i n Luther (who
Germanised ‘Arminius’ as ‘Hermann’), his follower Ulrich von Hutten, whose dialogue Arminius was dedicated to ‘the liberty of our Fatherland, the German Nation’, and Jakob Wimpfeling, whose Short German History of 1505 stressed the ancient Germans’ courage, physical strength, liberty, loyalty, integrity, generosity and steadfastness, the modesty of their women and, even more improbably, their ‘particular talent for the arts’.
Tacitus himself never visited the lands he was describing. He took his information from previous accounts,
There was another surge of attention in the eighteenth century, as rampant Francophobia sought a historical pedigree. ‘Read Tacitus: there you will find the German character’, wrote Herder in 1767. It was ironic that, given the popular equation of the Romans with the French oppressors of their own day, it was not a
LITERARY REVIEW July 2011
German but a Swiss scholar, Paul Henri Mallet, who added the Norse sagas – and thus pagan religion – to the Germany described by Tacitus. The scene was now set for a much more aggressive version of the myth to be mobilised. This reached pathological intensity during the struggle against Napoleon with Heinrich von Kleist’s Herman’s Battle, a manically bloodthirsty orgy of vindictive violence. With this aggressively xenophobe exploitation of Tacitus’s myth we reach Krebs’s thesis summed up in the title – A Most Dangerous Book. It is not long before we get to the Nazis proclaiming that Germania was a ‘bible t ha t ever y t h i nking Ger man s hould possess ’ and Heinrich Himmler expressing regret that the punishment inflicted by the ancient Germans on homosexuals – sinking them into a quicksand, clothes and all – was no longer thought acceptable. Unfortunately the rising trajectory of Krebs’s argument is not accompanied by a
S e t t i n g o f t h e B l o o d - D i mmed S u n IMPERIAL ENDGAME: BRITAIN’S DIRTY
WARS AND THE END OF EMPIRE
By Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon (Palgrave Macmillan 478pp £16.99)
POSTWAR ITALIAN GOVERNMENTS avoided war-crimes trials for atrocities in Ethiopia or Libya simply by preventing historians from examining the relevant documents in the Ministry of Defence. This sleight of hand is not restricted to a nation in which being furba (crafty) is considered a virtue. This April, the British government decided to ‘regular ise’ 2,000 boxes of Foreign and Commonwealth Office files occupying some 110 feet of shelving in an obscure repository. These documents were ‘released’ – to use plain English – because some of their contents were about to be made public, due to court orders in a compensation case brought by four elderly Kenyans who claim they were grievously tortured during the Mau Mau emergency. While he has not been able to use documents that have not been officially acknowledged for half a century, the US historian Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon has done an outstanding job in assessing British counterinsurgency operations in Palestine, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and Aden during the winding-down of the empire. The tone is altogether more dispassionate than that of the recent advocacy history of Harvard historian Caroline corresponding level of evidence; rather the reverse. He is very good on the classical period (his speciality), solid on the Middle Ages, but increasingly thin and patchy when the early modern per iod is reached. The bald assertion that ‘in most if not all respects the National Socialist vision of the Germanen would be a mirror image of the humanists’ does not car ry conviction. More generally, the book sits uneasily between a scholarly monograph and a popular thriller. This TheodorMommsen-meets-Dan-Brown flavour is revealed in the very first sentence: ‘With the speed of those who know that their days are numbered, the SS detachment charged up the pebble-and-sand-covered driveway.’ At the other end, after all the talk of the perils of Germania, the conclusion reached in the last sentence – ‘in the end the Roman historian Tacitus did not write a most dangerous book; his readers made it so’ – is somewhat lame. To order this book for £15.19, see LR bookshop on page 12
Elkins in her sensationally titled Britain’s Gulag. GrobFitzg ibbon has mined a huge range of unpublished sources in several archives to give a largely fair-minded account of a process increasingly distorted, rather than elucidated, by historians who act merely as adjuncts to crusading lawyers.
Grob-Fitzgibbon’s book is primarily a contribution to comprehending how the military adapted to their circumstances, accurately compared by John Nagl with learning ‘how to eat soup with a knife’, and to understanding the illiberal means that were sometimes used to accomplish liberal outcomes. Surely it was preferable that, when the British relinquished control, neither the ethnic Chinese communists came to power in Malaya, nor the Mau Mau in Kenya? Grob-Fitzgibbon claims that both overall strategy and military tactics were crafted to ensure independence on British terms. His object is to revise a narrative of the end of empire based on drift and despondency in favour of one that perceives much more method amid so much madness. There are only a few slips, such as locating Lidice in France rather than the former Czechoslovakia, and only one major bibliographic omission: how can a book like this not even refer to Piers Brendon’s estimable Decline and Fall of the British Empire?
Paradoxically, the book begins with the one major instance where British forces were defeated by an insurgency and forced to ‘scuttle’ with indecent haste. The brute force employed to crush the 1936–9 Palestinian Arab Revolt was not repeated in the same degree against Zionist terrorism in the later 1940s, notwithstanding individual instances of British personnel waging a dirty war. Neither the US nor the Soviets (nor France) were sympathetic to the British position, which was further undermined by the Zionists’ adroit combination of terrorism and passive aggression, notably attempts at immigration to
LITERARY REVIEW July 2011