Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Two thousand years of German-Roman Conflict

I've been reviewing materials on Volkskunde (German ethnology or ethnic studies) in the 1890s and 1900s. The "science" concerned itself mostly with the diversity of German folkways. This statement, from Josef Nadler's Literaturgeschichte der deutschen Stämme und Landschaften (The Literary History of German Tribes and Landscapes) from 1912 disturbed me:
The hunter and the herdsman needed open spaces, because the people (Volk) increased in inexhaustible fertility. But because the Romans beat the barbarian, restless and covetous of land, back over the border rivers, the herdsman and the hunter had to become farmers. He whom the earth now nourishes depends on it, and tears himself from it only bloody hearts. The German (Germane) began to adhere to his landscape. A new feeling became known to him: Vaterland, Heimat. In constant fighting with enemies, battle and war become art and science, and the small rubble of the people was powerless. They had to unite firmly, in order to protect the soil which had become dear them. (Translation mine)
This German mysticism, which would be so popular among the Nazis, was losing favor in the social sciences at the time it was written.

Typically nationalists reduced German history to a struggle with Roman civilization, which was represented by France in the contemporary world. They took their history from a narrow interpretation of Roman texts that obsessed over the stability of the frontiers, but ignored those parts that showed how those same frontiers Romans encountered, lived with, exchanged with, and even civilized the same German tribes.

Nadler uses this poorly conceived history to explain German disunity and solidarity and its militarism: because the Romans bottled up the noble barbarians, they had to get tough. However, ethnologists had been downplaying the importance of the Roman frontier for ten to twenty years. The movement of individuals was possible in both direction. The overlap of cultures was measurable, and the Romans were not the only group to have affected the German barbarians. In fact, geography was seen as a factor that determined development more than the clash of civilizations.


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