Tim Blanning

Teutonic Troubles

A Most Dangerous Book: Tacitus’s Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich


W W Norton 303pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

Not many foreign sobriquets sound better in English than in their original language. One of them is Herman the German, which is certainly 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 Varus at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. Although next to nothing is known about him, he was to enjoy colossal posthumous fame as a symbol of resistance to imperialism. Mythmaker-in-chief was the Roman politician and historian Tacitus, who hailed him as ‘Germany’s liberator’, a mighty hero who had successfully challenged the Roman Empire at the peak of its power.

Although Herman’s success was short-lived and he died at the hands of his own people, Tacitus ensured that he would come to personify the special virtues of the ancient Germans. He did this by writing Germania,

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