In 1954, less than a decade after the fall of the Third Reich, the great Italian-Jewish historian Arnaldo Momigliano told an important international classical congress that Cornelius Tacitus' brief ethnographical pamphlet on the ancient Germans was among "the one hundred most dangerous books ever written". Although few in that Copenhagen audience could have been very surprised, Tacitus would have been deeply shocked. Since he had experienced the brutal tyranny of the emperor Domitian (AD81-96), Tacitus had surely hoped that his narrative histories (Histories and Annals) would be a lasting deterrent to tyrants and an encouragement to lovers of liberty. But he would never have imagined that his Germania would have much impact, least of all on the barbarous, illiterate Germans themselves.
The Harvard classical scholar Christopher Krebs has taken Momigliano's judgement as the starting point of this engaging book, which begins and ends in 20th-century Germany when the Nazis invested the Germania with their nationalist and racist ideology. Since the historian had never visited Germany and constructed his image of the land and its peoples from other writers, what then was the aim of his rather idealised picture of the simple life, marital chastity, tribal loyalty and manly courage of the ancient Germans? Most scholars now believe that Tacitus' chief purpose was to critique by contrast - as the "noble savage" has often been used - the corruption and self-indulgence of his Roman contemporaries. Krebs, however, is more interested in tracing almost five centuries of German nationalist interpretation through which German historians, theologians, philosophers, poets, dramatists and politicians have seen in this innocuous and uninformed text the true story of the origins and customs of their ancestors.
Some of this story is by now well known. Renaissance humanists tried, by means legal and assuredly illegal, to liberate ancient manuscripts of the Germania from German scriptoria. Krebs tells an entertaining story of the hunt for Tacitus, but he comes no closer than other scholars to discovering how the manuscript of the Germania actually came into the hands of Italian scholars. (He is more definite in showing how the manuscript was hidden in 1943 from Himmler's SS by its modern Italian owners.) But that is only a prelude to the more interesting constructions of 16th-century German nationalists whose combination of mendacity and fantasy traced German origins to Noah, his son Tuisto (who is mentioned in Tacitus but not in the Bible) and Tuisto's son Mannus (hence "Mannen").
Krebs takes the story of the use, and misuse, of the Germania through German Baroque drama, Montesquieu, Weimar classicism, Herder and the Grimms' development of the idea of the German Volk, to the first widely used textbook of German history, by Friedrich Kohlrausch in 1822. Kohlrausch's treatment of early Germany, which dominated German schools for half a century, was largely based on the Germania, where the ancient Germans are portrayed as indigenous and of unmixed blood. Such attitudes clearly led to the truly pernicious racial attitudes of Arthur de Gobineau, Richard Wagner and Houston Stewart Chamberlain. If the National Socialist use of Tacitus is a distortion of the author's intention, there had already been centuries of misappropriations, allowing the German people to have a past it could place proudly alongside the decadent, but also better documented, peoples of the Mediterranean: Romans, Greeks and Jews.
This book is less for classicists than for those interested more generally in European intellectual history. Some chapters concern major intellectual figures and are understandably more compelling than those devoted to polemicists and schoolmasters. But the whole provides a fascinating perspective of how a slim text, written to scold Romans for their corruption and lethargy in AD100, was transformed into a powerful and deadly ideological tool.
A Most Dangerous Book: Tacitus's Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich
By Christopher B. Krebs. W. W. Norton & Company 288pp, £18.99. ISBN 9780393062656. Published 14 June 2011