The Book Most Venerated by the SS

Nazi Convention in Nuremberg, 1936
Nazi Convention in Nuremburg, 1936. Photo courtesy of the Associated Press.

The Book Most Venerated by the SS
A study analyzes the Nazis’ slanted use of Tacitus’s Germania; Himmler searched for the classic’s manuscript in Italy in 1943
El País: El libro más venerado por las SS
Jacinto Antón reporting from Oslo November 28, 2011

What is the most dangerous book in the world? Mein Kampf, many would quickly reply. The Bible, the Koran, the Malleus Maleficarum (the grand manual for witch-hunting), the Communist Manifesto, a grimoire like Necronomicon, Madame Bovary, the Kama Sutra…the answers would be much varied, but few would seriously consider a little work like Tacitus’s Germania, a moralizing ethnography little more than 30 pages long written at the end of the first century A.D. by a Roman historian. And yet, good God, what damage this little book of inaccuracies has done!

It was the Nazis’ bible: they thought it proved German superiority, and they used it to justify the racial laws passed in Nuremburg. Himmler had a fixation for the work, and he is known to have driven the reichsführer‘s own obsessions. In 1943, Himmler sent an SS detachment to Italy to claim the oldest preserved manuscript of Tacitus’s booklet, the Codex Aesinas. Curious work for the Nazis: they took a book in order to venerate it rather than to burn it, which was their usual custom. Himmler assigned the Germania manuscript with power as great as that of his other favorite relics, such as the Grail, the Lance of Longinus, and Thor’s Hammer. As opposed to these other legendary objects, the book was real, and the evil it caused as well.

In order to explain the shadowy history of Germania and its impact on the mentalities of people from the völkisch (folk) humanists to the Romanticists, a book which eventually had as privileged a position on nightstands as the greatest crime stories, Harvard University Classical Studies Professor and Tacitus Specialist Christopher B. Krebs, has written a passionate essay with the eloquent title of A Most Dangerous Book. Krebs picks up on the great Momigliano’s opinion that Germania deserves a special place among the most dangerous hundred books ever written and takes us on a fascinating journey from Imperial Rome to Hitler’s Germany, passing through monasteries, courts, and libraries, in a retracing of ideological history that required much detective work and seems now and again to be an intrigue novel.

When one holds Germania in one’s hands – the book is so small that it is normally published together with two other short Tacitus books, Agricola and Dialogue About Orators (such as in the Biblioteca Clásica Gredos edition which also includes introductions, a translation, and notes by J.M. Requejo) – one cannot imagine that this tiny piece, a rapid panoramic of the geography and customs of the Germans, could be compared to a smoking gun. But Krebs brings to light the considerations that would incite enormous enthusiasm throughout history until the book’s use by the Nazis. “I am almost convinced that the Germans were indigeneous and did not mix at all with other peoples…Because they were not degenerated by intermarriage with any other nations, they have maintained their particular race, pure and similar only to themselves, such that their physical characteristics, as much as possible for such a numerous group, are the same: ferocious blue eyes and blond hair.”

To the Nazis and their precursors, Tacitus demonstrated the continuity of the people on the land and justified racial policy. “We will return to being what we were,” Himmler wrote in his diary; he felt emotional about “the nobility of our ancestors” after reading Germania. The reichsführer executed homosexuals the way Tacitus said the ancient Germans did: by drowning them in bogs. Simple, valorous, loyal, pure, honorable, even chaste: many Germans are profiled this way in Germania. The SS identified themselves with their warriors: the Aryan archetype reincarnated, for whom loyalty was honor.

It is clear, nevertheless, that the Nazis read Germania with a slanted view. The Roman historian was not referring in his book to the supposed exemplary ancestors of modern Germans. His Germans were not a homogeneous people, indigeneous and pure, given to ethnic continuity, but rather an amalgamation of tribes with uncertain identities and destinies milling about in the fog of the past. Tacitus also made some unflattering observations about the Germans and their country. These were simply ignored. For example, Tacitus thought Germania was a revolting place to live; he said that the Germans practiced human sacrifice (curiously, this bothered the Nazis greatly, though they did the same during the Holocaust); that when they were not warring, they passed most of their time doing nothing, succumbing to the pleasures of sleep and food; that they grew up naked and dirty; that they drank and fought amongst themselves continuously. He even said one of the tribes, the Chatti, “have great capacity for reasoning, considering that they are Germans.” None of this kept poor Tacitus, the great Tacitus, from becoming part of the self-legitimizing discourse of the Nazis. It would have taken a lot to ask them to read the classics well.

A Roman Consul Abducted by Himmler
It took centuries for Germania to become a dangerous book; its diffusion began with its rediscovery in the 15th century, and that eventually turned it into a terrible ideological instrument. Krebs traces a story that sometimes calls to mind The Name of the Rose or The DaVinci Code, featuring manuscript hunters and bibliophilic popes, and shows us the text came to be loaded with symbols and interpretations, some of them sympathetic nonsense like arguments that the Germans were descendents of Noah or the Trojans in order to give them a pedigree.

The only story of the German peoples left by antiquity, this book came to be considered, in a mortal leap, as a historical source and an irrefutable portrait of the German past, though what it describes, with a moralizing and political spirit meant to compare the good, unadulterated savage with the corrupt, decadent Romans, is a mishmash of apocryphal observations and legends.

It’s probable that Tacitus, although he traveled thanks to his high posts and seems to have stayed in Belgic Gaul for a time, never personally visited Germania. Perhaps the book was an attempt to incite Trajan to conquer the region at once, a process paralyzed by the annihilation of Varo’s legions in the Teutaborg Forest by Arminio in the year 9. We are ignorant about many facts about the historian, such as his origin (which seems to be Gallia Narbonensis) and the exact dates of his birth and death. We know that he was a son-in-law of the great general Agricola, to whom he consecrated an encomiastic biography, and he was bequeathed and served in the posts of Senator and Consul and possibly Proconsul of Asia. All this is without a doubt less important than his work as a historian. He is Rome’s best in the eyes of many, as proven by his Histories and Annals. Krebs points out how the Nazis tried to make Tacitus’s story into reality, “past in future.” In the epilogue, he emphasizes that the book’s danger has not yet passed, and the fault is not with Tacitus but rather with his readers.

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