Review: Der Germanenmythos (Neal Ascherson)

Ingo Wiwjorra, Der Germanenmythos. Konstruktion einer Weltanschauung in der Altertumsforschung des 19. Jahrhunderts. (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2006, 408 pp., hbk, ISBN-13: 978-3-534-19016-4)

This review is the extended version of a review that appeared in European Journal of Archaeology 11 (1), 2008, 129-131.

Words are our babies. We create them, then watch helplessly as they learn to walk by themselves, paint their faces, use weapons and perhaps eventually destroy their parents. While this is true of all languages to a degree, words fathered by German thinkers and researchers have often proved particularly autonomous. There are certainly German abstract nouns which evoke contexts previously thought to be inexpressible. But others can resemble oubliette-dungeons, inaccessible to all save those trapped inside them.

That is by way of a reviewer’s apology. Some of the most important terms recorded and studied – not coined – by Wiwjorra in this book do not translate easily into English. Germanisch can be rather weakly rendered as ‘Germanic’, referring to the peoples described by Tacitus in his ‘Germania’ and to the continuities with early-modern and recent Germans imagined by scholars in the last few centuries. English can’t do the crucial distinction between deutsch and germanisch; the old word ‘Teuton’ , which has been in effect extinct for a generation, was always too pejorative. There are other expressions – Kulturträger, Weltgeist , for instance – which pose problems. Even the common word Altertum has associations not really covered either by ‘The Past’, or by ‘Antiquity’.

But the hardest word of all, as English-speaking historians have always found, is völkisch. Folk-custom, biological lineage, traditional and national allegiance , ruralist prejudice against the cosmopolitan ‘asphalt’, local archaeology, conservative patriotism, and other ingredients which we now group vaguely as ‘ethnic’ all go into this soup. It exists, now, only as a label in the museum of discarded terms. Its context can be translated, but not the adjective itself. I propose to use the German word.

Wiwjorra’s large, wise and indispensable book is a study of a particular moment in German intellectual history. This is the development between the late 18th century and (roughly) 1914 of ideas about German identity – cultural, ethnic, biological – and about the search for origins and continuities which accompanied the rise of German nationalism. By the first decade of the 20th century, the development and the search had taken shape as a set of widely-shared assertions which can be categorised as völkisch. These were that the modern Germans were indeed the physical, cultural and ‘moral’ descendants of the Germanic tribes described by Tacitus; that Germanic peoples were autochthonous, springing from a common Nordic stock with Scandinavians in prehistoric northern Europe; that these Nordic-Aryan peoples, of whom the modern Germans were the most perfect physical and mental expression, were superior in capacity to other human lineages; that lesser races – Celts and Slavs, for example – had probably originated in the ancient Nordic family but had degenerated through genetic pollution by Asian and other invaders.

As I have said, these assertions became very widely shared – but never universally. Individually, many of them continued to be contested; radical; intellectuals continued to deride the whole völkisch mania. But something like a consensus did exist by the early 20th century, and this consensus – strongest on the right and in the centre of politics – was invoked and then selectively exploited by National Socialism.

What happened next, we all know. Some hindsight is inevitable. All the same, it can obscure as well as illuminate. What Wiwjorra has not done is to write a prehistory of Nazi racial science and archaeology. That is his strength. By halting his work in the first decade of the 20th century, he has avoided the temptations of feeble teleology. From Alfred Schlitz in 1898, arguing that skull-types in graves demonstrated a Bandkeramik race, or from Ludwig Wilser in the same year promoting his blond, long-skulled ‘homo europaeus dolichocephalus flavus ‘ as the ‘highest development and noblest form of humanity’, no highway of inevitability leads to August Hirt in 1943 in Strasbourg, measuring the skulls of murdered Jews. There is, of course, a connection. Writers like Schlitz and Wilser (both of them ‘dilettantes’ rather than professional scientists) helped to raise a pseudo-scientific structure which eventually made Hirt possible. But they did not cause him. The moral, scientific and human catastrophe brought about by Ahnenerbe SS anthropology did not have to happen.

Wiwjorra, then, has written a careful study of how German thinking about ‘the origins of Germanity’ evolved during the 19th and early 20th century. As he says, ‘the völkisch myth of the Germanen certainly reached its zenith in the period of National socialism. But there is no case for any original Nazi image of “Germanity” (Germanenbild), and any treatment of the roots of the Nazi concept of “Germanity” must turn back to the völkisch ideology of the decades around 1900’ (20).

Early German archaeology was almost exclusively classical, and domestic prehistoric archaeology was barely recognised academically until the end of the 19th century (Gustaf Kossinna was appointed as a professor only in 1902, and then without tenure). The discipline of ‘Germanistik’ , originally a celebration of popular culture and speech, narrowed to grammar and literature. Linguistics, in contrast, took off with the questions opened by the discovery of Sanskrit; the search for the ‘original’ proto-indoeuropean language prompted another question about origins which came to obsess German scholarship: where did we come from? Where was the Urheimat (primal habitat) of the Germans?

A first step was to try to establish the continuity of modern Germans with the fair, blue-eyed tribes described by Tacitus in ‘Germania’. As Wiwjorra writes, ‘… the self-understanding of Germans in the 19th century rested on the idea of the shaping, determining role of the Germanic ancestors’. (53) With this came, very early in the century, fantastic ideas about the scale and impact of this ancestry beyond Germany itself ; Ernst Moritz Arndt proclaimed back in 1810 that ‘Scandinavians on the islands and peninsulas, most of the British, the French and Spanish and Italians – all the first, most cultured and beautiful nations of Europe belong to this (Germanic) lineage or are a mixture with it. But we men of the German tongue between the Alps, the Rhine, the Vistula and the North Sea, we inhabit the ancient land of the Germanen, we speak their language’.

At first, culture was assumed to have reached Germany from the East – ex Oriente lux. Flattering in some ways, this theory also implied that the Germans had been mere barbarians until that light arrived from outside. Hegel dealt with this problem in 1821 with his schema of world empires, proposing that the Weltgeist which had successively inhabited the Oriental, Greek and Roman empires was now permanently with the Germanische Reich, granting it absolute right and bringing about an early ‘end of history’.

The ‘Orient’ idea forms part of Wiwjorra’s long, systematic chapter on ‘the German Past in the Force-Field of Traditional Faith and Science’. He goes on to examine developing attitudes to the past in a series of ethnic or historical areas. It is easy to overlook the enormous scale of German classical archaeology and scholarship in the 19th century. Archaeology first took institutional shape in bodies like the National Commission for Limes (Roman frontier) Research (1852) . But a backlash was to develop especially after the unification of the Reich in 1871, with sharply national undertones in its rhetoric against the Roman-German preoccupation in domestic research. ‘One barbarian sherd tells us more than a whole Roman relief!’ said Rudolf Henning in 1900. Kossinna in effect accused the Roman-Germanists of lacking patriotism. The defeat of France at Sedan in 1870 was proclaimed in the newspapers as a new ‘Hermann-Victory’ over the Romans, and in 1875 the gigantic statue of Hermann (Arminius) was raised on the supposed battlefield where he had crushed the legions of Varus.

How was the Celtic past in Europe to be understood in German terms? There were violent disputes in the 1840s: at its extremes, Heinrich Schreiber suggested that idle Germanen had left metalwork to the more skilled Celts, while Ludwig Lindenschmidt at one point dismissed the Celts as incestuous pederasts. Kossinna . again, was one of those who thought that Iron Age Germany had been divided between a Nordic north and a Celtic south and west. Many Germans were worried that French 19th century identification with the Gauls and talk of Celtic Europe conveyed an aggressive political threat. It was the great Rudolf Virchow who, not for the first or last time, tried to calm his overheated contemporaries and suggest that French theories were not directed against Germany.

The Slavic past was more contentious still. In an excellent section, Wiwjorra traces German efforts to claim priority for ‘Germanic’ settlement east of the Elbe and Oder. If Slavs had moved in there, it was argued, they had ‘quietly crept in ‘ after those lands had been temporarily abandoned by the Germanic ancestors. Here again is the contrast between Virchow and Kossinna, the grand adversaries of this story: Virchow identifying the ‘Lusatian’ culture of eastern Germany in 1880 but refusing to give it any ethnic attribution; Kossinna damning the idea of a Slavic eastern Germany as ‘malicious or ignorant chatter’. Most archaeologists seem to have preferred Kossinna’s version and pronounced the Lusatian culture to be Germanic, just as the Poles were to claim that it was proto-Slavic. Wiwjorra correctly reminds us that Polish, Czech and Slovak scholars were making almost equally extravagant claims of priority at this time.

The most impressive section of this book is the section on ‘The Germanic Past in the Light of the Race Concept’. Here Wiwjorra shows how in the 19th century the ‘Germanic type’ was supposedly identified through the combination of cemetery excavation, early physical anthropology and a romantic nationalism which saw only what it wanted to see. (As an example of the last, one notes how many otherwise responsible savants paraded prehistoric skeletal remains as belonging to individuals with blonde hair and blue eyes!) Craniology thrived. Everywhere there seemed to be Germanic dolichocephalic long skulls denoting tall, fair-haired rulers and conquerors, as opposed to the short brachycephalic brain-cases of lesser breeds. Nothing enraged the nation more than a suggestion by a French journalist, after 1870, that the Prussians were really a blunt-skulled, dark little folk related to the Finns.

Again, Virchow vainly preached common sense. ‘Germanic’ skulls were not identifiable, he said, and the association of dolichocephaly or even an Aryan race with blondness and blue eyes was baseless. He thought that there probably was a ‘Germanic Type’ , but he could not demonstrate it. Meanwhile, in the 1870s, 6.7 million schoolchildren were surveyed for eye, hair and skin colour (it should be said that most other advanced nation-states soon copied this absurdity). The popular spread of a racialist interpretation of the past which increasingly presented the Germans increasingly as a ‘chosen race’ seemed unstoppable, though most of its evidence was fantasy.

The Urheimat question was again opened, as the identification of Cro-Magnon (1868)and then Aurignacian human remains in France encouraged the idea of a north European or Nordic autochthony. The theory of oriental migration deflated. Virchow himself visited Georgia in the 1880s and returned to say that he had found nothing to confirm Caucasian origins for modern Europeans. The irrepressible Ludwig Wilser preached Arctic or at least glaciation origins: ‘the harsh existence-struggle in the Ice Age ‘ had generated ‘a north European race advancing continuously and unstoppably from invention to invention …’ In 1904, Wilser’s ally Karl Penka described the Nordic Race as ‘the finest quality selection (Ausleseprodukt) of the Ice Age’.

The Mediterranean past, once so respected, was now downgraded by a neat redefinition of terms. ‘Culture’ (manly, earthy, moral) was contrasted to ‘Civilisation’ (decadent, hedonistic and a ‘sweet poison’ for honest Germanen). This was not far from the reasoning of the anti-Semitic movement of the times in Germany and Austria. Wiwjorra remarks that neither Kossinna nor Wilser (to take two essentially racialist scholars) were anti-Semitic, reserving their hostility for historical Romans and Slavs. ‘The idealisation of the Germanic past’, Wiwjorra says, should not be seen as a mere prelude to the eliminatory anti-Semitism of the Nazis. None the less, he observes that there were many personal connections between the two. ‘Taking into account the virulent “Race Manichaeanism” . which frequently counterposed Germanic people and Aryans on one side to Jews on the other, it could be held against many a völkisch historian that he had “co-conceived” hostility to the Jews even if he had no personal image of the Jews as the enemy. And the strongly interwoven network of people and organisations in the völkisch movement , together with the complex web of arguments forming the völkisch theory-structure, mean that the representatives of völkisch-germanisch and anti-Semitic positions cannot be unambiguously distinguished from one another’. (280)

With the upsurge of theories about a ‘Germanic Europe’, we enter a bizarre territory. First came the suggestions that classical Greece had collapsed because of racial mongrelism – intermarriage with slaves, for example. Later came the notion of a ‘Nordic Hellas’ – that the Athenians of the 5th century BC, for instance, were in fact blonde, blue-eyed Aryans from the north. Kossinna began to find dolichocephalic skulls in Greek tombs and on Greek busts; French research into the remains of pigment on statues was distorted to become evidence for fair hair and blue eyes. Greek architecture was traced back to Germanic hut design, and the publicist Willy Pastor wrote in 1916 that the Megaron temple was ‘a gift from the Nordic-Germanic world-empire’.

But it’s important to put this rubbish into perspective. First of all, much 19th century German scholarship about Greece was both original and sound (even if Greek patriots still turn pale at the name of Fallmerayer). Second, many other nations in northern Europe were playing with the same fantasies. As Wiwjorra notes, the ‘Nordic Hellas’ idea was first proposed in 1842 in the novel ‘Zanoni’, by Lord Lytton. Wiwjorra could also have cited the works of Robert Knox, the Scottish anatomist, who claimed in 1850 that Germanic people must have built the Parthenon because he could recognise the bodies from its frieze and other Greek sculptures all around him. ‘The streets of London abound in persons having this identical facial angle; and it is in England and in other countries inhabited by the Saxon or Scandinavian race that women resembling the Niobe, and men the Hercules and Mars, are chiefly to be found’. [Quoted in Leoussi, 2001, 474]. Neither was the multi-ethnic Roman empire spared. A ridiculous search for blonde emperors went on, while Kossinna was only one of the scholars who claimed that ‘the Nordic racial element gleams brightly through the ruling classes of Rome’.

In his final sections, Wiwjorra describes how this conviction of autochthonous racial ‘Germanity’ went into a truly imperial expansion in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Both the Celts and the ‘old Slavs’ were recruited into the Aryan-Nordic world, on the hypothesis that their Aryan origins had later been extensively contaminated by interbreeding with inferior races. Then came the wildest phase of all: the projection of ancient Nordic presence into other continents. ‘Blondness’ was detected all over the world: in the extinct aboriginals of the Canaries, in the ‘dolmen builders’ of the Neolithic Atlantic and Mediterranean, in Libya at about 3000 BC and even in Polynesia. Here, certainly, was an enthusiasm which carried straight through to the SS Ahnenerbe and the racial research commissioned by Heinrich Himmler in Tibet or central America. But , once again, many other nations were playing this game, especially after the great imperial expansions of the late 19th century. In every colonial continent, there arose tales of ‘white-skinned, fair-haired conquerors’ or ‘lost tribes with blue eyes’. (They are still with us, as any watcher of fantasy-archaeology on television can testify).

Reading this book, I was reminded that the elements which were eventually to compose the völkisch-germanisch world-view were not unique to Germany. Almost all were in wide international circulation during the period under study. The idea of race and even of particular racial ‘destinies’, Aryanism as a linguistic and anthropological concept, ‘Nordic Hellas’ theory, craniometric anthropology , the use of archaeology to establish priorities of settlement for political ends, diffusionism as an account of cultural change, miscegenation as a cause of social decay, ‘vulgar Darwinism’ projecting natural selection into human political development – all these things were vigorously around in the controversies of 19th-century Europe and America. The singularity of the German experience is the concentration of all these elements into a single purpose: an aim frantically intense, sometimes shockingly irrational and hubristic, sometimes absurd in a unselfconscious way. This purpose was compensatory: the need to establish the legitimacy of a Germany perceived by its own intellectuals as backward, vulnerable and lacking confident identity, and to found that legitimacy upon an invented past.

Criticisms of this excellent book are minor. It would have helped the reader if Wiwjorra had included more references to political events, which often had enormous influence on the perceived priorities of social science. The reflections on ethnicity in the 1848 Frankfurt Parliament, for example, or Bismarck’s long battle against Polish cultural identity within the Reich frontiers, or the frontier disputes with France and Belgium which were conducted with much Altertum reference. I would have also enjoyed some analytic account by Wiwjorra of the way in which the Europe-wide ‘neo-pagan’ and ‘neo-barbaric’ cultural fashions at the turn of the century took shape in Germany.

Leoussi, A., Myths of Ancestry. Nations and Nationalism, Vol. 7 (4), October 2001, p. 474.

Neal Ascherson
Institute of Archaeology, University College London

This entry was posted in EJA Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.