February 02, 2009


How far back in history do people called the Germans go? In one sense that is an idiotic question- every single human being on this planet is the product of a myriad of sexual reproductions right back to the time when we were not human beings- but in another sense it is a very real question. Afterall, historians of the Roman Empire are quite fond of using the word Germans for the people who gathered on the frontier of the empire- they cite Tacitus whose short volume Germania was the first ethnographic study of the peoples living just over the Rhine. Furthermore linguistic continuities between the Franks and the Goths have been a commonplace of the study of the fall of Rome since at least the 9th Century Carolingian court: but how real are these ressemblances and how useful is the generic term Germans in describing the peoples who came over the boundaries of the empire at some point in the 3rd or 5th Centuries A.D.

Walter Goffart in a recent piece suggests that actually the terms are not particularly useful. What Goffart gets is two important things that we often neglect in thinking about. The first is that the Germans in the particular centuries described did not think of themselves as Germans. Indeed neither did the Romans- Tacitus was not cited often about Germany until the 16th Century- though his text was used as a source about amber in the 9th. The Germans did not preserve a history of defeats or victories by the Roman empire- indeed notable Germans sought to become Roman- they sought inclusion within the Empire and not exclusion without it. There seems no particular evidence of the imposed German identity upon the politics of the upper Rhine in the 5th Century, anymore than it is possible to see an 'English' identity in the invading Saxons. Rather what Goffart argues is that a loose multiplicity of tribes engaged in familiar warfare and alliance with Rome over the period. The Germans do not exist in the 5th Century save in our imaginations.

This has important consequences. I recently read an article where a political scientist commented that it was not the Persians but the Germans who overthrew Rome, and reccomended various consequences for the United States in policy terms from that statement. The problem is that his statement is wrong- firstly the Persians were the enemy Rome feared (the Emperor Julian argued that they were more formidable as a military opponent for example) but more importantly there were no Germans. If we visualise hordes of barbaric Germans across the frontier, being held back by the force of Roman arms then our picture of what the Roman world looked like is fundamentally wrong. Rather we should see the boundary between Rome and the barbarian lands to the north as being a place where treaties were negotiated, trade was conducted, raids happened but also missionaries went in the opposite direction. The Roman Empire ended: but we will misunderstand its end if we think that over the frontier was a monolithic barbaric darkness which eventually engulfed the Empire. Rather there were a multiplicity of tribes- sometimes serving the empire, sometimes trading with it, sometimes converting to its religion, sometimes invading in search for plunder or land- and that the sequence of the events which brought down the empire are much more complicated and interesting than a monolithic frontier against one opponent might suggest.


Crushed said...

Yes and no...

When talking of Germans as a cultural unity, yes, you're right.

But as an identity distinct from Romans, than clearly, German meant something. Speakers of a common family of language, loosely bound by common religious practices, the worship of hormed gods and thunder gods which would later coalesce as the Odin religion.

I think german was perhaps a more meaninglful term than say, the Grek term Scythian wghich truly WAs a catchall term.

James Hamilton said...

At first sight, this might appear to be a jocular comment, but in relation to what Crushed is saying about the gap between cultural unities etc.;

What's interesting isn't so much the song, but Coward's spoken intro:
Coward: Don't Let's Be Beastly

James said...

I'd also want to think about e.g. what's known as "Ottonian Germany" in an ethnological way in this context: the presence of wealthy, powerful, trading tribes in what we now know as Germany, tribes aware of ethnic differences (specifically, with Slavic tribes). But still tribes, whose unity was leadership-driven, and whose leaders bolstered their authority not with references to history or place but war, the sequestering of portable wealth, the monopolising of important religious relics, the establishment of religious foundations, the control of heiresses etc and so forth.

My historiography is likely to be out of date on all of this. So, were I to say that I find the contrast between the relative self-awareness developing in France from c. 900 onwards, as opposed to self-awareness's failure to develop in a comparable way in the Germanic territories, I might sound terribly Karl Leyser.

But even as late as 1870, needless to say, the outcome might have been very different. Continuing independence for Prussia, Bavaria and co - or an early Anschluss. Either of which would have had a considerable effect on awareness of "being German" for both Germans and others.

Gracchi said...

Crushed- I'm not sure that it does help us as a term. The vast differences between large groups of 'Germans' are more evident to me than the simularities. There were afterall large groups of Christian Germans- the Goths- and there is no reason either to believe that these people on the edges of Rome had an identity. I'd agree that Scythia is a pretty useless term too!

James your second post is entirely right histoyr could have been very different. I do find it interesting that as early as the 9th Century one of the sons of Charlemagne is called Louis the German. But the history that identity is a very long and intriguing one- I think what we have to do is to be careful that we don't import modern categories into the ancient, medieval or early modern world.

Oh and incidentally that Noel Coward song is great!

goodbanker said...

I have tended to describe Barbarians to the East of the Rhine / North of the Danube in the late Roman Empire as "Germanic Tribes", rather than "Germans". (And I always assumed that one particular Germanic tribe - the Alamanni - were, at least conceptually, the group that the Franks identified modern-day Germans with. But maybe I'm the victim of a "faux ami" - drawing too much on the modern French term for Germany, Allemagne?)