Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The "garden gnome" of German nationalism

2009 is the 2,000th anniversary of the Roman disaster at the Teutoburg Forest: three legions slaughtered, and Augustus roaming his palace, tearing his toga, and crying out, "Varus, give me back my legions!"

Clay Risen reports that the Germans, after some post-Nazi unease with their national hero, have purified him through kitsch:
This autumn marks the 2,000th anniversary of the battle, and Germany is witnessing a new-found interest in all things Hermann. But in a twist on Marx’s famous adage about how history repeats itself, the Hermann cult appeared first as tragedy, and second as a 12-million-euro marketing bonanza. What had been a question of shame has become a matter of kitsch: when I went to Detmold to check out the scene, I found a gift shop stocked with garden gnomes in the shape of a cartoonish Germanic warrior; a thick sausage called “Hermannwurst”; and Thusnelda Beer, named after Hermann’s mythical love interest. And the region around Detmold has pulled out all the stops in promoting the anniversary as a mega-tourist event, including three museum exhibits, plays, tours and festivals.
The importance of Hermann, or Arminius, to German nationalism is more notional than real; the Germans had no thought of themselves as a "nation," and Arminius was killed by rival tribesmen.
To me, he is just a garden gnome,” Schafmeister said during an interview in his office, his desk piled with Hermann chocolate bars and other paraphernalia. The exhibits and plays organised for the anniversary no longer depict Hermann as the founding father of the German peoples: instead he appears as a minor warlord who got lucky, an interesting figure with no relevance to the present. “He is really history,” says Herfried Münkler, a historian at Berlin’s Humboldt University and the author of The Germans and their Myths. “He is no longer relevant to the question of German identity.” It’s a thin line to walk – a year of festivities for a man no one thinks is worth celebrating. “We don’t even call it an anniversary, because that implies a celebration,” said Schafmeister. “It is just a recognition of something that happened from 2,000 years ago.”
The article details the coincidence of the recovery of Tacitus's Annals in 1508, just when German dissatisfaction with Rome was about to reach boiling point, and the subsequent use and abuse of Arminius's legend. (The article errs in saying that Tacitus gives "an extensive retelling of the battle"; Tacitus's focus is on the reprisal campaign under Germanicus, though there's a spooky account of the battle site as those troops found it, white bones everywhere and "barbarian altars, at which they had sacrificed tribunes and first-rank centurions.") Interesting stuff.

No comments:

Post a Comment