Thursday, September 17, 2009

A still-wandering warlord

My slow journey to the completion of a MA in history is leading me, this semester, through the Protestant Reformation and its attendant upheavals. As someone who has taken every opportunity offered by his program requirements to focus on the third through seventh centuries, with occasional forays into earlier times, I approached this seminar with a certain amount of trepidation. Here was the far side of the bridge spanning the great, fermenting river that is medieval history. I have spent the bulk of my studies pawing through the silt of that river's near side, marveling over found gewgaws and sometimes pausing to wonder how, or whether, eddies near the shore affected the greater flow of the river. The task of crossing to the opposite bank and appreciating its landscape promised to take me well outside my comfort zone.

You might imagine my surprise when, in the midst of Luther's screeds and classic studies of the period, I encountered a man whose mark on the historical record took place more than 15 centuries earlier...and 2,000 years ago this month. Germany's soil had long since reclaimed the bleached bones of Publius Quinctilius Varus by the time Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, ruled over it. Nonetheless, there, standing alongside Hannibal, Alexander the Great, Scipio Africanus, and pleading his case before Minos, judge of the dead in Hades, was Hermann the German:

[Tacitus] calls me "the deliverer of Germany," and not wrongly, for it was I who tore the German land from the grip of Roman armies, restoring freedom to my countrymen who had grown accustomed to their slavish yoke...inasmuch as everyone admits that no greater might than Rome's ever existed on the earth, and seeing that I succeeded in vanquishing this might at the moment of its apogee, I believe to be entitled fairly to the name of greatest general of all times.

The author of this spectral dialogue was Ulrich von Hutten, who found Hermann--or, as the Romans called him, Arminius--a convenient standard bearer in his propaganda war against the Roman church. More than a thousand years after the Rhine and Danube frontiers had lost their ancient significance, Rome still regarded its German co-religionists as a horde of barely civilized barbarians who'd only found Christian salvation with Rome's missionary assistance...and who were quite ungrateful for the favor.

Hutten's Romans had a predictably dimmer view of Arminius:

SCIPIO: Among the Romans, Arminius stands accused of breach of faith and is charged with having abused his victory over Varus by excessive cruelty.
ARMINIUS: If that accusation were to stand, Scipio, all tyrannicides and liberators would be judged faithless, most notably your own patriots who drove out the Tarquins and assassinated Julius Caesar. And yet these heroes enjoy fame and glory among you. I, for my part, call those men faithless who trim their sails to the winds of good fortune, who offer their loyalty for sale to the highest bidder. I myself was driven by the sacred merit of my nation's cause...my enemies' jealousy is responsible for the invention of this malicious calumny...I am not the first to be slandered, nor will I be the last.


Expurgating the record of anti-German slander has been a popular pastime in the centuries since Hutten wrote, and Arminius has often reprised his role as mascot. The dark side of German nationalism has made many wary of his appearances, which is why Germany's acknowledgement of the anniversary has been carefully moderated. On my side of the ocean, however, German ethnic pride has more or less successfully rid itself of its more distasteful associations, which permits Arminius to serve as an emblem of freedom in the American iconic tradition.

That's the case in the little town of New Ulm, Minnesota, where a monumental statue of Arminius was first dedicated in 1897. He's since been refurbished, and today, he presides over a weekend-long celebration of "the great achievements of Germanic-Americans." There will be re-enactors, a German car show (!), and an academic symposium held, appropriately enough, at Martin Luther College.

For my money, though, the can't-miss attraction is Saturday morning's Cherusci Breakfast. Get there early to enjoy "Battle Biscuits," "Thusnelda's Scrambled Eggs," and "Hermann Ham" with "Black Forest Fruit Salad." Your meal will be served by costumed waitstaff. What are you waiting for?

Of course, before you go, you should do some background reading to help you get in the proper spirit of things. The blogosphere's undisputed expert on Arminius is Adrian Murdoch, who has also written a book on his victory over Varus.

Adrian's blog, however, does not include breakfast. Get on that, Adrian.

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