357 – 814  A.D.

357 – 814  A.D.

THE BIRTH OF A GERMAN PEOPLE

The close and permanent contact, in war and peace between German tribes and Roman ‘colonists’ make it extremely hard to distinguish between cause and effect. According to the personal point of view of the individual historian, the decline of Rome is attributed either to the impact of barbarians equipped with the means of warfare and trained in strategy and politics by the Romans themselves, or to internal unrest and demoralisation which invited the barbarians and paved the way to the gates of the City which had ruled the world. In any case it is certain that the later Roman Emperors relied more and more upon German generals and German praetorians and thus furnished them opportunities of grasping power for themselves. About 400 A.D. it was Stilicho, a Vandal, who defended the rule of Honorius against other German attackers; in 476 Odovacar (Odoacer), ruler of the Rugian tribe, was made King of Italy under the titular suzerainty of the Roman Emperor whose seat of government was then in Constantinople.

Odovacar was deposed and was succeeded, and subsequently murdered, by Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths. Verona and Ravenna, where that ruler – glorified later on by German myths though hardly less of an assassin, profligate and drunkard than his contemporaries – set up his court, overshadowing ancient Rome. Theorodic created an administration in which Gothic and Roman executive and legislature worked side by side, stablilised the decaying financial system of his kingdom and established a certain degree of religious toleration which embraced the Jews. He extended his power over other Teutonic realms in Gaul and Germany where parricidal and fratricidal feuds, incest, polygamy and other vices created permanent enmity between the ruling families. Yet, after his death in 526, his own family did not escape that fate: his grandson and successor was dethroned as a drunkard, his daughter was murdered by his nephew and joint ruler with her, and the Gothic kingdom went down under the hammer strokes of Byzantine generals such as Belisarius and Narses.

In German legend Theodoric’s personality merges with that of other heroes and kings. The most famous of the sagas, the Songs of the Nibelungs, mentions him as a friend and guest of Attila, King of the Huns, and as a witness of the last tragic episode when Krimhild, widow of Siegfried and wife of Attila, slays her own brother Gunther together with all the Burgundian princes and knights in the rulers’ burning banquet-hall. Yet it was before the birth of Theodoric that Gunther or Gunthahari ruled at Worms, on the upper Rhine, about 410, and that Attila died in 452 or 453. Much of the gruesome story – preserved by bardic songs and not written down in its present form till the fourteenth century – is probably derived from Merovingian history which starts with the sixth century. It is hardly worth while to record the names of these Frankish rulers: one of them, Chlotar, had all his relatives murdered; another, Fredegundis, induced her lover to assassinate his wife and his brother. A third queen, Brunhild, was torn to pieces by four horses after having killed ten other rulers. Dagger and poison wrought havoc among the ruling families while, astonishingly enough, the primitive and treacherous people of the Franks prospered and overwhelmed the two Gothic patrimonies – that of the Visigoths in Spain and southern France, like that of the Vandals in northern Africa, having rapidly decayed under the influence of tribal, dynastic and religious feuds; both their ruling houses had adopted Arian Christianity and oppressed Catholics, or, alternatively, had gone over to Catholicism and been attacked by Arians and advancing Mahometans alike.

The first Frankish rulers were heathens like their wild tribes. Clovis, chieftain of the Salian Franks, after uniting all the other Frankish tribes between 485 and 491, attacked the Alemanni and in a moment of grave danger during the battle of Tolbiac, near Strassburg, called on Christ to succour him. After his victory he accepted the faith of Rome for himself and his people and subsequently conquered a large part of war later became France and western Germany. His successors continued to extend their inheritance, conquering Bavaria, invading Italy and plundering Rome (?), splitting up their realm and reuniting it, fighting their own ambitious vassals and nobles, and committing the numerous murders of close relatives which were evidently obligatory in that dynasty. More and more the Major-domo of the king, a sort of Lord Chamberlain, Attorney-General and Field-Marshal combined, gained the real power while the ruling king or queen was engaged in the usual sanguinary pastime. In 638 the real power passed to Pepin the Old, Mayor of Austrasia, the eastern, German part of the Frankish Empire, and his son, Grimoald, created for his nominal king and his successors the ironic title of roi faine’ant – the king with nothing to do. . . .

Charles Martel, the Hammer, illegitimate son of another Pepin, was to become the greatest of the Mayors of the Palace. He reunited the Merovingian realm, fought the Saxons and Frisians in the north of Germany, the Bavarians in the south, and finally vanquished the Arabs who, after conquering Spain, had advanced as far as Poiters in the heart of France. his power became such that he did not bother to have another of the faine’ant kings elected during the last four years of his rule; to all intents and purposes he was already Emperor of a great new realm covering the now most important parts of what had once been the Roman Empire.

He favoured missionary work among the heathen Germans, yet strictly controlled the activities of the Church. Boniface, the apostle to the Germans, an Irish monk, was made Bishop of Germany beyond the Rhine under Charles, and with the cutting down of Woton’s holy oak near Fritzlar, in Hesse, brought to a sudden end that period of German history which modern political propaganda was trying hard to glorify as the source of all specifically Teutonic virtues and traditions, but which was in fact a Dark Age unsurpassed in cruelty, superstition, immortality and nearly every variety of vice, by that of any other people. If the German savages of pre-Christian days had any inborn virtues – and that of loyalty above all is claimed for them – such proofs of it as have been preserved by word of mouth only (there are no written documents dating back to pre-Christian times) are astonishingly negative. Most of their heroes die by treachery, assassination, or poison; their womenfolk are betrayed, trapped into marriage – as Brunhild, the Valkyrie, is by Gunther aided by Siegfried under his cap of invisibility, in the Nibelung saga – or given up to bigamous or licentious intrigues. their gods are represented as open to bribes, as quarrelling and fighting among themselves and as mortal in the widest sense of that word. The undoubted bravery of the Teutonic tribesmen appears to be due to ignorance and superstition, enhanced by much the same method that later on Mahomet employed to make his followers invincible: namely, the promise of a paradise attainable only by death on the battlefield, a paradise embodying somewhat grossly the dreams of a glutton, a drunkard and a libertine.

Even though a few names, such as Arminius, Theodoric, Gaiseric the Vandal or Alaric the Visigoth who in his turn sacked Rome (!), have been preserved, there was no organised German national development before Christianity and the teaching of the monks began to overcome gross darkness, intellectual, moral and material. Schools such as were opened all over the country by the fighting Irish monks from the time when St. Columba and St. Gallus started their missionary work about the year 600, were for a long time the only beacons in a Dark Age, during which the high Mediterranean civilisation which had previously spread with the marching legions of Rome had given way to savagery and ignorance. A certain level of amenity, even in far-away Germany, had again been replaced by mud and wattle; excellent roads had fallen into disuse; and the dung-heap inside the peasant hut, which the German barbarians had used as a sleeping-place and a cache for their food because of its warmth, had reappeared. It needed Anglo-Saxon scholars like Alcuin and his Irish contemporary Boniface to bring forth such capacities as were latent in the vast plains between Rhine and Elbe, between the North Sea and the Alps.

Charles Martel had paved the way. His son Carolus Magnus – Charlemagne – whom Germans and French alike claim as their greatest ruler, probably did not think of himself as the successor either of Arminius or of Vercingetorix, as either a Teutonic or a Gaulish ruler. Both Gaul and the German provinces were to him parts of the Roman Empire, the ‘Imperium Mundi,’ which, by virtue of the Frankish inheritance, he held as it were in trust. True, he disposed in a somewhat liberal way of the territories of that Empire, granting to the Pope the ‘Patrimonium Petri’ as an Ecclesiastical State, confiscating – after a war with Desiderius, King of the Langobards and his own father-in-law through one of his frequent marriages – the latter’s wealthy domains in northern Italy and crowning himself with the iron crown of the Langobards. On the other hand he fortified and pacified the realm and set up an organisation exploiting as perfectly as possible the political experience of his Roman predecessors. His most powerful adversaries were the Saxon tribes, loosely united under their chief Widukind (Witikind). After three sanguinary expeditions, between 772 and 780, Charles secured the Saxons’ submission: Widukind was baptised at Attigny in Champagne, and his pugnacious people were forcibly converted to the Christian creed and partly transplanted into Frankish territories, where to this day a number of towns and villages bear names reminding us of the Saxon settlers. The Saxon migration to Britain obviously gained a strong impulse from this subjection of a proud race, thousands of whom had been beheaded by Charles at Verden after a revolt in 782. Twelve centuries later National Socialism represented these Pagan rebels against Charle’s organised state as the sanctified martyrs of Germandom slain by Judaism in the disguise of the Christian Church. . . .

Charles fought other frontier tribes as well: he subjected the Bavarians, the Avars in what later was Hungary, the Norsemen who raided his coasts, and the personal enemies of the Pope, Leo III, who, in view of his many obligations to the Frankish ruler, crowned him Emperor during mass at St. Peter’s on Christmas Day 800 A.D. This act marks the foundation of the ‘Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation,’ although the name itself was not established until, one and a half centuries later, Otto the Great was crowned in Rome. Although Charle’s effort to establish a perfect centralised organisation and to spread learning and religion was not entirely successful, and though many of his local counts failed to give satisfaction, and his travelling courts to dispense equal justice, he raised the level of civilisation and ended the Dark Age that had prevailed for more than three hundred years all over central and western Europe. At the same time, with his many expeditions into Italy he initiated a period of strife that was to overshadow the whole of medieval history and to give German political life a twist that prevented internal consolidation. The Drang nach Suden, if not yet its counterpart, the Drang nach Osten, established itself under Charlemagne’s influence. The countries of a sunnier climate and a more fertile soil became the permanent objects of German yearning, and his example served sanguinary wars. German romanticism fed on his deeds, his exchange of embassies with distant potentates such as Haroun-al-Rashid, Caliph of Baghdad, his fight against the Spanish Saracens, during which Roland, Count of the Breton March, fell and became a German as well as a French mythical hero, statues of whom adorn to this day numerous German town-halls and law-courts.

To what low level the arts had by then sunk in the northern countries, in spite of the beautiful Greek and Roman models ready to hand, appears most clearly perhaps from the fact that there is not a single portrait or statue preserving for us the features of Charlemagne or his paladins such as Roland, or of Alcuin, his ‘Minister of Education,’ or of Einhard, his advisor and biographer – later sculptures and paintings show the great Emperor either with or without a beard, with a face suggestive of Latin rather than Teutonic ancestry – and not much more is left of the cathedrals and palaces he built in his main seat, Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle), and elsewhere. Yet he was, as far as means of communication permitted, in close relation with foreign countries of advanced civilisation: not only with the foremost Arabian ruler, but also with his own counterpart in the East, the Byzantine Emperor in Constantinople, to whom he made a gift of the wealthy province of Dalmatia. As go-betweens and ambassadors he usually employed Jews who, long before and during the time, were held in high esteem as learned people skilled in languages and possessing international connections, while others of their religion had played an important part by introducing the culture of the vine and numerous crafts previously unknown into the German parts of the old Empire. Charlemagne was obviously free from the manifold prejudices that were to hamper many of his successors: he had four wives in succession and concurrently, five concubines, by whom he had scores of children, mostly daughters. When he died, in 814, his son Ludwig, or Louis, named ‘the Pious,’ succeeded to the throne of the whole Empire, the premature death of his two elder brothers preventing the usual partition.