To 357 A.D.

To 357 A.D.

Savages Versus Civilisation

Alike all great peoples the Germans are very proud of their national tradition. that tradition, sometimes neglected, sometimes emphasised, sometimes entirely forgotten, was raised to the status of a religion when National Socialism took command. Yet, during the whole period in which the nations of antiquity, Babylon and Assyria, Greece, Egypt and Rome, flourished, nothing like a German nation existed. Until the time of Christ and for some while after, Central Europe was inhabited by savage tribes best comparable with the negro tribes of our day. Their language were of small range; they did possess writing (although modern Germans claim the runic characters, obviously a simpler variant of the Greek alphabet, as an invention of their forefathers); their conduct was cruel and primitive, and their customs and ways of living, until they came into contact with Mediterranean civilisation, scarcely above those of the aborigines of the Dark Continent.

Nothing is known of their history until the year 115 B.C., when the Cimbri and Teutones, coming from Jutland and the area north-east of the river Elbe, began to push southwards and to invade the country subsequently known as Bohemia, and then Carinthia, Styria and other outposts of the Roman Empire north of the Alps. Together with other Teutonic and Celtic tribes previously conquered, they defeated a Roman army at Noreia in 133 B.C.  and again in 109 and 105 – the first Teutonic invasion of Italy, to be followed by many more in the course of two thousand years. Roman authors describe how these wild tribes formed rectangular barricades of their waggons and how their women and children continued the fight when their menfolk had been slain, until they too were destroyed or, in order to avoid captivity, threw themselves upon the spears and swords of the enemy. At first the appearance of these wild and ruthless invaders from mysterious northern countries was a great shock to the proud Roman masters of the Mediterranean world. The physical strength, the endurance, the warlike character of these savages clad in skins and wearing the heads of bears, buffaloes and other wild animals as headgear, and athletic accomplishments like those of their leader, Teutoboch,  a giant who was said to be able to jump over four or six horse, deeply impressed a nation already softened by civilisation.

The Romans managed, however, to prevail over the greater numbers and the unyielding bravery of the Germans by using their superior intelligence. Attacking early in the morning, so that the Cimbri were half blinded by the sun and the dust of a burning hot summer day, the Roman general Marius destroyed or captured the whole people of the Cimbri in 101 B.C., after having defeated the Teutones a year before at Aix in Province. The northern danger was averted for about forty years, until the Suabian king Ariovistus penetrated into what is today the heart of France. He preceded Hitler by, roughly, two thousand years; but the tribe he subjected, especially the Sequani, of whom the river Seine reminds us, were not yet latinised, and can be considered as precursors of the French only in a very vague sense. Even so the Romans, who had a highly developed political sense, could not tolerate the occupation of one of their most important outposts of empire by foreign savages, and as soon as Julius Caesar was appointed to the command of Gaul (i.e., Northern Italy and Provence) he set himself the task of driving back the Teutonic tribes, the Suevi, Helvetii and others, who had begun to settle on Gallic soil.

He has put on record his conference with Ariovistus – a rare instance in ancient warfare – in order to prove the faithlessness of his German adversary. After both commanders had agreed upon meeting on a hill between their entrenched camps, unarmed and with but a few retainers, Ariovistus made an unsuccessful attempt to capture or kill Caesar. The consequence was a terrific battle during which the Suevi – or Suabians – and their allies were completely routed and destroyed. That battle near the river Thurn, not far from the modern Besancon, took place on 10th September, 58 B.C.; it has some claim to rank as a turning-point of history. For it eliminated the German tribes from Gallic soil for no less than five and a half centuries, until Chlodovech (Clovis), king of the Franks, conquered what was later to be France; and permitted the evolution of a Celto-Latin culture that, as French civilisation was to illuminate the world for more than a thousand years. It is more than doubtful whether anything like that culture could have arisen under German domination; for at that time, at least, the Germans were rough barbarians who tortured their prisoners and even hostages in the most horrible fashion.

Their standard at that time may be compared with that of the pre-Homeric Greeks about a thousand years earlier, or of the Roman before the foundation of their city. They practiced human sacrifice, and (despite German claims about their high mortality) polygamy was general, at least among noble or wealthier members of the community. They were dirty, drunkards, gamblers, unscrupulously putting to the hazard of the dice their primitive houses, their slaves, their wives and children, their horses, and even their own freedom. They were cruel and quarrelsome. Incest, bigamy and other sexual perversities were not considered to be crimes; murder could be bought off by paying Wergeld to the tribal ruler or the community. They punished their slaves in the most brutal way, whipping or emasculating them, and their intertribal quarrels were so interminable that ‘querelles Allemades’ became a current French phrase for senseless rows. They united only in a temporary and superficial fashion with the object of waging war abroad and of electing a king or ‘duke’ (leader) for that purpose. Caesar reports that ‘the greatest distinction a tribe can have is to be surrounded by as wide a belt as possible of waste and desert land. they regard it as a tribute to their valour that neighbouring peoples should be dispossessed and should retreat before them, and that no one should venture to settle in their vicinity. . . .’

For their physical aspect we have mainly to rely on Roman and Greek writers such as Tacitus, Strabo, Sextus Empiricus and others. Tacitus, who set out to contrast what he considered the depravity of his countrymen with the primitive but healthy and morally sounder ways of living of the northern savages – the Gog and Magog peoples of the Bible – describes the Germans as follows: ‘They have defiant blue eyes, reddish hair, frames bulky and possessing strength only for spasmodic effort, with no corresponding power of standing up to toil and hardy work. They have never accustomed themselves to bear thirst or heat even in the smallest degree. . . .  They go naked or lightly clad with a short cloak. . . .  To drink all through the day and far into the night is a disgrace to no one; their quarrels, as might be expectd among drunken men, are frequent and are frequent and are seldom fought out with mere wrangling, but more often with bloodshed and wounds.’ In describing their passion for games of hazard the Roman historian call it ‘stubbornness in a perverse practice; they themselves call it honour.’ Of their lust for plunder and fighting he says that ‘it seems to them dull and insipid to acquire by the sweat of their brow what can be won by bloodshed’; and of the famous Teutonic loyalty he says: ‘Their leaders fight for victory, the followers fight for their leader. . . .’

While, in the past two thousand years, the primitive ways of the Germans have given place to an extremely up-to-date technical civilisation, it seems that certain fundamental traits of the national character have prevailed over all supervening influences such as Christianity, knightly or humanistic education, acquisition of wealth and intercourse with other peoples. Certain customs, for instance, like the enforced duelling of students, remind one strangely of the habits of their savage ancestors. The Chatti, an important tribe, like the Red Indians of yore used to take a vow by which they let their hair and beard grow and wore iron rings until such time as they found an opportunity to redeem their pledge by slaying an enemy. A perversion which, rightly or wrongly, has been attributed to many modern rulers of Germany and their courts must have been fairly common among the simple savages of Caesar’s day: Sextus Empiricus reports that pederasty was very popular and was not considered as shameful, while Tacitus on the other hand tells us that those guilty of it were condemned to be buried alive in swamps. Superstition too – as is quite natural among primitive peoples – was rife. Priestesses used to predict the favourable time for a battle from the intestines of prisoners sacrificed for that purpose. All in all, the ancient Germans appear to have been a rather unpleasant lot; and their history, as far as foreign authors, oral tradition, bardic songs and other sources have preserved it, is full of unsavoury, cruel, brutal and perfidious deeds.

Yet they too have their heroes, the most outstanding of whom is Arminius, or Hermann, the Cheruscan, whose life-story deserves a page to itself. Caesar had twice crossed the river Rhine, Germany’s natural frontier, in 55 and 53 B.C.; Tiberius had crossed the Alps and reached the Danube, and about the time when in far-away Palestine Jesus Christ was born, two Roman provinces were established on German soil, later called the Agri Decumati and fortified by a system of castles and a long wall the remains of which to this day yield interesting finds. As the German tribes had no towns or even villages of importance, it was then that the foundations of many famous German cities were laid: Treves, Cologne, Mayence, Augsburg, Regensburg and Vienna, among others, owe their origin to the fortified military settlements established by Roman generals guarding the outposts of their Empire. A certain degree of neighbourly relations was reached between Latin and German inhabitants of occupied and bordering territories when the youthful leader of the Cherusci, a tribe living approximately within the area later called Westphalia, took service with the Roman army. Like Maroboduus, king of the Marcomanni, between the rivers Elbe and Vistula, he had distinguished himself and been made a Roman knight and citizen. He had learned the secrets of political craft and, although but twenty-six years of age when he succeeded his father as ruler of his tribe, he knew how to practice deceit and diplomacy. Quintilius Varus, appointed governor of the German provinces by the Emperor Augustus, trusted him and frequently took part in drinking bouts such as the Germans liked.

His own people, however, were less confiding in Arminius, and Segestes, his father-in-law, whom he had deeply offended by eloping with Thusnelda, his daughter,  who had promised to another ruler, was his sworn enemy. He tried to warn Varus against Arminius and a cunning plot of his, but was no more successful in doing so than Flavus, Arminius’s own brother, who held the rank of a captain in the legions of Varus. By denouncing a revolt in a northern part of the country Arminius enticed Vars with his three legions into the Teutoburg mountains, a wild, swampy and densely wooded area along the river Weser. There, suddenly deserting his Roman ‘friend,’ Arminius led the tribes allied with his own to a sudden attack one rainy day in the autumn of 9 A.D., and completely destroyed the Roman army. Varus committed suicide on the battlefield; surviving soldiers were made slaves and officers were sacrificed to the sinister Teutonic gods in their sacred groves. Subsequently the farthest Roman outposts, the fortress Aliso, was stormed. Augustus, when he learned of the defeat of his strongest colonial army, fell in despair, exclaiming, ‘Varus, Varus, give me back my legions,’ and indeed it looked for a moment as if the mighty Roman Empire were really menaced with invasion and perhaps destruction by the barbarian hordes from the north.

But they waited for seven years before doing anything to exploit their crushing victory, and meanwhile the power of Rome recovered from the shock. Quarrelling as usual among themselves, the German leaders were unable to build up a nation, or even an alliance, of permanent quality. Maroboduus, the mighty king who by now ruled over an area stretching from the lower Elbe deep into the Styrian Alps, was jealous of his younger rival’s fame and refused to join forces with him when, as a token of his good faith, Arminius sent him the head of Varus. Thus, when Germanicus, late in 14 A.D., advanced into the country of the Chatti, southern neighbours of the Cheruscans, Arminius found himself hard pressed and unable even to protect his wife, whom Segestes handed over to the enemy shortly before she gave birth to Arminius’s only son. She was taken to Rome and forced to march in Germanicus’s triumphal procession, and was afterwards held in Ravenna where king Maroboduus, too, after being defeated by Ariminius in a murderous fratricidal war, ended his days in exile. Thumelicus, son of Arminius born in captivity, met his death as a gladiator. Arminius himself, extolled to this day by the Germans as a national hero and the first unifier of his people, came to no better end. For a long time jealous chieftains tried to make away with him by treachery and murder; one of them even made an offer to the Romans Senate to poison him if he were provided with the necessary drugs – an offer that Tiberius haughtily refused. Finally, in 20 A.D., he was assassinated by a group of his own closest followers. The people revenged his death by a civil war in which the whole Cheruscan nobility was exterminated’ Italicus, son of Arminius’s latinised brother Flavus, was made the hero’s successor, but soon disappears, together with his tribe, from the pages of history.

For the next three and half centuries such account of Germany as history gives is one long story of bloodshed, internecine feuds, tribal unrest and migrations – a dark age full of ignorance, poverty and superstition, with but few outstanding names and deeds. The Christian faith, which began to make headway everywhere else, was unknown to these still half-savage tribes. Their heathen gods demanded human sacrifice and indulged sacrifice and indulged in incestuous love-affairs; they were pictured as fighting among themselves, betraying and assassinating each other or struggling with giants. They were supposed to be overshadowed by the menace of a terrible twilight when even they would have to die and the world would end in flames. Woton or Odin, supreme amongst them, is a splenetic, one-eyed old man; Baldur, the fair-haired god of light, falls to the poisonous arrow of mistletoe shot by the Master of the nether world. In short, the Teutonic Valhalla, the Germans’ Olympus, presents a more or less correct picture of the earthly life of its believers and is hardly inspiring, except to bravery in battle which is rewarded by a prompt transfer of the dead hero to Valhalla by the Valkyries, Woton’s handmaidens, who, lingering above the battlefield, direct the spear-throws and carry the victims away on their divine horses. Valhalla itself was conceived by Nordic believers as a large banqueting-hall where meth, an alcoholic brew made of fermented millet and honey, could be had for the asking, where songs and stories were heard, and where everyone boasted of his earthly prowess.

The esteem in which the Romans held their savage northern neighbours was based exclusively upon their military qualities. They fought them for centuries with some setbacks at first; but, between 50 and 100 A.D., Roman legions advanced into the territories of the Frisians and Batavians, the tribes of the northern coast. Having established their mastery, they employed these Teutonic fighters in their widespread colonial wars, thus laying the foundations of a mercenary system characteristic of Germany all through the Middle Ages. The great mistake of the Roman conquerors was to entrust more and more of the task of keeping guard along the German border itself, and the control of the ‘tithe-land- – the Agri Decumati – to such German auxiliaries. The marvellous double wall which finally stretched from the Firth of Forth in far-away Britain along the right bank of the Rhine, and from there along the Danube perhaps as far as Rumania, became useless as soon as those against whom it was erected were made masters of its strongholds. As soon as there was a sufficient cause to set these half-tamed populations in motion, they were bound to turn to the south and west, from which a warmer sun, more fertile soils and rich booty beckoned to them.

That cause presented itself in a southward thrust by the strong Nordic tribes of the Goths. It is unknown whether famine or epidemics urged them to leave their territories around the mouth of the Vistula and push in the direction of the Black Sea, but it was their migration that set all the eastern tribes in motion, and forced others to pour like locusts into the Danubian and Alpine countries and, in the middle of the second century, to cross the Alps and attack Aquileia – near the later Venice – the main trading post of the Romans with the Eastern world. Repulsed with great effort and sacrifice, German tribes (such as the Marcomanni and Suevi) appeared again a century later, attacked Ravenna and menaced even Rome around 265 A.D., simultaneously with a general crossing of the Rhine by the Teutonic hordes of the Alemanni, Burgundians and Franks. The power of resistance of the Roman Empire was declining. On many occasions it was obliged to compromise with the barbarians, to grant them colonial land on what had been Gallic soil, because dynastic conflicts at home or political and personal feuds made Rome’s leaders forget the larger interests of the Empire. Usurpers or would-be usurpers of the imperial diadem of Augustus did not even shrink from calling on German tribal leaders for help: for instance, when Marcus Constantius asked for the backing of the Alemanni, who at once overflowed the fertile land of Gaul.

Constantius’s successor, Julian, tried to stem the tide. Near the modern Strassburg, in 337 A.D.. he attacked 35,000 German tribesmen with 55,000 well-trained and equipped Roman soldiers and, after a terrific battle in which German auxiliaries in the Roman legions decided the issue, completely routed and routed and destroyed the Alemanni, thousands of whom were drowned when trying to retreat across the Rhine. That was the last successful effort to preserve the Roman Empire, to avert its fate and prevent the Germans from gaining the dominant position in European history.