They need a hero

Cover story For centuries Germans united around the tale of Hermann, a chieftain who defeated the Roman army. But this founding national myth was banished from memory in the postwar era. Clay Risen considers the search for national identity in a post-national age.

Powered by automated translation

For centuries Germans united around the tale of Hermann, a chieftain who rallied his fellow tribesmen to defeat the Roman army. But this founding national myth, cherished by Romantic poets and Nazi ideologues, was banished from memory in the postwar era. As Hermann-mania returns to a wary Germany 2000 years after his victory, Clay Risen considers the search for national identity in a post-national age. Atop a forested hill a few kilometres outside the sleepy west German town of Detmold stands a 19-metre high statue of Hermann, the Germanic chief whose forces annihilated nearly 20,000 Roman legionnaires at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9AD. Gazing toward the French border, the copper statue, wearing a jaunty winged helmet, holds an upraised sword, whose blade bears the inscription "German Unity is my strength, and my strength is Germany's power". The Hermannsdenkmal, or "Hermann Monument", was unveiled in 1875, in the aftermath of Germany's crushing defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War and the subsequent unification of the disparate German states into the Second Reich. At the time it was the world's largest statue; standing on an 18-metre pedestal, it is visible for nearly 50 kilometres. The monument became a symbol for German militant nationalism and a pilgrimage site for the growing cult that celebrated Hermann as a kind of Ur-German, a movement that reached its fever pitch under the Nazis. After the Second World War the Germans purged their culture of anything remotely tainted by Nazism, and the monument - and Hermann - fell into anonymity. The battle, once known as the Hermannschlacht, or Hermann Battle, was rechristened the Varusschlacht, after the Roman general Publius Quinctilius Varus: it is surely one of the only battles in history named after its loser. German schoolchildren, who once read from the countless Romantic Age poems celebrating Hermann, now learnt what a shame it was that the erstwhile hero had prevented Latin culture from reaching northern Germany. 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. "After World War II, it wasn't so easy to talk about German history", said Klaus Schafmeister, Detmold's coordinator for Hermann-related events. "But today, we can talk about Hermann in a way that wasn't possible even 10 years ago." As in most countries, there are two types of national anniversaries in Germany: those people would rather remember, and those they'd like to forget. The country has seen both this year. The Federal Republic was founded 60 years ago in May, while the Berlin Wall fell 20 years ago this November - two dates that mark the country's slow shedding of its totalitarian past. But 2009 is also the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Poland and the beginning of the Second World War. Not surprisingly, the first two dates have been commemorated with speeches and festivals, the latter with a few long-winded newspaper articles and student projects, carried out with a grudging sense of duty, as if by a child forced to eat his vegetables. The events surrounding Hermann, though, are a weird mix of the two, presenting a revised, sanitised, consumer-friendly warrior, a national hero recast as neither "national" nor a hero. "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." But Schafmeister's assessment is undercut by his own success. The trio of exhibits has been one of the country's most successful in decades, drawing 500,000 visitors - overwhelmingly German - to an obscure patch of the country. "Even we were surprised at how popular the exhibit has been," said Gisela Söger, director of press relations at the Kalkriese Museum, one of the three venues hosting Hermann exhibits. So far 35 books on Hermann and the battle have been published this year alone. Scores of school groups visit the Kalkriese museum each week; I counted seven during my two-hour visit. Germans have long struggled with the idea that their country was on a "special path" - one that led directly from the 19th-century founding of the Second Reich through the hell of Nazism into a sort of permanent postwar purgatory, in which they were condemned to endlessly confront and apologise for their past. So what to make of today's Hermannmania? Germany regards itself as being post-patriotic, and certainly cured of all the militaristic nationalism that Hermann once represented. And yet the hundreds of thousands of Germans visiting Detmold aren't simply looking for a theme-park character - nor are they seeking a new militarism. So what are they looking for?

It's not every day, or even every decade, that a town like Detmold gets a visit from the chancellor. The place is almost perfectly designed to avoid national attention. Too far from a major city to be a commuter suburb, it lacks an airport or even a major train connection. It is the embodiment of the German Mittelstand, the small family firms that serve as the quiet, conservative backbone of the national economy. Besides the nearby Hermann Monument, Detmold's only claim to fame is the headquarters of the German youth hostel association. Angela Merkel's visit in May to open the city's Hermann exhibit sent Detmold into a flurry of activity. Streets were cleaned. Lawns were mowed. And hundreds of local and regional police were deployed in and around the city. The chancellor hinted at why in her short, otherwise unremarkable speech. "Not far from here," Merkel said, "the Hermann Monument, which was built in 1875, illustrates the different interpretations of the Varusschlacht - the search for national identity, as well the dangerous ease with which history can be turned into an instrument." Merkel didn't explain what instrument, or who might use it. But she didn't need to. On March 7, Udo Pastör, a leading politician of the extremist German Nationalist Party (NPD), led about 100 far-right activists in a march through Osnabrück, not far from the battle site. Standing before a truck bedecked with a poster reading "The Hermann Battle: 2,000 Years Fighting the Invasion of other Races - For National Self-Determination," Pastör praised Hermann as "a man, a fighter for our people." Just as Hermann defeated the Romans, he said, "today we are threatened by foreign forces, whom we must also keep out of the country." The NPD wasn't the only side energised by the anniversary: the day of Merkel's speech, about 90 far-left activists marched through Detmold, protesting against the exhibit as an invitation to right-wing militants, while a local newspaper warned that "in a year in which we celebrate not only the 60th anniversary of the Federal Republic and the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, recognising the 2,000th anniversary of the Varusschlacht could easily be misunderstood as a third national holiday." It's easy to understand the concern - the story of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest is a Hollywood-perfect script for national mythmaking. Hermann, known in Latin as Arminius, was born to the Cherusker tribe near the Rhine but taken hostage by Roman forces at an early age. Luckily for him, hostage-taking had a different meaning in Roman times, and he was given a solid education and an opportunity to join the army, eventually becoming an aide to Varus, a Roman nobleman with family ties to the emperor.

The autumn of 9AD found Varus, Arminius and three Roman legions making their way west from a summer encampment deep in Germanic territory to their winter fort, closer to the Rhine. What Varus didn't know was that his trusted aide was leading him into a trap, co-ordinated with a coalition of nearby tribes. Arminius even concocted a story about a local uprising, which gave him cover to split off from the main column of Roman troops. A few days later, in a field called Kalkriese near present day Osnabrück, Arminius sprung his trap. Over two days of minor skirmishes, the Germans had managed to funnel the Roman column - about 20,000 men - through a 100 metre-wide pass between a thick bog and a steep hill. German forces hid behind a camouflaged berm just inside the tree line. When the column was halfway through, the Germans attacked, raining down spears and arrows and then, with the Romans in disarray, descending on them with swords and long knives. Within a few hours, more than 10,000 Romans lay dead on the field, including Varus, who had committed suicide. Most of the remaining Romans were killed in pursuit, with only a handful making it to safety along the Rhine. While Roman forces soon returned to the region, the Rhine became the northern border of the empire for the next hundreds of years, and more or less the dividing line between Germanic and Latin culture. Arminius' ultimate intentions were never clear. Did he want to unify Germania? Or maybe just a few tribes in the Rhine region? Or did he simply want to exact revenge on the empire that had taken him hostage? In any case, he didn't get to celebrate for very long - a few years later, around 13AD, he was killed by members of a rival tribe.

The neo-Nazis marching in Osnabrück weren't the first to enlist Arminius as a role model. Like much of Roman history, the story of Arminius, Varus and the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest was forgotten after the empire's fall in the fifth century. But in 1508, the first six books of Tacitus' Annals, which contain an extensive retelling of the battle, turned up in the library of the Benedictine cloister at Corvey, a small town near Detmold. The book was translated from Latin into German, and the story of Arminius quickly spread throughout the myriad German states. It was an auspicious find. On the one hand, Northern Europe was in the midst of a political and religious revolt against the temporal and spiritual power of Roman Catholicism. On the other hand, the residents of what is now Germany didn't think of themselves as particularly German - people were still Saxons, Swabians, or Silesians first, and Germans second, if at all. They spoke a common language, but differed wildly in customs, histories and political alliances. In the centuries after the Lutheran reformation, however, a growing pan-German nationalism took hold, and its advocates grabbed onto the Arminius story as a historical justification for the idea of a single "German" people and a powerful metaphor for the brewing conflict between the reform movement of northern Europe and the Catholic church in Rome. In 1530 Martin Luther renamed Arminius "Heer-Mann", or "Leader of the Army." Heer-Mann soon became "Hermann," and Hermann soon became a national hero. The name "Hermann" was enormously popular for proudly German parents. Within the century Hermann could be found as the title role in plays, the object of epic poetry, and the central figure in murals throughout what is now Germany. In 1529 the writer Ulrich von Hutten published an imaginary dialogue with Arminius, in which the Germanic leader told him "I was always focused on freedom, which I held in my heart and which I sought to achieve for my fatherland however I could." The Arminius Dialogues became the founding text of the Hermann myth, and their anti-Catholic chauvinism became the myth's defining characteristic for the next 400 years. Before the Napoleonic wars, the territory known collectively as Germany was actually some 300 separate states, some as small as a few acres. German history is the story of how a few big players - Prussia, Saxony, Bavaria - slowly unified patches of territory, culminating in the founding of the Second Reich in 1871.

Part of the story is political, but much of it is cultural: national mythmaking was an integral part of nationalism, and Hermann was made an integral part of the German national myth. He was the subject of some 300 written works, along with countless paintings and sculptures. Not surprisingly, the best known and most beloved of these appeared during a time of national crisis. The German romantic writer Heinrich von Kleist published his play The Hermann Battle in 1808, when the German states were under occupation by Napoleon (indeed, part of its immediate popularity grew from a French ban on its performance). The drama drips with pro-German, anti-foreign paranoia: "Rome, this giant, which bestrides the Mediterranean like the Colossus of Rhodes, whose feet are planted in east and west - it will grind us into dust," Kleist wrote. Kleist's play, writes historian Tillmann Bendikowski, "like no other text in the 19th century set the tone for the history of Arminius and the Varusschlacht." Its mixture of German patriotism and xenophobic hysteria became a useful tool not only for pro-unification forces, but also for military planners like Otto von Bismarck, who as chancellor led Prussia in successive, and successful, wars against Denmark, Austria, and France, each preceded by months of fear-mongering about an imminent threat to the fragile Prussian nation. "In a world of jealous enemies," writes the historian Dieter Timpe, "Varuses were everywhere, and they demanded an Arminius." Hermann became a central part of German popular culture as well. Several fraternities, themselves centres of nationalist fervour, pressed Hermann into service as a mascot; one frat even called itself Arminia (and still does, in fact). Josef Viktor von Scheffel's 1847 song Als die Römer frech geworden ("When the Romans Started to Misbehave") became a favourite drinking song in German bars. The Hermann myth received its biggest boost in 1875, with the unveiling of the Hermannsdenkmal, its martial gaze directed at the recently vanquished French. Hermann the man had become Hermann the myth - a pliant set of ideas in the service of an increasingly militaristic nation. By the century's end, Kleist's play and the Hermann monument had become rallying points for German patriotic organisations. The right didn't have a monopoly on Hermann- in 1884 the left-wing Social Democratic Party in Detmold put the monument on its election posters, while Karl Marx praised him as an early class warrior - but the myth became increasingly identified with conservative and reactionary sentiments. It also meshed effortlessly with a new form of anti-Semitism: just like Catholicism and France, many German nationalists saw Jews as a "state enemy," a foreign threat that also demanded an Arminius to root it out. The nationalist right's love for Arminius grew after Germany's loss in the First World War - when they took his murder by fellow tribesmen to be a fitting metaphor for what ultraconservatives deemed a "stab-in-the-back" by the German left. The ruling Social Democrats, charged the right, had surrendered just when the military was poised for a comeback on the western front, then gave in to Allied demands at the Versailles Conference. During the 1920s the statue's outline became a common image in Nazi campaign literature, often with Adolf Hitler's portrait in front to draw a link between the two. The party declared the monument a pilgrimage site - Hitler first visited the Hermann Monument in 1926, not long after publishing the second volume of Mein Kampf - and over the next decade tens of thousands of Nazis and their families made the trip to Detmold, attending torch-lit rallies at Hermann's feet. And while Hitler downplayed Hermann's place in Nazi ideology after taking power - for fear of upsetting his new Italian allies - it was impossible to suppress Hermann's popularity in a time of radical nationalism. Kleist's play was especially popular; the year before Hitler came to power, it was performed just 20 times nationwide; the year after, 150 times. And German schoolchildren were infected with Hermann-fever: "The purity of German blood was saved from the danger of ethnic poisoning, saved through the action of the first great political leader in German history," read a "people's textbook" from 1939. A museum label at the Kalkriese museum notes that "the significance of the Varusschlacht diminished after 1945". That's putting it lightly. Postwar Germany called the end of the Second World War "Zero Hour", the beginning point for a bright, new, democratic Germany and a license to cleanse historical memory of inconvenient elements - including Hermann. Postwar textbooks made only passing reference to the battle, often emphasising Germany's lost opportunity to share in the glow of Roman culture. Hermann plays disappeared from the stage, and Hermann poems vanished from bookshelves. Kleist, whose Hermannschlacht play made him a national hero, is best remembered today instead as the author of a novella, The Marquis of O-. A few right wing groups continued to revere Hermann, but their occasional late-night gatherings at the monument only underlined the danger of discussing Hermann in anything but a negative light. With the passing of generations, though, Germans began to relax their self-flagellation, to tentatively consider their country as something other than eternally damned. After the fall of the Wall, they set aside fears of a new militarism under a reunified state; embraced a government based in Hitler's capital, Berlin; and began to consider - haltingly - whether Allied bombing raids had gone too far by targeting German civilians during the Second World War. In any other country, people would be expected to sympathise with the 30,000 people killed in the bombing of Dresden; in Germany, it's still a matter of debate. The resurrection of Hermann has proceeded in a similarly halting manner. By the 1980s, a handful of West German theatre companies had begun to perform a few of the Hermann plays, though mostly to get a frisson out of the establishment. It wasn't until 1987, when a British army officer discovered convincing evidence locating the battle site at Kalkriese, that the German public discovered an acceptable way to discuss Hermann again. This time around, though, he would be a matter of disinterested scientific and historical inquiry - and tourist marketing. On my recent visit to Kalkriese, a gaggle of school groups wended their way through the museum and excavation site, while adults browsed the massive gift shop, choosing between bottles of Arminius mead and Hermannschlacht sweatshirts. And yet the exhibits and tours emphasise how little Arminius did to change German history. "We don't think his first intention was to free Germany," said Kalkriese's Gisela Söger, as we walked through the soggy field where Hermann and his troops slaughtered 20,000 Romans. "Very seldom do I see people leaving here saying that Hermann was a hero." No wonder: The notes for a recent performance of composer Max Bruch's Arminius Oratorio posit, "Today we know that the Varusschlacht was not that glorious. Arminius was probably a morally conflicted and torn traitor rather than a hero." It's a weird dance that can only be performed in Germany: Millions of euros have been spent to both promote and demean a historical hero, in the hope that something positive comes out in the wash.

If 1945 was Zero Hour for post-Nazi Germany, the beginning of a long path through self-reflection, then 1989 marked the beginning of Germany's long march toward normality. The split between East and West was a national wound; with it healed, Germans could begin to see themselves as something approaching a normal country. But the process hasn't been easy. Margaret Thatcher famously opposed German unification by protesting that "we beat the Germans twice, and now they're back." But her worries were easily matched inside the country, as Günter Grass and other left-leaning intellectuals warned that reunification would lead to a new German militarism. Germans dismissed Grass's concerns, but it took former leftist radicals around the Green Party leader and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer to approve the country's first combat deployment since the Second World War - in Nato's Balkan campaign. Many Germans have never accepted their army's role in Afghanistan, even though it is relatively small and largely focused on non-combat operations - and yet even that deployment would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. The militarism debate again came to a boil in July when, again for the first time since the Second World War, four German soldiers serving in Afghanistan received the nation's highest medal for valour, the Cross of Honour for Bravery. The award, created last year by the Defence Ministry, was controversial: There is an inherent risk, critics cried, in honouring individual valour - heroism, they said, being a short step away from militarism. But Chancellor Merkel, in a speech at the award ceremony, set a different tone. "A deployed army needs such recognition," she said. "We speak too rarely about [heroism] in Germany. We must return our soldiers' performance, debts, and risks in combat to the forefront of the public eye." In a year full of speeches and ceremonies, this may have been her most important - rare for a German politician, she spoke positively and respectfully, without a hint of historical regret or scepticism, about the German military, and she outlined a culture that not only tolerated but honoured its contributions.

Germans are lightening up a bit - witness the flag-waving patriotism during the 2006 World Cup in Germany. But much of their energy is focused on reining in that patriotism, recasting it as something comfortably post-nationalist. A recent essay in the national newspaper Die Zeit boasted that Germany, unlike other countries, had no need to prove itself with national parades and the dangerous pomp and circumstance of state ceremonies - two things, the author wrote, "beloved by tyranny" and dangerous to democracy. "Though it's something we might wish for, we can also deny it," he wrote. But the renewed interest in Hermann makes that an open question. Perhaps, as the Detmold organisers hope, the people rushing to attend the "Year of Hermann" festivities see him as nothing more than a historical curiosity. But it's also possible that in a country bereft of heroes, Germans are slowly but healthily reaching out to the victor of the Teutoburg Forest as a psychological landmark in a continent where national borders are fast disappearing. It's a possibility Schafmeister welcomes. "Perhaps, in the time of the European Union, Hermann can be a symbol for uniting different groups," just as he united the Germanic tribes, even as he symbolises "diversity within a larger community." It's the paradox of post-nationalism: In order for a country to be comfortable erasing its borders and transferring power to a place like Brussels, it needs to have a strong sense of what it is. Maybe Germany needs national heroes and myths to give up its nationhood. And if the country decides Hermann is the right hero for the job, so what? During our tour of the Kalkriese grounds, Söger and I passed a class of schoolchildren whose teacher was showing them how to throw an imaginary spear. The students lined up, arms back, then bounded forward a few feet before releasing their invisible missiles. They collapsed in giggles, then regrouped for another volley. A decade ago, someone like Söger would have been shocked by the militarism on display. But she didn't seem to notice - after all, these were normal kids, doing normal kid things, in a country that is a lot more normal than it thinks. Clay Risen is the managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.