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A Most Dangerous Book: Tacitus's Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich [Kindle Edition]

Christopher B. Krebs
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Winner of the 2012 Christian Gauss Book Award

"A model of popular intellectual history. . . . In every way, A Most Dangerous Book is a most brilliant achievement."--Washington Post

When the Roman historian Tacitus wrote the Germania, a none-too-flattering little book about the ancient Germans, he could not have foreseen that centuries later the Nazis would extol it as "a bible" and vow to resurrect Germany on its grounds. But the Germania inspired--and polarized--readers long before the rise of the Third Reich. In this elegant and captivating history, Christopher B. Krebs, a professor of classics at Harvard University, traces the wide-ranging influence of the Germania
, revealing how an ancient text rose to take its place among the most dangerous books in the world.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Harvard classics professor Krebs writes a scholarly but lucid account of the abuse of history. Written in 98 C.E. by the Roman official Tacitus, About the Origin and Mores of the Germanic Peoples was lost for centuries but resurfaced around 1500 as Germans were growing resentful of foreign domination—in this case from the Catholic Church in Rome. The rediscovered book launched a primitivist myth that captivated admirers over the next 500 years, from Martin Luther to Heinrich Himmler, who loved its portrayal of ancient Germans as freedom-loving warriors, uncultured but honorable, in contrast to decadent Romans. In fact, Tacitus probably never visited Germany, Krebs notes. Rather, using books and travelers' reports, he wrote for a Roman audience who shared his romantic view of northern barbarians. Enthusiastic German readers, culminating in the Nazis, ignored Tacitus's disparaging comments, misread passages to confirm their prejudices, and proclaimed that the ancient historian confirmed their national superiority. This is an inventive analysis of, and warning against, an irresistible human yearning to find written proof of one's ideology. Illus. (May)
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


“Fascinating. . . . [Krebs] has a light touch and a dry sense of humor.” (New York Times)

“Clever, learned. . . . [Krebs] synthesizes a great deal of classical scholarship and intellectual history into a concise, accessible story.” (Slate)

“It is an extraordinary tale, and Mr. Krebs . . . tells it with great verve and charm.” (Wall Street Journal)

“A dramatic detective story.” (London Review of Books)

Product Details

  • File Size: 1571 KB
  • Print Length: 305 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0393062651
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (August 27, 2012)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B005HG51VU
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  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #147,979 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Suppose a millenium from now historians found a lost copy of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America about the early days of the American republic. What would be the reaction of our decendants? Would they embrace the book wholeheartedly as the definition of American character? Would it be just a quaint relic of a long-lost era?

That is the question I kept in mind as I read Christopher Krebs' A Most Dangerous Book: Tacitus's Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich. Krebs traces the book, actually a tract of less than 30 pages, from the hand of Roman historian Tacitus to the hands of Nazi leaders in the Third Reich. To borrow a phrase, Tacitus would spin in his grave at the knowledge of the uses and misuses of his work throughout history. Written at a time when what we think of as modern Germany was a collection of tribes, Tacitus finds both brutality and nobility in this loose federation of people.

Tacitus' words might have forever been lost to history if not for the work of mideval scholars and humanists who brought the Roman's book to light 1,000 years or so after it was written. From that point on, Germania was a text seemingly made of putty whose meaning could be stretched and shaped to meet the demands of whoever controlled it. Want feudal Germans to take part in a Crusade? Then play up the tales of their forefathers banding together to defend against their enemies. Want to rail against the German character? Then stress the passages that mention human sacrifice by the early Germanic tribes.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Back to Tacitus December 26, 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Beginning Latin students usually are faced with translating Caesar's"Gallic Wars," and move on to other relatively easy Latin texts. I've always said that Tacitus's "Germania" falls into this category, for Tacitus's prose is clear, stylish, and terse. The "Germania" (On Germany) matches up with the author's "Agricola", a tribute to Tacitus's father-in-law, who served Rome well abroad. Both essays have the same style and the same attempt at accuracy. Unfortunately, we have no idea of what the historian's sources were--but we must assume that they were authoritative and reliable. In part 8 he begins with "It is in the record that. . . " But he doesn't reveal the "record.." His study of Germany and the German tribes at the time of the Empire is laid out carefully, and wastes not a word.
In his study of the "Germania" and its latter-day influence on the Germans, Christopher Krebs in "A Most Damgerous Book" relates not only the background of the essay but how it affected the German people themselves, many of whom looked on it as a verification of the stoutness of German character. Krebs even brings the story up to modern times and the bizarre misuse of the work by the Nazis to prove their belief in the purity of the "Aryan race." A source of this misuse was Tacitus's characterization of the wild German tribes as noble savages. Had Rousseau bothered to read the "Germania" he too would have applauded the idea of the German tribes as worth emulating.
Krebs's book certainly fills out a gap in Tacitean studies about the influence of his ethnological essay on later readers. Highly readable, and certainly enlightening, it's a book no admirer of the the Roman historian should miss.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A history of the role of a Roman classic May 1, 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
It may be hard to believe, but the author makes the search for the Annals as interesting as a mystery story. He also succeeds in showing how a "classic" portrayal of the Germans based on no real first- hand knowledge is used perniciously by generation after generation of Germans culminating in the self- serving distortions of the Nazis.
It is a serious book, but a compelling read.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Most Dangerous Book: it is that hard to put down June 27, 2014
After finishing Krebs' fascinating description of the discovery and evolution of Tacitus' Germania, I find it compelling to write something to sum up my experiences.
As an avid reader of the ancient sources, I had no problem following the trail of the discovery of his manuscript by the Humanists. This is an entire territory unknown to me, and though it seemed like it was drifting into minutiae at times, Krebs would bring me back to the main themes which are plainly written by Tacitus, but often twisted and misconstrued, especially by those who wanted to raise the "nation" of Germany into a mighty state. The irony is that there was no nation of Germany, there were only small states of German speaking peoples. This book addresses the big question of how Germany came to be as a nation--something difficult to understand and Krebs sheds some light on it.

But the really interesting question that many people have wondered about--what was the justification for the whole "Aryan race superiority"? Why did Germans buy Hitler's (and Goebbels, and Himmler) propaganda about the destiny of Germany to rule the world? What was all the fuss about "racial purity"?

This book connects all these questions to Tacitus' monograph about the disparate 'Germanic tribes' east of the Rhine. You really should read it first before reading this book. It is easily available on-line. Believe me, Tacitus is easy to read compared to Krebs. Krebs is brilliant, scholarly and witty--but some readers may resent being taken along on his ride down research lane. Personally I appreciated all the insight into researching the Humanists etc--it was 'Enlightening.' LOL.

Anyway, I hope this valuable book induces more readers to take a look at Tacitus.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars Another slam job of Anti German Propaganda
Germans are bad, thousand words, cut paste of other books, (some I even have read before), Germans are very bad, thousand words, "Hitler says the Greeks were building iconic... Read more
Published 7 months ago by Matthew Jerabek
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent if slightly overly erudite read...
I personally loved this book because it deals with topics that I find fascinating (Latin, German, European History, etc). Read more
Published 9 months ago by Ernesto Hernandez
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Walk Through History
In reading Eric Larson's Garden of Beasts, I was struck how Krebs' tracing the history of Tacitus' erroneous history of the Germanic peoples influenced and legitimized Hitler's... Read more
Published 11 months ago by Frank Taylor
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable
A very well written and enjoyable study of the reception of Tacitus' Germania by German intellectuals from the Renaissance to WWII. Read more
Published 19 months ago by R. Albin
5.0 out of 5 stars a timely warning
A timely warning especially now that pseudo-academic works are being used by the oil and gas industry along with the publicity lies which are called public relations. Read more
Published 21 months ago by Marilyn K. Hunt
5.0 out of 5 stars From crossed olive branches to the dreade Swastika
A review, by Gerald T. Westbrook, of

A Most Dangerous Book

A review, by Christopher B. Read more
Published on January 26, 2012 by Gerald T. Westbrook
3.0 out of 5 stars Not bad
While a more difficult read (due to the antiquity of the original author), the book is informative and a valuable historical reference.
Published on August 8, 2011 by Joel G. Dietrich
3.0 out of 5 stars "Okay, I'm Convinced"
The is the very long version of how an ancient Roman text was misinterpreted, abridged and possibly mistranslated to aid and abet a modern day tyrannical regime. Read more
Published on July 12, 2011 by Cary B. Barad
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More About the Author

Christopher B Krebs teaches Classics at Stanford University. He is the author of A Most Dangerous Book. Tacitus' Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich as well as two further books.

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