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

4.2 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0393342925
ISBN-10: 0393342921
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  • Length: 305 pages
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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)
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Review

A fascinating story of how a book could be used and―especially―abused over two thousand years, as enemies saw it as presenting Germans as brutish and barbarian, while German nationalistic pride extracted a quite different message of a nation that was simple, virtuous, and pure.... beautifully told by Christopher Krebs. (Christopher Pelling, editor of Greek Tragedy and the Historian)

A most exciting book! In Krebs’ hands, the story of the Germania manuscript becomes part thriller, part detective story.... A must-read for anyone interested in the pernicious power of the ideas of antiquity―and a timely reminder of the responsibilities placed on readers as well as writers. (Tim Rood, University of Oxford, author of American Anabasis)

Product Details

  • File Size: 1571 KB
  • Print Length: 305 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0393062651
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (August 15, 2011)
  • Publication Date: August 27, 2012
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B005HG51VU
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  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #563,044 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Top Customer Reviews

By W. V. Buckley on October 11, 2011
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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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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Format: Paperback
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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