This autumn is the 2,000th anniversary of the battle when German tribes decisively defeated 20,000 Roman soldiers in the Teutoburg Forest.
But the anniversary–particularly the memory of the leader of the German commander, Hermann (Arminius)–is a complicated thing in Germany.
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.”
The religion journalists at Get Religion often talk about “ghosts” in news stories–a religious element or motivation that the journalist fails to see or explain. (The news media, in other words, do not “get” religion.)
Do you see a religion ghost or two here also?
A few years ago, I was talking with a German student of mine at the university and her boyfriend. The boyfriend had wanted to read a diary kept by some of my own German ancestors about their immigration from Lower Saxony to Missouri in 1843.
I mentioned how Germans who came to Missouri had established vineyards, and how a center of wine-making was the town of Hermann.
“Hermann, of course!” said my student, rolling her eyes.
Had she been one of the schoolchildren who “learnt what a shame it was that the erstwhile hero had prevented Latin culture from reaching northern Germany”?