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Battle of the Teutoburg Forest: Germany Recalls Myth That Created the Nation

By in Kalkriese, Germany

In September 9 AD, Germanic tribesmen slaughtered three Roman legions in a battle that marked the "big bang" of the German nation and created its first hero -- Hermann. The country is marking the 2,000th anniversary with restraint because the myth of Hermann remains tainted by the militant nationalism that would later be associated with Hitler.

The Hermann Monument testifies to the power of the myth that created the German nation. Zoom
David Crossland

The Hermann Monument testifies to the power of the myth that created the German nation.

Germany's 20th century history has been so troubled that anniversaries of positive events are in short supply. This year has two such rare examples, the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 60th of the establishment of democracy after World War II.

There's a third one coming up in September that represents nothing less than the birth of the German nation -- the 2,000th anniversary of a devastating victory over three Roman legions by Germanic tribes in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.

The battle created the first German hero, Arminius, or Hermann as he later became known, a young chieftain of the Cherusci tribe who led the rebellion and was hailed for centuries as the man who united the Germans and drove the Romans out of Germania.

Photo Gallery

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Photo Gallery: The Myth of Hermann the German

But Germany is marking the event with noticeable restraint. There's no sense of glory and no program of flag-waving festivals of the sort one would expect in other nations celebrating their creation.

In fact, a lot of Germans don't even know about Arminius. Many schools shunned his story after 1945 because he became contaminated by the militant nationalism that led to Hitler. Interest has gradually reawakened since the discovery of the presumed site of the battle in the late 1980s, and there has been intense media coverage of the man and the myth this year.

Cautious Celebration

Chancellor Angela Merkel visited the battlefield in a forest near the village of Kalkriese in May to open an exhibition on Germanic tribes there, and some 400 actors dressed as Romans or Germanic tribesmen gently re-enacted scenes from the battle there in June, with rubber-tipped spears. Most actors wanted to be Romans, and there was such a shortage of Germanic warriors that some hirsute hobby Vikings had to be recruited to make up the numbers.

"This anniversary year has gone very well because it has been free of nationalist emotion," Tillmann Bendikowski, author of a new book on the battle and the myth of Hermann, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "It has been dealt with far more soberly than one might have expected."

The story of Arminius is a lesson in how history can be invented and turned into propaganda. From the 16th century onwards, when an account of the battle by Roman historian Tacitus resurfaced in a German monastery, nationalists fashioned the Germanic leader into an icon to help them forge unity in the face of such perceived enemies as the Vatican, the French and the Jews.

Arminius and the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, they said, marked the origin of the German nation. Hermann, as Martin Luther called him, was deemed the perfect symbol to give a nation fragmented into dozens of states the identity it lacked.

Germany 's "Big Bang"

"The battle became the big bang of the German nation in terms of myth and legend. But in terms of real history, it was no such thing," said Bendikowski.

The more than 50 Germanic tribes of the ancient period were the forefathers of many European nations, not just the Germans. And Arminius by no means united them -- he persuaded five tribes to join him in battle, and he was killed by members of his own tribe a few years later.

However, there's little doubt that the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest sent shockwaves through the Roman Empire. It was one reason why Rome abandoned plans to turn Germania east of the Rhine into a province.

Some 10,000 to 12,000 highly trained and battle-hardened legionnaires are believed to have been slaughtered at Kalkriese in an ambush orchestrated by Arminius. Three Roman legions were wiped out in four days of fighting on the narrow forest paths a few miles from what is now the city of Osnabrück. The entire Roman Empire stretching from northern England to Egypt only had 28 legions at the time.

The popular notion that Arminius drove the Romans out of Germania east of the Rhine is a fallacy, though. Roman legions were back in force six years after the battle, wreaking havoc and winning major battles. The discovery last year of an ancient battlefield some 100 kilometers east of Kalkriese, near the town of Kalefeld south of Hanover, testifies to Roman military presence deep in hostile Germania as late as the third century AD.

"It's typically German to say world history was shaped on German soil," said Bendikowski. "We know that this was one battle among many and that there was a range of factors behind Rome's eventual retreat to the Rhine. Everyone who needed this myth regarded it as the turning point of history. For many it remains the turning point. But it wasn't."

The Man and the Myth

The playwrights, writers and political leaders of the 18th and 19th centuries didn't let the facts get in the way of a good story. They were helped by a severe shortage of facts because the ancient Germanic tribes had no written culture and no Roman eyewitnesses survived the slaughter.

Hermann, portrayed as a blond, muscle-bound warrior, featured in more than 50 operas and plays during the 18th and 19th centuries, such as "The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest" written by German poet Heinrich von Kleist in 1808 as a call to arms against Napoleon's occupation. The figure came to epitomize the power of a young nation striving to be united and free.

The cult of Hermann continued to grow during the 19th century and was evoked impressively by a gigantic monument to him erected near the northwestern town of Detmold. Completed in 1875, four years after Germany unified, the statue wields a seven-meter (23 foot) sword and stares defiantly westwards -- towards France.

The statue became a focal point for a brand of nationalism that turned increasingly aggressive and racist and culminated in the Nazi quest to subjugate Europe and eradicate the Jews.

Hermann has never recovered. "I personally think this Hermann myth will pale. And I hope people in the future will take a closer look at history, question what they have learned and review the sources," Gisela Söger of the Kalkriese battlefield museum, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "We want to contribute to a spirit of taking a more sober, distanced look at history here."

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© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2009
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