Varus and Vergangenheitsbewältigung (1)

Merkel at the

Merkel opening one of the expositions

On various occasions, I have blogged on the splendid expositions in Germany, dedicated to the battle in the Teutoburg Forest (here, here, here). There is nothing wrong with these exhibitions, on the contrary; I am envious – why can’t they do something like that in my own country? Yet, a thought occurred to me: why do the Germans actually commemorate the battle at all?

If I summarize the communis opinio correctly, no scholar still believes that the Varian disaster forced the Romans back to the Rhine, created the limes, and caused the rift between Romance and German civilizations that contributed to German wars against France in 1870, 1914, and 1940. The old interpretation that the battle in the Teutoburg Forest marked der Tag, an dem Deutschland entstand (“the day on which Germany was born”) is now absent from serious scholarship. The idea that the inhabitants of the land west of the Weser spoke German, is currently reevaluated. And it is obvious that the limes, which did really cause a rift, was not created before the Claudian army reforms.

So, why still commemorate the battle in the Teutoburg Forest? After all, school curricula are continually updated. In Holland, we used to think that the Batavians were important. They were not, and they are now almost absent from school education. In a recent “canon” of fifty historical subjects every Dutchman is supposed to know, Julius Civilis was not included; the limes, on the other hand, was. I may be wrong, but I think the Belgians and French have developed a tongue-in-cheek approach to Ambiorix and Vercingetorix.

Why can’t the Germans update their vision of the past? On the one hand, German scholars correctly state that es ist falsch die Varusschlacht als historischen Wendepunkt aufzufassen (“it is wrong to interpret the battle of Varus as a pivotal moment in history” – the Mythos catalog), but on the other hand, the battle is commemorated. And here’s another paradox: the expositions correctly present the battle as part of the pan-European phenomenon of Roman imperialism – yet it was not Mr Barroso but Mrs Merkel who opened those expositions. I am left with the impression that modern Germans fear to accept the real conclusion of modern scholarship: that there is no reason to commemorate the battle (except, of course, as a regrettable aspect of nineteenth-century nationalism that contributed to a hatred towards France). It is as if it still is some kind of national event, worthy of the presence of the Chancellor.

What happened in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, is not happening in Germany. I am not sure why, but I have an idea, about which I will blog later.

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