Varus and Vergangenheitsbewältigung (1)

8 September 2009
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.

Haltern, Imperium Exposition

11 June 2009
Relief showing the Capitoline geese from the Ostia Museum

Relief showing the Capitoline geese from the Ostia Museum

It’s two thousand years ago that the Roman commander Varus and three legions were defeated by Germanic tribesmen led by Arminius. The Battle in the Teutoburg Forest has always been a lieu de mémoire in German history, and it comes as no surprise that there are several expositions devoted to this event. In Xanten, there’s a charming exposition on Marcus Caelius, one of the soldiers killed in action (more…). In Kalkriese, there’s an exposition called “Conflict” on the relations between Rome and the Germanic tribes (which I already mentioned in passing); in Detmold you can visit the “Myth” expo, on the Nachleben of the battle; and finally, there’s  “Imperium” in the Seestadthalle in Haltern, which tries to show to which civilization Varus belonged.

“Imperium” is the most overwhelming exposition I have visited in five years or so. You will see art objects from the first centuries BC and AD documenting the origins of Rome, like the relief shown next to this article;  imperial propaganda (e.g., the Vatican Actium relief and works of art pertaining to the Ara Pacis); portraits of the main actors (Pompey, Caesar, Augustus, Cleopatra, Tiberius, Gaius and Lucius…) and cultural icons (Virgil, Maecenas…); you can see frescoes from the homes of Rome’s rich and famous (from the Palazzo Massimo); there are codices with the poems of Ovid and Propertius; coins with Varus’ portrait; objects illustrating his career in Syria; et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Best of all, you can make as many photos as you like. I have on at least five occasions tried to make photos in the Ostia museum, because I wanted to study the geese relief – it was always forbidden, but now I finally was able to make my photos. I have one complaint, though: the illumination was rather old-fashioned – the objects were still shown in poorly illuminated rooms in which only a couple of objects are to be seen in low-key light. This was, now that new museums like Tongeren and Xanten have decided to abandon this approach, an unpleasant surprise. Still, the set of objects that has been collected is splendid and I was suffering from exhaustion when I had seen it all.

The official website of the Imperium – Conflict – Myth expositions is here, while Xanten’s Marcus Caelius exposition is here.