A Most Dangerous Book: Tacitus’s Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich

Anthony Grafton writes:

Tacitus, whom Milton called ‘the greatest possible enemy to tyrants’, became the author of ‘a Bible for National Socialism’. Every grim eminence of Nazi thought, from Hitler and Himmler to the master practitioner of racial science, Hans Friedrich Karl Günther, known (for his obsessions) as Rassen-Günther, drew on the Germania to argue that the Germans were more loyal, more pure and more courageous than any other people – and to explain these qualities by invoking their uniquely strong connection to their native soil. Heinrich Himmler was only doing what came naturally when, in 1943, he sent a detachment of SS men to try to take possession of the oldest surviving manuscript of the Germania, then in the private library of Count Baldeschi-Balleani, near Jesi, in the Marches (fortunately, the count had hidden both his family and the manuscript in a hill village nearby). There seems to be every reason to agree with Arnaldo Momigliano, whom Krebs cites: the Germania deserves a high place among ‘the one hundred most dangerous books ever written’. Like a virus, Krebs argues, it could multiply and spread, in the right conditions. It could even become ‘a systemic infection culminating in the major crisis of the 20th century’.

(LRB 14 July 2011)

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