The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 A.D. represented a decisive break in the Roman conquest in Germania. The Roman Senator Publius Quinctilius Varus (46 B.C. to A.D. 9) was betrayed, attacked, and defeated by a treacherous German who had been serving the Roman army previously. This Teuton was Arminius the Cheruscan (18/17 B.C.to A.D. 21). After this, the Roman Legions were destroyed and 20,000 soldiers killed. Their much larger retinue was dispersed in the forests. After the devastating loss of the 17th, 18th, and 19th legions, they were basically forgotten because of the memories they represented (Kienast 374; Bordewich 1-5).
Since the defeat, Roman aspirations to conquer the eastern side of the Rhine were abandoned, and this battle marked an important point in time with regard to the union of the Germanic tribes. Later, it was with the transfer of national constructs from the modern era to the events of the ancient world that prompted the rulers of the 19th and 20th centuries to build their “Germaneness” on this one victory over the superiority of Rome. However, was it really Arminius, that dazzling figure of the past, an old German national hero, whom the German rulers of these two centuries desired to base their governing on? Were the people’s national unity efforts actually based on the knowledge of this bygone event?
The adaption in the 19th century
Since the first strong evidence of a so-called Varian disaster successively held sway until 1987, with the excavation in Kalkriese new results were brought to daylight (in the truest sense of the word) on the above in German lands and now only the myth of Arminius seems been decisive (Arens 99). However, it is precisely the fact that this transfiguration can be explained by the fact that just a few years after his victory, he was murdered by his own tribesmen and family.
Tacitus has written about Arminius: “liberator hauddubie Germaniae” (he was undoubtedly the liberator of Germania). However, this statement only comes up again in 1455, when Tacitus work was rediscovered. In the Middle Ages, the Cheruscan was completely unknown. He has not appeared in a single significant literary work from then on. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, different versions of the ancient release of the Varian battle were created, as described by Tacitus. It can be said that the more recent the work is, the more embellished and inventive is its content as well. In 1808, Heinrich von Kleist published his famous drama Die Herrmannsschlacht (The Hermann Battle), which was not used very often and finally no longer listed in Germany after Napoleon’s successes. In 1810, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, who later became the subject of life-long police surveillance because of his quest for a German nation state, published his book Deutsches Volksthum (German National Charakter), in which he stylized Arminius as the one and only savior of the Germans. In contemporary poetry, German soldiers fighting the French, such as in the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, were called the “grandsons of Herrmann” because they tried to equate the victory over Napoleon to that of the ancient German (Unverfehrt 316). In the years 1813 to 1850 there were twelve new Arminius operas composed overall, and they were themed more and more around the German liberation struggle (Wiegels 289-290).
After the German victory over France in the Franco-German War of 1870/1871, a renewed national feeling in Germany came up. Kaiser Wilhelm I financed the construction of a Hermann monument that had a total height of approximately 53 meters. In August 1875, it was inaugurated. On the seven-meter-long sword, the Teuton stretched toward France (and not toward Rome, which would have been consistent), and we are able to read what it says still today: “Deutsche Einigkeitmeine Stärke – meine Stärke Deutschlands Macht” (German unity my strength – my strength Germany’s power). From this point, Arminius was just as important as the 1883 finished Germania statue, also known as the Niederwald monument. Both of these symbolized the supposed superiority of the German people against neighboring people (in this case, France). In the same way, Frane, which was defeated in 1871, created its own national hero and also devoted multiple large statues to him. Vercingetorix, the great Gaul, who was defeated by Caius Julius Caesar (100 B.C. to 44 B.C.) in about 52 B.C., was brought to Rome and executed six years later. Even the creation of the myths of Dante in Italian and Alexander in the Greek nationalisms took on similar roles (Kösters 152).
The adaption in the 20th century
The first years of the 20th century initially brought no further displacement of the Arminius myth. However, when the young Weimar Republic tried to process the defeat of the First World War (1914-1918), comparisons were quickly drawn with the ancient heroes. Just as Arminius was poisoned by his own family, the stab-in-the-back-legend was used to explain the events of 1918. Even if the Emperor left the field to the hated Democrats in 1918, the “German soldiers in the field [remained] undefeated” because they believed they would be able to continue the fight until the final victory. To accept a peace treaty was unforgivable, and the Versailles treaty system as a whole was viewed as a result of the work of traitors and those who did nothing at home for their country in the realm anyway. This widespread view among the ethnic-nationalist forces within the unstable young republic offered a sweeping breeding ground for the successively stronger National Socialists around Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). Before Hitler took control of power on 30 January, 1933, the NSDAP held a total of seventeen speeches between the 3rd and 14th of January during the election campaign for the state elections of the small state Lippe. In addition to locally sourced sayings quoted everywhere, the main slogan was an application of the allegory, as it was carved in stone in 1875 with the completion of the Hermann’s monument in the Teutoburg Forest: “Machtfrei das Hermannsland” (make free the Hermann’s land). With this demand, the National Socialists managed to gain 39.5% of the total vote as compared to 3.4%, which corresponded to more than tenfold of the original voices potential, and the gained an undisputed victory.
Needless to say, this was not only the slogan itself, but the message it favored that stimulated the already positive sentiments toward the extreme-right-wing camp. After the so-called seizure of power by the National Socialists, national unity symbols became more important than ever. But after a short time, Hitler doubted the necessity of monuments honoring past personalities to support his charisma. More and more, the “Cult of the Führer” forbade the coexistence of national characters in addition to Adolf Hitler. He alone should be the one cheered. He wanted to spread real terror in France, and he didn’t need the help of a German who had died almost 2,000 years previously. In general, no major events that the NSDAP held there in the Teutoburg Forest were known. Only uniformed National Socialists with a swastika flag near Hermann’s monument, who were saluting with Hitler from afar, were shown on a few contemporary postcards. These kinds of images were often subtitled with slogans such as “Woeinst der Führer der Germanen Deutsches Land vom Feindbefreit, wehen Hitlers Siegesfahnenmachtvoll in die neue Zeit” [Where once the leader of the Germans released the German land from the enemy, blow Hitler’s victory flags, powerfully into the new age (Heath)]. However, the fact that not a single military unit, either in the Wehrmachtor in the Waffen-SS, was named “Arminius” or “Hermann” was obvious (Bemmann 253). That was in contrast to the literary treatment, in which the Arminius-reception still was very common. Was Arminius, thus, only a lapdog to power of Adolf Hitler in the era of National Socialism?
To understand the function of the Varian Battle for posterity, it is necessary to take a look at the actual historical events. Arminius – the son of a noble Cheruscan – was taken by Roman soldiers in a town near Xanten, to be educated there according to Roman traditions. Over the years, Arminius became more and more a part of Roman society, rose to military success, and even into knighthood, which was the highest award for a non-Roman. In the eyes of Emperor Augustus (63 B.C. to 14 A.D.) and his relative, the senator Publius Quinctilius Varus, he was a loyal and conscientious German in the service of Rome. Significantly, this was the fact that put him up as the commander of the auxiliary troops that was to conquer the right of the Rhine Germania under the leadership of Varus.
The real struggle was thereby prepared by Arminius in every detail. The only advantage of the Romans was the tactical superiority in the field. While Germanic hordes stormed the enemy counter in a wedge formation, put the Romans to the armored “turtles”, whose greatest strength, in addition to the protection of their own soldiers, was the battle abilities of the formation itself. No one was allowed to leave the term. But when the Romans marched through the narrow valleys and glades of the Teutoburg Forest, they had places to run consecutively, which brought the train partially at a distance of 15 kilometers. This was the point where the strategy of the Cheruscan, who had previously managed to bring together the always warring German tribes (also Germans in Roman service) to rid the new foreign enemy once and for all. In a so-called sting tactics (kind of guerilla tactics), the Germans attacked the completely surprised Romans from both sides of the forest, damaging them and retreating quickly. With these tactics, they demoralized the Roman troops, who were not in a position to create a formation, so the entire Roman military campaign was beaten in a few days. Their leader Varus committed suicide after the Roman custom because of the shame of defeat (Arens 81-92).
This one Germanic tribe’s victory over the Roman invaders was therefore crucial for a centuries-lasting myth. But why did the National Socialists not devote some energy toward such national heroes as their previous rulers? A significant reason may be that the battle of the Teutoburg Forest did come into a defensive role in which the losing Cheruscan confronted the all-powerful Roman who threatened his home. But Hitler needed a figure whose expansive conquer of foreign lands justified his campaign in Russia. As the powers ratio from 1943/1944 shifted in favor of the Allies, it was too late for the National Socialists to warm up this ancient defender-allegory again (Münckler 179).
After the end of the National-Socialist regime, the several years of speculation about the Cheruscan came to rest. Only “fantastic” literature without historical value added more romance than would have been possible for the poets of the 19th century to write about the already illuminated figure. As the 1987 excavations at Kalkriese brought to light more and more discoveries, no nationalist revival of the former Arminius myth arose. The reason for this might be the extensive investigation of Dieter Timpe and his source-interpretation (Timpe 49). This might be and has to be an answer to the ancient historians Gustav A. Lehmann, Ernst Hohl, and Reinhard Wolters (Lehmann 94; Hohl 474; Wolters 228).
In the year A.D. 9, a Roman tragedy occurred in the Teutoburg Forest. Three of the most-experienced legions became the victims of a raid of Germanic mutineer. When Augustus received the news of the defeat (in fact Arminius’ message to the Emperor was Varus’ cut off head), he should have bumped his (own) head against the door and cried: “Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!” (Suetonius 23, 155). This to be a decisive defeat on Germanic territory. However, it was not a turning point of the Roman conquest of the campaign, as it was thought in later centuries. In the spring of A.D. 10, Tiberius took over command of the Roman troops on the Rhine, whose quotas had been increased substantially. From A.D. 12 a number of campaigns in Germania began under Germanicus, nephew of Tiberius. This – under difficult circumstances – even reached the river Elbe, but his foray in confusing Germania was prevented by the defensive Germania policy of his uncle in A.D. 17 (Arens 89-90). Four years later, Arminius died in his home, which again had long suffered under Germanic tribal feuds. The epoch of defection to Rome was over, but the new era wasn’t peaceful. Even in death, Arminius served as a mystification to later generations, such ast he Hessian Minister of State, General Martin Ernst von Schlieffen (1732-1825), who suspected the grave to be on his own estate (Sippel 154).
With time, as the distance from the actual event increased, the stories of the ancient heroes became more fantastic. From the heroic dramas of the early 19th century to the many romanticized operas of the same century to the nationalization of the historical person in World War I and during the period of National Socialism, Arminius the Cheruscan was always part of a timely reinterpretation. He was used by poets and composers as a part of the national memory and was presented to the German population by all sorts of politicians as a great national model. Thereby, the original historical event, as it was handed down only by Roman historians, arose as a conglomeration of stories that had nothing to do with history.
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Riccardo Altieri is a student at the history-department of the Julius-Maximilians-University of Würzburg, Germany. His current research includes an essay about the history of the paramilitary Freikorps after World War I, which were accompanying to the unstable Weimar Republic initially protectively, but after that – under the growing power of the National Socialists – they were, however, more and more supporting the Sturmabteilung (SA) of Adolf Hitler with their own reactionary ideology. In addition, Altieri jointly with Prof. Dr. Frank Jacob (City University of New York) has published a volume on the history of Poland from 1772 to 1945 in July 2014, in which he examined the identity of Polish soldiers in the armies of World War I. For winter 2014 Altieri is working on a book about the pacifism of Kurt Eisner during World War I and his murder by the German-monarchist reaction as a result of the proclamation of the Munich Soviet Republic and the expulsion of the last Bavarian king. He may be conacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.