The Ugliness of Nationalism. Dehabilitating a Hero.
A minor exploration of nationalism and the misappropriation of cultural symbols. Old Blue-eyes by any other name. A quick stop on a long motorcycle journey.
We are what we’ve always been: Barbarians.
– Julian Nasiri
Nationalism: An attempt to escape from the future into the past.
– Manfred Rommel
After the fall of the Roman empire in the 5th century AD, knowledge of Arminius’s slaughter of Varus’s legions in the battle of the Teutoburger Wald disappeared for nearly a thousand years.
Europe had other things to worry about, and busied itself with the torments of the dark ages. Finally, in the 15th and 16th centuries the original Roman sources were rediscovered, scattered carelessly around Central European monasteries.
When the Latin writings were translated into German, the story quickly became popular as a parable of resistance in the face of Imperial invaders; and it came to be seen as the major event which prevented Roman expansion further east. However, modern scholars believe that was more a matter of pure logistics. Once Arminius’s allied Germanic tribes had been vanquished and honour salvaged, the costs and risks of keeping an operational army on the eastern side of the Rhine was considered to far outweigh any possible benefits.
The Rhine valley was already economically advanced, with many sizeable settlements – including Bonn, Cologne and Trier – and well-developed agriculture. Northern Germania was underdeveloped and had little food surplus.
Roman trade could move from the Mediterranean to the Rhine relatively easily, via the Rhone and Mosel rivers, whereas provisioning an outpost further east meant either a long overland route, or a dangerous voyage in the North Atlantic.
Even so, in the rising tide of 19th century nationalism, widespread acceptance grew for the view that the battle of the Teutoburger Wald was the decisive factor in keeping the pesky Romans out of Germany’s heartlands. But when and how did Arminius, or Armin, become Hermann?
Arminius, according to the historians, is the Latinised version of the ancient Germanic name Armin, or Irmin, meaning “great”; but it’s Martin Luther who generally gets the credit for transforming the name into its modern form of Hermann, which derives from “Heermann”, or the leader of an army.
As Germans tried to establish a national identity in the late 19th Century, there was even an attempt to claim that the Norse saga about Sigurd slaying the dragon was actually based on Armin’s victory over Varus, and that the battle was also the basis for the German mythological figure Siegfried, who slew the dragon in the Nibelungenlied. All this of course kept a certain Mr. Wagner employed for several decades.
One theory is that Arminius was actually a nickname something akin to “blue-eyes”, derived from the Latin word “armenium”, for a bright blue pigment ground from a certain kind of stone. The followers of this theory argue that Arminius’s real name could have been anything Germanic… even Siegfried, perhaps?
Just a year after the monument was finished, Bandel’s kidneys collapsed like a pair old leather footballs.
On August 16, 1875, four years after Bismarck had united the Germanic states into the second German Empire, the Hermannsdenkmal, a huge statue of the warrior formerly known as Arminius, was finally completed on a wooded ridge just outside Detmold.
The work had begun in 1841, to the drawings of Bavarian sculptor Ernst von Bandel, and when it was finished 15 years later the 26 and a half meter tall bronze – on a sandstone socket just as high again – was the tallest statue in Europe.
Von Bandel had spent 38 years of his life working on the Hermannsdenkmal, even living on site in a makeshift cabin for several years, utterly consumed by the project. Just a year after the monument was finished, Bandel’s kidneys collapsed like a pair of old leather footballs and he died. He was 76 and had spent more than half his lifetime working on the monument.
The monument became a powerful popular symbol for German unity and a focal point for the growing nationalist movement, which had gained impetus as a result of Bismarck’s trouncing of France’s Napoleon III in 1870, and the unification of the German states in the following year.
With its sculpted stone steps and large terraced apron, the Hermannsdenkmal was the perfect venue for radical youth to hold torch-lit processions and indulge in a bit of nationalist theatre.
A little more than half a century later followers of a different nationalist movement were lighting their torches on the stone steps under Hermann’s bronze visage and issuing a call to arms to the German people.
A postcard from the 1930s reproduces a rather clumsy charcoal drawing of two young National Socialists holding a large swastika flag, with the Hermannsdenkmal in the background, shining on a distant hilltop. One of the young men is giving a Nazi salute in the direction of the statue, the other seems to be waving at Hermann in a friendly way, but with a vaguely worried expression on his face. A piece of not particularly clever poetry adorns the lower margin of the card:
“Wo einst der Führer der Germanen
Deutsches Land vom Feind befreit
Wehen Hitlers Siegesfahnen
Machtvoll in die neue Zeit”
which translates as something like
“Where once the leader of the Germans
freed the German land of the enemy,
Hitler’s victory flags wave,
Powerful in a new age.”
Today the debate over the Hermannsdenkmal still rages. Neo-Nazis still visit the site and dream of the day when swastika banners will return to German public buildings. Radical left wing groups advocate for the monument to be destroyed as they say it only serves as encouragement to a new generation of nationalist thugs. But, if Germany started to tear down every structure that has some second or third-hand connection to the Nazis, practically nothing built before 1945 would be left standing. Aside from that, Detmold, the town at Hermann’s feet, would obviously like to keep its only tourist attraction.
These days, in the souvenir shop at the Hermannsdenkmal tourist centre, the original German hero has been rehabilitated as a garden gnome so kitsch and ridiculous that no German garden is complete without one.
When, years later, I arrived at the monument by motorcycle one sweltering August day, I was suffering from exhaustion, dehydration and a high fever; and probably not unlike Ernst von Bandel I felt on the verge of collapse. A group of school teachers or perhaps fax-machine service technicians – it was impossible to tell at this distance – was preparing to abseil from the top of the plinth. I lay down on a bench and tried not to throw up. I looked up at the monument through the swaying tree branches and held onto my stomach.
It’s big, there’s no doubt about that. But I had somehow expected something more imposing, more majestic. What struck me most was the ugliness of it – but that feeling of ugliness may have been partly because of the role Arminius had been given by nationalist bullies and racist bigots of all political colours since the 19th Century. A small plaque nearby explained absolutely nothing about the Varus Schlacht and even less about the ugly side of nationalism. It was to be expected, I suppose. The restaurant at the tourist carpark was closed for an invitation only function, so I drank some water, put my helmet and gloves back on, and went on my way. I still had more than 200km to cover. And I had to be in Bonn by nightfall. There was nothing waiting for me, other than a bed; but sometimes that’s enough.