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A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People
Synopses & Reviews
The Barbarian Complex Roman-German Relations in Antiquity
Germanic tribes established themselves in the eastern Rhine valley by the mid first century B.C., by which time the term "German" (Germani, Germania) was used by the Romans. At this time the tribes were neither racially uniform nor transregionally united but composites, "loose and shifting amalgams of peoples," who formed no coherent Germanic front. Quickly settling, they lived within, or along the borders of, the Roman Empire by agreement with the Romans, swapping their services as soldiers, farmers, and tax collectors for land and security. Of these tribes the Franks, Goths, and Lombards developed historical identities by allying with leading, or royal, families and embracing their genealogical myths.
In these centuries non-Germanic tribes shared a similar barbarian experience within the Roman Empire, which casts light on the Germanic. From the start polyethnic tribes, Germanic and non-, demonstrated an ability to accommodate and incorporate the ancient Roman and Byzantine worlds. Roughly five centuries after their appearance, Romanized and Christianized Germanic tribes would raise a new, middle European empire and culture from the ashes of the old Roman one. Between the rule of the Merovingian Frank Clovis in the late fifth and early sixth centuries and that of the Saxon Conrad in the early tenth, Germanic cultures melded with Greco-Roman, Roman Christian, and Byzantine to create the Western Europe we know today.
A trail begins in 113 B.C., when a Germanic tribe, the Cimbri, crossed the Roman frontier of Noricum, modern Austria, in a typically frustrated tribal search for food and land, andfor the first time confronted and defeated a Roman army. Four years later, in 109 B.C., the same tribe, joined by another, the Teutones, appeared in southern Gaul and vanquished a major Roman army sent to turn them back. In 105 B.C. the tribes returned in still greater numbers, this time defeating two consular armies in one of ancient Rome's great military losses. By this point the Romans respected the threat of the barbarians probing their frontiers and sent a powerful new army to beat them.
Among the early observers of the tribes when the migrations resumed was Julius Caesar, the recent conqueror of Gaul, who described their governance as informal and inconsistent, their society communal and egalitarian, their military tactics haphazard and "ignoble," the latter a reference to their ability to "compose" on the battlefield (that is, surprise and ambush). The tribes were ruled by "leading men" (in West German dialect, kuning, "leaders of the family"), whom the Romans variously called principes, duces, and reges. Chosen by an assembly of noble and common warriors (the tribal host), only the most outstanding men, as determined by royal birth, family service, and exceptional valor, might hold that exalted position.
Insinuation and Rebellion
Over the last decades of the old millennium and the first of the new Christian Era, the Romans diminished the threat the tribes posed by brutally punishing their forays and finding ways to divide and coopt them. Among the latter were simple human temptations. For stretches up to perhaps thirty miles on either side of the Roman frontier, Roman and Germanic people mixed regularly with one another. Roman language, culture, and politics came to thetribes on the wheels of trading carts, as Germans exchanged cattle and slaves (the booty of battle with foreign tribes) for Roman bronzes, glassware, and furs. Before contact with the Romans, tribal leaders ruled more by persuasion than by coercion and maintained social peace by equitable divisions of land and wealth within the tribe. The new wealth gained from trade with the Romans worked to stratify tribal society, setting new rich against poor and encouraging disproportionate divisions of tribal land. Rome's autocratic government and senatorial lifestyle also impressed future tribal leaders, many of whom were educated in Rome.
Another obstructive Roman tactic was to encourage intertribal conflict, to which the tribes were already predisposed. In the eyes of their enemies, the barbarians' great strength was also a great weakness— namely, their lip-smacking taste for battle, which Tacitus, with some exaggeration, described as "a reluctance to accumulate slowly by sweat ... what could be gotten quickly by the loss of a little blood." That warrior spirit turned the tribes against one another before the Romans interfered, creating intertribal fissures for their enemies to probe. Over time, devotion to factional leaders rather than to duly elected ones, and the placement of group gain over tribal welfare, created freelancing retinues within the tribes. These were tight-knit gangs that gained superior status by raiding neighboring tribes for cattle, slaves, and other wealth-producing loot. Their victims retaliated against the tribe as a whole, adding foreign aggression to the internal disruptions caused by the retinues. Such native anarchy and tyranny also gave the Romans a footholdwithin the tribes, allowing them to bypass the protective order of leading men and warrior assemblies.
Finally the Romans sought to have their way with the tribes by transplanting the sons of leading men to Rome, where, to their material benefit, they grew up as Romans. Such transplantation was both by invitation and by hostage taking. Selected elite barbarians were in this way Romanized, many thereafter residing in Rome for the remainder of their lives, while others returned to their homelands as assimilated servants of the Roman Empire. It would be too much to call these repatriated tribesmen brainwashed, since as a rule they served the Roman Empire willingly, gaining new land and wealth for themselves while continuing to enjoy membership in the cosmopolitan Roman world. Where these pro-Roman chieftains survived their tribal enemies, they also helped make the barbarian world less threatening to Romans. As a result of such tactics and measures, most barbarians, Germanic and non-, living along or within the Roman frontiers, chose service over challenge before the fourth century ...
Book News Annotation:
Can a 2,000-year-old civilization be defined by its last 150 years, asks Ozment (ancient and modern history, Harvard U.) as he attempts to bypass the Nazi/Hitler monopoly on German history. He surveys and interprets the formative history of Germans as far back as relevant information can reasonably be found to try to explain how they have survived both their enemies and themselves over the long centuries.
Annotation ©2004 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
The word "German" was being used by the Romans as early as the mid-first century B.C. to describe tribes in the eastern Rhine valley. Nearly two thousand years later, the richness and complexity of German history have faded beneath the long shadow of the country's darkest hour in World War II. Now award-winning historian Steven Ozment, whom the New Yorker has hailed as "a splendidly readable scholar," gives us the fullest portrait possible in this sweeping, original, and provocative history of the German people, from antiquity to the present, holding a mirror up to an entire civilization — one that has been alternately Western Europe's most successful and most perilous.
A Mighty Fortress boldly examines Germany's tumultuous twentieth century in light of its earliest achievements as a prosperous, civil, and moral society, tracing a line of continuity that began in ancient times and has endured through the ages, despite its enemies and itself. Ozment's story takes us from the tribes of the Roman Empire and the medieval dynasties to the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification. He shows that the Germans are a people who desire national unity yet have kept themselves from it by aligning with autocratic territorial governments and regional cultures. From Luther, Kant, Goethe, and Beethoven to Marx, Einstein, Bismarck, and Hitler, the country's leading figures have always tried to become everything and more than what ordinary mortals could be. In fact, Germans living centuries apart have shared in different ways a common defining experience that is unique to their culture: a convergence of external provocation and wounded pride, and an unusual ability to exercise great power in response to both.
In this work of penetrating, virtuoso scholarship, Steven Ozment captures the soul of a nation that is at once ordered and chaotic, disciplined and obsessive, proud and uncertain. Epic in scope, refreshing in its insights, and written with nuance, acumen, and verve, A Mighty Fortress presents the history of the Germans as the story of humanity writ large.
About the Author
Steven Ozment is McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History at Harvard University and the author of The Bürgermeister's Daughter; Flesh and Spirit; Ancestors; Protestants; and The Age of Reform, a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the Schaff History Prize. He lives in Newburyport, Massachusetts.
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