Nazi Germany, Ancient Rome: The appropriation of classical culture for the formulation of national identity

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By Paula Maher Martín, Gale Ambassador at NUI Galway
Paula Maher Martín is a third-year student of English and Classics at the National University of Ireland, Galway. Interested in language as a means of simultaneously reflecting and transcending human experience, she plans to do postgraduate research in English, with a focus on the metaphysical construction of reality in Modernist literature. She enjoys reading Nancy Mitford, Leo Tolstoy, Evelyn Waugh or Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, the wind, the music of the world, wandering immersed in philosophical abstractions, writing poetry in lectures and falling in love with characters in paintings. Paula is blogging for Gale in both English and Spanish.

To read this blog in Spanish, click here.

The Germania, an apparently harmless description of the territories, customs and tribes of the Germani by 1st century Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus, was acclaimed by Nazi Germans as a banner: a portrait of the primitive Aryan; ‘virtuous, fearless and heavily militarized’, qualities the Nazis felt had reverberated through the centuries and supported the racial identity of the modern German.

In the Times Literary Supplement Christopher Whitton recounts the transferral of the Codex Aesinas, which contains the only extant copy of the work, from its jealous guardians in Italy, the counts Baleani, to Nazi Germany where Rudolf Till edited and collated the manuscript. It would become the first and last volume of the collection “Ancestral Heritage”, prefaced by Heinrich Himmler. The work was instrumental for the construction of national identity in Nazi Germany. Whitton defines its role as a rallying cry for German proto-nationalism, a centrepiece of the “science” of German studies and a talisman of the Third Reich. Together with other aspects of classical Rome, it was utilised by Nazi officials to legitimise their construction of German nationhood and to align themselves with the martial prowess of Imperial Rome.

Theodorus Ryckius , a 17th century History scholar from the University of Leiden is the author of this edition’s recension and critical commentary. This testifies to the early German interest in the work. Tacitus, Cornelius. C. Cornelii Taciti opera Quæ exstant ex recensione et cum animadversionibus Theodori Ryckii. Tomus primus. Vol. 2, Ex officina Georgii Grierson, MDCCXXX [1730]. Eighteenth Century Collections Online, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6Ee4m3. Accessed 2 Feb. 2018.

Tacitus claims near the beginning of his chronicle that the Germani are indigenous [to their land] and that they have not associated at all with other races through migrations and transactions. This statement was interpreted in Nazi Germany as a defence of the racial purity of the ancient Germani, essential to the reigning ideology. In this sense, politicians and educators sought to underline the “aboriginal” nature of their ancestors, appropriating the authority of classical sources. The introduction to Schumann and Heun’s 1943 history book for “young Germans” characterises the German people as children of a common soil and of common ancestors, who are later described as living in an isolated communion with their land, in accordance with Tacitus’ portrait. In addition, a British handbook on the socio-political evolution of Austria claims that the consolidation of Nazism translated into academic research was speeded up by their reference to late Latin texts relating to the entry of the Germani into world history, which further reflects the use of ancient texts for the formulation of national identity.

In this series of World War 2 propagandistic handbooks, the Allied forces analyse the facts and events surrounding enemy and enemy-occupied countries and particularly influencing modern Germany. Despite the obvious biases of their interpretation these handbooks provide interesting perspectives and valuable information. FO 898/485, Basic Intelligence Handbooks On Occupied Countries: Correspondence. 1942-46. MS Allied Propaganda in World War II and the Political Warfare Executive: Allied Propaganda in World War II: The Complete Record of the Political Warfare Executive (FO 898). The National Archives (Kew, United Kingdom). Archives Unbound, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5S6mb3. Accessed 3 Feb. 2018.

On the other hand, additional elements of Roman culture were manipulated by Nazi officials in order to claim a racial affinity with classical Rome, associated in turn with a strong autocratic political system and a militaristic society, which would then be represented as productive of a flourishing civilisation. In illustration of this, declarations of a Napolas (Educational institutions for national politics) executive, recorded in one of the Allied handbooks on Germany, stresses the importance of Latin learning for the education of young Germans. Romans, Greeks and Germans are said to possess the same Nordic soul; while studying Latin acquaints pupils with the immense political achievements … of a racially related master-race as well as with ancient Roman Virtues (virtutes): qualities of the Nordic racial soul (p. 11690).

FO 898/485, Basic Intelligence Handbooks On Occupied Countries: Correspondence. 1942-46. MS Allied Propaganda in World War II and the Political Warfare Executive: Allied Propaganda in World War II: The Complete Record of the Political Warfare Executive (FO 898). The National Archives Kew, United Kingdom). Archives Unbound, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5S6mb3. Accessed 3 Feb. 2017.

Moreover, a 1938 Illustrated London News article exemplifies the Nazi struggle to vivify their association with the Holy Roman-Germanic Empire, natural heir to its classical predecessor. Weaponry, together with religious and regal objects epitomising the political success of the Roman empires had been rescued from Austria by the Führer and were characterised by him as emblematic of the pride and greatness of the Old Reich and as signs of hope for the new Empire.

“Symbols Restored by Herr Hitler to the Custody of Nuremberg.” Illustrated London News, 17 Sept. 1938, p. 488+. The Illustrated London News Historical Archive, 1842-2003, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6EaXN4 . Accessed 2 Feb. 2018.

The crown of the Holy Roman Empire, an emblem of the strong political dominion of its leader. “Symbols Restored by Herr Hitler to the Custody of Nuremberg.” Illustrated London News, 17 Sept. 1938, p. 488+. The Illustrated London News Historical Archive, 1842-2003, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6EaXN4 . Accessed 2 Feb. 2018.

Symbolic of the military prowess of the Holy Roman Empire, and, by extension, its classical predecessor: the swords of investiture, of Charlemagne and of St Maurice. “Symbols Restored by Herr Hitler to the Custody of Nuremberg.” Illustrated London News, 17 Sept. 1938, p. 488+. The Illustrated London News Historical Archive, 1842-2003, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6EaXN4. Accessed 2 Feb. 2018.

All in all, the reinterpretation of historical narratives to construe national identity in Nazi Germany illuminates Whitton’s final statement: ‘a text is always at the mercy of its readers’.

To read this blog in Spanish, click here.

[1] Ryckius, Theodorus. In https://portal.dnb.de/opac.htm?method=simpleSearch&cqlMode=true&query=nid%3D100327877. Accessed 8 Feb 2018.
[2] Schumann, Wilhelm, Heinrich Heun, and Wilhelm Heun. Reichskunde Für Junge Deutsche. Propaganda Material. 1943. MS Testaments to the Holocaust. Documents and Rare Printed Materials from the Wiener Library, London: Archives of the Wiener Library, London 033-PM-0339. History Books. Wiener Library. Archives Unbound, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5S6mp5. Accessed 3 Feb. 2018.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

FO 898/485, Basic Intelligence Handbooks On Occupied Countries: Correspondence. 1942-46. MS Allied Propaganda in World War II and the Political Warfare Executive: Allied Propaganda in World War II: The Complete Record of the Political Warfare Executive (FO 898). The National Archives (Kew, United Kingdom). Archives Unbound, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5S6mb3. Accessed 3 Feb. 2018.

Schumann, Wilhelm, Heinrich Heun, and Wilhelm Heun. Reichskunde Für Junge Deutsche. Propaganda Material. 1943. MS Testaments to the Holocaust. Documents and Rare Printed Materials from the Wiener Library, London: Archives of the Wiener Library, London 033-PM-0339. History Books. Wiener Library. Archives Unbound, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5S6mp5. Accessed 3 Feb. 2018.

“Symbols Restored by Herr Hitler to the Custody of Nuremberg.” Illustrated London,1842-2003, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6EaXN4. Accessed 2 Feb. 2018

Tacitus, Cornelius. C. Cornelii Taciti opera Quæ exstant ex recensione et cum animadversionibus Theodori Ryckii. Tomus primus. Vol. 2, Ex officina Georgii Grierson, MDCCXXX [1730]. Eighteenth Century Collections Online, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6Ee4m3. Accessed 2 Feb. 2018.

Whitton, Christopher. “Talisman and rallying cry.” The Times Literary Supplement, 24 Feb. 2012, p. 24. Times Literary Supplement Historical Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5S6iD1. Accessed 3 Feb. 2018.