How Barbarians Became Germans: “Germania” and the “German Nation”


An ethnographic study by the Roman author Tacitus (c. 58–120 AD) is the oldest of the few remaining ancient texts devoted to “Germania” and the Germanic tribes. First published in Latin in 98 AD, the text was rediscovered in the 15th century and widely read by German humanists in the 16th century. As the medieval period gave way to the Early Modern era, German humanists began discussing what constituted a German nation, what set the Germans apart from other nations. To that end, they studied Tacitus’ ancient text and turned it into a sort of founding myth for a “German nation.” Although that discussion was limited to elite circles of educated humanists, those early readings of Tacitus gave rise to the image of Germans as “belligerent” and “eager for war”—a stereotype that persisted into the 20th century. The confessional and political uncertainties and ambiguities of the 16th century made it difficult for authors and thinkers to conceive of Germany as a unified entity, which is why “German” unity was often understood at that time in terms of confessional demarcation.


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