Did Hitler one day just wake up with the revelation, “I don’t like Jews and I like blond-haired-blue-eyed people!” Of course this is not how Hitler came to some of his beliefs but what did shape his beliefs and those of the Nazi party? This question was answered in A Most Dangerous Book: Tacitus’s Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich by Christopher B. Krebs. Enter Cornelius Tacitus. Tacitus was a Roman senator and historian who lived between 56 to 117 AD. He was quite a famous writer during his time and is most known for writing the Annals and the Histories which cover the reigns of certain Roman Emperors. Tacitus also wrote the Germania in 98 AD which described the Germanen people who lived in the northern unconquered areas of present day Germany, Poland, Denmark, Czech Republic, and a few Scandinavian countries. The people that lived in these areas during the days of Tacitus were a hodgepodge of barbaric tribes which were not united and fought each other regularly. In the Germania, the land and the customs of the various tribes are described: a people that were unmixed with other races who had fierce blue eyes, tawny red hair, large frames, athletic builds, strong work ethics, habitual drunkenness, and harsh punishments for breaking societal rules. Tacitus never went to visit these lands or tribes and received his information from literary sources and third-person accounts. By no means was the Germania meant to be an accurate historical account but rather a mosaic of political and moral underpinnings meant to send a message to the Roman people. The message was that the barbarians had certain traits which were lacking in Roman society (simplicity, bravery, and hospitality) and that the Germanen tribes were a discernible threat to the empire.
The Germania went into obscurity and was not rediscovered until 1421. The accidental unearthing of this document by post-medieval humanists couldn’t have come at a better time. In the 1500’s, Germany was not a country and the people living in the area did not have a strong understanding of their history, language, or culture. Scholars clung to the Germania as true “German” history and took it as proof that they descended from a pure, hardy, and moral stock. For the next two centuries, the Germania was sorely misinterpreted to show that Germany actually was the birth of republic government, culture, and the human race. In the 1800’s, with increases in scientific understanding, the Germania was interpreted to show the Germans to be biologically superior through racial purity-further uplifting the Nordic/Aryan image. During this time, students and the middle-class were able to read publications that used excerpts from the Germania to push for German nationalism and moral rectitude (Germany became an independent country in 1871). Picking up steam in the 1900’s, the Völkisch movement (similar to the Populist movement in America) was a set of beliefs that used the Germania to argue that Germany had to return to its past when there were no demoralized cities and the virtues of the farmer were held to the highest regard; the profession of farming represented purity and this further stemmed the belief that Aryans were the pure race. Antisemitism has roots in this movement because the Jews were foreigners tainting the German race and they many times had communities in cities where they worked in business.
The Germania directly influenced philosophical ideals in Hitler’s autobiography Mein Kampf. Furthermore, Hitler’s top SS commander, Heinrich Himmler, was obsessed with the Germania and pushed the idea of racial purity much more then any other Nazi member. Himmler was extremely influential in the implementation of the Holocaust and made sure the Hitler Youth received twisted education on the Germania. If the Nazi party had a bible I would say the Germania would be the number one candidate. It is now clear to see how just one book can influence people in a very dangerous way. The Germania was misinterpreted throughout the ages to suit the desires of the readers. When not critically analyzed and put into historical context, all books lose their original meanings. Education is powerful and if this one book was never written would World War II have ever occurred? Interesting to think about and it makes me wonder if there is a book out there that could repeat this warped ideology in the future.