Germany Recalls Myth That Created the Nation

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The popular notion that Arminius drove the Romans out of Germania east of the Rhine is a fallacy, though. Roman legions were back in force six years after the battle, wreaking havoc and winning major battles. The discovery last year of an ancient battlefield some 100 kilometers east of Kalkriese, near the town of Kalefeld south of Hanover, testifies to Roman military presence deep in hostile Germania as late as the third century AD.

"It's typically German to say world history was shaped on German soil," said Bendikowski. "We know that this was one battle among many and that there was a range of factors behind Rome's eventual retreat to the Rhine. Everyone who needed this myth regarded it as the turning point of history. For many it remains the turning point. But it wasn't."

The Man and the Myth

The playwrights, writers and political leaders of the 18th and 19th centuries didn't let the facts get in the way of a good story. They were helped by a severe shortage of facts because the ancient Germanic tribes had no written culture and no Roman eyewitnesses survived the slaughter.

Hermann, portrayed as a blond, muscle-bound warrior, featured in more than 50 operas and plays during the 18th and 19th centuries, such as "The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest" written by German poet Heinrich von Kleist in 1808 as a call to arms against Napoleon's occupation. The figure came to epitomize the power of a young nation striving to be united and free.

The cult of Hermann continued to grow during the 19th century and was evoked impressively by a gigantic monument to him erected near the northwestern town of Detmold. Completed in 1875, four years after Germany unified, the statue wields a seven-meter (23 foot) sword and stares defiantly westwards -- towards France.

The statue became a focal point for a brand of nationalism that turned increasingly aggressive and racist and culminated in the Nazi quest to subjugate Europe and eradicate the Jews.

Hermann has never recovered. "I personally think this Hermann myth will pale. And I hope people in the future will take a closer look at history, question what they have learned and review the sources," Gisela Söger of the Kalkriese battlefield museum, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "We want to contribute to a spirit of taking a more sober, distanced look at history here.",1518,644913,00.html

Part 2: Crushed Skulls and Slingshots

The Kalkriese museum displays spear tips, human bones with terrible battle wounds and metal parts from Roman body armor found on the battlefield in the more than 20 years since a British hobby archaeologist, Major Tony Clunn who was stationed in Germany with the British army, discovered 150 silver coins and three Roman slingshots about a kilometer from the site.

Traces of fighting have been found in a wide area around Kalkriese, which ties in with accounts by Roman historians that the battle lasted four days and began with ambushes on the thin column of legionnaires and supplies that stretched 15 kilometers along narrow forest paths.

The army was commanded by Publius Quinctilius Varus, a Roman general, and was heading south to spend the winter in a base by the Rhine.

Arminius, who belonged to the tribe of the Cherusci, was the commander of a troop of Germanic cavalry attached to the Roman army as auxiliaries. He led Varus into a trap by persuading him to make a detour to put down a rebellion, Roman historians wrote.

Varus trusted Arminius -- the two had dined together -- and agreed to change course. Then the Germanic warrior, who wanted to head a revolt that would help him found his own kingdom, rode off with his men to join up with fighters from other tribes hiding in the forests. They started a wave of guerrilla-style ambushes up and down the snaking column.


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