Were Germanic Tribes Multicultural?

How Some Historians Project Modern Themes Onto History

Furor Teutonicus (1899) by Paja Jovanović

Image: Furor Teutonicus (1899) by Paja Jovanović

In our time of political correctness, it hardly occurs anymore that one or the other historian happens to prove certain prejudices about our forefathers. Here and there, Christian Pantle succeeds in doing so in his otherwise very decent book about Die Varusschlacht (The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest): “For a long time, the physical superiority of the Northern Germanic tribes had paid them off in battles against the Romans.”1

The author does not explain, or perhaps cannot explain, why that was the case. He only writes that an average German male was as big as an elite soldier of the Roman Guard, namely “at least 5’6” to 5’8””.2 Concerning this, one can only speculate. Do human bodies grow bigger when they grow up in winter cold? Did northern agriculture offer the ‘barbarians’ better nutrition? To what extent did genes play a role?

What is more interesting is that Pantle wants to make us believe that the Germanic tribes, as today’s Germans, had always been multicultural. He tells the following of a massive Germanic trek across Europe in the years before Christ’s birth:

“Among them, there were also many Celtic communities, so that the march took on an increasingly multicultural appearance over time. Here, the Germanic tribes showed themselves—as in the next centuries—highly pragmatic, free from any ethnic ideology. Welcome were those who were useful.”3

Again, the historian does not explain his why. Why did a trek of over three hundred thousand people take place at all back then? To this, I can say a little more than pure speculation. Even in the centuries before Christ, Rome waged wars against Northern Europe. The Mediterraneans pillaged many of the more primitive Celtic and Germanic tribes’ farm villages, and sometimes enslaved their women and children. That way, they fed Rome’s hungry civilization.

Roman raids uprooted many Northern Europeans and plunged them into poverty. Hence, they did not wander around Europe along with women and children out of pragmatism, but out of necessity (like Africans and Arabs today). So, were those who were of use really welcome? No! Only those that also hated Romans were welcome. Several lines along, Pantle admits:

“The Cimbri and the the Teutons must have appeared to the Romans as mentally ill marauders. The Furor Teutonicus, the Teutonic rage, would later become a fixed prejudice.”4

Mentally ill as Islamic terrorists appear to us today. But he who calls Germanic and Celtic tribes of that day ‘multicultural’ must also claim that when French, Dutch and German supporters of (anti-Islamic group) Pegida rally against their enemy, they too act “[in a] very pragmatic [way], free from any ethnic ideology”. In that light, Islam could offer all European peoples a unique opportunity to rally against Riyadh, free from any ethnic ideology. I’m laughing my ass off.

What that really means: in hindsight, one cannot—and may not—project modern concepts such as multiculturalism onto history. Christian Pantle does do that and it undermines his credibility. The historian does not prove anywhere if and how the Celtic and Germanic tribes of the trek had supposedly lived together, but writes: “We know next to nothing about their daily lives—how they befriended one another, how they angered themselves, …”5

We don’t know whether the Celtic and Germanic tribes loved each other, whether they exchanged cooking recipes, or whether they married off their daughters to one another. Pantle makes the same mistake that his nationalist predecessors made. The nationalists of the 19th and 20th century tried to prove that the German people had always been pure and superior. Likewise, Pantle and his colleagues nowadays try to prove that Germans had always been multicultural migrants.

Both theses are complete nonsense. They depend on the historical context and on the historian’s perspective. One can only say with certainty that the Germanic tribes had not been nationalists, because nations did not yet exist, and that they also had not been multicultural, because this modern ideology also did not exist. The Celtic and Germanic tribes only fought the Romans together temporarily, and then split themselves up again into separate peoples.

The Germanic chief Armin won his war against Varus. His Celtic colleague Vercingetorix lost his against Caesar. That is why the French speak a Roman language today, but the Germans don’t. In case the Germans and the French would lose the war against Riyadh today, their offspring will be speaking Arabic—isn’t that multicultural!

1 Christian Pantle, Die Varusschlacht: Der germanische Freiheitskrieg (Berlin: Propyläen-Verlag, 2009), chap. 1: Erster Zusammenprall.
2 Ibid., chap. 1.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.

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Were Germanic Tribes Multicultural? by Mathijs Koenraadt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.