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The Arminius-Hermann Myth

…As Perceived in Science, Arts and Politics

From the 16th century onward, the image of the Germanic man was widely used to convey contemporary political issues, while simultaneously creating the air of a supposedly long – and justified – tradition. How the Germanic people were perceived was mostly influenced by the respective contemporary imagination and fashion trends. Instead of scientific knowledge of their way of life, of their clothing and similar aspects, first and foremost this perception influenced the way they were portrayed.

The first portrayals of Germanic people, which became quite popular and therefore influenced later artistic efforts, significantly do not originate from the Germanic peoples themselves, but from Roman artists. The Romans saw the tribes living in the North of their Empire as peoples who either had to be conquered or who had already become allies. Thus they created a first repertory of forms, which was partially adopted and changed later. In almost all works of visual art, the Germanic peoples were uniformly presented as the conquered people, who were obviously non-Romans, as was made apparent by their clothing and hairstyles. The often cited fact that they were either naked or just partly dressed, not only present them as »barbarians,« but also as strong and serious opponents. Defeating such an enemy was considered a military success worthy of triumphal processions.

After the decline of the Roman Empire, in medieval times, the image of the Germanic people was no longer relevant. Only when Tacitus’ »Germania« and his »Annals« were published in print at the end of the 15th century, the Germanic people were remembered as opponents of the Roman Empire and awoke their alleged descendants’ interest. How willingly and uncritically these texts were perceived showed in the uniformly and unabashedly positive perception of the rebellious Cheruscan, an image backed up by Tacitus’ »Annals,« a work that celebrated Arminius as the »liberator of Germania,« who had been courageous enough to »challenge the Roman Empire, which was in full bloom.« According to Tacitus, he was »not always victorious in each battle, but undefeated in war«. He was therefore a real hero, and one expected that emulating him would be honorable.

In this way the mythical Arminius figure, who was probably named »Hermann« by Martin Luther, entered literature and its illustrations in the sixteenth century. Arminius’ character was both used as an educational example and as a projection screen for apparently comparable contemporary political situations. Consequently, the Cheruscan was featured wearing a traditional sixteenth-century costume in book illustrations of that period. At the most, small invented details or inscriptions were added to reveal his Germanic identity. The threatening Romans would either stand for an oppressive local lord or the pope, against whom one had to defend one’s interests.

Arminius appears as a Free Imperial Knight equipped with contemporary armor in Burchard Waldis’ »Rheimchronik« (a rhymed chronicle). Just like David, who holds Goliath’s disembodied head, Arminius holds Varus’ head by the hair in his right hand while raising his unsheathed sword with the left. Together with eleven other – mostly invented – heroes of German history, he enters a gallery of characters who are identified with the undivided unity of the German Empire. These characters were supposed to remind the quarrelling territorial lords of the German Empire of the importance of unity, especially in the face of the looming Turkish conquest.

In 1689, the first part of Daniel Caspar Lohenstein’s novel »Arminius und Thusnelda« was published. The novel’s illustrations by Johann Jacob von Sandrart show Roman and Germanic people wearing fanciful costumes, which were either based on the Roman historians’ depictions or which constituted creative interpretations of the unknown. In this context, a winged helmet appears several times as a typical Germanic feature. Such a helmet has been attributed to a »Germanic leader« in an illustration created by Simon de Vries in 1616. Even though there is no historical evidence of such a helmet’s existence, it should become the most often cited Germanic feature in the following centuries.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, a number of dramas, operas, songs and poems about Arminius’ fight against the Romans were published. Almost simultaneously, a different interpretation of the events emerged: The illustrations of Klopstock’s »Hermanns Schlacht,« created in 1782 by Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki, show – in accordance with earlier descriptions – an Arminius-Hermann figure who is capable of considering his love of children a more important virtue than his heroism and who thereby offered the bourgeoisie something to identify with.

At the end of the nineteenth century, at the time Bismarck’s German Empire was founded, representations of the subject changed fundamentally. Instead of the previously favored scenes with selected individuals, epic battle paintings became popular now. They decorated public buildings and were supposed to celebrate the »birth of the nation« backed up by a pedagogical message, while the Arminius-Hermann myth also served as a perceived historical truth.

The Hermann monument in Detmold owes its completion also to the founding of the Deutsches Reich in 1875. Without this impulse, the urgently needed additional funds probably would never have been raised. Its inauguration was a homage to the absolutistic Wilhelmine Imperial House. The commemorative plaque for William I. cemented the monarch’s identification with the monumentally inflated »national hero« who brandishes his sword against the »hereditary enemy« France.

At the time of the National Socialism (1933 - 1945), Germanic history became the focus of both the state and the leading party. It was idealized and exploited to provide a destination for those in search of their identity and legitimacy. However, the rulers’ attempt to breathe life into their self-created founding myth and the system it allegedly supported by building »Thing sites« and asking the population to use these locations for theater plays, choral performances and similar events, failed. Yet the artificially created myth based on perceived Germanic traditions lived on as a means to an end.

After the National Socialist regime had collapsed, the Hermann myth no longer played any recognizable role. Now Germanic figures were only present as comic characters, and Asterix the Gaul could easily cope with these. They could also be found as decoration on bakery paper bags, where they were shown with croissant helmets on their heads and raising baguettes instead of swords for advertising purposes. Hermann had to leave the political sphere and was sent back to the world of science, where he regained his original name »Arminius.« The political connotations are obviously gone – Arminius’ emancipation from the clutches of his early reception history seems to have been accomplished.