The search for national identity in a post-national age

Clay Risen in The National:

Bilde Atop a forested hill a few kilometres outside the sleepy west German town of Detmold stands a 19-metre high statue of Hermann, the Germanic chief whose forces annihilated nearly 20,000 Roman legionnaires at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9AD. Gazing toward the French border, the copper statue, wearing a jaunty winged helmet, holds an upraised sword, whose blade bears the inscription “German Unity is my strength, and my strength is Germany’s power”.

The Hermannsdenkmal, or “Hermann Monument”, was unveiled in 1875, in the aftermath of Germany’s crushing defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War and the subsequent unification of the disparate German states into the Second Reich. At the time it was the world’s largest statue; standing on an 18-metre pedestal, it is visible for nearly 50 kilometres. The monument became a symbol for German militant nationalism and a pilgrimage site for the growing cult that celebrated Hermann as a kind of Ur-German, a movement that reached its fever pitch under the Nazis.

After the Second World War the Germans purged their culture of anything remotely tainted by Nazism, and the monument – and Hermann – fell into anonymity. The battle, once known as the Hermannschlacht, or Hermann Battle, was rechristened the Varusschlacht, after the Roman general Publius Quinctilius Varus: it is surely one of the only battles in history named after its loser. German schoolchildren, who once read from the countless Romantic Age poems celebrating Hermann, now learnt what a shame it was that the erstwhile hero had prevented Latin culture from reaching northern Germany.

More here.