The Teutonic tribes have inhabited Central and northern Europe since earliest times. Possibly displacing and assimilating with Celtic peoples when they migrated south from their original homelands, these early Germans quickly settled and organized themselves into a myriad of tribes and cultures along the Rhine and further east. Due to pressure from Slavic tribes moving towards them, the Germanic people began to come into direct contact, and then conflict with the Romans during the period of the later Empire. As Rome itself began to weaken and eventually crumble, the Germans took advantage of this and begun a period of migration that set up a number of Germanic kingdoms in the remnants of former Roman provinces. These are the lasting foundations of many European nation states, including the German nation itself, the proud inheritor of this ancient culture.
The name Germany, on the other hand, they say is modern and newly introduced, from the fact that the tribes which first crossed the Rhine and drove out the Gauls, and are now called Tungrians, were then called Germans. Thus what was the name of a tribe, and not of a race, gradually prevailed, till all called themselves by this self-invented name of Germans, which the conquerors had first employed to inspire terror. The tribes of Germany are free from all taint of intermarriages with foreign nations, and that they appear as a distinct, unmixed race, like none but themselves. Hence, too, the same physical peculiarities throughout so vast a population. All have fierce blue eyes, red hair, huge frames, fit only for a sudden exertion.
Every tribe, every district, even every village had its meeting, and if all the warriors could not come together, it was the custom for the villages to send picked men to speak for them as representatives. Yet even when some question had been decided, each warrior was free to do as he pleased. If he did not wish to take part in an expedition, no one could compel him to go. It was deemed cowardly, however, to refrain from war.
Nowadays a less simplistic view is taken. The gradual emergence of a distinctly German nation was a process which took hundreds of years. The German nation essentially grew out of a number of German tribes such as the Franks, the Saxons, the Swabians and the Bavarians. These old tribes have of course long since lost their original character, but their traditions and dialects live on in their respective regions. Those ethnic regions are not, however, identical to the present states (Länder), most of which were only formed after the Second World War in agreement with the occupying powers. In many cases the boundaries were drawn without any consideration for old traditions. Furthermore, the flows of refugees and the massive postwar migrations, but also the mobility of the modern industrial society, have more or less blurred the ethnic boundaries.
Much of what is known about the Germanic people comes from historical accounts written by two Roman authors: Commentaries (51 BC) by Julius Caesar and Germania (98 AD) by Cornelius Tacitus. By comparing the two writings, it is possible to trace the evolution of Germanic society in the intervening period. In Caesar’s time, land tenure did not involve private property; instead, fields were divided annually among clans. By the time of Tacitus, however, land was distributed annually to individuals according to social class. The basic sociopolitical unit was the pagus (clan). In Caesar’s period, some pagi had military leaders as chiefs, but only during wartime. By Tacitus’s time, however, several pagi, at least, had full-time, elected chiefs. These leaders did not have absolute power but were limited by a council of nobles and an assembly of fighting men. Military chiefs had groups (comitium) of men who swore allegiance to them in both peace and war.
The first clash between the Germanic peoples and the neighboring Romans was in the 2nd century BC, when the Cimbri and Teutons invaded Gaul and were defeated in present-day Provence, France. By this period, however, much of Germany was occupied by such Germanic tribes as the Suevi, Cherusci, and others. When the Romans in turn attempted to conquer the area east of the Rhine River early in the 1st century, they were defeated by the Cherusci chief Arminius (Hermann). By the mid-2nd century AD Germanic pressures on the Roman frontiers intensified. The emperor Marcus Aurelius waged successful warfare against such tribes as the Marcomanni, Quadi, and Iazyges. By this period, German mercenaries were beginning to be used by the Roman armies. During the 3rd century, more migrations caused a crisis within the empire, as Goths, Alamanni, and Franks penetrated German borders. The movement stopped temporarily in the late 3rd century during the reigns of the emperors Diocletian and Constantine the Great, but it resumed under pressure from the non-Germanic Huns, who came out of Central Asia in the 4th century. In the 5th century the Germans occupied the whole Western Roman Empire. Over the next few hundred years, the Germanic tribes adopted Christianity and laid the foundations of medieval Europe. Germanic languages are still spoken today in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Belgium, South Africa, and the English-speaking countries.
Over this strange land there rifled a beautiful giantess. Her hair was gold with the gold of the cornfields, her dress was rich and green with the rich green of the meadows. Only she knew the length and breadth of the fair country over which she ruled. Only she knew what lay beyond the rolling mists. All who remained under her rule found lasting peace and gladness. For she was to them a gracious, tender mother. She spread her hands abroad to bless her land with warmth and fruitfulness; she stretched forth her skirts to shelter her people from cold and frost.
So long years passed, and to this fair giantess there Tew came a son. This son she called Tew. He was bold and he was wise. To him was given victory in war. To him was given the wisdom of words. So it came to pass that if a man was very brave it was said of him, “He is as brave as Tew”; if a man was very wise it was said of him, “He hath the wisdom of Tew.” And at length people made songs about Tew, in which they told of his deeds of valor and his wisdom.
And so as years went on, to the people Tew became a god, even as the sun and the moon. One day of the week was called after him, and to this day we still call it Tuesday. Now Tew had a son, and he again had many children, so that soon the land was filled with people. Of these people there were many tribes, each taking its name from one of the grandsons of Tew; but the whole people were called Teutons, after the name of the great god himself.
This is a fairy-tale and an allegory. The beautiful giantess is a giantess we all know, for she is Mother Earth, and from her broad green lap there rose the god Tew, the father of the great Teutonic race. It is a race which stretches far and wide, and nearly all the peoples of Northern Europe belong to it. The Germans are but one of its many branches, and it is of them I mean to tell in this book.
They first got the name of Germans in Roman times. North of the Rhine dwelt the Teutons, south of the Rhine dwelt the Gauls. But there came a time when a wild horde of Teutons crossed the Rhine, and drove the Gauls out. The Gauls then gave to the wild tribe the name of Germans or neighbors, and by degrees the name was given to the whole race. We still call them Germans, but they call themselves die Deutschen. That is a much newer name, and they did not receive until the end of the ninth century.
It too has a meaning which is interesting. The Gauls and the Franks who had settled south of the Rhine; gradually began to talk Latin, or the Roman language, which later grew into French. It was the language of the learned. But the tribes on the north of the Rhine continued to speak the old language. It was the language of the common people. Thiod means “people”; theotisce means “of the people.” So the language was called theotiscos, meaning “the people’s language,” and gradually it became changed from theotiscos to Deutsch.
So Deutsch means nothing less than “a son of the soil, a son of Mother Earth.” And perhaps the little fairy-tale at the beginning of this chapter may help to make some of us understand better why we so often speak of Fatherland or Mother Earth. And it is interesting to find in the early story of the German people the dim outlines of this tale, for they more than any other people have given to their country the name of Fatherland.
But whence really came these Teutons or Germans? In the dim far-off days of the long-forgotten past, in a time so far back that neither history nor legend can tell us ought of it, they dwelt in Asia. But their home was never settled. They loved battle and hated labor. It was easier to conquer new lands than to till that they already possessed. So slowly they moved westward from country to country until they reached Europe. At first they settled along the shores of the Baltic, but by degrees they passed southward to the country of the Gauls.
These ancient Teutons were heathen, but not Druids like the Britons or the Gauls. They worshiped other gods. Wodan was chief of them all, but they worshiped also his son, Thor, the god of the hammer, and many a god besides. And when they died these old heathens believed that they went to Wodan’s palace, the splendid hall of Valhalla. There, in company with all the gods and heroes of their race, they would lead, they believed, for ever a life of feasting and drinking, such as they had loved on earth.
They were fair-haired giants those Germans of old time—”Children with old men’s hair,” the Romans called them. Huge they were, strong of limb, and able to endure both cold and hunger. They cared nothing or gold and ornaments, and were clad only in a cloak of cloth, or the hide of some animal. This was held about their shoulders by a simple clasp or even by a thorn. They were armed with long spears and short javelins. Few wore helmets or armor of any sort.
As they dashed to war the very sight of them struck fear to the hearts of their enemies. Their fierce blue eyes and yellow streaming hair, their huge bodies, the shrieks of the women and children who surrounded the battle-field, and, above all, the hoarse sound of their war-chants, which rose and fell in harsh roar, all added to the terror of their attack.
These ancient Germans loved battle. They held it more honorable to win their daily bread by blood and conquest than to earn it by the sweat of the brow. Yet even the best and bravest warriors in times of peace did nothing but eat and drink. “It is marvelous,” says a Roman writer, “that the same men should so love sloth and hate peace.”