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Germanerna Tore Janson, Germanerna (The Germans)

Norstedts,  2013.

Reviewed by John Gilmour in SBR 2014:2

Review Section: Non-Fiction

Writing at a time when the great anti-nationalist project in Europe, the European Union (EU), is under pressure from resurgent nationalists riding a wave of racist sentiment and economic disillusion, Tore Janson’s broad examination of the originators of one of the most disastrous nationalist models (arguably the driving force behind the EU), the Germans, is both timely and instructive. In Germanerna, Janson explodes dangerous myths, traces a complicated history and reveals linguistic connections that together were, and are, misused by nationalists and racists to invent a past that suited their political objectives. 

Political historian Karl Deutsch said that a nation is ‘a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbours’. Janson initially sets about demolishing the pre1945 German self-image with satisfying success. He shows that the concept of ‘the Germanic peoples’ was one outcome of the Renaissance interest in the Roman historian Tacitus. Tacitus used Caesar’s own definition ‘Germani’, which simply encompassed the tribes on the east bank of the Rhine, and redefined them as a linguistic and ethnic group while ascribing to them, apparently without any direct knowledge, particular characteristics such as love of freedom and family life. Thus did the Roman empire define the concept of ‘Germans’ – a term that disappeared until Tacitus’ work was eagerly seized upon in the 1500s and used to invent ‘Germania’, its people and also their qualities. For centuries, German nationalists  embellished these legends while buttressing them with faux-scholarly assertions about language, heroic deeds and racial merits. Ultimately, ‘Germania’ reached its apotheosis under the Nazis and their legacy has made it difficult to research or even discuss the topic in the present day.

However, Janson delves into the detail of the complex history of the Germans. He skilfully uses both language and archaeology to provide a picture of the intricacies of the shifting tribes and their societies. He comes across one major difficulty: other than Roman sources, there are no extant written records for the period up until the 800s. As Janson writes, ‘one can only imagine what ought to have occurred’; he makes it clear throughout this section that there are more gaps than facts. Nevertheless, he describes a society that relied on agriculture but was constantly under threat of raids or invasion. Militarisation was not an option. The region seems broadly to have benefited from contact with the Romans to the west of the Rhine, which defined the northern boundary of their empire, and when that empire collapsed, enormous movements of peoples took place which had linguistic and ethnic consequences for Europe. Today’s nationalists should revisit this period to gain a better understanding of the effects of migration on their own mythical past. The Germanic language(s) now spread across northern Europe.

The third section of Germanerna deals with the language issue and Janson, now writing as a linguist, throws a fascinating light on the replacement of rune by script and the triumph of Germanic language over Latin. Although runic characters better expressed Germanic spoken language, they could not compete with the Church (unusually, the Greek word ekklesia was absorbed directly into Germanic language) which after the fall of the Roman empire was the only institution devoted to teaching language in order to further its aim of disseminating Christian doctrine. Janson goes on to track language developments in the North from a single language between 800-1100 to the formation of the national tongues thereafter in parallel with the development of the separate Nordic political identities.

Janson makes clear that the human urge to associate and belong to groups ‘like ourselves’ for security is a fundamental driver of behaviour. What is also clear from his book is that certain individuals in all societies and polities manipulate this urge for their own ends. They often demonise and exclude others to build their own positions and eliminate or damage enemies, real and imagined. History, race and language have all been used – and continue to be used – to further agendas of power and domination. Tore Janson’s Germanerna shows how this misuse operates but also exemplifies the power of academic research and argument to refute these dangerous and misleading abuses.

Unfortunately, in today’s ‘sound bite society’ most people lack the time, concentration, persistence and interest to read though a book as detailed as this to learn these lessons and reflect on the implications for their own lives, politics and attitudes to society. Anyone attracted by today’s nationalists in Europe, whether they be Britain’s SNP and UKIP, or Nordic versions, including Sverigedemokraterna, Dansk Folkeparti, Sannfinländarna and Fremskrittspartiet, could read this book to their advantage. 

Other reviews by John Gilmour

Other reviews in SBR 2014:2

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