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A Most Dangerous Book: Tacitus's Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich

3.55  ·  Rating details ·  238 Ratings  ·  50 Reviews
The pope wanted it, Montesquieu used it, and the Nazis pilfered an Italian noble's villa to get it: the Germania, by the Roman historian Tacitus, took on a life of its own as both an object and an ideology. When Tacitus wrote a not-very-flattering little book about the ancient Germans in 98 CE, at the height of the Roman Empire, he could not have foreseen that the Nazis wo ...more
Hardcover, 303 pages
Published May 2nd 2011 by W. W. Norton Company (first published April 1st 2011)
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David Bird
Sep 24, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Those who have offered lower ratings should, I think, address their complaints to the marketing department at Norton, rather than to Prof. Krebs. If you are expecting Dan Brown, you will be disappointed. If you expect a learned exploration, with thorough command of primary sources in multiple languages across many periods, you will be quite gratified.

The dangerous books of the world are not those hidden away in some archive, guarded by monks or obscurity; they are the texts that are most widely
Christopher Krebs' book takes a look at the way another has been used and misused over time: Tacitus' Germania, from the period of its composition during the first century CE to its apotheosis as a text naturalising Nazi claims to German racial superiority during the Third Reich. I thought it a useful and informative piece, which gives the general reader a sense of how and why scholars are interested in the history of a text's reception over time. I could see it being useful paired with Tacitus ...more
Jun 07, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: german-history
This book details the "Chinese whispers" of Tacitus's Germania. Although Tacitus wrote from Rome -- never having crossed the Danube -- for years, his short book was considered the authoritative ethnography of the German-speaking tribes. It was intended as scorn. But, beginning in the Renaissance and Reformation, it was invoked increasingly as the source-book for warrior qualities built into the German genetic code. And, soon it was employed to weed out those German-speakers not having such quali ...more
It shouldn't be a surprise that a book entirely focused on the history of a particular written document (and in particular, one written by one of Rome's most eloquent historians) would be as well-written and as grounded as this book is, but as the author himself points out, the book's history, for all its popularity (particularly in the century and a half preceding the Nazi regime), has been primarily one of gross mistranslation and pseudo-scholarly interpolation. I picked up this book because t ...more
Phillip Ramm
Interesting book about the Roman historian Tacitus's Germania, in which he describes the
'unmixed" people of the area North of the Danube and East of the Rhine. The discovery in the 15th century of an old manuscript, and the subsequent willful (or not) misreadings of it became the basis somehow for the history of Aryan/German superiority and purity. This then grew into the concept of "volkisch" language, blood, and soil that culminated in the Nazi regime. These philosophies were often justified
Feb 21, 2012 rated it really liked it
This is another one of those studies of how the "classics" have come to have modern influence, sometimes for reasons that differ greatly from the author's time or intentions. The focus here is on a short work by Tacitus named Germania, which is presented as a study of Germany and the people who live there. It is a descriptive - ethnographic -- portrait of the people east of the Rhine and thus never conquered by the Romans.

Krebs, the author, starts off by discussing how Tacitus described the norm
Steven Buechler
Jul 04, 2011 rated it really liked it
A must read for anybody with the most remote interest in either culture or communications. This is the story of how a Roman pamphlet became one of the most misreferenced and misquoted documents of all time.

-Page 19
... Tacitus's text was taken to illuminate the life and mores of those ancient German days. The light of dawn is mellow, and most readers formed a positive impression. No sooner had the Germania been retrived from the murky library of a German monastrey in the fifteenth century than it
Adam Clarehugh
Dec 24, 2013 rated it it was ok
I recently finished Christopher Krebs ‘A Most Dangerous Book’ the blurb of which states that it is about the roman writer Tacitus on how his book the Germania has been abuse throughout the ages.

I found this book to be a real slog to read. So much so that I almost gave up on reading it. Originally, I was attracted to the book by its novel premise unfortunately I don’t feel it delivered on it.

Instead of focusing on placing the book in the context of events e.g. such and such was twisting the Germa
Διόνυσος Ελευθέριος
My interest in Christopher Krebs’ A Most Dangerous Book was first aroused in part because of my interest in Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve . Both promise to deliver an account of the history of a famous book of antiquity: in Krebs’ book, Tacitus’s Germania, and in Greenblatt’s book, Lucretius’ De rerum natura. However, whereas Greenblatt focuses more on the truly remarkable story behind the recovery of Lucretius’ work, Krebs focuses more on the historical abuse of Tactitus’ work (though, to be ...more
Apr 01, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: own, non-fiction
This book pairs excellently with The Swerve: How the World Became Modern as both deal with the revitalization and preservation of classical texts. I believe A Most Dangerous Book rather succinctly and effectively outlines the dangers of humanity's habit of seeing only what it wants to. The Serve touches on this to some extent, but mostly it shows much of the positivity that comes from sharing and re-evaluating old ideas. This book does a really great job at situating the reader in the timeline s ...more
Del libro pero también, e incluso más, de sus interpretadores y de sus intenciones.-

Género. Ensayo.

Lo que nos cuenta. Monografía sobre la “Germania” de Tácito, su texto, el contenido y las diferentes interpretaciones (que van de lo correcto a lo literal, pasando por lo imaginativo, lo falso y hasta por lo torticero) que de la obra se han hecho a lo largo del tiempo por parte de ciertos individuos y grupos, con un vistazo a las consecuencias de las mismas hasta incluso más de 1.800 años después d
Provides an interesting history of Tacitus's Germania from contextualizing its writing to how it was sought after in Renaissance Italy to how it was eventually used for propaganda purposes.
Colleen Clark
Mar 12, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: ww-ii, history
Before I even started Krebs' book I read the Tacitus "Germania." It's brief - only 40 pp in my Penguin translation - and unexceptional.

So what's the fuss? I can't do better than quote from Krebs himself. "What made this precious that Himmler tried to steal it [from a villa in Italy]?
The Germania was taught in schools, amply quoted in Nazi articles, and a source of enthusiams for countless National Socialists....The Only comprehensive account from ancient times of the Germanic pe
Bill Rogers
Pity the poor author whose book endures a thousand years after his death. Those who read it in that most alien of worlds, the future, are bound to misinterpret and are very likely to misuse everything it said. And then the author catches the blame.

So it was with Tacitus, Roman Senator and author, a man about whom we know very little. (Appropriately, as Mr. Krebs points out, since his name means "Silent one.") Tacitus is known for a history he wrote, most chapters of which we still have. He also
Sep 09, 2011 rated it really liked it
A well written take on an interesting thesis: that Tacitus' Germania, written in Roman times and preserved in only a single text, played a (major) role in shaping and framing German identity after its 16th-century rediscovery. In a way, it's a tough assignment -- while the author succeeds in showing that the Germania was highly influential, providing numerous direct and indirect references through the decades, I wanted more discussion of other influences or sources to help prove the negative (e. ...more
Brent Venton
Mar 10, 2014 rated it really liked it
I imagine that this book will only appeal to a combo Classics enthusiast, WWII nut and amateur literary analyst - not exactly a broad scope of appeal. Still, I am exactly all the above and so I enjoyed the book. I was surprised at the depth of research presented here as Krebs explains the evolving reception of the Germania in Germany through its early Renaissance rediscovery to the present day.

The reconstruction of the manuscript's movements and gradual re-discovery is painstaking; too painstaki
Jun 01, 2014 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction, history
An interesting premise that never really took off. This started off so dull that it made me want to go back and re-rate The Swerve higher. Both books puddle around a lot in medieval monasteries before they get to the actual text, but The Swerve does a lot nicer job building suspense and ambiance and character.

I heard about Tacitus's Germania in some other history book, probably a Dan Carlin Hardcore History podcast, and was caught up in the idea of the young German nation casting about for a na
LeeAnn Heringer
Every time I tried to describe this book to someone, I would start with "history is not only written by the victors, but it is constantly being rewritten and reinterpreted for political expedience." And everyone would nod their heads vigorously and say, but, of course. But this book takes you through a single example -- a short history of the Germanic tribes by a Roman senator / historian in 78 AD. The senator never left Rome, never went to what is now Germany, just researched other writings abo ...more
Chuck Lowry
May 04, 2012 rated it really liked it
If you like this sort of thing--and I do--this is a very solid and informative book. The first part, regarding the rediscovery of the ms. and the work of the humanists, was very good and immediately reminded me of The Swerve. The middle part, four hundred years of German history, dragged pretty slowly. I'm afraid that I am one of those folks who divide German history into two parts: pre-history to mid-19th century (boring) and mid-19th century-1945 (horrifying). The last forty pages, about the N ...more
Jun 24, 2015 rated it it was ok
I listened to this book, and that was probably not the optimal way to enjoy the book. This book provides a short history of the influence of Tacitus' Germania on German nationalism and the Nazis (especially Himmler). The book ends somewhat abruptly with the collapse of the Germany in WWII. I would have appreciated more discussion on the actual merits of the Germania versus its influence--the author states without providing much detail that many academics believe the Germania is not really an acc ...more
Jun 25, 2011 rated it it was ok
A tedious and boring book at times about the most dangerous book. Still a very thorough examination/coverage of how a book can be interpreted to suit one's purpose. People with agendas searching for something that really was never there. Tacitus would have been shocked to see his book so poorly translated and twisted through the ages to fit so many various policital and social agendas-pan Germanism, eugenics, Nazism, etc... The book was never considered in the context of its time. Ironic too how ...more
Apr 18, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
Tacitus' Germania certainly has made an enormous contribution to the finding of a united "German" identity out of the colourful and variable mix of people and cultures that have settled the German territory since Roman times, with or without adopting a flavor of the German language. Therefore tracing both the genesis and the survival of this text through the centuries is a worthwhile exercise and an interesting topic to read for anybody dealing with "German"-ness. That is why I thought this book ...more
Mike Clinton
Dec 26, 2012 rated it really liked it
This was an interesting geneaology of the classical Roman author Tacitus's work that depicted the Germanic tribes beyond Rome's borders. It examines the work in its own cultural context and as part of Tacitus's oeuvre, then traces the (mis)readings and (mis)uses of it by a range of scholars, nationalists, and ultimately Nazis since its Renaissance rediscovery. These often invoked the work to justify their own positions and aspirations in the political and cultural developments of their own days, ...more
Mar 14, 2016 rated it really liked it
The book follows the journey of Tacticus' small book on Germanic tribes from the perspective of a Roman around 2,000 years ago. The value and purpose of the book matches the construction of a German identity, nation-state and ultimately a justification for Nazi racial superiority.

Krebs does an interesting job in illuminating the interesting exchange between cultures as outsiders seek to classify and define groups they find and fit them into boxes. The book shows that a shallow reading, lack of
Nov 04, 2011 rated it really liked it
Great book both on the origins of Tacitus's 'Germania,' and also the legend that followed it as far as a defense of german or aryan purity both in Roman times right up through the Third Reich. Manuscripts abound in different parts of Europe and they were touched by even aspects of Stephen Greenblatt's recent 'The Swerve.'

Engrossing reading. I think Mr. Krebs sums up the whole story well at the end of his book with this line: 'Tacitius did not write a most dangerous book; his readers made it so.
Jun 14, 2011 rated it it was amazing
How come an ancient text helped form and found the German nation? Why was Himmler interested in a text he could not read?
I found this to be a thrilling book, from the gripping opening to the sinister close (what makes books dangerous ...?)
Wide-ranging and well-written.
I'd recommend it to anyone with an interest in history.

07/04 I came across an interesting interview with the author:

Jul 27, 2011 rated it really liked it
Fascinating look at how words can be used and distorted throughout centuries to support ideologies. What I loved too, being a word and book geek, is seeing how the various names of ancient German gods/progenitors became reshaped into modern languages' words for the country or its citizens, and how amazing it is that a 33-page book written in the time of Roman Emperor Nero even survives nearly 2000 years, let alone influences thousands of people and in a real sense eventually contributes to the d ...more
Margaret Sankey
Jul 23, 2011 rated it liked it
Krebs foillows Tacitus' _Germania_ from its writing in the expansionist days of the Roman Empire, through hibernation in medieval monasteries, rediscovery by Renaissance humanists, leveraged by Protestant Germans as a counter-weight to "Rome", made Enlightenment dinner party chitchat by Frederick the Great as political theory, embraced by 19th century nationalists as proof of a "volk", and finally coming to the demented mind of Himmler as the handbook for "re-Nordization" by racial purity, blood ...more
Freyja Vanadis
Jun 15, 2011 rated it really liked it
The first third of this book is slow but it picks up steam after Mr. Krebs is done talking about the Italians who write about Tacitus and his Germania book. I was starting to get worried that the book wouldn't be about anything else, but fortunately he started writing about the history of Germany basically from the Renaissance to the Second World War, and I found it fascinating.
Nov 26, 2011 rated it really liked it
Fascinating, engagingly written history of Tacitus' Germania, its rediscovery in the 15th Century and how a mythology developed about German history, culture, language and "racial purity" that led to its underpinning of the Nazi myth of Aryan supremacy. I always enjoy a book that makes me look up the definition of a word every few pages.
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Christopher B. Krebs is a classics professor at Harvard University whose academic publications include extensive work on the ancient historians and a recent contribution to The Cambridge Companion to Tacitus. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.
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