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

3.59  ·  Rating details ·  336 ratings  ·  67 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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Start your review of A Most Dangerous Book: Tacitus's Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich
Mark Porton
Jun 13, 2020 rated it really liked it
For my own part, I agree with those who think that the tribes of Germania are free from all taint of inter-marriages with foreign nations, and that they appear as a distinct, unmixed ethnicity, like none but themselves

This is an excerpt from Germania written by one of Rome’s greatest historians, Publius Cornelius Tacitus (56 CE – 120 CE). Tacitus wrote Germania in 98 CE, to describe the Germanic Tribes. The Germane were a group the Romans always had great difficulty conquering. This review’s ope
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
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
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
Biblio Curious
This book traces this history of Tacitus' Germania from the ancient roots straight through to this darkest chapter in it's life. Pretty decent history of this Ancient Roman book, how it was taken out of context to eventually fit an agenda.

I'm coming away from this book with the impression that Germany has a long history of being excluded from Europe in some ways. I'm certainly curious to learn more about Germany's early history. There seems to have been some tensions with Ancient Rome?
Jul 25, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
Per one other reviewer, I don't know if many 1- and 2-star reviewers were expecting Dan Brown, or if they're just neo-Nazis or fellow travelers, or what, but they're wrong.

First, Krebs explains to the general history reader what classical historians have long known. Tacitus wrote Germania as intra-imperial propaganda, to shame allegedly unvirtuous slacker Romans, as his primary purpose.

Second, "Germania" refers to a region as much as anything. Not all peoples Tacitus references by name, let alo
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
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
Jun 23, 2018 rated it it was ok
Gets *really* into the weeds of the correspondence of Renaissance antiquarians and speculating about what caused them to write coyly the things they wrote to one another, leaving me wondering who this is even for. It is just not a fascinating detective story!
Nick Sorrentino
Jan 23, 2021 rated it really liked it
While there are hearty portions of the books that may seem to be very detailed and drowned in semantics, the message remains very clear. Poor and shotty readings of history, especially under the guise of nation building, is dangerous.

In fewer than 30 pages Tacitus, someone who most likely never went north of the Alps, describes German people using (simplified if not false) terms that are still commonly used by politicians and regular people to this day.
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
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 ...more
Apr 01, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, own
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
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. ...more
Jul 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing
"In comparison with other Greek and Roman accounts of foreign people -- like the ones produced by the speedy general Caesar, who came, saw, and wrote digressions on the Gauls as well as the Germanen -- the Germania appears to be as a mosaic of Greek and Roman stereotypes, arranged by a writer who most likely never went north of the Alps. ... Later celebrated as an accurate reflection of authentic German people, the Germania was written by a Roman in Rome for Romans." (49)

"Sixteenth century histo
Dec 13, 2017 rated it really liked it
A book that would be comic if the consequences weren't so tragic. The author demonstrates an impressive breadth of knowledge, adroitly tracing a story from its antiquarian genesis to its horrific culmination in the mid 20th century. Throughout much of the western history, Germans were dismissed culturally by the elite: academics, church leaders, and monarchies. Desperate for a praiseworthy identity, some put pen to paper attempting to parse out a German identity they could be proud of. Unfortuna ...more
Alexandra Rizzi
Jan 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I came across this book rather accidentally and I'm glad I did. Being German myself it provided a glimpse behind the proverbial curtain of the Third Reich that I didn't know existed. I knew there were searches for the occult and other far-fetched ideas, but never did I realize that the ancient writings of a Roman observer had such a part in the devastating ideologies of the regime. These are the things they don't teach you in class. Well done. ...more
Oct 31, 2017 rated it it was ok
Most interesting to me was the early Roman Empire-era milieu in which Tacitus composed the book, and the rediscovery and transmission via scribe and incunabula press of the humanists who rediscovered the book. The finer points of the development of German nationalism based on the Germania held less interest for me.
Jackson Cyril
Apr 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
A book which tries to understand the troubled history of posterity's relationship with Tacitus, from the bibliophilic enthusiasm of Renaissance humanists in search of "the manuscripts of one Cornelius Tacitus" to early German nationalists, with the relationship culminating in the Nazis' appropriation of the great Roman historian for their own twisted purposes. ...more
Apr 24, 2018 rated it really liked it
An interesting book about a pamphlet of 30 pages written by a Roman "historian", Tacitus, that described ancientGermanic tribes as noble barbarians, became a talisman that fueled Teutonic fantasies of the Third Reich and he NAZI ideology.
A bit tedious in some places but over all an interesting read.
Arthur Sperry
Mar 13, 2021 rated it really liked it
This is a really excellent book that I enjoyed as a person who teaches Latin for a living. The Germania has always been fascinating, and the anecdotes in this work show how many have tried to "spin" its messages in various ways. ...more
Jan 17, 2018 rated it really liked it
A very interesting book
Mar 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Very interesting it held my attention from start to finish.
Rachel Rose
Sep 23, 2018 rated it it was ok
Really a history of the influence of the work. I thought it was going to be mostly about the works influence on the Third Reich. Great if you are interested in the Roman Empire.
Vicky P
Sep 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Very readable, serves as an excellent example of how popular culture and ideology can run amok even amongst academics and policy makers when it comes to interpreting the past as well as the present.
Oct 12, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
A bit of a slog in some places, but interesting. Now I want to read Tacitus.
Michael Haggard
May 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Great read on the origins of the Germanic people.
Colleen Clark
Mar 12, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, ww-ii
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
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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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