Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Book Review - "A Most Dangerous Book", by Christopher B. Krebs

Don't be so easily fooled by the title.

Christopher B. Krebs, a classics professor at Harvard University, has written an in-depth account of a text from Ancient Rome that, as his book reveals, went on to become one of the most misused - and dangerous - books in all of history.  As it turns out, this old text was intended to be a romanticized description of the tribes in northern Europe for the Romans to read.  However, throughout history, this book, titled the Germania, was time and time again misinterpreted by the descendants of these tribes to fuel their own prejudices and racism.  This would also become a catalyst to the rise of Nazi Germany as well as one of the worst atrocities in modern history as we know it.

Here is a summary of the book from Publishers Weekly:

"Harvard classics professor Krebs writes a scholarly but lucid account of the abuse of history. Written in 98 C.E. by the Roman official Tacitus, About the Origin and Mores of the Germanic Peoples was lost for centuries but resurfaced around 1500 as Germans were growing resentful of foreign domination—in this case from the Catholic Church in Rome. The rediscovered book launched a primitivist myth that captivated admirers over the next 500 years, from Martin Luther to Heinrich Himmler, who loved its portrayal of ancient Germans as freedom-loving warriors, uncultured but honorable, in contrast to decadent Romans. In fact, Tacitus probably never visited Germany, Krebs notes. Rather, using books and travelers' reports, he wrote for a Roman audience who shared his romantic view of northern barbarians.

Enthusiastic German readers, culminating in the Nazis, ignored Tacitus's disparaging comments, misread passages to confirm their prejudices, and proclaimed that the ancient historian confirmed their national superiority. This is an inventive analysis of, and warning against, an irresistible human yearning to find written proof of one's ideology." - Publishers Weekly

"A Most Dangerous Book" is basically about two things.  First, it traces the origins of the idea of the Aryans as a superior race all the way back to Ancient Rome.  Second, it warns what can happen if we abuse history or take it out of context.  As Krebs' book shows, the consequences of this can be catastrophic.

I just finished this book yesterday after chipping away at it since April.  I found it to be extremely riveting.  It tells the history of Europe and the German people in a unique way and one I had never read about before.  The author explores the various characters as they come into contact with Tacitus' book, beginning with Tacitus himself and concluding with the post-World War II historical society.  The narrative weaves from describing the ordinary life of these characters to summarizing entire centuries and people cultures.  There are also many examples of how excerpts from the Germania were misused to the advantage of some, as well as showing the damage it caused over time.  So if you are interested in Ancient Rome, the history of Germany, or any of the book's themes already mentioned, you will really enjoy this book! (I am a bit biased because a lot of German runs in my family, so I could have been reading about my ancestors!)

However, the book is also written in very scholarly terms and covers a lot of ground, so it is not a book one can fly through with ease.  The writing style is advanced as well, so I would not recommend this for most teenagers unless they are excellent readers.  There is a lot of information to take in as you are reading it.  It is not an easy read.  That is why it took me so long to finish it.  It's one of those books that is easier to digest in little bites rather than huge chunks.  If you prefer to read books in one, two, or three sittings, you will probably have a hard time staying engaged with this book.

The Good: In-depth, riveting, comprehensive study - covers a lot of historical and moral themes - enjoyable for anyone who is interested in studying Ancient Rome, Germany, or the Third Reich.

The Bad: Very scholarly approach (okay, that's not exactly "bad"...) - not an easy read - better read in multiple sittings.

So, in summary, you will love "A Most Dangerous Book" if you enjoy an intense, thorough, and comprehensive look at European and/or German history.  However, if you prefer a more general or conversational approach, this book might not be for you.



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