History of Me: Journey to Ancestral Lands

Well, I have done it. I have traveled to my ancestral lands. It was quite the whirlwind trip — and now, 4 countries, 8 travelers, and a jillion miles driven later, I’m going to tell you about it.

First Impressions

The first difference I noticed was even before I set foot on German soil: the lay of the land. Usually when I’m flying over the Midwest, the fun patchwork of farms looks like this:

NW Minn farm land - NASA
(This is a NASA aerial photo of NW Minnesota.)

But as we flew over Germany, I noticed that the German patchwork looked a little different…

(This is a Google Maps view of just outside Husum in NW Germany.)

See the difference? The US land divisions are very square and rigid, while the German land is much more of a mish-mash of various bits. Why is this? Modern colonialism.

As we learned back in the Little House / Wounded Knee project, the prairie land here in the present-day Midwest was systematically taken from Native inhabitants, divided up by white men with maps, and distributed to (mostly European/white) settlers via several Homestead Acts beginning in 1862 and extending through the early 1900’s. So, the land in NW Minnesota (and the rest of the land settled this way) was divided up all in one go, overwriting the footprint of previous inhabitants and their land-ways to parcel out equal squares to whatever applicant was granted the land — and the lay of the land shows those scars.

Germany, on the other hand, is still mostly populated by its original people groups (particularly in my family’s parts) and was able to keep its varied, traditional, organic land structure. Generally people lived (and still live) in their small towns and villages, and farm the land surrounding the village. This is in line with what we read in Kristin LavransdatterMorebath, and Daily Bread — folks lived in small communities together, and pretty much stayed put where they were. And although there is more movement and urbanization now today, as we drove through the countryside of Germany and the other countries we visited, it definitely felt like people had been living in these same European villages for hundreds (or thousands) of years. And in many cases, they have been. 

Snapshots

I’ve been struggling to put my trip into words for a while now, and at this point I’ve recognized that there’s no way I can adequately express everything we saw and felt and learned. So instead, I’ll just give a quick snapshot of each of the places we traveled to give you a little taste. If you want to know more, feel free to leave me a note in the comments and/or let’s grab coffee sometime!

Pellworm / Nordfriesland (The Clausens)

At the family barbecue in Nordfriesland!

The first week of our trip was spent in northwestern Germany — we traveled all over the state of Schleswig-Holstein, but focused particularly in the district (like a county) of Nordfriesland. By far the highlight of this place (and the trip!) was spending the week with our fantastically fun cousins. They definitely welcomed us like relatives immediately, and we had so much fun seeing their towns, their farms, their musical talents (including one accordion and many enthusiastic singing voices), and just getting to know them!

 

In addition to just being their awesome selves, our Clausen relatives also kindly took us around and taught us about the region. Due to being right on the North Sea, residents of Nordfriesland have always been fighting a neverending battle with the sea to keep their land from eroding. In fact, my family’s home island of Pellworm became an island in 1634 when a huge sea-flood broke through the sea-dikes, washed away most of the larger island of Strand, and left only the few smaller islands we have today. The old land is still there, but submerged — so now Pellworm and its neighbors are known for their mudflats, which are visible (and walkable) at low tide.

 

It was also super cool to get the cousin-guided tour of Pellworm itself. The island is just plain beautiful, and it was really meaningful to just be there and see the place and walk on the mud and breathe the air (and be blown over by the “not that bad today” wind!). Plus, when we visited both the Old Church (Altekirche – built in 1100’s) and the New Church (built in 1600’s… and still new, LOL), it was so cool to see the Clausen name EVERYWHERE! One of our cousins kept pointing it out, saying “our family gave this candelabra to the church” or “our family’s name is on that plaque from when they bought a new organ”. I could really feel both my connection to the place, and the old-ness of everything, in a very personal way. It’s my matrilineal island (or, as Daniel likes to say, “the place your mitochondria are from“) and being there felt in some ways like greeting a very long-ago friend. It was pretty special.

 

I’m not even coming close to doing justice to this part of the trip… but to avoid this post being incredibly long I’ll leave it there for now and go on to the next place. 🙂

Gerdau (The Hillmers)

It was a pretty long drive out of the way, but a few of us made the trek over to Gerdau, a small town in the modern-day state of Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen), to see if we could find the burial places of our ancestor Hilmers (they only spelled it with one L). We didn’t find any direct ancestors in the cemetery, but we *did* find a sign proclaiming the town’s 1000-year anniversary celebrations (back in 2004)! Gerdau was another place where I really felt I could feel the ancientness of the village… people have been there since the year had three digits!!! (So basically as long as anyone knows.) We also found an entire street called Hilmer! We decided to go for it and knocked on the door of a house with a Hilmer mailbox, and met some very delightful Hilmers to whom we are probably not related (there are several unrelated lines of Hilmers from this area, including ours), but they gave us a book about the town that was printed for their millennial anniversary and were very kind. All in all, it was definitely worth the trip just to walk around such a beautiful and ancient village. And who knows, maybe I’ll find the right Hilmers next trip!

 

Cuxhaven (The Heldts)

This was the least certain family connection, as we’re not even certain this is the right place, but we have a photo of family in front of the Cuxhaven tower. We enjoyed recreating the photo, and appreciating the beautiful view of the sea (and the beach basket chairs!)

 

Lachen, Switzerland (The Kriegs)

Next we flew to Zurich and took a short train along Lake Zurich to the town of Lachen. We arrived on a Sunday, and it was really interesting to see just how shut down the whole town was. Pretty much everything was closed, and we hardly saw any people on the streets except a few walking or biking to church and some kids at a track meet. The two most interesting things about being in Lachen were (1) it was beautiful to sit and think of our ancestors living there along the lake, looking at the same view we were looking at; and (2), it’s possible (and statistically probable) that at some point these relatives were Catholic! (This is a big deal for old-school Europeans — as we discussed on our previous readings about religious divides.) There wasn’t a Lutheran cemetery in town, so we checked the Catholic one and found a couple of (unsure if related) Kriegs… so that’s an interesting twist. Regardless, it was a beautiful little town with a relaxed Sunday morning vibe, nestled between the lake and the beautiful (stereotypically Swiss) hills.

 

Brezno, Slovakia (The Surovis and Blaskos)

Having recently read my book about Slovakia and learned a ton, I was pretty excited just to spend some time in Brezno with the Tatra Mountains that my dad grew up hearing about from his grandma and aunties. It was a beautiful drive from the airport through the mountains to the town. On our way we stopped at a (Hungarian) castle that really gave me a visual, visceral sense of what it must have felt like when that castle was an active defensive fortress (and what it must have felt like to live in the town down the hill). It was super awesome and cool because castles, but it was also a little complicated because I knew that the Hungarians used this as part of their domination over the local Slovaks. History is messy, y’all.

In Brezno, the overwhelming feelings were amazement at the beauty of the surrounding mountains and trees, and relief whenever we found anyone who spoke ANY English! We also had a really good journey to the very well-maintained local Lutheran cemetery, where we appreciated the obvious care given to the ancestors — and we were able to find grave markers with all the different last names in our Slovak side of the family! This town definitely felt less Western, partly because of the extra language barrier, but also partly because you could see it was more run-down (per 1000 years of being under Hungary’s thumb) and had clearly been part of the Soviet bloc. It also felt more isolated to me, I think maybe due to the mountains as well as the less-complete infrastructure (they are still completing their first freeway). The mountains really dominate the landscape, so I can see why my great-grandparents would still be talking about the Tatra Mountains even once they lived in the middle of a city halfway around the world.

 

Dretyn, Poland (The Schulzs and Schwichtenbergs)

Our last stop was in Dretyn, Poland (formerly known as Treten, Prussia), which is located in the region of Pomerania. When my ancestors were there, it was called Pommern and it was controlled by Germany. My ancestors left when it was part of Prussia — but my one Schwichtenberg cousin that I know of no longer lives there, because after WWII they had to leave. Knowing this, we weren’t really sure what we would find in the village. Another cousin of mine has done extensive research on the Schwichtenbergs, and there is a network of towns where they lived, but we only had time to visit Dretyn, so we just crossed our fingers and drove.

The countryside was beautiful — there are these tall, thin trees that have a red tint, and they seem just magical! That combined with the alternating rolling farmland had me double-taking to see if I was actually in Minnesota. (No wonder my ancestors liked the Midwest!) Once we arrived in the town of Dretyn itself, the cemetery told the tale: the old section was full of German surnames and overgrown by decades of weeds, while the new section next to it was full of Slavic names and very well-tended, like the cemetery in Brezno. Now, whether this neglect is malicious or just due to the exodus of all the German relatives of those buried there, I’m not sure. But it was pretty clear that the era of Germans living in these parts was a thing of the past.

 

After returning to Hamburg, Daniel and I were able to have lunch with our Schwichtenberg cousin and visit the Auswanderer (Emigrant) Museum. He told us about how Dretyn had been occupied by the Russians after the war, and then his forebears were forced to leave with nothing. They found work in Niedersachsen, which is where he lives now. Although the Schwichtenberg house is still standing in Pomerania, and they wrote a letter to the Polish government requesting it back… they haven’t received a reply. Obviously Poland has some good reasons to be angry at Germany… but it’s sad to see that neglected cemetery and think of all the deaths and pain and wounds caused by violence in this oft-occupied area. As my cousin and I walked through the Auswanderer Museum together, I thought about the hardship of choosing to leave your homeland (like my ancestors) and the hardship of being forced to leave (like my cousin’s ancestors). Different, but both hard. So, we dealt with it like good Germans: we ate fish and drank beer. 🙂

 

Coming to America

Daniel and I had a few days of rest on Pellworm before flying out, but the Auswanderer Museum got my imagination ticking. By the time we got in our third (and fourth, and fifth…) line at the Hamburg airport to have our documents verified yet again, I was thinking of my ancestors waiting in Hamburg to get on the boat to America, worrying about getting their documents in order (or about getting caught if they weren’t in order), worrying about making the journey safely, standing in crowded and hot rooms with too many people, hoping things would be better where they were going. They probably didn’t know what they were in for… but they hoped it would be better, so they came. And brought their German (and Slovak) homelands in their hearts with them. This time, I carried those places with me too as I took one last look and got on the plane.

Conclusion

I have learned SO MUCH from this trip… I learned a bit of German (not much), I know what my home-places look and sound and feel like, and in some rather intangible way I feel more… rooted. Whole. Connected. I can’t even describe it. I’m sure little tidbits and thoughts will continue to come up as I finish my official reading project and beyond.

The other thing I am still pondering is something one of my cousins said, which I think is really smart. I commented how they had made us feel like family immediately, and she said, “I think Germans are like coconuts and Americans are like peaches. Germans have a hard shell, but once you get past it the middle is all soft and good; Americans are nice on the outside, but there’s a hard core that it’s tough to get into.” I just resonated with that so much — and I wonder how German-Americans lost that coconut-ness, since at one time WE were Germans — but it made me start to think about how I want to be more of a coconut and less of a peach. I want to have a thick skin, but be all soft and good on the inside. I think my cousin is super wise, and I think that’s a good thing to keep in mind as I return to the last bit of my reading project, about immigration and how my ancestors became “Americans” (whatever that means).

Next up, back to my reading list as we continue with the immigration book on my list, Not Fit For Our Society: Nativism and Immigration in America. (And unfortunately, it’s still a pretty relevant read right now.)

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History of Me, Part 7: Slovakia – Survival and Self-Determination

In this edition of History of Me, we take a brief trip to the land of the Slovaks to learn about 1/4 of my ancestors and their struggle to survive. Sound interesting? Let’s dive in!

NOTE: I am looking into German/Germanic/European history as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. For my full reading list and a further note about whiteness, see this post.

A note about ethnicity

Me and my Slovak grandmother

Although I was vaguely aware as a kid that three of my grandparents (and thus, most of my genes) were German, I was definitely aware that my other grandparent was Slovak. Growing up, my Slovak grandmother was really the only person in my family who was referenced as having an ethnicity — my grandpa would tell stories of all the Slovak goodies my grandma’s mom and aunts used to bake, and my dad used to joke about how grandma (and he) had “suntan Slovak” skin. (Unfortunately for my sunscreen budget, I inherited “pasty Prussian” levels of melanin. Womp womp.)

I think part of the reason that my Slovak/Slavic ancestry is seen as “ethnic”/marked as compared to my “normal”/non-marked German ancestry is that Slavic countries are seen as less established (aka “civilized”/white) than German and other West European countries, and German-American immigrants as more established/assimilated/white than Slavic-American immigrants. There’s a sense that there’s a hierarchy or pecking order of whiteness (aka absence of “ethnic-ness”), and Germans might not be at the top but they’re definitely above Slavs/Slovaks.

It’s interesting that this is the feeling I had even growing up, because that dynamic definitely plays out in the history of the Slovak people — both in Europe and here in the USA. (We’ll get into the Europe part below, and save the USA part for the upcoming immigration post.)

The Slovaks: Hanging in there since 500 AD.

For this foray into Slovak history, I read A History of Slovakia: The Struggle for Survival by Stanislav J. Kirschbaum. I honestly didn’t know very much about Slovakia when I started this book — but I quickly learned that the book’s subtitle was merited, as the Slovaks are a pretty small people group, and they have spent a lot of their recorded history surviving domination by larger entities.

The northern Tatra Mountains in Slovakia

Kirschbaum starts out by defining some of the identity questions and terms relevant to the Slovak story: “The term Slovakia, as a geographical and political concept, is relatively recent; it appeared for the first time in the 19th century, in a petition to the Habsburg emperor in 1849. … Yet, for the Slovaks, the land on the northern shore of the Danube and in the Tatras has always been their home, even when the political and geographical boundaries were not always clear.” (p.9)

In this region, “always” means at some varied passersby as early as 500 BC, with some Slavic tribes (the umbrella term that includes Slovaks) arriving as nomads around 500 AD and settling down. These Slavic groups were loosely associated, but began to become more cohesive when faced with outside threats from various marauders.

My two ancestries collide for the first time in about 803, when priests from the Frankish (German) Holy Roman Empire requested permission from the Pope to send missionaries to the Slavs. This was, of course, yet another example of imperial/Christian fusion, as Kirschbaum notes: “the extension of Church authority into the Slavonic lands was an integral part of Frankish-Slavic politics, which had as its primary aim the strengthening of the imperial power of the Franks over the Slavs” (p.25). The Roman (Catholic) Empire baton having been handed to the Germans, they used it to try to maintain supremacy over the Slavs. (This is the beginning of the sense of the Slavs as less “civilized” than the Germans — since Rome and the church joined, the “mission field” was always made of “barbarians”, even once the former barbarians became Christians.)

The Slavs could play this game, too, though. By finding ways to incorporate Christianity and leverage papal authority to escape total conquest by the Franks, a Slavic leader named Mojmir and his nephew, Rastislav, unified some of the tribes into the Empire of Great Moravia, which encompassed modern-day Slovakia and Czech Republic. Though it was surrounded by other powerful peoples and became essentially a vassal kingdom of Franks, it was a time of cultural significance for the people, as they received into their midst St. Cyril and St. Methodius (sent by the Greek Orthodox church) who helped to create and solidify the Old Slavonic language.

This empire was short-lived, however. After barely half a century, Moravia was conquered by Magyars (Hungarians) from east around 900 AD and was subsumed into its empire. Kirschbaum notes that “the history of the Slovaks after the fall of Great Moravia became interlocked until the 20th century in the history of the Hungarian state” (p.38). Now, you may have just read past that, so let me say that again — the Slovaks/Moravians were conquered by the Magyars (Hungarians) in about 900 and didn’t get out from under Hungary’s thumb until 1918. Yes,  THAT’S OVER A THOUSAND YEARS.

A. THOUSAND. YEARS. Like a MILLENNIUM. Of subjugation and Magyarization.

And THAT is why “The Struggle for Survival” is an apt subtitle.

Honestly, after learning that, it was hard for anything else in this book to stand out to me. I just had to sit and take in the fact that for this branch of my family, my ancestors were colonized and oppressed in their homeland by the same people for like 40 generations. WHEW. That is some heavy stuff. I kind of still don’t know how to process it, but it feels significant and big.

Polka-dots, Czechs and Slavs

(See what I did there? 😉 )

After 1000 years of subjugation to the Magyars, it’s not surprising that the Czechs and Slovaks would also have a complicated relationship. Basically, they started out as two separate Slavic tribes, and ended up being thrown together by mutual subjugation by the Magyars and desire to strike out on their own. Unfortunately for the Slovaks, it didn’t go quite like they’d hoped…

[Scene: After 1000 years of Hungarian domination, Slovaks and Czechs find themselves liberated from the Magyars in the aftermath of World War I.]

Slovaks: Wow, being forced to speak Magyar and being treated like a second-class citizen was the worst.

Czechs: Yeah, agreed! Just because someone is in power doesn’t mean they should force their ways and their language on everyone else! 

Slovaks: Woohoo! Can’t wait to have our own country!

Czechs: …but wouldn’t you rather share a country with us? Come onnnnnnn…

Slovaks: …I mean, maybe, but really we’d rather have our–

Czechs: GLAD YOU AGREE! I already arranged it with all my Allied friends. 

Slovaks: What? But you didn’t even talk to —

Czechs: And also, the capital will be in our territory.

Slovaks: But what about —

Czechs: And you should speak Czech, because Slovak isn’t really even a real language anyway, just a variant of Czech.

Slovaks: But —

Czechs: Isn’t freedom GREAT???

Slovaks: *stunned silence*

Even though this is a dramatization, I’m not really exaggerating… in fact, the Czechs and Slovaks had this drama about language and culture and self-determination going way back even during the Hungarian period. The Bible translation they both used was in Czech, so even some Slovak Lutherans jumped on the Czech bandwagon — and they were most of the Slovak diaspora, so the Allies heard only support for Czech-Slovak unification — and thus Czechoslovakia was born. It’s a classic example of what happens when you pick and choose who you ask about what they want. (Because, after 1000 years of subjugation, the Slovaks really needed another self-interested superpower telling it what its borders should be and how they should meld with another culture like they were told. *MILLENNIUM-SIZED EYEROLL*)

Should I stay or should I go?

This brings us to the cusp of my ancestors’ immigration. The earliest of my direct immigrant ancestors from Slovakia arrived in 1905, and the latest in 1924. Basically, a lot of the same push factors existed in both pre-war Austro-Hungary and post-war Czechoslovakia as did in mid-19th-century Germany: wars, economic downturn, unemployment, general turmoil.

In addition, of course, were the cultural push factors, such as wanting to get out from under the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s thumb. Society was super multi-cultural, but it was VERY clear which culture was on top: the Magyars. And it’s not like Slovaks were even second — German settlers were given special status to attract their presence, leaving Czechs and Slovaks to duke it out for the crumbs (and we know how THAT went). I mentioned this to my grandpa, that I never knew Slovaks had to speak Hungarian and such, and he immediately replied, “Oh, they [grandma’s mom and aunts] all spoke five languages.” (I counted: Hungarian/Magyar, German, Czech, Slovak, and English once they got here. Wowza.)

Another factor I found particularly interesting: the region that is now Slovakia was known for its mining industry and metalwork, going way back to the Middle Ages. (Kirschbaum notes that “the gold ducats struck in Kremnica [Slovakia] around 1330 were among the most sought-after coins in Europe” [p.55].) But when other more centralized countries began to explore/colonize the “New World”, the gold and silver stolen for “free” was way cheaper than what could be produced in Slovakia, so the entire region’s economy was slowed immensely and fell behind other European powers who got ahead by enriching themselves at the Americas’ expense. Interesting to see the ripple effects of how the colonization and theft here even impacted back to Europe. (Also, another way in which Slavs fall to the bottom of the European hierarchy, hence their more “ethnic” status.)

Given all that, it’s easy to see why some Slovak folks thought they had a better chance in America, the “land of opportunity”, rather than waiting for yet another chance at Slovak self-determination to fizzle out. (They didn’t actually get their own country till 1993, so it took a LONG time.)

Conclusion

It’s super interesting to me that Slovakia — which I’ve been thinking of as an ancient country/people group — in its current nation-state iteration is younger than my sister.

I honestly didn’t know how little I knew about Slovakia and the Slovak people until I read this book — but I’m so glad to have begun my learning journey!

In a lot of ways, the Slovaks are the “runt” of Europe that hung in there long enough to finally be able to plot its own political course. To me, this is a parallel to the determination and survival strength of my Slovak great-grandmother, whose father left the family as soon as he got to America, and whose husband (my great-grandpa) passed away at the age of 37, leaving my great-grandma (age 32) to raise my grandma (age 12), her sister (age 10) and their younger brother (age 2) all on her own. She had her mother and sisters around to help, but still — it must have been a huge struggle to find herself widowed with three young children in a foreign country in 1935. (And remember, English was probably her fifth language.) But somehow, they all made it — and that’s how I think of Slovakia. Hanging in there and surviving the hard times, living in hope that things get better.

And this survival is not without its trauma. My great-grandmother (according to some records I found) struggled with some mental health issues, and died when she was only 55 (a year before my dad was born). Surviving hardship is hard. But we who are here now — both as the children of our ancestors and as the next generation of our peoples — can honor and be grateful for the fact that our ancestors lived and fought to bring us into being.

Next time — finally — the immigration post! Join me as I dive into Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America. (I could not have known how timely of a read this would be right now…)

History of Me, Part 6: From Weak States to Strong Empire

I’m back after a busy holiday season and ready to dig in!

In this edition of History of Me, the Reformation planted the seeds of inter-religious conflict that led to foreign invasion, and eventual nationalistic German unification. Sound interesting? Let’s dive in!

NOTE: I am looking into German/Germanic/European history as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. For my full reading list and a further note about whiteness, see this post.

After the Reformation…

When we last left our intrepid heroes, Germany/Europe was just figuring out how the heck to survive the upheaval caused by the splitting of the “one true Catholic Church” into several Protestant sects (Lutheranism, Calvinism, etc), each of whom thought they had a corner on salvation and right-ness.

Everybody and their brother in Europe fought in this. Literally.

Unfortunately, many didn’t survive. Religious tensions that bubbled up when various German states (and eventually other countries) converted to Protestantism erupted in 1618 into the 30 Years War, essentially a war that began with German states but grew to include various foreign powers on both sides of the Catholic League / Protestant Union divide.

Now, I didn’t know much about the 30 Years War before I read my readings for this section (chapters 4-8 in Mighty Fortress and Our Daily Bread). If I learned about it at school, it was a blip of a fact to be memorized, so when I began reading I was like “Oh yeah, the 30 Years War.” Thirty years doesn’t sound all that long in the scope of the world. BUT. Think about what it would be like to live in a constant state of war and violence and fear… for 30 years. That’s how old I am right now. So if I was born in 1618, if I survived I would have lived in war for my whole life, because the 30 Years War didn’t end until 1648. Even when it did end, it was common for German villages to have lost 40% of their population during the 30 Years’ War. This is comparable with rates of death due to the Black Plague throughout Europe.

In addition to just being a generally violent and traumatic time for the average German villager, it was also tough time for the German states. Ozment describes this war as “the trauma of the Germans” and a time when “militarily superior nations settled their conflicts and increased their assets” (p.107). Basically, the 30 Years War was the first and most notable in a long series of conflicts in which individual German states (acting separately from the Holy Roman Empire) got swept up in conflicts with much larger and more dominant nations.

Because so many of these wars were driven in large part by larger, more powerful foreign aggressors (Sweden, France, Russia…), anti-foreign sentiment began to rise. (The first King of Prussia, Frederick William, is quoted as saying “I will put pistols in the cradles of my children, so that they can help keep foreigners out of Germany!” [Ozment p.132]) Two main centers of German political power began to coalesce — namely in Austria (led by the Catholic Habsburgs) and Prussia (led by the Protestant Hohenzollerns).

When Napoleon came knocking on Austria’s door in 1792, Prussia and other German states left them to face the French alone by signing neutrality treaties. Unsurprisingly, Austria was soon defeated, and Napoleon acquired much of western Germany in the peace treaty of 1797. In the next few years, Napoleon made some radical changes to French-occupied Austria and western Germany, including officially dissolving the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 and totally reorganizing the cities, districts, and religious dioceses of southwestern Germany. (Ozment notes that “more than three hundred sovereign entities [aka cities, states, etc] the French encountered in 1800 had been consolidated into thirty-five at the time of their departure” [p.158].) Napoleon then continued his march east and conquered formerly neutral Prussia as well. The French occupation was painful, but the Prussians got their revenge when their contingent of conscripted troops defected to join the Russians and helped defeat Napoleon in 1812-3.

When the 1814 Peace of Paris reset the national boundaries to restore Germany to Austria and Prussia, these two powers began to fight their way to the top, with Prussia victorious in the Austro-Prussian War in 1866. Despite an economic and agrarian crisis in 1846 (which kicked off large waves of German immigration to the USA), Prussia was able to consolidate power and ride a wave of pro-German nationalism to unify Germany in 1871 under the banner of the Prussian Empire.

The Prussian Empire, 1871

That’s a lot of history there… but it’s interesting to read this from my shoes, because I literally have family from Prussia / east Germany as well as near Austria in now-Switzerland… so when I read this, it’s like I’m reading about my ancestors fighting. For example, In 1864, a united Austro-Prussian army marched into the northwestern state of Schleswig-Holstein and fought Denmark over possession of this territory. So, like, my maternal grandpa’s family and my paternal grandpa’s family got together and invaded my maternal grandma’s home state. Super weird.

It’s easy to see how (a) this was an incredibly traumatic, chaotic, and violent time for the average European/German person, and (b) this began to evolve into the “might makes right” strong-man mentality of the later Prussian Empire.

Also, this (mid 1800’s) is now beginning to get into the period of time when my ancestors immigrated from Europe to the USA… I’ll talk more about that in another post, but I definitely see a lot of “push” factors in terms of a tumultuous climate that may have made it sound nice to start over in a new country.

German Village Life

As with Voices of Morebath, I read Our Daily Bread: German Village Life 1500-1850 by Teva Scheer to get an idea of what everyday village life was like in the midst of all the political chaos.

The first thing I noted at the start of the book was that, again, the 30 Years War had a massive impact on village life. Scheer notes that “both the villagers and their noble lords lived out their lives in small, rural, and isolated worlds” (p.4), but also that “most people’s ancestors… had lived in [their same villages] since the end of the 30 Years’ War in 1648 or earlier” (p.9). So when we think of the self-contained “little town” like in Beauty and the Beast, we’re not entirely wrong… but large national events like wars did have a massive impact on otherwise isolated hamlets. Religion — especially directly after the Reformation — was another major influence from the top down, with Protestant/Catholic conflict being a major driver for war as well.

Other than those things, however, Scheer notes the unchanging nature of many rural villages:

Villages remained profoundly conservative — suspicious of strangers and hostile to any innovation, such as new crops or agricultural innovations. The inhabitants lived too close to the prospect of starvation and ruin to be open to experimentation. Each village tried to be as self-contained as possible. (p.15, emphasis added)

Each village was its own little world with its own local and regional customs, but some generalizations can be made to give us the idea of what life was like. Scheer writes about an imaginary typical family in an imaginary town to illustrate this. Here’s what stood out to me:

  • “Membership” in the town (burgher status) was highly regulated by current residents and leaders — basically, you had to pay a fee and be given permission to join the town. (Seems pretty similar to Morebath, actually.)
  • Villagers still followed the “good old law” (p.35) of Germanic custom in many areas as opposed to the still somewhat foreign Roman law. (That’s how you can tell villages are old school… the Romans were gone like 800 years ago and their laws are still the “new” ones!)
  • Ongoing conflict and deeply entrenched division between Protestant and Catholic villages/people — “As late as WWII, Catholic and Protestant villages periodically came to blows” (p.48)
  • Community leaders strictly regulated many aspects of villagers’ lives, including jobs (villages limited the number of millers or blacksmiths that were permitted to operate there), church attendance (you could be fined or otherwise censured for absence), and marriage (had to get permission, and when that wasn’t given the rate of illegitimate birth rose).
  • “An individual’s position in a community was dependent on the degree to which he or she was considered an honorable person” (p.86). I got this book for my parents for Christmas, and in talking with my dad about it earlier today we talked about some of the cultural values we recognized in the book from our relatives and family culture. We decided that the emphasis on honor definitely crossed the pond… but that it was sometimes a “mixed bag”. 🙂  (This also was a common theme in both the Norse stories and the Sigrid Undset books that I read. Interesting to see the threads stay present but morph slightly over time.)
  • Village life was hardest on women. Between medieval witch trials (which were worst in Germany and led to the deaths of over 100k women across Europe) and back-breaking non-stop labor (manual or child-birth-ical), village life was not easy.
  • Death was a common part of life. Not even to mention all the wars mentioned above… but just in terms of child mortality. Scheer notes that “in general, data suggest that between one-third and one-half of children died before their 5th birthdays” (p.119). I can’t imagine how painful it must have been to know that half your children would probably die. (Also, this explains why so many families in my family tree around this time had so many children!)

Overall, there were some good things — like people knowing each other and working out how to live together as a collective — but also, that collectivism sometimes seemed to turn into conformity and legalism that could be stifling. So, as with all cultures, some good and some bad. 

Although this book is about medieval German village life, it’s written by a German-American for those interested in their immigrant ancestors — so ultimately the book highlights some of the push factors leading to the large waves of German migration to the US in the mid-1800s. We’ll talk more about that in a later post — but even just from what we know already, the combination of lots of wars (chaos) plus and end to those wars (increased population) plus the economic/agricultural crisis of the 1860’s (decreased jobs/food/money to pass on to next generation) make a pretty strong recipe for migration. (Not to mention reports of basically “free” stolen land due to the Homestead Act of 1862… but that’s a whole nother blog series…)

Conclusion

In this post — which, admittedly, covers a lot of time — we see Germany finally coming together as a unified modern nation… an Empire, in fact. But despite political/imperial/nationalistic success, many average people were suffering and struggling. This is the point at which most of my direct ancestors’ stories and the story of the Prussian Empire / German Nation diverge; my direct ancestors immigrated to the US between 1855-1924, so from now on their story will begin to align with the USA’s story instead. We can see Germany getting stronger and more militaristic (foreshadowing the later authoritarian rise of the Nazis), and we can also see a lot of the people falling out the bottom of society, and coming to America in hopes of climbing to the top… so now I really feel like I have a clearer picture of what my ancestors were leaving behind (and some of the why) when they chose to come here.

NEXT TIME: We’ll get to the immigration post soon, but first, I’ll take a one-book trip to Slovakia to learn about the 1/4 of my family tree that I’ve been neglecting so far!

History of Me, Part 5: Printing and Protestantism

In this edition of History of Me, we look at how both the printing press and the Protestant Reformation radically changed European society. Sound interesting? Let’s dive in!

NOTE: I am looking into German/Germanic/European history as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. For my full reading list and a further note about whiteness, see this post.

First, a little context…

Before we dive in, I wanted to give some background, especially for some of the particular Church doctrines and practices that feature in this post. So, here are some useful facts and terms to know:

  • Purgatory: Also known as limbo. Believed (and taught by the Church) to be where souls would go after they died to spend time doing penance for their un-atoned-for sins, until they achieved sufficient holiness and were allowed into heaven.
  • Indulgences: Pieces of paper granting the bearer exemption from a certain amount of time spent doing penance in Purgatory. They could be earned (eg by visiting a holy site) or purchased (eg by making a donation to build a new cathedral), and were a quick and effective way to raise money for the Church.
  • The Pope: Seen as not only the infallible representative of God on earth and leader of the Church, but also as a political figure to which even royalty had to give respect if not outright obedience. Popes often used their religious authority over people’s souls to leverage their way into more secular matters. (Though at this point, European society was Christian at its core, so “secular” is kind of a misnomer. Not that there weren’t atheists or people of other religions, but for the vast majority of Europeans the Church was such an intrinsic part of society and their daily existence that the way we think of separation of Church and State now basically didn’t exist at this time.)
  • Heresy / Heretic: As the head of the Church and infallible representative of God on Earth, the Pope (and, by extension, other church officials insofar as they were supported by the Pope) had the authority to declare certain beliefs “wrong” — heresy. Because of the importance placed on salvation, being declared a heretic was dangerous — you were seen as not only personally damned, but liable to lead others astray, and thus were likely to be sentenced to execution if you refused to recant or repeal your statements.
  • Excommunication: If a person (or group, or city, or a whole country) did something the Pope (and other church authorities) didn’t like, they could declare them to be excommunicated — that is, outside the salvation of the Church. While excommunicated, a person could not attend church, receive communion, receive their last rites, etc, which meant they were basically outside of society.

Okay, I think that’s a good start… now, on to the main event.

The printing revolution

Our first book dives right into the religious tension simmering just below the surface at this time in history. Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie follows the invention of the printing press and the printing of the Gutenberg Bible(s) in Mainz, Germany in 1450 through the perspective of Peter Shoeffer, a trained scribe and actual person.

At the start of the book, the city of Mainz is under a blanket excommunication and embargo imposed by the local archbishop as punishment for the city council’s defiance:

There’d be no sacraments until the upstart council had backed down. The archbishop’s word was law: none of his priests would say a mass or take confession, the newly born were unbaptized and the dying were deprived of their last rites, consigned forever to the agony of limbo. (p.15)

Withholding religious rituals from people meant if they died they wouldn’t go to heaven, so the burden of excommunication on the populace was a heavy one. The fact that the archbishop is willing to let common people suffer this way in order to gain a leg up on the city council illustrates that blurred line between religious and political authority that church officials crossed regularly.

The book also does a great job of illustrating the politics specifically surrounding the creation of books and the invention of the printing press. At this time, most books were religious (with the exception of some classical texts used for teaching and philosophy). The writing of religious texts in particular, done mainly in scriptoria (writing rooms) by monks, was seen as a religious act and was highly regulated by the church to ensure uniformity and orthodoxy. In the book, Peter and co initially plan to print a shorter religious book, so they can finish and get paid sooner. But that gets nixed by church officials, so they decide to print Bibles because no one can argue with a Bible!

From there, the book really delved into the craft and mechanics of the printing process, which I found fascinating. I had never thought about ALL the steps needed:

  • Hand-write their own font
  • Hand-create molds to cast each letter
  • Invent a metal alloy that could withstand the impact of being pressed over and over
  • Cast thousands of tiny letters and ensure they were all the exact same height so the page would print evenly
  • Mix ink that would be thin enough to not get tacky but thick enough to not melt all over or get watered down
  • Select appropriate paper and vellum (calf-skin), and ensure they were all the same size
  • Collate and bind all the books by hand

It’s not that surprising, then, that it took five years to print around 150 Latin Bibles, one page (x150) at a time. Each one sold for the equivalent of 3 years’ wages for an average clerk.

…Which you might think is expensive. And it is. But a single Bible copied by hand could take a scribe a whole year to write. So even though 5 years for 150 Bibles sounds super slow, it’s a lot faster than 5 years for 5 Bibles!

The printing press greatly reduced and cost, time, and effort required to create books — but arguably its most immediate impact was felt in its ability to quickly replicate shorter items, such as pamphlets and indulgences, which allowed information to be spread and money to be raised very rapidly. In fact, a big reason for the printing press crew’s secrecy throughout the book (other than the obvious “don’t want anyone to steal my invention”) is because Peter, who feels printing a Bible is a spiritual act, doesn’t want the press to be used to print indulgences — and (spoiler) at the end of the book, that’s exactly what happens.

The Protestant Reformation

Speaking of pamphlets and indulgences, let’s talk about the Protestant Reformation!

The quick story (which I heard often as a kid growing up Lutheran) is that the Church was selling lots of indulgences and doing other unbiblical things, so Martin Luther wrote down 95 theses, or arguments, and nailed them to the church door at Wittenberg, Germany in 1517. (Since religious folks were often also scholarly folks, this was basically the equivalent of posting a list of arguments in a forum on the internet — and in fact, it was quickly converted into a pamphlet and “went viral” throughout Europe.) Then the Church got mad, excommunicated Luther, and tried to kill him, but lots of people followed what he said and that’s why we have Lutherans (and all you other Protestants, too!) today. The end.

Obviously that’s simplistic. But actually, in some ways this is how the story feels to me, since learning it as a child made it feel almost mythological. So I really enjoyed having an opportunity to revisit this important time in history in its proper context, as a part of the story of my family and my peoples. (Especially since this reading accidentally coincided with the 500th anniversary of the 95 theses!)

As I read through chapter 3 of A Mighty Fortress, what stood out most to me was how much Luther and the Reformation were not just focused on theology, but also politics, economics, national identity, and social class. There was just SO much going on at this time in Europe and particularly Germany that it’s hard to digest it all at once! I’ve pulled out a few big themes below. (I swear I’ve tried to edit this down twice… sorry!)

Significant challenge to centralized Roman Church

The most obvious (at least to me) dimension of the Reformation is, of course, the religious angle. And it’s significant to note that this was a major, major upheaval for all of Christian society. Recent in everyone’s memory would have been the sacking of Constantinople (1453 – just 60 years earlier, during Gutenberg’s printing efforts) and the conversion of the Hagia Sophia, the greatest eastern church, into a mosque. This left Rome as the sole center of Christendom, and to some it probably felt like the sky was falling to now see papal authority challenged from withinAnd remember — the big concern at this time, with excommunication and indulgences and all, was “Are you going to heaven?” So having suddenly two disagreeing camps would have been shocking and stressful for many.

Culturally speaking, I found it interesting to think about the big-picture cultural shifts in theology and faith practice. Medieval Catholicism emphasized the pilgrimage as a metaphor of life’s journey of judgment, penance, and grace with priests as guides and mediators. Protestantism emphasized the ability of all to access God and focused on each person as “righteous and sinful simultaneously” (AMF p. 85). Protestants also placed more emphasis on secular civic life (eg public schools, state welfare, de-sacramentizing marriage, etc).

Seeds of deep religious division

I knew going into this that much conflict in medieval/modern Europe has been about Protestants and Catholics, so it’s interesting (and sad) to see those seeds planted:

Over the centuries the pervasiveness of Lutheran and Catholic theology in gymnasiums [schools] and universities infused German public education with religious knowledge, which in turn exacerbated confessional divisions. Yet that same knowledge also made the Germans Europe’s most theologically literate people and facilitated both confessions’ cooperation with the state. (p.90, emphasis added)

In my experience, both parts of this quote are still true today: education (religious and otherwise) still has high importance in the German Lutheran church I was raised in, and even still today there is plenty of segregation and division between Catholics and Protestants. (Just go ask a Euro-American grandparent – I guarantee they’ll have a story for you, no matter which side of the tracks they grew up on.)

The rise of cities

Around the same time, the rise of cities and the merchant middle class  meant more desire for self-differentiation and openness to anti-Roman sentiment:

Local grievances against the Roman Church and a desire for communal sovereignty attracted urban populations to Protestant reforms. Viewing themselves as oases of republican government within a desert of autocratic rule, self-governing townspeople believed themselves to be morally superior to the landed nobility and royalty. They had gotten where they were not by birth, fortune, or military force, but by native ingenuity and the skills they acquired through productive work. (p.66-67, emphasis added)

(To me, this quote also explains exactly where the famous “Protestant work ethic” comes from!)

A major political statement

Back in 1356 (so 150 years before the Reformation), then-Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV granted German princes “semiregal rights within their respective lands” (AMF p.65). This led to the establishment of 7 princes (3 of whom were “ecclesiastical princes”, aka bishops!) as the “electors” of the next Holy Roman Emperor — which they did without the involvement of the Pope. This was a big win for regionalism and the beginning of a drift away from Roman influence.

The electors were still around at the time of the Reformation. And in fact, one called Frederick the Elector, a Saxon prince, had a huge collection of relics for which visiting pilgrims could gain “1,902,202 years of absolution for unrepented sins” (p.71). According to Ozment,

Luther hated the great relic collection and the even greater indulgence it promised. He waited to post his famous Ninety-five Theses until Frederick had departed Wittenberg for the 1517 autumn hunt…. When however, the crafty indulgence peddler John Tetzel, on the instructions of the archbishop of Mainz, began selling the famous indulgence for the rebuilding of Saint Peter’s in Rome on the borders of electoral Saxony, Frederick was as offended as Luther — albeit over the political intrusion rather than any religious impropriety. (p.71, emphasis added)

This turned out to be the first of many times Frederick interceded on Luther’s behalf — and it’s impossible to separate the religious and political motivations: “When, in April 1521, Luther, a condemned heretic, was summoned to the Diet of Worms [a church trial at Worms, Germany] to answer for his teachings, the elector of Saxony attended that meeting also, as a guardian angel. … At the conclusion of the Diet, the vast majority of German lands and cities joined electoral Saxony in refusing to sign off on its proceedings…” (p.74).

Not only did Germans refuse to condemn Luther, but before they even knew the verdict they had already brought their political and religious grievances:

The two movements, the new religious and the older political, spoke with one voice at the Diet of Worms in April 1521. There, the German estates, none of which was yet Protestant, presented [Holy Roman] Emperor Charles V with 102 “oppressive burdens and abuses imposed upon, and committed against, the German empire by the Holy See of Rome” — a national laundry list of political, economic ecclesiastical, and spiritual complaints, echoing many of Luther’s. (p. 78-79, emphasis added)

Rise of independent German identity

So far we’ve looked at how the Reformation was religious and political — but it also intermingled with a strong German nationalist impulse.

Ozment notes that “during his formative years, from 1518 to 1528, Luther was as devoted to German nationalism and civic reform as he was to the restoration of biblical Christianity” (p.77). In addition to writing about the abuses of the church, Luther discovered, edited, and published “A German Theology” as proof of “German sovereignty and cultural equality [with Rome]” (p.80). Ozment notes that “this pamphlet was another native root for Germans to cling to and a reminder of a still unhealed, historically wounded German pride” (p.80) — an attempt to raise themselves up from the memory of being the Romans’ “barbarian” neighbors.

This desire for a strong and unified German identity also found a linguistic expression — as Luther is also largely responsible for the advent of the modern German language. At this time, different dialects were spoken around Germany, but Luther spoke and wrote “an early form of the pan-German language we know today as High German, evolved from composite East Middle and Low German dialects” (p.88-9). 

A note about Luther…

The Reformation was a HUGE moment in history — I can see where so much of what we now think of as German began with the Reformation. And Luther should get credit for his part in it.

But I think it’s also important to be honest about his shortcomings, because those contributed to what we now think of as German, too. I’ll touch on two of those briefly.

First, Luther betrayed his fellow peasants. In short, the much-downtrodden peasant class took hold of the egalitarian spirit of Luther’s writings and began an uprising. Luther initially supported the movement, “calling the revolt and its anarchy a just divine punishment for their [rulers’] tyranny” (p.76), but when it came to a choice between the new Reformation being embraced by elites or dragged down by peasant rebellion, “Luther the cleric and the miner’s son called for the ‘merciless punishment’ of the peasants” (p.76). Like so many Germans before him, he chose empire over neighbor.

Second, Luther wrote awful things about the Jews. All you need to hear is that he actually wrote a book called On the Jews and Their Lies, and you know it’s going to be bad. In fact, Luther’s later anti-Semitic writings were a major influence for the Nazis. I won’t go into a ton of detail (here’s a link with more if you want) — but I never knew about this as a kid, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that Luther was a person who did some great things and some awful things.

The Reformation and Regular People

Mighty Fortress gave so much amazing background about the Reformation as a movement — but one of the things I most want to learn through this project is what effect all these big-picture movements had on everyday people. So I read Eamon Duffy’s Voices of Morebath, which follows a single rural English village based on the financial account book of its priest, Sir Christopher, over the course of the English Reformation.

(Note: Morebath was Catholic, so obviously it would have been different for Protestant villages. But since at this time rulers could choose the religion of their country/province, I think this is still a valuable examination of how common folk were affected by courtly politics re: religion.)

The English Reformation provides a condensed idea of how the Reformation affected other nations, in part because the very rapid change in Tudor monarchs meant many forced religious changes for the people. During Sir Christopher’s record-keeping:

  • 1521 – Henry VIII writes pamphlet denouncing Luther; declared “Defender of the Faith” by the Pope
  • 1534 – Henry VIII makes self head of Church of England; is excommunicated; dissolves monasteries; forbids Catholicism
  • 1538 – Henry VIII starts to roll back some reforms, but then dies…
  • 1547 – Edward VI, radical Protestant, burned Catholic “heretics”
  • 1553 – Mary I (“Bloody Mary”), radical Catholic, burned Protestant “heretics”
  • 1558 – Elizabeth I, returned the country to Protestantism and burned a few Catholic “heretics” but then kinda settled down

Folks, that is all in just 37 years. Poor English people.

In the financial record of the village of Morebath, Sir Christopher records that each time the rules changed, the church had to purchase a new Bible and a new (approved) prayer book. Remember how expensive books were, even with the printing press? (3 years’ salary for a Bible.) For a small village parish like Morebath, forced liturgical change meant massive financial burden.

Another major impact was the outlawing (and re-allowing) of the veneration of the saints. In Morebath, parishioners took part in “interest groups” named after different saints, such as a group for young men named for St. George or a group of young maidens named for St. Sidwell (a local saint at Morebath). These groups helped people at different stages of life to have an engaged role in church life. Members also worked together to fundraise, and then donated the monies to the church to honor their saint in some way — such as the maidens financing a new coat of paint for St. Sidwell’s statue.

The saints were also deeply personal and entrenched in community life — often a woman would bequeath her rosary (a very intimate and important possession for a medieval woman) to be draped on St. Sidwell after her death, and parishioners would be able to be present with the saints and the objects that connected them with their absent loved ones.

With the outlawing of saints, these groups were dissolved, and the icons and decorations of the saints were no longer permitted in the church. Even in a financial record book, it’s clear that the loss of the saints hit parishioners hard. The residents of Morebath are recorded as keeping and hiding some of their saints and altar cloths. In fact, when a Catholic peasant rebellion rose up, Sir Christopher very sneakily records that the church sent several young men to support the rebels. So this was important enough to risk treason standing up for what they believed in.

In the end Protestantism won out, and Duffy notes that “with the extinguishing of the [saints’ altar] lights and the abandonment of the patronage of the saints… a dimension of warmth and humanity evident in the [financial] accounts [of Morebath] up to that point fades a little.”

Here we see how, as with the original conversion of Europe to Christianity, religious change at this time often came from the top down. Essentially, over the life of this parish priest, “twenty years of pious investment and communal effort” toward beautifying the church out of personal and communal devotion was in an instant “expressly declared unchristian” with the passage of these laws enforcing Protestant practice. It reminded me again how painful forcible conversion is, whether from religion to religion or even from one cultural practice to another. 

At the end of the book, Duffy notes that Sir Christopher, who became a priest as a Catholic, in the end had to shape his priesthood into the mold of Protestantism. He could have refused to change, or left the priesthood, but “the unthinkable alternative to conformity was to leave his vicarage and the people he had baptized, married, and buried for 40 years.” Duffy writes that “his [Sir Christopher’s] religion in the end was the religion of Morebath” — local, place-based, intertwined with those specific families and people. And I found that really beautiful to think about.

Conclusion

As I said, there’s just SO much here to take in. Printing presses accelerating the speed of public discourse. Resistance against Roman authority. Struggle to form a new faith. Coercion and conflict and loss and adaptation.

I feel like as we approach the “modern” era, I’m starting to see some of the themes that emerged early in the project — like “we’re not as cool as Rome” or forcible religious conversion or the disconnect between the powers and the rural folks —  resurface in deeper and more complex ways. 

I almost feel like Germany is starting to have kind of a personality to me, so that’s kind of cool. But also, people have baggage, and I already know where Germany’s particular baggage will get us… but it’s also fascinating to see where the roots of German nationalism began. And how, underneath it all, the Morebaths of the world try to put the pieces together and live life.

I’m still processing. But I’m really grateful for this journey.

Tune in next time for a dive into the Thirty Years War and the ins and outs of daily life in a typical German village.

Oh, and, bonus — enjoy Daniel’s cut-to-the-chase summary of my post. 🙂

SO… YOU’RE SAYING THAT LUTHER WANTED LIBERTY BOTH THEOLOGICALLY AND POLITICALLY FROM ROME, AND HE WAS PRETTY MUCH AMAZING AT LEADING THEOLOGICAL AND POLITICAL MOVEMENTS TO ACCOMPLISH JUST THAT, BUT NOT WITHOUT ACCIDENTALLY SCREWING THE POOR AND KINDLING THE 3RD REICH. OH… AND… PRINTING PRESSES.

 

History of Me, Part 2: When Germans Met Romans

In this episode of History of Me, we take a peek at the earliest recorded accounts of “Germans” and their interactions with the Roman Empire. Intrigued? Let’s dive in

NOTE: I am looking into German/Germanic/European history as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. For my full reading list and a further note about whiteness, see this post.

Meet the Germani…

For this section I started off by reading the introduction and first chapter of Steve Ozment’s A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German Peoplefollowed by Rome’s Greatest Defeat: Massacre in the Teutoburg Forest.

Scene: It’s the first century BC. Caesar invades France (then known as Gaul) but mostly leaves the Germanic tribes to themselves, relying on intimidation to keep relative peace. Later after he dies Caesar Augustus (the next emperor) starts to look across the de facto border of the Rhine River toward the land occupied by “barbarians,” aka the yet unconquered Germanic tribes. A small conflict born out of misunderstanding gave Rome an excuse to invade; during the ensuing conflicts a Germanic force led by a Roman-trained Germanic commander called Arminius defeated an army of Roman legions at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest (also translated as the Teutoburg Pass).

I won’t talk much more about the battle in this post, but tuck Arminius’s name away for later. Both Fortress and Forest mentioned how the story of Arminius’s victory over Rome was rediscovered centuries later and became a focus point for German unification and nationalism. So I’m sure we’ll hear of him again.

As I read through the account of the battle and the history surrounding it, I loved learning more about the tribes that lived in present-day Germany/Europe before it was actually called Germany. Fun fact: just like we now call the tribes of this continent “Indians” or “Native Americans,” Romans (outside colonizers) were the first ones to call the tribes in this part of Europe “Germans” (Germani). (NOTE: There is much disagreement about where this name comes from, so the meaning is uncertain.)

A map of some of the tribes that made up “Germania” around the turn of the calendar (100 BC – 300 AD ish)

Steven Ozment notes that “at this time [ca. 100-0 BC] the tribes were neither racially uniform nor transregionally united but composites, ‘loose and shifting amalgams of peoples,’ who formed no coherent Germanic front” (p.17). I also found it interesting that of the tribes who had strong identities at this point, some like “the Franks, Goths, and Lombards developed historical identities by allying with leading, or royal, families and embracing their genealogical myths” (p.17). This actually shows the connection between the ancestral/mythical stories of the previous post and the Germanic tribes recorded here. Like many other peoples, Germanic tribes and leaders found ways to connect their stories to the lineage of the gods by making the gods their ancestors.

The Empire’s bargain…

Even more than the battle, though, the really compelling thing for me about these stories was reading about how the Roman Empire functioned.

Both Fortress and Forest went to great lengths to set the scene and describe what it was like to be a barbarian tribe (or just a barbarian) in the world of Rome. Here are some illustrative passages:

Over the last decades of the old millennium and the first of the new Christian Era, the Romans diminished the threat the tribes posed by brutally punishing their forays [across the Rhine] and finding ways to divide and coopt them. Among the latter were simple human temptations. … Before contact with the Romans, tribal leaders ruled more by persuasion than by coercion and maintained social peace by equitable divisions of land and wealth within the tribe. The new wealth gained from trade with the Romans worked to stratify tribal society, setting new rich against poor and encouraging disproportionate divisions of tribal land. (Ozment p.19, emphasis added)

The Romans sought to have their way with the tribes by transplanting the sons of leading men to Rome, where, to their material benefit, they grew up as Romans. Such transplantation was both by invitation and by hostage taking. Selected elite barbarians were in this way Romanized, many thereafter residing in Rome for the remainder of their lives, while others returned to their homelands as assimilated servants of the Roman Empire. It would be too much to call these repatriated tribesmen brainwashed, since as a rule they served the Roman Empire willingly, gaining new land and wealth for themselves while continuing to enjoy membership in the cosmopolitan Roman world… (Ozment p.20, emphasis added)

Rome promoted leading tribal leaders within Rome’s imperial aristocracy. By recognizing certain chiefs as allies, barbarians were flattered into becoming emissaries for the Roman way of life. It was a practice that first bound them to Rome, then made them dependent on her. (Forest p. 79, emphasis added)

Basically, the Romans came in with their giant empire and their power and their wealth and their military organization and offered tribes (or at least, tribal leaders) a bargain. If they pledged loyalty to Rome, and adopted Roman culture and Roman religion (aka emperor-worship – Romans connected themselves to their gods, too), they would receive power and wealth and move up in Roman society. (And of course, there’s the elephant in the room of “or else.”)

The problem, of course, was that even if they gave up everything that made them “Germanic”, there was only so far they could advance in Roman society. Even Germans or other barbarians who climbed high enough to achieve Roman citizenship still faced barriers:

Citizenship gave affiliated tribes the same legal protections and rights as native-born Italians. Yet, despite acculturation and success, Romanized barbarians, whether Africans, Germans, or Jews, could still find themselves treated as inferiors in the imperial city. That was especially true of the first generation to undergo assimilation. And while the Roman senate looked on tribal elites as occupying the same high position in native societies that senators held in Rome, there was no thought of parity between Roman and barbarian…. While social acceptance might come after full Latin fluency and the fading of native languages and customs, the transplanted barbarian was often, in the Roman perception, a “hyphenated” Roman…. (Ozment p.24)

So cooperating Germanic tribes/leaders gave up their culture, their community, their traditions, their languages, and sometimes their homes — all for a chance to play a game that they couldn’t win, because Romans would always be superior – but at least they got a piece of the pie, and could hope that their less-German, more-Roman children could climb higher than they.

Sound at all familiar? I thought it did, when I heard Pastor Ebony Adedayo, one of the pastors at my church, preaching last Sunday about how white supremacy was created in this country by dividing poor whites from poor/enslaved blacks:

Forsaking language, culture, and history, the newly created white race exchanged its identity for a baseless lie. And the only thing that remained was the lie, or rather the notion that whites were superior to everyone else. In order to preserve that lie, people, politicians, people in high places have gone to great lengths to dehumanize themselves to the extent that it is extremely daunting task to find our way out of it. Not impossible, but daunting.

(You can listen to the full sermon here. Highly recommended!)

Reading all this about the Romans coming to Germania was super eerie for me, because if I change the nouns it morphs into the history of this country — first what was imposed on indigenous tribes here, and then what was also enforced on later immigrants. Give up your tribal/cultural identity in exchange for power and/or survival. Be held back by your “hyphenated” status — until, for my ancestors, their light skin and distance from their “ethnic” past enabled their children to dissolve into whiteness. Or, as the author of Teutoburg Forest puts it: intimidate, conquer, assimilate.

A note about forests versus farms…

When faced with Roman threats (or enticements) of “assimilate or else”, some tribes resisted. Some were conquered. The significance of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest is that it, along with several other battles over the following years, sufficiently delayed the Romans so that their empire and army was too far-flung to fully conquer Germany. They ended up pretty much keeping to the west/south of the Rhine River, and while the tribes to the north/east did trade and integrate with Romans, they were never forcibly conquered. (And in fact later, Germanic tribes ended up overrunning and taking over much of the Roman Empire… but I’m guessing that’s for another post!)

Notice the dotted line — Rome never extended beyond the Rhine into Germania.

But one of the significant downstream effects of this Rhine border being held is that it reinforced the existing regional differences in Europe/Germany:

The battle also reinforced another effect, one less tangible, but one that has had a profound psychological and social impact on Europe and is still being felt today. It confirmed the fault-line between north and south. History could now be used to back up long-held prejudices. [As one historian wrote:] “The slaughter in the Teutoburg Forest divided Europe into the warm south, who forever saw forests as dreadful places to be avoided and cleared, homes to dragons and trolls, antitheses of the civilized city, and the north, who understood [forests] to be healing, protecting, mystical, spiritual places. How you feel about a silent birch forest at twilight says more about your blood and your kin than your passport. (Forest p.7)

We can see how this lays the groundwork for the process of Christianity later sweeping through the wealthier urban centers in the south and pushing Norse stories and traditions north, to the outskirts and the forests, where Snorri Sturleson finally wrote them down a thousand years later in the Edda. I’m interested to keep an eye out now for farm vs. forest and that north/south dynamic as we continue through this project.

Conclusion

I didn’t really expect things to get emotional this quickly, but it was actually really hard for me to read the parts about the tribes taking the Roman bargain, becoming co-opted into the empire, and giving up their ways in exchange for power, money, and influence. I wanted to reach back in time and tell them “No, don’t do it! You don’t know what it’s like to be rootless, without traditions or stories!” But of course, that was 2000 years ago, and now I just have to deal with the choices they made.

Don’t get me wrong — it’s not like they had much of a choice. (Though I’m sure some were more eager to sell out for influence than others.) Given the threat of Rome, I might have made the same decision in their place. Survival is primal, instinctual. But knowing they probably tried to make the best choice they could doesn’t take away my sadness that they took the first step toward losing something beautiful that I wish I could have back.

This, to me, is why Empire (which we talk about a lot at our church) is a perfect analogy for much that is wrong with the world and with how humans treat one another. Rome started this power-grabbing bargain on a large scale millennia ago — they figured out how to systematize power-mongering with their never-ending war-to-captive-to-citizen machine — and it’s kept going and going ever since, and we’re still doing it today. Personal advancement trumps the community. The power game has never stopped.

Anyway, this section has really felt to me like peering into a mirror or a pool and watching a past mistake. (“Noooo Isildor, throw the Ring into the fire!!!”) I know I have some grief and probably even some anger about it. But I’m still glad to have read it, because as Pastor Ebony says, it’s daunting to find a way out – but not impossible. Looking forward to continuing my search.

Tune in next time for a look at the coming of Christianity and The Barbarian Conversion (as well as Mists of Avalon for a fictionalized perspective). 

Interlude: What Counts as “German”?

Hi folks!

After reading my last post about Norse mythology, my husband said “Norse? That’s like Scandinavian, right? But I thought you were German!” So I wanted to post a brief explanation about that question and talk about how I’ve chosen to approach the issue of what to include in my “German” reading project.

NOTE: I am looking into German/Germanic/European history as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. For my full reading list and a further note about whiteness, see this post.

The Bad News: No “German” Myths

The reason I chose to read about Norse mythology for this project is that, well, there really isn’t much specifically “German” mythology left — that’s the bad news.

The main reason is that Christianity took root in some places (including most of what is now Germany) before the local stories and beliefs could be written down. H. R. Ellis Davidson fills us in:

By the time the great nations emerged, and men thought of Anglo-Saxon England or Merovingian France as established powers, most of the Germanic peoples had given up their heathen beliefs and adopted Christianity.

… In Scandinavia the new Church was much longer gaining a foothold. Not until the tenth and eleventh centuries were the people of Norway converted….

Thus we see why we can learn comparatively little about the heathen myths from England and Germany, where Christianity was established early. We have to turn for information to Scandinavia, where a vigorous heathen population flourished for centuries after Augustine sailed for Kent…. (Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, p.11-12)

So by about 1000 AD, most of Europe was converted to Christianity, other than a few scattered pockets. (I’ll read more about that process later.) Around 200 years after that, Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic scholar who wanted to preserve the great poetic tradition of the scaldic (Norse) storytellers before it was wiped out, wrote The Prose Edda, which is the most complete compendium of these stories that we have today. So European indigenous beliefs’ most complete surviving iteration is Norse, because they were in Iceland when they were finally written down.

The Good News: It’s All Norse to Me

The good news in terms of my reading project is that Germanic mythology, based on what we know of it, was similar to and interwoven with Norse mythology. As I mentioned in my last post, Odin was called Wodan in the Germanic tradition. So when we read Norse myths, we’re really reading versions of German/Germanic myths.

Picture this as a comparison: imagine Greek and Roman mythology as we know it today — except that Greek folks never wrote their stories down, but Romans did. What would we still know today? Probably we would refer to all the gods by their Roman names, and while a few Greek names would be known, the most complete version of the pantheon would be Roman. BUT, a lot of the elements would still be the same. That’s basically the state of German mythology — gone before being recorded, but preserved in a “cousin” Norse form by an Icelandic historian.

So, What Does This Mean?

I hope this helps to cast a little more light on the challenge of “rediscovering” ancient German/Germanic culture and story. But honestly, though it may seem a little contrived to put all these seemingly disparate pieces together, I think it’s more authentic this way. Because ancient “Germans” didn’t live in a vacuum of only German folks — they interacted and intermarried with people around them. Norse mythology isn’t tied up in a neat little package — it’s messy. Different gods and goddesses evolve and mesh into each other. Stories change or contradict each other. Elements get borrowed from neighbors (such as a Norse myth featuring a huge cauldron, which is a common symbol in the mythology of the Celts across the sea in what is now Britain).

The point is, I’ve done my best to assemble things that help me imagine and connect with what we know about the stories of ancient Europeans. If I can’t find something about people who lived in my ancestors’ specific birthplaces, that’s okay — because the idea is to begin to understand the mindset, the spirit, and the connection to the land, not get every exact detail right. Even hearing creation stories from my Anishinaabe and Dakota relatives helps me begin to learn these things — and that’s not even the same continent! — so I can certainly learn important lessons from some Swedes and Celts. 🙂

Anyway, I hope this helps to lay out some more of my thought process as I look back in time and space. I’ll be reading some more Scandinavian books, as well as at least one book based in Celtic story, so we will have plenty of opportunities to practice putting the pieces together to better understand the stories of ancient Germanic peoples.

 

History of Me, Part 1: A Journey through the Nine Worlds of Norse Myth

In this episode of History of Me, I read lots of books about Norse mythology and try to understand the psyche of Pre-Christian Europeans. Intrigued? Let’s dive in!

(P.S. If you are wondering why I’m reading Norse mythology and not German mythology, check out this brief note on what counts as “German” for this project!)

NOTE: I am looking into German/Germanic/European history as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. For my full reading list and a further note about whiteness, see this post.

Opening the Word-Hoard*

Okay team, I ended up reading four different books for this section. Here’s the low-down:

  • First I read Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (Davidson) — which I actually really enjoyed! I LOVED learning about some of the ancient mythological types (e.g. the weeping maiden, the wounded/dying god) and seeing how they come up in Norse as well as Celtic and other myths. But it’s very academic, and while I learned a lot I was more interested in reading the actual stories themselves. So…
  • Then I read The Poetic Edda (which, I discovered, is NOT the same as The Prose Edda — it’s an entirely different document, not just a different translation). It contains some myths and some sagas about human heroes. I was glad to finally read some stories — and I’ll discuss a few of my favorites below — but the translation style was a bit hard for me to connect with. SO…
  • I found The Norse Myths (Crossley-Holland), which is basically re-tellings of ancient Norse myths (mostly ones in both the Eddas). The great part is, they’re geared to be read by kids, but there are EXTENSIVE notes on the source material, differing story versions, etc. Basically awesome!
  • I also read Czechoslovak Fairy Tales in hopes of adding a Slavic perspective… it didn’t really work, but I’ll discuss that a bit later.

Got all that? Clear as mud? Okay, great.

Odin and Freya and Thor – oh my!

I have to say, I LOVED my adventure into the world of Norse mythology. Being pretty knowledgeable (aka nerdy!) about both Greek mythology and Bible stories, it was really interesting to read through stories of the Norse pantheon and see both similar and differing themes.

I won’t go through the whole pantheon — for that you can review Wikipedia, or just read The Norse Myths! (which I do highly recommend) — but I’ll say a bit about my favorite “characters”: Odin, the Norns, and Yggdrasil.

Odin (aka Wodan, in the Anglo-Saxon version) is the “Allfather” — the leader of the gods (think Zeus) and the father of Thor. He’s known for his craftiness, wisdom, mysteriousness, poetry, unpredictability, and association with death, and is one of the few male gods associated with magic. (Lots of the magic folks in these myths are women, seeresses known as volva, including Freyja, the most prominent goddess.) I picture Odin as a rather dark, brooding figure — he had only one eye (he sacrificed one in exchange for the mead of poetry) and he was often to be found with his two ravens, Thought and Memory. Odin is the god of lots of things — but my favorite part is the mysterious knowledge bit (aka the Ravenclaw bit…). Odin is also really clever and enjoys messing with Thor, to the audience’s hilarity (I’ll come back to this later).

The Norns are mysterious, magical women who weave and decide the fate of every mortal and god — similar to the Greek Fates. I have always liked the Fates, so I loved reading about the Norns as well. Their main duty is measuring out people’s destinies — but they were also invoked in childbirth and function essentially as matriarchal protectors. I also love that part of their job is to tend to Yggdrasil, the world tree (see below).

Yggdrasil is an ash tree that provides the structure for the entire universe, comprised of nine worlds strewn about its branches and roots. Here, perhaps, is where I get my love of trees, since according to the Norse the entire world is built around a massive, god-like tree. (In fact, for a long time it was the custom for Europeans to have a “guardian tree” standing beside the house, perhaps as an echo of Yggdrasil’s embrace of the worlds.) There are also all manner of creatures that live in Yggdrasil’s branches, including deer that nibble its branches and a squirrel that runs up and down taking messages from the dragon in Hel to the eagle perched at the top.

Norse Cultural Values 101

For quite some time I’ve joked about traits in my family  (such as stubbornness, stoicism, etc.) that I feel are “typically German.” But it was really interesting to see some of those traits appear in these stories as “typically Norse.” Here are the cultural values that stuck out the most in these myths and stories.

Resilience / Fatalism

One of the most interesting things to me was the Norse conception of fate and human free will. Throughout the stories, all people and even the gods are subject to the fate set out for them: eventual destruction at Ragnarok, the last battle before the end and rebirth of the world. As Kevin Crossley-Holland points out, this is likely at least somewhat influenced by the harshness of Viking life, especially farther north:

We glimpse in the myths, as in the sagas [non-god stories], the isolated, physically demanding lives experienced by most Norsemen. One farm was often a hard day’s ride from the next…; a traveller was less likely to meet other humans than some of the birds and animals that abound in the myths — a deer, an otter, a wild boar, a wolf, or at least a squirrel, an eagle, a raven. (p.xvii)

So probably, long cold winters a resigned Norseman make. However, As H. R. Ellis Davidson writes,

We find in the myths no sense of bitterness at the harshness and unfairness of life, but rather a spirit of heroic resignation: humanity is born to trouble, but courage, adventure, and the wonders of life are matters for thankfulness, to be enjoyed while life is still granted to us. (qtd. in Crossley-Holland, p.xx)

To me this is incredibly profound and beautiful.

The Viking belief in the pre-determination of one’s fate also lent itself to the desire for fame and glory while alive.

No Viking believed he could change his destiny, ordained as it was by the Norns [basically the Norse version of the Fates] who wove the fates of gods and men alike but, for all that, the way in which he lived his life was up to him. (Crossley-Holland, p.xix, emphasis added)

Here, in my view, is where I inherited my strongly independent streak (some might say pig-headed…). When your fate and even the day of your death is already set, you exercise as much agency as possible while you can.

Humor and cleverness

One way that Norse folks dealt with harsh climates and uncertain but unchangeable fate was to laugh. This is present throughout many of these stories, as gods found themselves in humorous positions or used their cleverness to try to outwit each other (or some giants, who were always quarreling with the gods). Clearly Vikings appreciated a quick wit and a hearty guffaw.

For example, in one story the gods are trying to trick the wolf Fenrir into “seeing if he can escape” from a chain, which is actually intended to bind him until Ragnarok (at which point he will kill Odin and swallow the sun, so no big deal). Fenrir, seeing how this might be a trap, agrees to be chained on the condition that one of the gods put a hand between his jaws as insurance. The “bravest god Tyr” volunteers… and when Fenrir is, of course, bound, sure enough he snaps his jaws and there goes Tyr’s hand. What’s telling is the final line of the scene: “The other gods laughed, they knew that Fenrir was bound at last. They all laughed except Tyr: he lost his hand” (Crossley-Holland p.36). I mean, what a punchline, right?? It reminds me of the joke, “It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye. …Then the game is Find The Eye.” These sorts of dry gallows humor lines are dotted all throughout the stories.

(Another favorite in this vein is what amounts to an epic rap battle between Odin and Thor, where Thor is trying to cross a river but Odin, disguised as the ferryman, refuses to ferry him and instead insults him until he gives up and walks around instead. LOL!)

Sadness / Emotional expression

I was kind of expecting the tough-it-out stoicism, and maybe even the laugh-in-the-face-of-danger humor, but what I was not expecting to find in these stories was an incredible range and depth of emotion.

My favorite story from the Poetic Edda is a series of poems that comprise the story of Sigurd (aka Siegfried), which is the basis for Wagner’s Ring cycle opera. First of all, it was really cool to have two women feature as basically the main characters of this ongoing saga. But the part that stuck out most to me was the part of the story called “The First Lay [poem/story] of Gudrun”. In it, Gudrun is dealing with the death of her husband, Sigurd. But her grief is so great that “Gudrun could not weep” (p.177). The structure of this story felt a lot like the biblical book of Job — various friends come and tell her sad stories to try to get her to cry and mourn appropriately — but she doesn’t. In the end, a friend realizes that Gudrun needs to process and grieve in her own way, and takes her to see the body of her husband laid out for the funeral.

Gudrun looked at him one time only;
she saw the prince’s hair running with blood,
the bright eyes of the lord grown dim,
the prince’s breast scored by the sword.

Then Gudrun knelt, leaning on the pillow;
loosened her hair, scratched her cheeks,
and drops like rain ran down to her knees. (p.179 vv.14-15)

Once the dam breaks, Gudrun, who has been silent to this point, talks for stanzas about her grief and missing her beloved husband. You can see it’s very raw:

So was my Sigurd, beside the sons of Giuki [her brothers],
as if a leek were grown up out of the grass,
or a bright stone were threaded onto a string,
a precious gem, among the nobles.

I thought myself also, among the prince’s warriors,
to be higher than all of Odin’s ladies;
now I am as little as a leaf
among the bay-willows at the death of the prince.

I miss in his seat and in my bed
my friend to talk to… (p.179 vv.18-20)

There’s a really beautiful, honest simplicity here — and I found this kind of emotional present-ness to be common among these stories. The Norse myths  — and by extension, presumably, the Norse — are not afraid of pain, or hardship, or loss, or messiness. There’s also a whole story where Balder, one of Odin’s sons and the kind, well-loved god of mercy and peace, is killed and the sadness is palpable during his funeral scene — and this is all the gods gathering! So the fact that not only the (female) protagonists but also the gods can express joy, sorrow, anger, and the whole gamut of emotion frankly is really refreshing.

A brief note about that fairy tale book…

Oh yeah — about that Czechoslovak book I read… yeah, I was hoping it would give a Slavic perspective on the Norse mythology stuff, but basically that didn’t work because as I read it was clear that these stories were from wayyyyy later, probably in or after the medieval period. (The stories in the Prose Edda, by contrast, were written down around 1100 but were told orally for centuries before that.) Very clearly Christianized. Which is fine, but doesn’t jive with the time period (Pre-Christian) that I was looking at this week.

Interestingly enough, most of them deal with money/economics — such as a really poor son finding a magician who helps make him rich and marry a princess, poof, the end. So I’m choosing to read them as medieval stories that helped poor peasants survive hard lives (escapism), and I will keep them in mind for when my reading list arrives at the Middle Ages.

Conclusion

As I said in the introduction to this project, to me stories are the best way to understand — like emotionally connect with and get — the culture of a people. I feel like I’ve just drunk from the firehose of Norse/Germanic story and I can tell that I’m still deeply processing some of these things at a level that doesn’t really translate into words, but I also feel like there are wisps and snippets where I’ve had flashes of “got it”.

When I finished reading Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, all I could think of was this song I sang when I was in choir — it’s called the Corpus Christi Carol — the text is believed to have been written in the 1500s, but I think this modern arrangement beautifully captures and touches the sense of mystery and ancient mythological types (a grove of trees, the weeping maiden, the wounded knight, the falcon) that are floating around in my rock tumbler of a brain right now. Take a look! (And read along with the lyrics here if you want.)

Overall, I feel that I’ve begun my reading journey with a good sense of groundedness and ancientness. I feel like now I know something of what the Norse psyche may have been like, and all these ideas about Viking values and culture will be a good foundation for the rest of the project.

Next up: We’ll dive into the earliest recorded history of “Germania” — contact with Rome circa the birth of Christ. (See reading plan here.)

*P.S. “Opening the word hoard” is a real phrase from these myths — it also appears in some translations of Beowulf. It’s kind of the best! 🙂