Saturday, June 06, 2009

Who is Arminius or Hermann the Great?

Who is Arminius or Hermann the Great?

By Kevin Stoda, Germany

The husband of my cousin, Toni Lais, in Rochester , Minnesota makes leather helmets for reenactments of all sorts—from Medieval battles to Viking voyagers.

His name is Doug Lais.

You can see some of the variety of his helmets at this site:

NOTE: I believe it is actually Doug, who is happily posing in his works of art on this advertisement.

According to one article, “Within 250 miles of Rochester , there are at least 10 fairs that go on during the summer. Most are single weekend shows. There’s one in Sioux Falls , one in Sioux City , Des Moines , the Amana Colonies, Wisconsin .”

Doug noted some time ago, “I do a few of them, but working and doing the fairs on weekends is a killer. This year I’m taking a sabbatical from the fairs. It burns up my vacation time, and I want to keep the marriage balanced.”

That was old news.

Now, with 2009AD being the 2000th anniversary of Hermann (Arminius) the Great’s victory over three and a half Roman legions in the Battle against Varus, i.e. the Roman leader in charge of expanding the Roman advancement into the Germanic Realm in the time of Emperor Augustus, Doug Lais is being asked by popular demand to make Germanic helmets as well.

According to the article cited above, “Making a basic helmet takes Doug about eight hours, with additional time to add various components.”

Doug explains, “I use saddle skirting, thick cow hide, probably a quarter-inch or 3/16s thick.”

He elaborates, “I put the leather panels in water that’s almost boiling, and it softens it up. I throw it on a mold, and it hardens. It can take on a fairly complex shape. It’s really beautiful stuff when it dries in a curved shape.”

In order to, “sew the leather pieces together, Doug utilizes a 1920s or ’30s-era treadle sewing machine. He bought the treadle model purposefully, thinking someday he might haul it to fairs and demonstrate his craft.”

“I’m not good enough at it yet,” Doug confessed. “I don’t think they’d enjoy seeing the craftsmen swearing at his sewing machine. It’s certainly a long-lasting machine, though. It will last forever.”


Arminius was an ancient Germanic military hero whom some Germanic nationalists rediscovered in the 15th and 16th centuries.

These German-mythmakers soon began to appropriate Arminius´ tale in order to build up the mythological foundations of a modern Germanic state.

In doing so, these Germans heavily extrapolated Arminius tale from the rediscovered and translated histories known as “ Germania ” and “Annals”, written by first century Roman scholar Tacitus.

Interestingly, one legend of Arminius appropriation in Germany has claimed it was Martin Luther who had first translated the Roman name Arminius into German as “Hermann the Great” in the 16th Century.

However, this is probably only one of the many later myths created by romanticists and nationalists in Germany to portray some direct line to a Germanic hero dating to the age of the zenith of the Roman Empire .

Let me back up. In order to know who Arminius was one must know who his opponent in battle was, i.e. Varus.

Publius Quinctilius Varus was the Roman leader in charge of the Roman community along the Rhine River in what is today Germany from about 5a.d. till 9a.d.

Along the Rhine and Mosel rivers, the Romans had found many hot springs . This meant the Romans could live as civilized peoples and enjoy the hot baths there as they might have done if they were stationed in the Mediterranean area.

Even today, many street names in Wiesbaden , where I now live, bare the names of various Roman generals who were famous in the region.

According to the visitors´ center in Wiesbaden, “Around the years 6 to 15 A.D. the first earthen castle was built on the `Heathen’s Mountain`, between the Platter Straße and Kastellstraße, which was replaced under Emperor Domitian, starting around 83, by a stone castle. Under the cover of these fortifications a civilian settlement grew, which soon took on the character of a spa with its many warm springs, and was named after a local tribe ´Aquae Mattiacorum` (the waters of the Mattiacians).”

Varus had already become renowned in greater Syria and Asia for his ability to put down rebellions before he was sent to the Germanic corners of the European continent around the birth of Christ. Varus had personally even put down revolts for King Herod of Israel .

In short, Varus could be brutal.

More importantly, Varus also knew how to politically divide and conquer the peoples within the borders of the Roman Empire .

Interestingly, Armenius had not grown up as full-blooded or true-blue Germanic being. He had been trained himself from boyhood spent in Rome to serve the great empire.

In fact, Armenius, his father, and his brothers were all Roman citizens. His father and some of his brothers had served the Roman Empire for decades on the Rhine Valley and elsewhere.

Arminius was also recognized as a chief of the Cherusci, a group of Germanic tribes, and he fully was in the service of the Romans.

By the time of his surprise attack on Varus’ four Roman legions in the 9th year of the New Era, Arminius had already obtained both citizenship and equestrian rank—very high rank in the military in Roman imperial forces.

However, Arminius was reported to not be very happy. One report had it that a marriage offer of his had been snubbed.

Nonetheless, until the actual attack, Varus had pooh-poohed any seriousness in the rumors concerning the growing rage of his servant (or former-servant) Arminius.

Arminius´ marriage offer to a daughter of one Roman family had been turned down—apparently on racist grounds—about the time that Varus arrived in the German regions.

However, history has never truly revealed what exactly propelled Arminius to turn his back on his Roman identity forever and wage the soundest defeat a Roman army ever fell victim to.

Could it simply have been a sad ending to a love story?

Or was there something hidden in Arminius´ sudden animosity to Rome —something that has since disappeared to all of history?


According to one museum situated near the 9th century battle scene of Arminius and Varus, Varus had spent the summer touring his part of the empire east and west of the Rhine River .

As was the custom, the Roman leader went from city to city and tribe to tribe during the year to hold court.

Varus had “travelled around and held court days regularly. The local tribes seemed to become accustomed to this slowly and many responded to this offer gladly. Not quite so popular was the topic `taxes´.”

Just as in other parts of the Roman Empire , there were protests to the taxation of the Roman.

Nonetheless, after a summer of work, Varus was soon heading back for a winter’s rest (including a warm thermal bath) and apparently quite satisfied that the Germanic peoples were well under his control as the surprise attack occurred.

Within a few days of the onslaught, the Roman 17th, 18th and 19th legions had totally been decimated.

A portion of another remained. Meanwhile, Varus had already committed suicide in the wake of one of the greatest military defeats in Roman history.

Caesar Augustus´ plans to expand his Roman Empire well-to-the-East of the Rhine were stopped in their tracks forever.,archiveCtx=2004826.html


Within less than a decade, Rome had replaced its lost legions on the Rhine .

In addition, politically speaking, Roman leaders on the Rhine and elsewhere continued to be quite deft for centuries in their ability to divide and conquer among the various Germanic peoples.

Arminius, himself, had been raised and trained for battle during his childhood and youth in the Rome , the capital of the Empire. This insight into thinking like a Roman had certainly led to his success in battle.

However, Arminius never successfully created strong alliances with any other substantial Germanic tribe. So, in some ways, his victory was short-lived. Moreover, Roman culture, clothing, and trade continued in the Germanic regions to the east of the Rhine and Elbe rivers.

Meanwhile, many German speaking peoples over the subsequent decade allied themselves time-and-again with the Roman legions and society on the Rhine in order to keep at bay still other Germanic and Slavic tribes East of the Rhine and the Elbe rivers.

In short, although many of the Germanic historians and poets of the 15th to the 20th century sought to find a fully-German hero in the figure of Arminius, there is little clear evidence that he was able to persuade many more Germanic tribes to join him in ousting the Romans from Germanic territories for any length of time.

Nor is it clear that Arminius rejected Roman culture.

It probably had never been Arminius´ intention to promote any Germanic identity above a Roman or tribal identity.

Arminius might simply have decided out of personal reasons—rather than national or tribal ones--to lead a most successful attack on the Roman Empire in 9a.d.

In turn, many Germanic peoples chose to accept Roman citizenship and the role of Rome as a protector in the region right up until the end of the 4th Century.

In short, Arminius was never clearly a symbol of Germanic emancipations or revolutionary German identity.

That was the case right up until the 19th Century, i.e. the age when the German Kaiser Wilhelm adopted Hermann the Great as his personal idol in the 1860s and 1870s as Germany rolled over its Danish, Austrian, and French foes in a succession of violent wars.

On the Rhine River today are numerous monuments which are dedicated to Germania or Hermann (Arminius) the Great.

All were built during the German Reich from 1870 to 1918.

Ruedesheim and Koblenz have the largest such statues on the Rhine River .

However, near Detmold and the Teuton Forest is the largest statue to Germania or Hermann the Great.

According to Klaus Koesters, “This Prussian-style nationalism culminated in 1875 with the inauguration of the Hermann Monument near Detmold . The statue was originally intended to serve as a reminder of the liberation and unity of Germany but after the foundation of the empire in 1871, it became a symbol of the victory over arch-enemy France and the accord reclaimed under Prussian rule in an empire that was supremely confident and ready to defend itself.”

Koesters continues, “When the Hermann Monument turned 50 in 1925, the political climate had undergone a complete transformation. The monument became a kind of pilgrimage site for nationalists who opposed democracy and the republic. Following the defeat of 1918, this movement interpreted the victory over the Romans as a new sign of hope that Germany could again be released from deep dishonor and misery. The mythical event was extracted from its context and put to the service of a subversive movement against the Treaty of Versailles, contemporary society and the democratic republic.”

Interestingly, although the Nazi-leader Adolf Hitler himself did not like the character of Arminius because Arminius had led a revolt against the fascist Roman Empire , many other National Socialists further re-appropriated the image of Arminius.

Koesters adds, “The National Socialist movement put yet another spin on the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest – the Third Reich was considered to be the terminus of the German story that began with the victorious Germanic tribes and their `virtues´ were held up as a model for the German race of the future. The idea of the ´racial purity` of the Germanic people, attested to by Tacitus, was used to disastrous effect as a murderous weapon against all those who could not be classified in this racial category.”

Naturally, 2000 years ago neither Arminius nor his local tribesmen could have imagined what their victory would have meant to peoples of different millennia.

Nonetheless, the appropriation and misappropriation of the image of Arminius, Hermann, and Germania cannot be ignored by any lover of history and literary interpretation of history or art.


This summer is likely to be a great time to tour Germany and see how the nation wrestles with its Roman and Germanic past.

There will be various re-enactments of battles, such as the Battle of Varus.

In addition, three museums are cooperating and simultaneously holding major exhibitions on the Battle of Varus, the Romans and Germans in history, & the stories of their lives at the time of the battle.

Related to the focus on the pre- and post Roman Empire eras in Germany and Europe will be a further review at each museum of how appropriation and misappropriation of myth can and must be interpreted or understood in our drawing of meaning from history.

The Museum in Kalkriese near Osnabrueck is one of the first places I would stop.

There will be exhibition at both Kalkriese and at Detmold through October 2009 on the Myth of Arminius.

The Lippischelandes Museum in Detmold is near the largest Hermann Monument in Germany , which means that you can have a great outing in the Teuton Forest before you leave the area.

There are also replicas of Roman ships to be found this summer cruising and floating up and down the Elbe, Rhine, Danube and other famous rivers in Germany . One such ship is called “ Victoria ”.

The main display of Roman river- and sea shipping handwork will be in

Haltern am See, also in the Lippische Land region—i.e. again not far from Detmold , where the Germania Monument is to be found.



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