Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A ‘Counter-Intuitive’ View of the Roman Empire and ‘Germanic’ Migration

The place of the so-called ‘Barbarian Migrations’ in German history is a topic riddled with irony. The Völkerwanderung are central to any survey of migration, the nation state, of nationalism and German history. Yet, the events of the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries themselves have precious little to do with nations, with states or even with Germany, at least insofar as any of these terms is currently understood. Nor indeed, contrary to its usual label, can this period be distinguished from others as the migration period. Even in more traditional visions of the period, the linkage between the formation of a German identity and the migration of peoples contains its share of irony; in most national myths the primordial migration brings the founders of the nation to the land which bears their name.

In the Völkerwanderungszeit, by contrast, the migrants who became so important to later German politics and identity left the region subsequently known as Germany. A region riven with conflict between independent, effectively (if not, technically, legally) sovereign polities was unified partly by appeal to a shared national identity, though the historical attractiveness of such an identity lay largely in the fact that this ‘nation’ was believed to have left its homeland and conquered much – indeed most – of the rest of Europe.

The migrating ‘Germans’ played at least as important a role in the political foundation legends (and debates about them) of Spain, France and Italy. So, for all that the conquests of the Germanic barbarians became a source of German national pride, the German nation itself was descended from those of the Germani who had stayed at home! Further irony consists in the fact that the idea that all speakers of a Germanic language could be treated together as a unified ‘Germanic’ people stemmed ultimately from the fact that outsiders, principally Romans, had dealt with all such barbarians interchangeably for their own chauvinistic reasons.

Via Historian on the Edge: Two worlds become one: A ‘Counter-Intuitive’ View of the Roman Empire and ‘Germanic’ Migration

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