Friday, November 11, 2011

Reviews: Krebs' 'A Most Dangerous Book' & Hockensmith's 'Holmes on the Range'

One of the more fascinating if perverse aspects of the Third Reich was what I'll call, for want of a better word, Nazi esotericism. This was the quest to find the roots of the Aryan race and the beginnings of Germany in an effort to gird Hitler's policies with historical and cultural underpinnings, never mind if they really existed, in order to "prove" the superiority of both the people and the nation.

Perhaps the most fascinating book to date in this regard is
Himmler's Crusade: The Nazi Expedition to Find the Origins of the Aryan Race, a 2003 tome by Christopher Hale that concerns a 1938 SS expedition to the sacred mountains of Tibet in search of the remnants of the Aryan people, the so-called lost master race.

Now comes A Most Dangerous Book: Tacitus's Germania From the Roman Empire to the Third Reich,
a newly published study by Harvard classicist Christopher B. Krebs on the role Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus played in defining the German people through a small volume called Germania written in A.D. 98 after three Roman legions were routed by Germanic peoples in Teutoburg Forest near modern Osnabrück.

Tacitus wrote that these Germans possessed "fierce blue eyes, tawny hair, huge bodies," "valued military courage above all else" and "were not tainted by intermarriage with any other nations [but existed] as a distinct unadulterated people that resembles only itself." That was music to the ears of Hitler and Himmler, who overlooked the fact that Tacitus listed 50 some tribes and that the Germans themselves did not even know where Germany was; its borders had been defined by Julius Caesar.

Tacitus was a senator and orator and is considered the leading historian of Rome, but Germania was considered a work so minor that it was all but forgotten until it reappeared in 1455 bound with other books at a monastery in Germany. Only that single copy has been found, likely the product of an amanuensis (typically a slave or monk who transcribed literary works by hand). The discovery was extraordinary since no autographs of Roman authors survive and very few manuscripts in any form are extant.

A Most Dangerous Book traces in detective story fashion the 1455 discovery and the book's disappearance and reappearance through to 1943 when an SS detachment dispatched by Himmler desperately tried to find the parchment manuscript -- a mere 30 pages in length -- in Italy as the Allies began their invasion of the mainland.

Germania, the only comprehensive account of the ancient Germanic peoples, was considered the German ur-text by the Third Reich.

It was taught in schools, quoted in Nazi literature as "a magnificent monument," and became the sourcebook of the völkisch
(populist) movement. In 1936, the Fuhrer asked Mussolini for the return of the manuscript, formally known as the Codex Aesinas, which had been brought to Rome by a German chronicler after its initial discovery. (Il Duce agreed and then reneged.)

Krebs writes that Tacitus probably never set foot in Germany and wrote Germania to prod to his own decadent society.

"The text that would be called upon to define the German national character was a Roman's imaginative reflection on human values and a political statement," Krebs writes. "This is undoubtedly one of history's deeper ironies."

Did Himmler's goons find the manuscript? You'll have to read A Most Dangerous Book to find out.


Meanwhile, my book reading diet has always been on the heavy side, witness A Most Dangerous Book, so I have tried to leaven it with quirky and offbeat books.

Two recent examples reviewed here -- Jerome Charyn's Johnny One-Eye and
Donovan Hahn's Moby Duck -- leap to mind. But for sheer quirk and offbeatedness, it may be tough to top Steve Hockensmith's Holmes on the Range, the hilariously told tale of brothers Gustav and Otto Amlingmeyer's exploits on the Bar-VR, a Montana cattle ranch, in 1893.

Gustav (known as Old Red) takes a shine to the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes after brother Otto (Big Red) reads him The Red-Headed League around the campfire during a cattle drive. Determined to follow in his hero's footsteps, Old Red sets out to to get to the bottom of the death of the ranch's general manager after a stampede and the suicide of a hand just before some snooty out-of-central casting British aristocrats show up to inspect their property.

No one can recall a stampede and the bullet hole in the middle of the hand's head is adorned with duck feathers. Gustav deduces -- or "deducifies," as he puts it -- that the general manager was not hoofed to death and the hand not done in by a duck, and that both were murdered most foul.

The book gallops to a madcap ending that left me begging for more. So I ordered copies of Hockensmith's sequels -- World's Greatest Sleuth and Dear Mr. Holmes.

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