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The mystery behind the 'battle that created Germany'

David Crossland
July 25, 2017

Archaeologists have launched a new drive to explore an ancient Germanic-Roman battlefield. Nationalists spun the carnage into a myth about Germany's birth - fake news that has persisted to this day.

Hermannsdenkmal in Detmold
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, in which Germanic tribes under the Cheruscan warlord Arminius, later idealized as Hermann, annihilated a Roman army of up to 18,000 men in the year AD 9, has gone down in history as the big bang that created the German nation.

It sent a shockwave through the Roman Empire, spawned the first German hero, and is seen by some historians as the main reason why Rome refrained from colonizing the regions north and east of the Rhine River.

Arguably, it explains why Germany to this day is divided into the Roman-influenced, Catholic and - some would say - more fun-loving South and West, and the rougher, cooler Protestant North and East.

Ever since the 1987 discovery of the presumed battlefield in northwestern Germany, archaeologists have been trying to piece together how Arminius defeated three highly-trained Roman legions under General Publius Quinctilius Varus, governor of Germania, in four days of carnage.

Read more: Germany's sunken 'Atlantis' reappears as tourist attraction

Bones and weapons found

They have amassed a trove of evidence, such as human bones with terrible wounds, hundreds of coins, spear tips, lead sling-bullets, fragments of Roman armor, belt buckles, tent pegs, sandal nails, surgical instruments and a spectacular face mask from a cavalryman's helmet (first picture in the gallery above).

But they have yet to find irrefutable proof that the site near the village of Kalkriese, a low-lying area of woods and fields some 15 kilometers (over nine miles) northeast of Osnabrück, really is the location of that battle.

Also, questions remain over the sequence of events in the fighting that is believed to have started with ambushes on the thin Roman column snaking through the forest before culminating at Kalkriese in a bottleneck between a hill and a moor.

In a fresh attempt to find answers, the local Kalkriese Museum will start a major new excavation on September 4 and has launched a three-year project to analyze the metallurgical make-up of items discovered so far.

"We haven't got final proof; we haven't found anything with the inscription of the 19th or 18th or 17th legions," Professor Salvatore Ortisi, a specialist on provincial Roman archaeology at the University of Munich who is heading the dig, told DW. "We're hoping for some piece of a helmet with an inscription or a plaque with the name of a unit, or a stamped artillery bolt."

Some historians still have their doubts about Kalkriese and say it could be the site of a later battle, but the circumstantial evidence in favor of it has been piling up steadily over the years.

Coins discovered in Kalkriese
Coins discovered at the site are no more recent than 9 ADImage: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Gentsch

New dig may rewrite history

Eight pits containing the bones of men aged 20 to 45 have been found, with many skulls showing gaping holes. The pits tally with Roman accounts of how an army under commander Germanicus discovered the battlefield in AD 16 and buried the piles of bleached bones strewn across it. One Roman account said the soldiers found skulls nailed to trees.

It is significant that none of the many coins found so far, including a hoard of more than 200 silver coins uncovered earlier this year, were minted after AD 9, which is seen as an indication that archeologists are on the right track.

The dig in September is also eagerly awaited because it will seek confirmation of a new theory that the Romans hastily threw up a fortified camp in the final stages of the battle.

During an excavation last year, Ortisi's team found a layer of sand in the ground that suggests a Roman fortification was built there. The sand contained fragments of carbonized wood that was not indigenous to the forest and was dated to the first century BC.

The discovery cast doubt on the current theory that a 400-meter portion of wall previously found on the battlefield, which has partially been reconstructed by the museum, was from a Germanic fortress from which Arminius and his men raided the Romans in the final stage of the battle.

Read more: Former Nazi college reopens as museum

The archaeologists plan to cut into the ground a little further west and if they find a further layer of sand, it will strengthen Ortisi's theory of a Roman fort and force a reevaluation of the likely course the battle took.

"It would suggest the fortifications we have there were a Roman camp that was overrun by the Germans," said Ortisi. "That would fit in with historical accounts of the battle. The scenario would then be that the Romans, under pressure from the Germanic attacks, set up a fortification in the afternoon or evening, very hastily and very makeshift, and that they fought there and were beaten and then attempted to flee northwards across the moor."

According to historical accounts, the Roman General Varus fell on his sword rather than be captured by the Germanic hordes slaughtering his troops.

Desperation and defeat

The search for answers is as thrilling as it is poignant. The clues in the ground tell stories of desperate legionaries burying their money in the ground, of the dead and dying being violently stripped of their armor, of bodies left to rot in the forest, of victors calmly stacking looted war material for recycling.

"It's a fascinating place because it gives us a snapshot of an important event as well as a sense of the people who fought and died here," said Ortisi, whose father is Italian and who was born and raised in Germany. "For someone who sees it from a Roman point of view there's a lot of tragedy here, and that's a bit depressing."

Archaeologists have found scores of clues that the battle ended disastrously. Many small items such as buckles, hinges and connecting parts of body armor were found, suggesting that they broke off as they were torn from the dead.

Archaeologists found metal frames ripped from shields, folded and ready for transport to be melted down. A plausible theory is that they were in piles of loot to be distributed among the victorious Germanic warriors, and that some of it got lost in the churned-up forest ground.

Small piles of coins found in various locations were a telling sign of impending doom. "It looks like the attempt to hide one's own money purse before it's too late; it indicates that this must have been a very, very, threatening situation," explained Ortisi.

How the Romans were beaten

How could a Roman army of that size succumb to Germanic tribesmen they had previously been able to vanquish with their superior discipline, training and equipment?

The element of surprise played a part, as did the Romans' inability to get into battle formation in the dense forest, historians have said. Besides, Arminius was a seasoned warrior. He commanded a troop of Germanic cavalry attached to the Roman army as auxiliaries.

In fact, Varus had trusted him. The two men had dined together, and Arminius led Varus into a trap by persuading him to make a detour to put down a rebellion, Roman historians wrote. Arminius wanted to lead an uprising so that he could found his own kingdom.

"The Germans cleverly maneuvered the Romans into a situation where they couldn't bring their superiority to bear," said Ortisi. "Also, as soon as psychology comes into it, as soon as people sense the possibility of defeat, an army crumbles. Discipline goes and then the strength of the Roman army, which was to obey commands as a unit, was gone. In the end it was every man for himself."

Re-enactment of the Battle of Teutoburg
Re-enactments of the Battle of Teutoburg are held regularlyImage: Getty Images

Metal tests to bring certainty

A separate program to analyze the metal fragments found in Kalkriese - sponsored by the Volkswagen Foundation - might also uncover new insights.

In Roman times, military equipment was forged or repaired in smithies that tended to use melted-down armor as their raw material. The longer a unit was stationed in a particular area, the more likely its equipment was to have an identifiable metallurgical fingerprint, said researchers.

The legions of Varus were stationed along the Rhine River, the frontier between the Roman Empire and the unsubdued German tribes, for decades. By contrast, the troops of Germanicus, who conducted a punitive campaign against Germanic tribes six years after the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, were drawn from regions as far away as today's Spain and Hungary.

By analyzing the metal found in Kalkriese, researchers hope to identify which troops fought there. If it was the soldiers of Germanicus, then it wasn't the location of the legendary battle Germans call "Varusschlacht."

Myth and propaganda 

Whatever the research yields this year, the myth surrounding the battle is a topical lesson in the enduring power of fake news.

From the 16th century onwards, nationalists began hailing Arminius, or "Hermann," as Martin Luther called him, as the heroic liberator who created the German nation.

But that wasn't true.

Read more: 15th-century disposable cups found in Martin Luther's Wittenberg

"Arminius wasn't the liberator of Germania and it's simply wrong to call this the hour of the German nation's birth," Tillmann Bendikowski, a historian who has written a book about the battle and the Hermann myth, told DW.

The more than 50 Germanic tribes of the ancient period were the forefathers of many European nations, not just the Germans. And Arminius didn't unite them - he persuaded five tribes to join him, and he was killed by members of his own tribe a few years later.

"You can see how hard it is to bury myths right now in Europe and the US where we're falling back into nationalism," said Bendikowski.

In the 19th century, when Germany was fragmented into dozens of states and struggling to unify, Hermann served as the perfect symbol of national unity.

Hermann monument in Teutoburg Forest
The Herrmann monument was erected shortly after German unity in the 1870sImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Portrayed as a blond, muscle-bound warrior, he featured in more than 50 operas and plays during the 18th and 19th centuries. His cult kept on growing and in 1875, four years after Germany unified, a gigantic monument to him was completed near the northwestern town of Detmold, holding aloft a sword that is seven meters (23 feet) long.

A symbol when unity was fragile

The figure evoked an increasingly aggressive nationalism in the run-up to National Socialist rule. As a result, schools shunned his story after World War II ended in 1945, which explains why not all Germans these days have heard of him.

However, interest was reawakened by the discovery of the Kalkriese site and by media coverage and the publication of new books on Hermann commemorating the 2,000th anniversary of the battle in 2009.

Some 1,000 school groups are among the 80,000 visitors who come to Kalkriese every year to see its growing treasure of exhibits and to walk the battlefield.

"The myth about Hermann the Cheruscan remains anchored in many minds," Joseph Rottmann, managing director of the museum, told DW. "We're trying to convey a neutral picture of history and to thereby allow every visitor to have their own view."

Every two years, there's a gentle re-enactment of the battle as part of a festival to show Roman and Germanic life 2,000 years ago. These days, it's easier to find Roman re-enactors than Germanic ones.

Bendikowski believes the myth of Hermann will eventually fade. "What will remain of him will be the memory of how a nation tried to invent itself by fabricating history. It will help us to understand ourselves and other nations better."