german history

The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest

The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest
© Pixabay


It is a wet morning in September of either 7 or 9 AD, and the might of Rome is on the move. In response to a series of reports of unrest by their ally Arminius, chieftain of the Cherusci and trained veteran of Roman campaigns, Governer Publius Quinctilius Varus marshals the three powerful legions under his command- the XVII, XVIII and XIX- and heads out from his fortified stronghold and deep into the Teutoburg forests of Germania. Around them trees rise up into the sky, and there is a fine rain falling, coating the forest in that dreamy quality reminiscent of fairy tales. His men are of good spirit- some have brought along their wives or merchants- to show them the unstoppable power of the legions when brought to bear against inferior forces. It will be a glorious march, and at the end a vicious battle. Nothing the legionnaires had never experienced before. Nothing they had never defeated before. Business as usual.


Varus’ strategy

Varus was following the standard protocol for dealing with instances of unrest. Despite the relative small size of the legions proportional to the population of the Empire, Rome asserted control often through an early form of “shock and awe.” Mobilize the largest force it could, march straight into the offending region, and completely slaughter whomever was challenging the sovereign right of Roman rule. This is how Rome maintained control, how she gave experience to her career soldiers, and how she funded her military forces in times of peace and consolidation. And, with a few exceptions, it worked wondrously.


The special Features of the Teutoburg Forest

The legions moved slowly, almost single file, through the forest, their supply train trailing far behind them. Bird called to one another. Animals cleared a path. The legionnaires laughed and joked as they made their way into the forest at Teutoburg Wald. Sure the rain was becoming annoying, and the constant pressure to keep marching was uncomfortable at best, but these were skilled fighters, a true career force, and such nuisances were just that- nuisances. Even when the heaven opened up several days into the march, and soaked through them, loosening straps and adding undue weight to their armor and shields, the warriors kept pace, moving ever further into the forests. The mighty legions were on edge, growing anxious, but nothing more. Nothing they were not trained for, or at least that was the general line of thought.


Arminius makes his cunning move

When Arminius took his men and rode off ahead to “clear the forest” for Varus and his legions, they were already sapped by fatigue. Trusting their Germanic allies, the column slowed to a crawl, stuck in both literal and mental mud. The thousands of German warriors moving off ahead might have seemed like a relief, perhaps a lucky moment of rest for the Romans.

What happened next might be obvious to us, aware of its place in history. But for the arrogant Varus and his men, it was a surprise on the same level as the Parthian massacre at Carrhae, when the equally arrogant General Crassus made the same mistakes for the same reasons, and ended up with the same outcome.


The Cherusci attack

The Teutoburg forest came alive with the battle cries of the Cherusci and their allied tribes. Up and down the column, German warriors poured from the trees and tore into unprotected Roman flanks. Unable to form up into a battle position, and missing pieces of armor and arms that had become ungainly due to the rain, the Roman legions buckled, with some fleeing into the trees, and right into the arms of the waiting “barbarians.” As death spread, and blood was shed, the legions broke and ran, eager to put distance between themselves and the attackers, for some open ground to fall back to a defensive stance, and maybe salvage the remainder of the expected battle.


The Legions fall apart

But this was not to be. Alone in the forest, with enemies flooding from all sides, Varus made the decision to press forward still, leaving behind supplies, wounded legionnaires, and noncombatants in a fortified campsite. The position would be lost by nightfall, and the proud tribesman would remain on his tail. For days the massacre continued as the energized and enthusiastic tribes meted out their frustrations and their anger on the Romans who had mistreated them, and ultimately underestimated their strength. They picked off column after column, harassing the soldiers who were unable to bring their tactics to bear, tactics Arminius was well versed in himself. The legions split, with some finding sanctuary in a small fort, but with most cut off and eventually wiped out.


Varus’ end in the Teutoburg forest

Who can say what Varus was thinking in those moments before his position was overrun, and he committed suicide rather than fall to his “allies” in the forest of Teutoburg. Did he reflect on how gullible he had been to trust a man who was native to the province and skilled in both terrain and tactics? Did he regret his treatment of the local people, who had joined Rome through reputation, but he treated as conquered subjects? Did he question his own abilities as a soldier, politician, and governor, and how all this had failed because he had never stopped to think about what he was doing and how he was doing it? Or did he curse the forests and their unending stream of warriors that defeated three of Rome’s finest legions?


The Consequences for the Roman Empire

This we will never know. But on that day in Teutoburg Wald, Rome suffered a blow to its pride that would take years to avenge, and a wound that never quite healed. It forced Rome, the principle power of its day, to pull back its expansion and set a solid border along the Rhine river. It exposed the folly of overconfidence, and the value of respect. And it was reminded that despite its power and reach, the determination of people can have far-reaching consequences to the arrogant and unprepared.

The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest
german history

Germania – Germany during the Roman Empire

Germania - Germany during the Roman Empire
© Pixabay

The Relationship between Rome and Germania

When we typically think of relations between Rome and the Germanic peoples across the Rhine, it tends to be colored by warfare, conquests, and the eventual fall of the western empire around the fifth century. Popular media and popular thought tends to depict those Germanic tribesman first as literal tribesman, complete with animal skins and a bestial mentality, and more as a rampaging horde that trampled science and progress beneath its heels as the more “progressive” people were driven out of their homes and cities.

Germania as a Roman Province

So I suppose it might come as a surprise when I tell you that there was once a point where Germania was a roman province. And that they welcomed the empire with open arms into their forests and lands. They fought in the Roman armies. And they accepted Roman learning and culture, at least for a time. Sound out of place? Well it definitely was, and this period of Roman expansion into what is now modern-day Belgium, Luxembourg, and North Rhine Westphalia was equal parts experiment and expansion, and set the stage for the collapse of the powerful empire centuries later.

The Beginning of the Roman Germanic Connection

Roman concerns with Germania stretch all the way back to Julius Caesar, who spent quite a bit of time exploring and beating up people who weren’t like him. The term Germania itself (which may or may not have been directly used by Caesar) was used more as a catchall for the collectives of people who lived beyond the Roman borders on the Rhine, the Germani cisrhenani– literally “this side of the Rhine.” These peoples included the Teutonics, the Cherusci, the Seubi, the Chatti, the Goths, and a bunch of other colorful names, and possessed their own diverse culture. They were often considered by the Romans to be relations to the Gauls who emigrated into Rome, but over time assumed a sense of “othering” that would set them apart from the Empire to their east and south.

Now Julius (and later his nephew Augustus) saw these peoples are a further source of income and land. The Roman legions were famous for using warfare to generate profit, and would conquer and assimilate outside peoples for financial, as well as tactical, advantage. And these Germani cisrhenani were seen no differently. Starting as early as 12 BC, Augustus began a series of campaigns to defeat the tribes and unite all of Germania into a single province, Germania Magna, much as his uncle had desired to do. So one by one, the armies of Rome began to defeat the tribes and bring them to heel.

Germanian Tribes which joined the Empire

Historian Bill Fawcett, when exploring Roman Germania, brings up a very interesting point right about now. While Germania was the subject of limited military conquest by Rome, as it was not a single, unified political entity, there were a fair number of tribes that simply joined Rome entirely due to the Empire’s reputation. While Germanicus and Tiberius were busy wiping out those that resisted Roman incursion, tribes like the Cherusci were more than willing to “sign on” to the Roman way of life, even taking part in sending their young men to Rome as hostages, where they would be educated as Romans, with some even serving in the legions and becoming citizens in their own right.

As the timeline shifted over, and BC became AD, Germania became a rough province governed by Publius Quinctilius Varus, former Governor of both Africa and Syria, and all-around politician from a political family. Upon receiving an assignment from Rome to govern this new province, Varus took three legions and his own Roman arrogance across the Rhine and set up shop in these new lands, where he proceeded to levy taxes and run his “kingdom” like he had run both Africa and Syria.

Varus’ misscalculation

This would be a mistake, and one that Varus wouldn’t fully understand until his death several years later. Fawcett points to his distinctly Roman style of governance as leading to his downfall- he treated the Germanic people in his province as subjugated foes, a common Roman practice in provinces that had been beaten down by force. Rome comes in, Rome defeats your military, Rome upends your government, and you pay taxes for the privilege of being conquered. This is how it had worked when Varus was in Africa. This was how it worked when Varus was in Syria. This was one of the staples of the Roman economic machine, which allowed it to grow as large as it did.

Unfortunately, much of Varus’ “court” was comprised of Germani who had willingly allied with Rome. People who has joined the Roman cause because they either did not want to be wiped out, or because they saw Rome as the future and wanted to be part of such a storied, and respected, Empire. The chieftain of the Cherusci, Arminius, was himself a naturalized Roman citizen who had grown up in the Empire and learned a great deal about their way of life. He had fought for Rome, and now was being treated by Varus as if he were less than human, there only for Rome’s treasury and nothing more.

Mix the pride of the Germani in with this blatant mistreatment by a career politician, and you can only imagine what comes next: The disastrous defeat at Teutoberg Wald. Tune in next week to see how badly that turned out.

Germania - Germany during the Roman Empire
german language

International German Speaking Celebrities

International German Speaking Celebrities
© Pixabay


When it comes to celebrities speaking foreign languages, German isn’t one of the ones that might immediately cross your mind. We can watch videos of famous stars speaking Japanese, or rapid-fire Spanish/French/Italian with an interviewer and be impressed by their command of the language, but German-speakers tend to fly under the radar. Which is a shame, when you notice how many well-known individuals over the world have solid command of the language that formed one of the roots of modern English.

Christoph Waltz

Okay, this one is cheating. Waltz, famous in the US for his roles in Django Unchained, Spectre, and his star-creating turn in Inglorious Basterds, was born in Vienna to German parents, and spoke the language as his first. However, what sticks out to me is the visibility of the actor in the US: he is famous and identifiable, and yet despite his ancestry, I still see him as an American celebrity. He could speak any language other than English, and somehow that would still surprise me.


Pope Francis

Also fairly well-documented, the sitting Pope speaks conversational German…alongside six other languages, and is recognized as a living polyglot, or speaker of many tongues. Having lived in Argentina and Rome, and serving all over the world, this ability no doubt serves him well in his position, and has allowed him to develop ties with many of the Catholic nations around the world.


Claudio Castgnoli

Like the Pope, Castagnoli is also a polyglot. The Swiss born athlete speaks two forms of German (Swiss in addition to “standard”) alongside English, Italian, and French. Unlike the Pope, he earns his living as a weightlifter and well-respected professional wrestler. Castagnoli competes currently in WWE under the stage name of Cesaro, where his original “gimmick” involved him disparaging opponents in all five of his spoken languages, before “knocking them out” with European uppercuts to cheering crowds.


Bruce Springsteen

This one might b subjective, because the legend of his German speech traces itself back to a famous concert he gave in 1988 after the fall of the Berlin Wall. To a cheering crowd of fans, he pulled out a paper and proceeded to give an impassioned speech against greed, corrupt bankers, and a system designed to oppress the working man, all in shaky, but still understandable German. It was a moment that crossed language and cultural barriers between audience and performer, and when it comes to rock music, that really is the heart of the matter.


Sandra Bullock

Her ability to speak German is very well-documented. Bullock spent the bulk of her youth living in Nuremberg, where she learned and spoke the language all the time. But after her star turn, she rarely brought it up in public, owing to her own shyness about speaking it imperfectly. That said, her speech when receiving a Bambi award was spot on, and worth the lookup on YouTube.


Leonardo DiCaprio

This Academy Award winner is no stranger to German either, as his maternal grandparents were both German themselves. He credits his grandmother with teaching him the language, and has conducted numerous interviews in his second tongue. I wonder if he dubbed his own lines in any of his films that have been translated into German?


Gene Simmons

This one genuinely surprised me, though in retrospect it really shouldn’t. The famous bass player and songwriter for the rock band KISS speaks fluent German alongside quite a few other languages. Born in Israel to a Hungarian mother who survived WWII, he also learned Hungarian, Hebrew, and English. But his alter-egos, such as Dr. Love and The Demon, distract from details of his personal life when looking into him.


Tina Fey

The talented actress, comedian, producer, and Saturday Night Live writer/alum is herself half-German, and busted out her language skills during an episode of 30 Rock. She speaks what she calls “less than first grade German,” and her lines on the show reflect as much, but you can’t fault the lady for embracing her roots on TV.


Vin Diesel

Since I cheated for the first entry, I’m cheating for the last as well. Vin Diesel doesn’t speak German. Or at least he’s never confessed to speaking it. The multi-ethnic actor, who IS of German ancestry in part, made considerable waves however, for providing the voice for his character in Guardians of the Galaxy in 15 different language tracks. Now granted, he only speaks five words the entire film, but he went all out with his dub work, which is nothing to sneeze at.

International German Speaking Celebrities
requirements Studying in Germany

What do I need to study in Germany?

What do I need to study in Germany
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What You’ll Need To Study in Germany

So you’ve decided you want to study in Germany. But how to best go about it? What do you need? What do you do? Here are three essential tips to get you started.

1. Start the process early!

Because it can involve a lot of paperwork, it’s best to get the process started early – up to a year and a half early if you plan on enrolling in a university program in Germany itself. This cannot be emphasized enough. Take some time to research your options. If you are a university student, does your university have a sister school agreement with a German institution? If so, you might be able to study in Germany for a brief amount of time with the benefits of advancing your existing degree program, having other people from your university with you, and not needing to know much of the German language. If your university does not have such a program, or if you are interested in attending a German university program or a foundation course directly, read on.

2. Determine your language level!

When you research programs and courses in Germany, there are a dizzying array of options. But if your German language ability is not all that wonderful yet, then your options are more limited. Please take into account your language ability or lack thereof when choosing what to study – or if to study – in Germany. And even if you are confident in your German ability, consider how your language ability affects your housing arrangements. Not only might it affect where and which universities you may want to research (such as Berlin, or Munich, or so on), but also it might affect where you stay within a given city or town. Arrangements include accommodations for international students at the university itself, which would provide more international flavor and chances to make friends using English; a homestay arrangement, which would be an immersive and intense exercise in learning more about German language and culture; or other housing arrangements as may be available, such as renting a flat or room directly. There are pros and cons to each, which will be examined in a separate article later!

3. Ensure you have proper identification!

This varies by country. In the USA, “proper ID” to go to Germany means having a passport, which can take some time to process. For more information about US passports and how to apply for one, please visit the Department of Homeland Security website. Further requirements can be found by inquiring of a German diplomatic mission, such as the German consulate or embassy; general visa and travel information for United States citizens interested in studying in Germany can be found online at .

What do I need to study in Germany
german media

Im Gegenteil – “Slow Dating” Rises in Berlin

Online dating in Berlin
© pixabay

Im Gegenteil, Berlin’s slow-dating website, looks like a consumer glossy magazine website at first, comparable to Marie Claire or Esquire in the United States – and then you realize the “products” are people.
These are not celebrities either. They are singles, generally in their 30s, looking to find a partner. These singles can be gay or straight – but the end result is very hip.


Made with passion, time and love

The two founders, Jule Müller and Anni Kralisch-Pehlke, liken Im Gegenteil to a single’s magazine than a dating platform. Dating websites nowadays are quick and might not provide a glimpse into someone’s actual life – the profiles are more like checkboxes or filters, great for snap decisions but not so great for developing intimacy and connections. Im Gegenteil, on the other hand, takes about a day to construct each profile and takes photos of the applicant – not just any photos, but artful ones in the applicant’s own home or surroundings. That way, Kralisch-Pehlke says, “[if] you want to write to someone on our site, you have something to work with.”

“Only for Berlin´s hipsters?” “NO!”

The applicants are mainly in Berlin, but other areas have been added also, enabling people from Zürich and Köln to be featured on the website as well. And thanks to the Im Gegenteil team of bloggers and photographers, there are articles beneath the profiles – lending credence to the self-description of it as a singles’ magazine rather than a dating platform.
Unfortunately, this very hip and photogenic emphasis has led to some deriding Im Gegenteil for catering to Berlin’s hipsters – or hipsters in general. As someone who has lived in Brooklyn in New York, I can safely say that Im Gegenteil would not be out of place there either. But where is the line between helping the applicants look good and being derided for being the province of the exclusive?
Müller and Kralisch-Pehlke plan on expanding Im Gegenteil throughout Europe and possibly beyond, so maybe we will see it in places like London or New York. Time will only tell.

If your German is up to speed or you want to practice, you can look at Im Gegenteil here:
Currently, it is only offered in the German language, though hopefully in time will be localized to other languages alongside the expansion plans.

Online dating in Berlin
german politics

Japan’s Relationship with Hitler – Hitler Mangas

Hitler Mangas in Japan
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The Problem of Humanizing Hitler

For all his infamy, Adolf Hitler remains something a mystery, even in the 21st century. From humble origins as an aspiring Austrian artist, his rise as a soldier, activist, politician, and eventual dictator more often highlight the atrocities he committed, and gives little to no attention to the life he lived up to that point. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to insist that by doing so, it might humanize an otherwise deplorable man, strip away the aura of hatred both from and levied upon him, and situate him as one small part of a massive machine dedicated to avenging the outcomes of history.


An Unlikely Source of Insight

Which is why it surprises me to no end that the finest, most accessible biography of “history’s greatest monster” comes to us courtesy of an unlikely source: Japanese mangaka Shigeru Mizuki. Like the eventual dictator, Mizuki had humble origins- growing up in rural Japan, at a time when the country was fast on the rise to the war that would eventually consume it at the midpoint of the 20th century. Like the Austrian, he was a talented artist, but one who had a temper that often got him into trouble. Like Hitler, he entered the military during a period of aggression on the part of his homeland, and as a result suffered from the worst mankind had to offer. And indeed, Mizuki was known as being somewhat obsessed with the man who drew the world into war, dedicating numerous volumes of his illustrated war histories to Germany and their charismatic leader.


Japan’s Historical Relationship with Germany

Japan has a rich tradition of inserting Germany into their media works. Much of the time, it is to depict the impact as largely negative- criticism of fascism or oppression, or thinly veiled insistences that Germany was the cause of Japan’s downfall, whether accurate or not. But in the case of Mizuki, a man who was harshly critical of both the war and the actions committed by both Japan and the European Axis powers, his even-handed look at those dark years provides another voice in the debate: one that argues history is its own largest foe.


Hitler Mangas

“Hitler,” his massive work looking into the life of the man, is no different than his other war works, save in one regard. Rather than try to paint into the story of the man a sense of the futility of war, he spends far more time trying to understand or relate the motivations behind what caused this artist to become a despot. Mizuki himself lost an arm in the war, and yet still dedicated himself to becoming the artist he knew he could be. In the manga, he shows Hitler as being lost in his own failures, obsessing over what he didn’t, or couldn’t, have, and using that as a launching point for his political and activist career.


Mizuki’s Depiction of the Führer

Unlike other histories of the war or the man, Mizuki’s Hitler doesn’t focus on the atrocities of the Holocaust, or the dread of battle, or the sting of Allied defeat. Rather, it shows Hitler as an almost farcical version of the newsreel footage. While surrounded by friends and political foes modeled on the actual figures, Hitler is himself comically designed, and prone to expressing his anger with humorous outbursts. When he is serious, his face darkens but retains its almost grotesque proportions. He questions himself constantly through internal monologues, and celebrates his victories with near-juvenile aplomb. Even at the end, when the war has turned in his favor and he secludes himself deep underground, his weakening morale is tempered with an almost jester-like countenance, where he resigns himself to his fate, while insisting that those around him whom he loves and respects must live for a future Germany, a future he once emphatically swore would never come to pass.

In this, Mizuki manages to create a Hitler that is far more human. While the mangaka does not attempt to reconcile or explain away the evils the man perpetrated (though he does ignore the Holocaust almost entirely and barely mentions a “final solution” to Hitler’s own rantings against the Jewish people), he does his best to show the doubtful, fearful, arrogant, and emotional sides to his subject. He forces readers to get inside Hitler’s head, push away historical assessments of the man, and see plainly what could have driven a human from creative pursuits to destructive impulses.


A Broader View on WWII

Personally, I think that this version of the Great Dictator is one that is worth reading, and is important for its ties to another Axis nation. The fact that a Japanese author used a distinctly Japanese medium to highlight the intricacies of a German figure for a world audience is reason alone to give this volume a look. Growing up as an American boy in the public schools, we never tried to study Hitler the man, just Hitler the monster. And while some of what I read in Mizuki’s manga was old news, I found the fact that it was present rather fresh. We take for granted the history behind the war, but it is itself worth studying, as it showcases turbulent times and complex emotions and politics that eventually allowed for such an extreme case of fascism to thrive. Looking at the reluctance of President Hindenburg, or the machinations of Schleicher, or seeing Hitler’s reactions to the death of his niece, it gave focus to the events and peoples that influenced both Hitler and his cronies, and gave rise to their rhetoric and eventual dominance. And, in the end, showed the consequences of that arrogance, as their world burned around them. No longer mysterious or frightening, just another instance of human drama.

Hitler Mangas in Japan