The alleged mass migrations of Germanic tribes between the late 4th and the mid-6th century AD, commonly subsumed under the shorthand term “Völkerwanderung”, ranked among the master narratives of German nationalism during the 19th and 20th centuries, with ideological repercussions that can even be felt today. Given the unwavering popular appeal of the “Völkerwanderung” motif and its ideological versatility, it seems expedient to examine its roots in intellectual history. During my stay at Tübingen, I tracked the concept from its earliest conceptualization in 16th-century humanism to its full and firm establishment in German national romanticism in the first half of the 19th century: Broadly speaking, early modern accounts of Germanic migration shifted gradually from the descriptive, event-centred narratives of the 16th century to an increasingly theoretical, model-oriented understanding of barbarian mobility employed by 18th-century scholars. This description is, admittedly, a simplification. There have been cautious attempts to develop a theory of migration in German humanism, and there have been numerous narrative retellings of Germanic migrations two hundred years later. However, I believe that the general tendency, a shift towards theory, becomes apparent from early modern historiography.
The rise of modern nationalism in the 19th century caused these historiographical achievements to lapse into obscurity. Both academic and especially popular historiography required clear-cut images of the past and developed the “Germanic Völkerwanderung” into a simplistic and very effective nationalist narrative. The enthusiasm for conquering ancestors superseded the far more complex, analytical models of barbarian migration developed during the previous centuries, and caused the latter to be more or less forgotten.
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