“Jetzt komme, Feuer!
Begierig sind wir,
Zu schauen den Tag,
Und wenn die Prüfung
Ist durch die Knie gegangen,
Mag einer spüren das Waldgeschrei.” -Friedrich Hölderlin, “Der Ister”
Almost two thousand years are to be retrospectively traversed from the death of Hitler to the object of my next inquiry. This is an ode to the Rhein river, the fosterer of an independent Germany, and a blessing, and a curse.
In 55 B.C., Gaius Julius Caesar built a bridge over the Rhein. The river was dark, wild, and churned with the same malevolence which the peoples of the sunnier Mediterranean perhaps perceived in the spectral shapes flitting amongst the German pines. It was the edge of the world, or at the least, the edge of the civilized one. What peoples lived beyond were absent from the geographical compendiums of Herodotus, and found no mention or parallel in the wanderings of any Greek hero.
The feat to be carried out was not inconsiderable. But the average Roman soldier, an overburdened nameless, penniless Italian, was not yet satiated off the fat winnings of softer conquests. He was priapic, his catchphrase was auferre, trucidare, rapere. The forest could hide all manner of misdoing, simply absorb sordidly-spilt blood into its undergrowth.
“Itaque, etsi summa difficultas faciendi pontis proponebatur propter latitudinem, rapiditatem altitudinemque fluminis, tamen id sibi contendendum aut aliter non traducendum exercitum existimabat.”
“Thus, although the greatest difficulty of building a bridge on account of the breadth, rapidity, and depth of the river was made known, [Caesar] nevertheless judged that it was to him to extend it, otherwise the army would not be led across.” (p.t., Commentarii de Bello Gallico)
Substantial wooden beams were hewn from the forest hemming in its banks on all sides, and driven into the murk of the river’s bottom. A scaffolding of the bridge was lashed into place, and reinforced against the current and projectiles of the hostile inhabitants. The construction was completed without the slightest hitch in a matter of ten days. Hostages were received from neighboring Germanic tribes, and those not sufficiently impressed saw their grain stores and dwelling-places burned in retaliation.
In March 1945 A.D. at Remagen, the Germans tried to destroy a bridge over the Rhein. The city’s old railroad station had hosted concerts by Franz Liszt, and its church was a 19th century paragon of neo-Gothic architecture, emulation of the precipitous medieval spires that were still the highest points in dozens of German cities.
As the Reich’s frontiers gave out and Allied forces hemorrhaged across in attritive osmosis, every access point connecting the river-bound Germany to the rest of Europe became a locus of her greatest anxieties. A motley band of poorly armed and under-trained Volksturm and Hitlerjugend, old men and boys, was tasked with blowing the bridge up, but melted away before the task could be completed, shortening Germany’s death-struggle potentially by weeks.
Since the first day the Germans erupted onto the world-stage in 9 A.D., when three Roman legions were massacred under the blubbering command of Varus, the Rhein has stretched glimmering in challenge, daring the foolhardy to go east into the forests and beckoning the equally foolhardy to go raiding west. Invaders from the west inevitably come up upon the river as they gaze across covetously at the lands beyond. The ordered wheat fields and the walled-in oppida of Gaulish France shrink away, the crowing of the cock at morning falls silent, and the greased jugs of olive oil and laurel-crowned coins of Roman magnates are passed about as hard-won loot, not bartered in civic commerce.
Augustus could boast, and his awestruck plebs and sycophantic patres conscripti would listen:
“Classis mea per Oceanum ab ostio Rheni ad solis orientis regionem usque ad fines Cimbrorum navigavit, quo neque terra neque mari quisquam Romanus ante ide tempus adit, Cimbrique et Charydes et Semnones et eiusdem tractus alii Germanorum populi per legatos amicitiam meam et populi Romani petierunt.”
“My fleet navigated through the ocean from the mouth of the Rhine to the eastern region all the way to the limits of the territories of the Cimbri, where no Roman either by land or by sea before that time had approached, and the Cimbri and Charydes and Semnones and other Germanic peoples of that region sought through envoys my friendship and the friendship of the Roman people.” (p.t., Res Gestae)
A most peculiar friendship, one must admit, and a very Roman one, elicited by force, sealed in pledges by force, and maintained ever so cordially by force, all revolving around that fast-flowing, black backbone, the Rhein. The speech of Calgacus in Tacitus’ Agricola, delivered decades after the death of Augustus and in the mossy highlands of Scotland rather than in Germany, is emblematic nevertheless of the Geist sweeping across the whole of the frontier. When confronted with the iron and fire of “Rom, dieser Reise…, das Mittelmeer beschreitend,” of Kleist’s play Die Hermannschlacht, the frontier toiled amidst its ancient stones and oaks with curses and howled condemnations.
“Britannia servitutem suam cotidie emit, cotidie pascit.”
“Britain daily purchases her slavery, and daily sustains it.” (p.t., Agricola)
So it goes for the raptores orbis of Calgacus’ Tacitean polemic. Jerusalem may have buckled and yielded her sacrosanct treasures in an apocalyptic orgy of violence, Corinth may have been martyred and ransacked in the enveloping, groping assault on Hellenism of Mummius, but Germania, for every reprisal, every Rheinübergang, every smugly-worded deditio the Romans may have squeezed from her by gold-crusted fingers, never broke. Germania capta, reads the inscription of one of Marcus Aurelius’ coins. As if.
The plundered desert the Romans called peace of Calgacus’ Tacitean pronouncements is already famously known. Book XXXI of his panegyric to Agricola begins with a statement encapsulating the totality of the nuclear family dynamic: “Liberous cuique ac propinquos suos natura carissimos esse voluit,” or, “Nature has desired that for each man, his children and his kindred be his most dear objects,” (p.t., Agricola). The Roman world-order, like some rib-toothed, winged chimera from the Biblical visions of Daniel, desired their reduction into subordinated half-men, resources.
“Si locuples hostis est, avari, si pauper, ambitiosi, quos non Oriens, non Occidens satiaverit,”.
“If the enemy is wealthy, they are greedy, if poor, they are ambitious, they whom neither the East nor the West could satisfy,” (Agricola, p.t.).
Families were split apart when Caesar took hostages, livelihoods were destroyed, women violated, wealth carried off to further the political ambitions of ever leaner, ever hungrier Romans. A seed of loathing was planted, and men grew not entirely human. Exploitation and systematic oppression in an age without laws cannot be expected to go unpunished.
Romani-Germani, a dialectical crisis, civilization against barbarity, intrigue against open revolt. One recalls the writing on the wall. MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN. What follows is only natural, a periodic, restorative catastrophe, one may even dare say punctuated equilibrium.
“Ihr aber kommt, ihr wackern Söhne Teuts,
Und laßt, im Hain der stillen Eichen,
Wodan für das Geschenk des Siegs uns danken! –
Uns bleibt der Rhein noch schleunig zu ereilen,
Damit vorerst der Römer keiner
Von der Germania heilgem Grund entschlüpfe:
Und dann – nach Rom selbst mutig aufzubrechen!
Wir oder unsre Enkel, meine Brüder!
Denn eh doch, seh ich ein, erschwingt der Kreis der Welt
Vor dieser Mordbrut keine Ruhe,
Als bis das Raubnest ganz zerstört,
Und nichts, als eine schwarze Fahne,
Von seinem öden Trümmerhaufen weht!”
“But you, you brave sons of Teut, come,
And let us, in the grove of silent oaks,
give thanks to Wotan for the gift of victory!
The Rhein yet remains for us to fall upon with all haste,
So that of the Romans, not one may escape from Germania’s holy ground:
And then… to sally boldly forth to Rome itself!
We, or our grandchildren, my brothers!
For sooner, so I perceive, shall the circle of the world afford
This murderous brood any peace whatsoever,
Than until the robber-nest is utterly destroyed,
And nothing beyond a black flag waves from its desolate, heaped ruins!” (Die Hermannschlacht, p.t.)
The glacial epochs of previous millennia, when mankind was only beginning to acquaint itself with the most rudimentary tools for its further propagation, bore the names of Bavarian rivers: Günz, Mindel, Riss, Würm, in eo ordine. These rivers had shook off the astronomical bulk of glaciers, and the Rhein, the mightiest in its fury, freigeboren, would not bow to the schematics of Italian engineers.
‘“Warum so hart! – sprach zum Diamanten einst di Küchen-Kohle: sind wir denn nicht Nah-Verwandte?’ Warum so weich? Oh meine Brüder, also sage ich euch: seid ihr denn nicht – meine Brüder?” -Friedrich Nietzsche, included in Götzen-Dämmerung