A new Netflix series, entitled Barbarians, depicts warfare between the Roman Empire and Germanic peoples, culminating in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest.
According to The New York Times, “German nationalists, including the Nazis, have used the battle as an ideological rallying point — a supposed foundational moment for German civilization and proof of their superior pedigree and fighting skills. To this day, the battle, and the tribes’ leader in the fight, Arminius, remain sources of inspiration for far-right extremists, who regularly make pilgrimages to related sites.”
The filmmakers claim that Barbarians counters far-right depictions of German history and offers a different perspective on ancient history. The New York Times reports that “Arne Nolting, a writer and showrunner of the series, explained via Zoom last week that part of his inspiration for making a show about the Battle of Teutoburg Forest was a desire to reclaim a pivotal moment in European history from the far right. ‘We didn’t want to be scared away and leave the subject to those forces we detest,’ he said.”
The battle of Teutoburg Forest and the history of the ancient Germanic peoples have been repeatedly politicized and used by different political movements in modern Germany. Historians who study German Nationalism, Unification, and Nazism have demonstrated the close connections between political ideologies and historical narratives in German history. The New York Times recounts that “The battle has been a political flash point since the 19th century, when modern-day Germany was a fractured mosaic of smaller states. Nationalists embraced Arminius as a symbol of German identity in their push for unification. In 1875, four years after the German Empire’s founding, officials unveiled a colossal statue of Arminius in the Teutoburg Forest.”
The Nazis thoroughly repackaged ancient, medieval, early modern, and modern history—creating a powerful and dangerous narrative of Germanic purity and eventual dominance in the face of supposed contamination and betrayal. The New York Times emphasizes that “Under the Third Reich, the Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg depicted Arminius as part of a ‘line of German ancestry’ leading to Adolf Hitler, and schoolbooks of the period claimed that he had saved ‘the purity of German blood.'”
The echoes of the Nazi narrative of German history can be seen in modern far-right movements’ depictions of Germany and its history. The New York Times reports that “In 2009, the far-right extremist National Democratic Party of Germany organized a “remembrance march” commemorating the battle, under the slogan ‘2,000 years of fighting against foreign infiltration.'”
It will interesting to see how the German public, historians, and international film critics respond to Barbarians.
The New York Times has already published a report on Barbarians. The new Netflix series coincides with an exhibition on “The Germanic Tribes” at the James Simon Gallery on the Museum Island in Berlin.
Northern Illinois University students in HIST 110 History of the Western World I and HIST 390 Film and History will be interested in this article and in the new series.