Historians are often products of their time. The historical writings of those living in the 1700’s take on the flavor of that time, the 1800’s much the same. There are flavors of historians like there are flavors of ice-cream, and each of those historians will take on their subject through different lenses. If you took for instance the Salem Witch Trials, these can be looked at through a religious lens, an economic lens, a class struggle lens, a gender lens, and oh so so so many others. Is any one of the lenses the one correct answer? No. The motives of these people do not always conform to our ideas and in some of these lenses, historians have been known to anachronistically place modern ideas on people who are decidedly not modern. In a sense, not all historians through all of time are created equal. Today we make rigorous attempts to remove personal bias and essentially strip away anything that is not factual or in some way based on facts. But because of this, it becomes very important to look at the historiography of a particular material – the history surrounding the particular historian, their life and time, and their biases; essentially the history of their history. And when you look at the historiography, many of these writers living in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s had an agenda – Nationalism.
We’re not talking patriotism, we’re talking nationalism and there is a difference. We’re talking Nazis, fascists, eugenics, and the “we’re better than you are because our race scientists say so” nonsense. Romantic Nationalism was the prettier cousin of the nasty nationalism that we all know. Let me take you back to 1930’s Germany. We all know how this story turns out, but between 1933 and 1936 it would have primarily been seen as an era of Romantic Nationalism there. They were doing what so many other European nations had been doing, reinventing themselves based on nationalist thought. The general idea of it all went something like this – every nation had a racial identity or an ethnic soul of a kind that was in competition with every other nation. This is present visually in representations of say John Bull or Uncle Sam; these were the personified spirits of the nation. But the nations were all in competition with one another and the people represented that nation. Folks began to want to give themselves long and glorious histories of superiority then to show that they were winning this competition between nations. Thus, Romantic Nationalism was born. People could be patriotic then through more or less imagining their past in some idealized form. Think George Washington and the cherry tree, it’s a nationalist myth that romanticizes a figure from our American history. But this was not just happening in Germany and Italy where it went sour or in America or England where those romantic nationalist myths are still told. No, this happened across Europe and even elsewhere in the world. People began to give their countries pedigrees essentially, to write their people into the fabric of history and ensure their place was one of importance. This resulted in some fabulous works of art, literature, and music. It resulted in for instance the entire Ring Cycle by Wagner, the Kalevala would have been lost forever had it not been for Romantic Nationalism, and entire languages were saved because the people began to take pride in their national and ethnic heritage. But it also resulted in the marginalization or destruction of minority groups within those nations that adopted these views.
The issues go deep. The presence is generally seen to have been important for art and culture, but one area that suffered because of its presence was the historical discipline. Essentially we have a period of historians who mythologized their national past to the point that it became unusable. It was not history any more, it was imagined. They created stories out of it all and into those they wove half-truths and ample amounts of fiction. They also made wild leaps based on some fragment of truth so they could make It fit into a nice, neat narrative.
Enter Vilhelm Grønbech, a historian living in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s. I’ll give you one guess where Grønbech fits. You got it, he was a romantic nationalist who died in 1948 and he wrote The Culture of the Teutons. In academia, if it seems too good to be true it usually is made up. This book is made up, or its filled with so much made up material mixed with half-truths and a little truth that the lies weave themselves into a nice pretty romantic nationalist picture. It was written in 1909 and generally speaking historians won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole because it is everything history today is not. It cites no sources, it is written more like a long winded talk than a history, it is a long flowing diatribe weaving a concise and imaginary picture of a broad Germanic culture that united the ancient heathens in Germanic comradery. The book is a lie that has been peddled so hard by certain elements that folks buy the lie; hook, line, and sinker. It is a lie that has been sold to us and repackaged now so often that many folks cannot see the truth of the matter. Romantic nationalism, while it produced some fine art, is toxic to history and historians; ultimately the same thoughts that fueled it also gave rise to the Nazis in Germany and to Fascists in Italy and its ideas are why we still have issues with folkishness and Nazism in Heathenry today.
A modern historian is trained to look for the nuggets of truth hidden in these works and to try and parse them out through rigorous attempts to trace back and confirm certain aspects. Essentially, if you read it in Vilhelm Grønbech or any other historian influenced by Romantic Nationalism, you cannot trust it. The reason historians will not touch it even if they are equipped to look through the falsehoods to find the nuggets of truth is that in the end all you end up doing is going on hunts for sources that get you to look around the source you were trying to look into. The heart of the matter is that if you can find a primary that he was using, why use him at all when his ideas were so skewed? And if you cannot find the primary source, was he just making it up to fit his narrative of a romanced national heritage? This is the same issue we find in other historians of that era. Jacob Grimm for instance wrote that monumental work Deutsche Mythologie in 1835 right at the forefront of this romantic nationalism movement. I love Grimm, I have read his work and have found many interesting things in it, but in the end I find myself working double time to try and confirm him elsewhere through primaries because he simply cannot be trusted all of the time and he too makes wild and unfounded leaps. He was a product of his time and at that time the historical discipline was much less stringent about citation and removing personal bias.
At the end of the day, Heathenry needs to learn a little more about historiography. The heathen reader needs to be able to spot bad scholarship and romantic nationalism and know it for something not to be trusted and generally to be avoided. It also doesn’t stop at the 1800’s because ancient sources have their biases as well. The heathen reader needs to be able to spot these things because if we let these falsehoods take root in us we will not be able to discern the real history from the imagined.