The following exchange took place in August 1878 at the general conference (assembly) of the German anthropological society in Kiel. It was reprinted in the Correspondenz-Blatt der deutschen Gesellschaft ruer Anthropologie, Ethnologie und Urgeschichte – volumes 10 and 11 in November 1878.
(The same exchange was summarized in the Archiv fuer Anthropologie, volume 11. Later it also sparked a response from Carl Platner (against Pösche naturally) in Zeitschrift fuer Ethnologie, volume 16. An excerpt from the former we show below. As to the latter, we will return to Platner’s arguments later).
“First of all, I feel induced to thank Professor Virchow for his highly instructive lecture and know that [in so doing] I will be expressing the view of all gathered; but I would like not to miss this opportunity to add something.”
[note: Theodor Friedrich Wilhelm Pösche (1825-1899) was a German author from the Sorb area (born in Zöschen, Leuna) who fled to the US after the events of 1848; he later returned to Germany and represented the US government in certain of its dealings with Bismarck. Ironically, Pösche’s other writings on the “Arians” were later selectively used by the Nazis]
“Professor Virchow had made it clear through several expressions which he used that he shares entirely the commonly held view of German academics that everything pre-Slavic in the eastern part of today’s Deutschland, is Germanic. A number of statements [made by Virchow] have indicated this. But I wish to record an objection to this view which nowadays is commonly held. To say it bluntly [curtly]: whoever picks up Tacitus’ Germania, should, in lieu of Suevi, read Slavi.”
“This viewpoint does not originate with me but rather with a gentleman of great merit who 50 years ago had published a whole slew of works, from that 70 year old man resident of Hanover, that is from Mr. von Wersebe. If one wants to know a biographical fact that is otherwise unavailable, reaches for [Heinrich] Pierer’s encyclopedia. The newest edition available to me, had, strangely, no mention of Mr. von Wersebe – a man who had published five to six volumes relating to the oldest deutsche history. I would like to examine this matter in a little bit more detail.”
[note: August von Wersebe (1751-1831) – German historian. He was among a number of German historians who previously (prior to the emergence of the German Empire) expressed the same view regarding the Suevi-Slav identity. There may be something to Pösche’s conspiracy theory since – while Pösche has one – von Wersebe has not yet gotten his own Wikipedia page – in German or any other language…]
No Enthaltung and no Wikipedia page
“In the History of the German Language, Jacob Grimm mentions with disgust the viewpoint that the Slavs already in the times of Tacitus sat there where we later find them. But the same learned Jacob Grimm establishes a new proof for the correctness of this viewpoint, in that he shows that Suevi and Slavi are only dialectically different, since even today ‘freedom’ is known in some Slavic dialects as sloboda but in others svoboda. The first place where Mr. von Wersebe expresses this view, is in his book about the districts between the Weser and the Saale.”
[note: ironically, Pösche seems to have been unaware that the River Saale’s first recorded name was Souava and that this is indeed a Slavic name].
“But now there is another thing and Professor Virchow already mentioned the thing, as it appears to me, a new factual evidence for the correctness of this view. Those are the temple rings, that we find only among the Slavs. I connect these with the mention by Tacitus which alludes to a hairstyle peculiar to the Suevi, who wore a hair knot bound on top of the middle of their head. I believe the temple rings served the function of holding the hair together in the knot.”
[note: the rings in question were later found in Suevic places and, perhaps, in portions of Scandinavia, and, therefore, declared “Germanic” as well as Slavic. However, this kind of appropriation (though common) does not – in this specific case – answer the question of the rings’ “ethnic belonging” since the question at hand is precisely the question of Suevic ethnicity. To say that they were also Suevic and, therefore, not Slavic is merely to provide a circular response. A much more relevant objection may be that the temple rings appear to have been worn by women – the hairstyle mentioned by Tacitus, however, seems to have been male. Tacitus himself also mentions no specific means of holding the “Suevic knot” together. For a more recent find of seemingly similar type see here (“Mixed with these remains were gold rings likely worn on the hair”)].
“I do not wish to hold up the meeting further. I will close by saying that I am ready to stand by and completely represent the view expressed by Wersebe more than 50 years ago – that the Suevi were Slavs and that already at the end of the first century A.D. they lived there, where we later find them, that is also here [the proceeding took place in Kiel] till the easternmost Holstein – so long as my strength lasts. I wish at the same time to repay the debt of honour to the man, who more than 50 years ago announced such important truth for our oldest history and [who] to this day remains unmentioned/ignored.”
“I would like to at first note that the ungratefulness vis-a-vis Mr. von Wersebe is not entirely general. One must only differentiate between his different works. I personally am very thankful in relation to his work about the colonization of North Germany and have cited it many times.”
The offending text
“However, a different matter arises, when we ask whether the position of Tacitus should, by means of a simple rewriting of a word, be turned to mean its opposite. This is not merely a philosophical question. In this respect I should point out that all these peoples that Tacitus mentions in our parts did not remain in their seats; they appear, bit by bit, in the course of further wanderings in areas more to the West and to the South but everywhere where they so appear, they show themselves not as Slavs but as Germans. Not one of these tribes that we view as our predecessors, that we must designate as originally autochtonous to our areas, is ever in the old works differentiated from the Germanics. Wherever they are shown to us, they are shown/described as Germanic peoples.”
[note: Virchow does not really address the question here. These tribes are described as “German” because they came from “Germania”. Elsewhere, other – what we would call “Germanic” – tribes are described as Sarmatian because they came into the Roman world from “Sarmatia” (for example, see Procopius’ description of the Goths where they, Gepids and Vandals are linked even to the Melanchlaeni of Scythia (previously located west of Tanis/Don!))]
“The more one delves into the specifics, the more one becomes convinced that all, that has been preserved about them from ancient times, provides a certain homogenous picture, in which these tribes united themselves with the remaining/other Deutsche. When you look for the old seats of the Longobards, the Vandals, the Semnones and the Burgundians, where do you come to? You come finally till the Wertha, to Silesia, to the March, Brandenburg, to the shores of the Elbe – yes, admittedly where we doubtless find Slavs later. But does it follow, that the Longobards and Burgundians were themselves Slavs? Certainly not. The Langobards sat in the Barden district, which later was also Slavic. I think, however, you will not for this reason want to make Langobards into Slavs.”
[note: the problem with this argument is that – outside of people called the Burgundians – it is difficult to establish the presence of any so-called Germanic tribes in any of today’s Slavic areas – except temporarily. Specifically, virtually all the Origina Genti of the Langobards or Goths point towards Scandinavia. The Vandals left no such stories but their presence in Silesia or elsewhere in Poland also cannot be established from known sources. And if all these people were in fact such wanderers from Scandinavia then the obvious question is: who lived in the Central European areas that they entered from the North? And what happened to these original inhabitants? It is undisputed that all of the Nordic tribes eventually ended up marching south – towards Rome – thus we know that, e.g., Pannonia was the Langobards’ base of operations for many years – and yet no one claims that the Langobards were native to Pannonia or that no one lived in Pannonia before they arrived. One might also note that even the Burgundians could – with some eyebrow raising – be explained as Slavic – after all their name just means city dwellers but city dwellers come from a city, from is “z” or “s” in Slavic and town – in Latin and, perhaps, ancient Venetic – would have been an urbs – and so we come to the Z-urbs or Sorbs… 🙂 ]
“Gentlemen! In the beginning I have to say that I only spoke of ingratitude when discussing this one paper of Mr. Wersebe and not in general. Against Doctor Montelius I must say that I tried to be as brief as possible and, therefore, forgot to say that I believe the Langobards and all these Vandalic peoples in the majority to have been Slavs. I accept the view of Šafárik. This one had stated that the Vandals were Germanized Slavs, that the Germanic elements in all these peoples were invasive [elements that appeared] when the Germans broke into Slavic lands, that all the the Langobardic and Vandalic peoples – the great mass of the population – are Slavs initially. but the nobility among them I believe was Germanic. Little by little had the great mass of the population adopted the Germanic language. I do not wish to forget to mention that Paul the Deacon describes a portrait of old Langobardic kings, and there, it occurs to me, that the Kings wore their hair on the side, which was probably held in place by means of temple rings.”
[note: Montelius spoke just after Pösche’s first statement – he generally relied on the perceived similarities between various archeological finds to support Virchow’s position; as regards the rings, consistent with the above discussion, Pösche is implying that these would have been Slavic customs because temple rings were typical of Slavs. See above note for a discussion of this]
“I would ask to be able to mention something else regarding Tacitus. Professor Virchow and Doctor Montelius will agree with me: The Veneti of Tacitus were probably the Wends! But now Tacitus says: ‘I am unsure whether to count the Veneti among the Germans’ or not. Finally, however, he decides to count them among the Germans ‘because they fight on foot and because they have fixed homes.’ Now, gentlemen, the Slavs also have fixed homes and also fight on foot. Here we have the criterion upon which Tacitus makes his decision though he himself doubts [the correctness] of the basis for his decision. You have to admit that these [decision] bases are not solid. Therefore, [just] because they fought on foot and had fixed habitations they could never be viewed as Germans! You avowedly view the Veneti to be the Wends [i.e., Slavs] but when you then claim the Suevi to be Deutsche, then you are obliged to count the Wends too among the Germans!”
[note: Pösche’s point, more simply stated, is that 1) the Veneti were Slavs and 2) their mode of life was such that they were counted among the Germans (as per Tacitus). It follows that the ethnicity of the Suevi – the biggest Germanic group of all – can likewise not be established with certainty. At least not based on Tacitus. His point about the Suevi is simply that their lifestyle and manner of fighting was exactly the same and yet these were counted by his colleagues – without hesitation – as Germans].
“Regarding the use of names, I would like to say a few words against the position of Mr. Pösche.”
“One can argue quite well using names.”
“With names one can create a SYSTEM.”
[note: Mehlis seems to be saying “that sneaky Pösche – so clever with his names and words!”]
“But I believe, that anthropology should be governed not by names but by FACTS. I believe, that in this context the authority of Messrs. Virchow and Montelius (which [authority] has proven the GERMANIC CHARACTER of a whole range of finds, which [finds] extend far in the abodes to the East till the Oder and the Vistula, which abodes the classical authors have IN FACT been named as the ABODES OF GERMANICS) will suffice, so as to lead us back to the land of FACTS.”
“A few more words about the well-known claim of [Jacob] Grimm’s in the German Grammar [book], that the word Suevi should be the same as Slavi. Until now, no one has dared to step up against Grimm’s authority. The correctness of this claim can be shown quite well that even the Suevi were called Slavi by their neighbors.”
[note: this assertion seems entirely made up – to our knowledge, Slavs never called Germans (or Swabians) by the name Slavs.]
“And the explanation of this name giving can be even better if we observe the analogical situation with the Celts who called their eastern neighbors ‘Germans’. Also the name ‘Germans’ is derived by a row of authorities too long to mention, from Celtic roots ‘ger; ‘guer‘ and ‘man‘ = that is a ‘yeller/screamer’ or from ‘gais‘ and ‘man‘ = that is a ‘speerman’ = ‘Ger-man’; and when we in the East of Germany find this same name given by the Slavs [to the Germans], this is explained by the analogous Western name giving by the Celts. I believe, that this analogous name giving process is the most suitable, to resolve this argument about names.”
[note: It is not clear what Mehlis means by this. He seems to be saying that the name “German” was a western Celtic name for the Deutsche but had been appropriated in the East by the Slavs to name the same Deutsche. This is intended as an apparent analogy to the “Slavic” Suevi name which, Mehlis implies, was an eastern Slavic name for the Deutsche that was then adopted in the West for the same Deutsche.
This is rather a stretch. For one thing, the name “German” was never adopted in the East – rather it makes a late and limited appearance in Russia only most likely due to German influence during the imperial period. Even there the older name Nemec continues in existence. Moreover, just because something happened once in an era of broader communication of the 18th and 19th centuries does not mean it happened before in the much more insular era B.C. Surely, Mehlis is not suggesting that the Suevi name was brought West by Slavic visitors to Celtic courts of Gaul…]
“I have to confess that things are not clearer to me now. I have brought up the words of Tacitus. But I am being reproached that words and names mean nothing. But that cannot be. When a reliable writer names names, that has meaning and [is] not merely empty noise. With respect to the Germanic antiquities in the East which Professor Virchow mentions, I have heard nothing of them in his lecture today; but I would like to know nevertheless, whether Germanic antiquities were ever found there. That would be of relevance [methinks]. You try to establish an analogy there between the process of naming [peoples] in the West and East of Deutschland, and there you claim that it was the Germans that, if I understood correctly, gave the Slavs their own name. But “Slavs” is demonstrably a name which they [the Slavs] have used to call themselves. So long as you have not brought up evidence, I must nevertheless take exception [and] to believe in the truth.”
[note: Mehlis’ argument, if we follow it at all, seems to be slightly different – that Slavs named their German neighbors Suevi and, he implicitly assumes, that the Slvs then transferred that naming to the Celts; this, as discussed above however, seems even more untenable than the argument that Pösche thinks Virchow is making]
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