Germans at the Gates:  European Immigrants in the 5th Century CE  

The current mass migration of political and economic refugees from Africa and the Middle East to Western Europe is proceeding on a scale that commands attention, though in sheer numbers it has yet to rival the population exchanges that accompanied the Second World War’s nominal end in 1945 CE.  That shifting of people to make the distribution of ethnicities fit the newly redrawn borders of Europe saw at least 31 million people displaced, roughly 12 million of whom were German.  Many left lands their ancestors had inhabited for over 800 years.

It was not the first time in recent history that Germans were forced to migrate.  After the failure of the political revolutions of 1848, large numbers of well-educated German refugees fled to the United States, where they introduced, among other things, classical music, the civil service, multitudinous agricultural improvements, and several high quality beers.  Some 30,000 settled near Cincinnati alone, part of the nearly 6 million Germans who emigrated to America between 1820 and 1914.  They were so pervasive in American culture that Louisa May Alcott provided Jo March with an impecunious well-educated German immigrant to marry in Little Women.

The most critical period of German refugee migration, however, reached its peak around the 5th century CE.  A lot of special pleading and highly speculative nonsense has been written about the German components of the migrations to and invasions of the Western and Eastern Roman Empires of this era, but the general outline of what happened is fairly clear.

For hundreds of years, Germanic tribes had been expanding and migrating from the lands neighboring the Baltic to the Black Sea littoral, eventually reaching the western limits of the Eurasian steppes.  Much of this area was defined imprecisely as Scythia. For a great deal of the 300s it was the stomping ground of Iranian and Asiatic horse warriors [the Alans and Huns respectively], historically preceded and followed by numerous nomadic tribes.

In the late 300s the German King Ermanarik watched in dismay as virtually overnight Hunnic warriors pushed back centuries of Germanic settlement eastwards.  This disaster for the Germans gave rise to many legends and several interesting epic poems, a few of which have survived at least in part.

The Huns are an Asiatic people of uncertain ethnicity, though debatable claims of kinship have been made by the Magyars, who moved into current day Hungary in the 9th century. The Huns of the 4th and 5th centuries incorporated troops of many defeated tribes into their army, including large numbers of Germans.

What caused the Huns to move west in the 300s has been debated with more warmth than light, with many arguing in favor of prolonged drought on the steppes, or the pressure from other tribes further east, or a combination of the two. What is a bit clearer is the military advantage that enabled the Huns to push westward successfully. This was based on their cavalry wielding the most advanced personal projectile weapon of its time and place:  the asymmetric composite recurve bow.

The lower half of the Hunnic bow was shorter than the upper half to allow easy drawing and shooting from the saddle.  Sinew and horn laminations increased bow strength in bending and compression.  The recurved shape of the bow increased the energy imparted to the arrow, making it possible for a short cavalry bow to equal the force of a much longer straight bow.

The Germans may have been preeminent in Roman auxiliary cavalry and overland transportation in the northern reaches of the Empire, but they were no match for the Huns when these two peoples first met on the steppes.

This led to several Germanic tribes moving their men, women, and infants into Roman territory to seek Roman protection.  The immigrating Germans continued to provide elite combat units for the Roman army.

The Romans had enough other problems at the time that they let the Germans settle inside the Empire unassimilated, under their own tribal leadership.  Such Germanic enclaves in the Empire were euphemistically designated as foederati [allies].  This was probably considered by Roman leaders to be a temporary arrangement.

The protection to be provided by the Romans for the German settlements proved illusory. The corruption of local Roman officials and occasional slaughter of German hostages outraged the German warriors, who began to attack the Romans.

The Germans achieved a decisive victory at Adrianople in 378, where Gothic soldiers with some help from other steppe forces destroyed two-thirds of a Roman army, killing the Roman Emperor Valens in the process.  After Adrianople it was clear that the wealth of the Western Roman Empire was ripe for picking, though it would take another generation for the immigrant invaders to master the art of besieging cities.

Goths moved westward, sacking Rome in 410, and setting up kingdoms in Italy, France, and Spain. The Visigothic kingdom in the Iberian Peninsula lasted roughly 300 years, finally falling to Moslem invaders around 720.

The Huns followed their German enemies into the Empire.  The Huns raided deep into France until they were repulsed in the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains [also known as the Battle of Châlons] in 451 by a Roman Army fighting in coalition with a Gothic force.  This marked the end of Attila’s attempt to conquer Roman Gaul, and was the last major victory of the Western Roman Empire.  The Roman general responsible for putting together the coalition of Romans and Germans that forced the Huns to retreat across the Rhine, Flavius Aetius, was assassinated by Emperor Valentinian III as a reward for his service.

After Attila’s death, Germanic tribes led a multi-ethnic attack on the Huns in 454, defeating them so decisively at the Battle of Nedao that their remnants retreated to the Crimea and Caucasus, traditional refuges of once great peoples who found themselves in greatly reduced circumstances.

The Germanic Vandals took a migratory course from what is now Southern Poland through France, Spain, and North Africa.  The Vandals’ thorough sack of Rome in 455 made the Visgothic looting of 410 look gentle by comparison, turning their name into a synonym for senseless destruction.

The current welcome being given by the Germans to refugees from the Middle East and North Africa is frequently said to be primarily motivated by a desire to expiate the nation’s lingering guilt over its 20th century past.

In this context, it is useful to remember that the denigration of Germans as ‘Huns’ in British First World War propaganda and Winston Churchill’s speeches is historically inaccurate .  It is one of the ironies of history that this confusion of two very different peoples derives from an exhortation of Kaiser Wilhelm II to German troops fighting in China to suppress the Boxer Rebellion [1900]:

“Mercy will not be shown, prisoners will not be taken. Just as a thousand years ago, the Huns under Attila won a reputation of might that lives on in legends, so may the name of Germany in China, such that no Chinese will ever again dare so much as to look askance at a German.”

Taking a longer historical perspective might usefully augment appreciation of the motives for Germany’s current generosity towards migrating peoples, raising the level of discussion beyond humanitarian banalities, collective guilt, and graying populations.

Further Reading:

  • Norman Davies’ No Simple Victory is a useful reminder of the ongoing disasters on the European Eastern Front during the Second World War and the years that followed. Ronald Spector’s In the Ruins of Empire tells how European powers used Japanese troops against former colonies striving for independence in Asia after the end of World War II.
  • Philipp Ther and Ana Siljak have brought together many useful articles in Redrawing Nations: Ethnic Cleansing in East-Central Europe, 1944-1948.
  • For an English language introduction to modern scholarship on the great migrations of the Late Classical world, Peter Heather’s volumes The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians; Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe; and The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders are comprehensive, lucid, and carefully researched.
  • Otto J. Maenchen-Helfen and Max Knight’s The World of the Huns: Studies in their History and Culture provides important insights into the culture and accomplishments of the Huns. E.A. Thompson and Peter Heather’s The Huns presents a narrative history of this people, whose influence on the development of Europe is often underestimated.
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