History’s Epic Warning

When Hitler’s death was announced on German radio in May 1945, it was accompanied by the fanfare of ‘Siegfried’s Death’ from Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungen. No wonder – Wagner was Hitler’s favourite composer, and the legends he poured into the Ring Cycle, that magnum opus of raven-winged warriors, fiery gods and Valkyries with long golden plaits, were the ‘national myth’ of Germany. Their most complete form is contained in the medieval epic known as the Nibelungenlied (composed around 1200AD), a tale of fierce warriors, prophetic river-maidens, a vengeful queen, a female warrior who cannot be defeated except by trickery and knights who slake their thirst with human blood. It’s a book of blood and thunder that makes Game of Thrones read like the adventures of Noddy. When I first read it, swiping the last page in a Rhineland eckkneipe with a glass of beer on the counter, I struggled to hold my drink because my hands were shaking. 

 These days, the Nibelungenlied has a growing resonance. Sidelined for decades, ‘relegated to the ivory towers of Germanic studies’ as the scholar Jan-Dirk Müller puts it, this powerful tale has been resurging in popular consciousness. Not only has it been re-claimed by right-wingers in Germany, cited in speeches by the Alternativ für Deutschland, it has also been re-imagined by poets and playwrights, examining the crises of today through its episodes. The epic’s climactic battle in the hall of Attila the Hun has a particular resonance for readers in 2019 Britain, with its breakdown of diplomatic protocol, its depiction of a disaster driven by a failure to negotiate: ‘The conflict could not reach a happy resolution,/ And so out of this breach there flowed blood-drenched pollution.’ Neither the obstinate German councillor, Hagen, nor his enemy, the grieving widow, Kriemhild, will allow themselves to bend. And so they surrender themselves and all their followers to catastrophe.

There is a lesson here. Hitler and company failed to heed it: they misread the Nibelungenlied as a stirring celebration of macho men-at-arms, the ‘heroic song’ cited by Goering to inspire the Wehrmacht at Stalingrad. But this mercurial, often disturbing tale is far more complicated than its political abusers appreciate. As the German playwright Albert Ostermaier told me, ‘it’s reflecting the madness of war… But a lot of people misunderstood it and they used it for their own purposes.’ This is a dark tale chipped out of the bitter rock-face of history, by an anonymous poet who lived through a deadly period of gory battles, court assassinations and diplomatic breakdowns. 

Characteristic of this epoch was Wolfgar von Erla, Bishop of Passau at the end of the twelfth century, who is speculatively cited by many scholars as the epic’s patron. He was a diplomat who campaigned for the release of Richard the Lionheart and petitioned the Pope to approve the Teutonic Knights, as well as a lover of poetry who favoured skilled minnesingers like Walther von der Vogelweide (author of the iconic song ‘Under the Linden Tree’). But he was also a ruthless wager of battles. One grisly siege he orchestrated, at Graben am Main in 1199, resulted in mass burnings, drownings, maimings and, according to a contemporary chronicle, choppings of noses and lips. This is the world depicted in the Nibelungenlied: juggling courtly graces with the savagery of battle.

It was a period of violent instability, and this is reflected in the epic. After the death of Frederick Barbarossa, en route to the Holy Land in 1190, a dispute emerged over the imperial crown, pitting the leading candidates Philip of Swabia and Otto of Brunswick against each other and culminating in the assassination of the former. Issues about hereditary rule, vassalage and feudal structures came to the fore, and these are reflected in the narrative of the Nibelungenlied, where the dominating crisis is initiated by a breach of protocol. As the scholar Edward P. Haymes has written, ‘Where does the way lead when the functions of order are turned around? The Nibelungen epic answers: to destruction.’

The Nibelungenlied was lost for centuries, rediscovered in the late eighteenth century in an Austrian library. It rapidly became a ‘national epic’, satisfying a need for stories to yoke together the disparate German-speaking principalities, duchies and states. A field edition was issued to soldiers in the Napoleonic wars, it was used as a recruiting tool for the First World War, and exploited in many different ways by the National Socialists. Yet still, for all the exploitation, there’s a thrilling story to be read, full of stark and powerful truths about human nature: a warning from history that shows what happens when political leaders fail to find the middle ground. Lessons, surely, that are worth us all heeding.

Nicholas Jubber moved to Jerusalem after graduating from Oxford University. He’d been working two weeks when the intifada broke out and he started travelling the Middle East and East Africa. He has written three previous books, The Timbuktu School for Nomads, The Prester Quest(winner of the Dolman Prize) and Drinking Arak Off an Ayatollah’s Beard (shortlisted for the Dolman Prize). He has written for the Guardian, Observer, and the Globe and Daily Mail.

Nicholas will be at Chalke Valley History Festival on Tuesday, 25th June to take us on a fascinating adventure through our continent’s most enduring epic poems to learn how they were shaped by their times, and how they have since shaped us, in ‘Epic Continent: Adventures in the Great Stories of Europe). Tickets are available here.