The Economic and Social Foundations of European Civilization

By Alfons Dopsch | Go to book overview
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THE relationship of the Germans to the Romans and their civilization at the beginning of the so-called Middle Ages is one of the oldest of historical problems, and one upon which, as long as a science of history has existed, historians have been obliged to adopt a definite position. But, however much their opinions may have differed in detail, one fundamental idea has persisted, and in spite of occasional challenges still maintains its sway even in the most recent works of historical research. That fundamental idea is the conception of the German Barbarians as a people without culture, enemies of civilization, who fell upon the old world and brought about its ruin and destruction. It is usually assumed that a sharp opposition existed between the Roman administration as it then existed and the embryonic political development of the newcomers, and it is this hostility which is held to have caused the downfall of Antiquity, together with the pillage of most of its countless treasures. In many books it is suggested that this amazing period of destruction in world history was of short duration, and was brought about by the great migrations or Völkerwanderung, which were sometimes even thought to have occupied no more than a century (approximately from A.D. 350-450). At best this great transition from Romanism to Germanism was described as if, without any intermediate stage, the "barbaric" Germans had appeared side by side with ancient civilization at its height and had only gradually assimilated some elements of its culture through the expansion of the Roman Church. Even Karl Lamprecht took this view. "Thus," he wrote in 1898, "the land had a dual appearance. Side by side with the subtle luxury of the Roman officer and merchant there appeared the pitiably uncivilized native barbarians; there was no harmonious mingling of the two."1

Although D. Schiller attributes the rise of European civilization to the usual sources--Roman Empire, Christian religion, and German national characteristics2--he, too, considers that "a development on a new basis" began with the German states in the fifth century, and that a new world then appeared in place of the Græco-Roman one. "It was unavoidable that some details should be adopted from the Romans,"3 a but the medieval state was nevertheless "a German invention, for a long time clumsy, and not to be compared in the extent of its influence, either external or internal, with the gigantic organization of the Roman Empire. But from the ruins a new seed germinated." The

Lamprecht, Deutsche Gescldchte, i, 225.
Schäfer, Deutsche Geschichte, i, Mittelalter. 4th edit., 1914, 67.


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