Some thoughts on the Early History of the Germans

Disclaimer: I’m not German nor an expert in German history.

The word “German” can obviously be defined three different ways:

  1. A citizen of the country of Germany
  2. Someone who speaks the German language
  3. A member of the German people

No one is really interested in #1, because this is a legal definition rather than a truly meaningful one. A wealthy enough person can easily gain citizenship in almost any country they want to, but this does not make them an actual member of that society.

About 95 million people speak German as their first language, plus about 15 million who’ve learned it as a second or third language. The wider Germanic language family has about a billion speakers, mostly because a lot of people in India have learned English.

Pre-Roman Iron Age in Northern Europe showing culture(s) associated with Proto-Germanic, c. 500 BC. The red shows the area of the preceding Nordic Bronze Age in Scandinavia; the magenta-colored area towards the south represents the later Jastorf culture of the North German Plain.

The oddest thing about the Germanic languages is their origin–according to Wikipedia, proto-Germanic spread southward from southern Scandinavia/Denmark (modern name for the region, obviously not the 500-BC name) into central Europe. Have a map:

Red: Settlements before 750 BC
Orange: New settlements 750–500 BC
Yellow: NS 500–250 BC
Green: NS 250 BC – AD 1
Some sources give a date of 750 BC for the earliest expansion out of southern Scandinavia along the North Sea coast towards the mouth of the Rhine. (from Wikipedia)

And another map.

Okay, fine, but note that Scandinavia is a peninsula, and the area just north of the Nordic part is inhabited by people (the Sami/Lapps) who don’t even speak an Indo-European language. Neither do the nearby Finns. Assuming those folks were already there when the proto-German speakers arrived, how did they get from the Indo-European urheimat, just north of the Caucasus mountains, to southern Norway and Sweden, without significantly occupying either northern/eastern Finnoscandia nor central/eastern Europe?

Further, once they arrived in southern Scandinavia, what prompted them to head southward again?

During the initial years of Germanic expansion, the heart of central and western Europe was occupied by Celtic peoples, notably the Hallstatt and La Tene cultures (yes I have another map!)

Yellow: Hallstatt territory, 6th cen BC
Teal: Celtic expansion by 275 BC
Light Grey: Lusitanian area of Iberia where Celtic presence is uncertain
Green: Areas where Celtic languages remain widely spoken today

While the modern Celtic languages are nearly forgotten outside of Ireland and Wales, the pre-Roman Celtic range was quite impressive. Around 390 BC, the Celts sacked Rome; around 280 BC, they defeated the Greeks at the Battle of Thermopylae, attacked Delphi, and eventually made their way to Turkey (well, Anatolia), where they established the Kingdom of Galatia. The Galatians earned themselves enduring fame by receiving a letter from St. Paul, which is now the ninth book of the New Testament.

So around 500 BC, the Celts were clearly a force to be reckoned with throughout much of Europe. Then came the Germanics from the north (perhaps they felt pressure from the Sami?) and the Italics from the south.The Germanics spread principally to the east, through modern Poland (which I hear is very flat and thus easy to move through,) and into the core Hallstatt areas of Austria and Switzerland, while the Romans conquered the Celtic areas of France, Spain, and England. (Modern names, obviously.)

As the Roman empire crumbled, the Germans invaded (YES ANOTHER MAP!) and basically conquered everything in their path.

Simplified map of the German migrations of the 2nd through 5th centuries

And then, of course, the Norse went and invaded a whole bunch of places, too, so that England effectively got invaded twice by different Germanic tribes–first the Angles/Saxons/Jutes, and second the Normans.

I’m going to skip the map of the Viking expansion, but you’re probably already well aware of their most far-flung settlements in Iceland, Greenland, and Vinland (North America.) They looted north Africa, settled in southern Italy, and apparently created the first Russian kingdoms, the Kievan Rus and the Volga Bulgars.

Obviously not all of the places the Germanics conquered ended up speaking Germanic languages–I haven’t heard of much Norwegian being spoken in Sicily lately. Nor did all of the places which today speak Germanic languages end up with many Germanic people in them–a small band of conquerors can impose their language on a much larger subject population, and then a small band of warriors from that population can turn around and go conquer someone else and impose the language on them in turn, resulting in a language being spoken by people with very no genetic relationship at all to the original speakers.

For example, even though everyone in England speaks English, very little (only 30%) of the modern English DNA comes from the Angles (or any Germanic tribe)–most of it hails from the pre-Germanic, presumably Celtic population. The English, in turn, conquered large swathes of the globe, and today English is spoken (often as a second language) by folks with zero Germanic ancestry in far-flung places like India, South Africa, and Japan (conquered by the US.)

So our next post, we’ll turn our attention to the Germanic peoples. Where are they now, and how distinct are they from their neighbors?