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"Ruthless, murderous men who use ships to terrorize their neighbors"

When the core of national identity is debated at German regulars' tables, Bavaria and Prussia are often in the balance.

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"Ruthless, murderous men who use ships to terrorize their neighbors"

When the core of national identity is debated at German regulars' tables, Bavaria and Prussia are often in the balance. A look at the names of the 16 federal states makes a completely different root plausible. Because Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia, in whose name the Saxon branch of the Westphalian lives on, only allow one conclusion: Saxony.

Historical arguments could also be used to support this answer. After all, the kings who turned the East Franconian Empire into a German Empire from 919 are called Saxony. Under Otto I the Great, they even won the imperial crown. However, the heartland of the Ottonian dynasty was around the Harz Mountains, so with the exception of Magdeburg it was somewhat distant from Dresden, Hanover or Münster. So what connects these cities with the Saxons of the Middle Ages or even the people who succeeded the Roman rulers in the British Isles from the middle of the 6th century?

With her book "The Saxons", the prehistorian Babette Ludowici gives answers that are as lucid as they are confusing. Because the curator at the Braunschweigisches Landesmuseum begins her search for traces in the ancient tradition and thus comes to answers that run counter to traditional historical images. For example, the credo of the powerful expansion of a population group between the North Sea and the low mountain ranges, maintained until the 20th century, cannot be proven by anything: "In fact, their vagueness is the most prominent characteristic of the Saxons in the tradition from the 1st millennium."

The oldest mention of the Saxons is the "Geography" of the Greek Ptolemy, who in the 2nd century locates "Saxones" north of the lower Elbe in the very south of the Jutland Peninsula. However, the name "Axiones" or "Aviones" is also used in some manuscripts, which were already mentioned by the Roman historian Tacitus, who in turn does not know any "Saxones".

The name becomes more tangible with the later Emperor Julian, who lists 356 Franks and "Saxones" as the most warlike peoples "on the Rhine and on the western" sea. This would fit the historian Ammianus Marcellinus, who by 364 lists "Saxones" in the same breath as Picts, Scots and Attacottes as marauders who "constantly harmed the Britons". While this speaks for activities in the north, the same author later writes about "the Gallic areas", those of Franks and "Saxones" there, "wherever one could only break in on water and on land, with bad plunder, with fire and murder “ were haunted.

The historian Orosius, in the early 5th century, also rants about “Saxones”, a “people native to the coasts and inaccessible swamps of the ocean, feared for their courage and agility”. A century later, the British cleric Gildas laments the conquest of the land by "Saxones", who were initially brought into the country as allies in the fight against invaders from the north, but are said to have soon turned against their clients.

"The Saxones mentioned in texts from this period are almost exclusively mobile groups of unscrupulous, murderous men who navigate the North Sea and the English Channel in ships and terrorize neighboring areas," Babette Ludowici draws a first conclusion. "They are always characterized as extremely dangerous and unpredictable."

A century later, the Franks under the Merovingians set out to establish a larger empire from northern Gaul, which had several contacts with "Saxones". On the one hand, this refers to groups in the eastern neighborhood on the Rhine, on the other hand, people who caused unrest with "Thuringians and other peoples from across the Rhine and elsewhere". "Saxones" also moved to Italy with the Lombards in 568, reports the bishop and historian Gregory of Tours.

In the case of the Carolingians, who initially attained the powerful office of house meier under the Merovingians and who themselves wore the crown from 751, the Saxons and their homeland are gaining ground. From the Hellweg, the axis of the later Ruhr area, the Frankish armies moved to the Weser and the eastern Harz foothills. The relationship between those attacked there and the Thuringians remains unclear.

The campaigns that Charlemagne led against the Saxons over a period of 30 years are famous. A certain Widukind is described by the sources as his most important opponent, whose uprising the Franks responded to in 782 with the terrible bloodbath of Verden, in which 4500 men were executed in a single day. The area between Lüneburg, the lower Weser and the Elbe became the target of a real strategy of annihilation.

However, the victim was not a single people of the Saxons, but different groups that appear in the Frankish sources as "Westfalaos" (Westphalia), Angrii (Engern) and Austrasii (those in the east). Later there is also talk of Nodalbingians, northerners and eastern Saxons. That would suggest that Saxony was a collective term for different peoples, similar to "slavi" for the Slavs. "The Saxons were a wild people who worshiped idols and were hostile to Christianity," said Charlemagne's biographer Einhard, describing his hero's recalcitrant opponents.

A completely different question is who those characterized in this way thought they were and when they developed a common consciousness. An important driving force on the way to an identity was Charlemagne's "Saxon wars", after which the brutally subdued, according to Ludowici, set about pouring their past into "a profitable, future-proof form".

The depiction of the monk Widukind by Corvey became famous. For him, the Saxons could be descendants of Normans, but perhaps also remnants of the Macedonian army that followed Alexander the Great, but it is certain "that the Saxons came to these areas by ship" where the Thuringians lived. There they founded their empire with a tool that gave their name: the long knife, "because knives are called Sachs in our language".

This closes the circle. The Saxons were originally seafaring "knifemen", forerunners of the Vikings, whose name also means "buccaneer". The fact that a quarter of all federal states can be traced back to these pirates has nothing to do with descent, but with complicated inheritance in the Middle Ages and early modern times. The future kingdom of Saxony with its capital Dresden got its name after the Wettin family had been given the title of elector and the duchy of Saxony-Wittenberg in 1423.

The state of Saxony-Anhalt is based on the Prussian province of Saxony. Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia are creations of the Allies after the Second World War. The name Lower Saxony refers to the "Lower Saxon" imperial circle of the Holy Roman Empire, Westphalia to the Prussian province of the same name, which was connected to the Rhineland at the request of the British occupying power in order to enable a joint administration of the Ruhr area.

Babette Ludovici: "Die Sachsen". (H. C. Beck, München. 119 S., 12 Euro)

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