In the summer of 782, '4500 Saxon prisoners were beheaded on a single day at Verden on the River Aller in northern Saxony, on the orders of Charlemagne, King of the Franks.' So, bluntly, reported the author of the Royal Frankish Annals, the main Frankish narrative for the period, which were written up in 790 or so. By the time those annals had been put into print at Cologne in 1521, Charlemagne had come to be venerated as a saint, and also, with more historical justification, celebrated as the founder of both France and Germany. The annals made the beheadings at Verden known to a wide audience just as Germany's identity was becoming contentious; Charlemagne's reputation survived because the Saxon victims were thought to have been pagans, their fate necessary to his Christianisation of Saxony. By the 18th century, however, that no longer washed. French as well as German writers were appalled by the barbarian warlord whom Voltaire called 'a thousandfold murderer', and in the 19th century the events at Verden made Charlemagne a problematic hero for German nationalists. The issue was revisited by historians in the 1930s. To those, mainly northerners, who denounced the brutality, others, often southerners, replied that the exemplary punishment was justified by its outcome. Non-historians took sides as well. While Himmler put up a monument to the Saxon dead, Hitler forbade his chief ideologue, Rosenberg, from calling 'a hero' like Charles the Great 'the butcher of the Saxons', adding that 'without violence, no one either in Charles's times or in ours could have brought together the German peoples with their thick heads and their particularities.'
LRB 15 April 2004 | PDF Download