create a Germanic past in opposition to the Roman culture upheld by the Renaissance. Theauthors of the earliest histories of ethnicity intended to not only create the idea of an unbrokenline of ethnic identification extending back through history, but to provide justification for eachparticular group wishing to subscribe to a certain identity.
This led to a conception of ethnicitythat was objectively biological and, in many cases, territorial. Such assumptions were central tothe field of ethnicity research for centuries, and when combined with the past-oriented Romanticmovement of the nineteenth century, they contributed to numerous ethnically based nationalidentities across Europe. While these ideal identities were intended to foster national unity andpride across the boundaries of class, wealth and political views, extreme versions produced aparticularly violent and superior version of nationalism most associated by Hitler and the NaziParty in mid-twentieth century Germany.
However, one cannot use past abuses of history to discredit the entire identity debate.Few scholars, if any, would today make the same arguments as have been written in pastcenturies regarding the superiority (and victory) of Germanic culture over that of the Romans.However, this does not mean that the field of ethnic identity research is lacking in controversy;several different theories of ethnicity have gained wide support over the course of the past half-century. Many scholars have debated the traditional thesis, dating back to the Renaissance, that
Andrew Gillett, “Introduction: Ethnicity, History and Methodology” in On BarbarianIdentity: Critical Approaches to Ethnicity in the Early Middle Ages, ed. Andrew Gillett(Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2002), 5.
For an excellent overview of the uses and misuses of ethnic identity, see theintroduction and first chapter of Patrick Geary, The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002). Note especially the change from theeighteenth century, when ethnic identity was used to uphold class privilege. Geary points outthat for centuries, the French aristocracy had considered themselves as descended from theFranks, while the commoners were the Romano-Gallic natives their “ancestors” had subjugatedduring the fifth and sixth centuries. This played into the revolutionary rhetoric of Abbé Sieyès,who considered the commoners the “true French people” as opposed to the Germanic invaderswho had repressed them for centuries.