Walter Goffart

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Walter Andre Goffart (born February 22, 1934) is a Belgian-born American historian of the later Roman Empire and the early Middle Ages who specializes in research on the barbarian kingdoms of those periods.


Barbarians and Romans, A.D. 418-584 (1980)[edit]

Barbarian Tides (2010)[edit]

  • My central concern in the present book is... to liberate barbarian history from the German nationalism that has suffused it ever since the sixteenth century and, in whatever disguises, continues to do so today.
    • p. ix
  • Strange as it may seem to hear it said, there were no Germanic peoples in late antiquity. The illusion that there were can be outgrown.
    • p. x
  • I would be content if "German" and its derivatives were banished from all but linguistic discourse on this subject.
    • p. 4
  • The adjective "German;' an umbrella term for many of the diverse northern barbarians of the late Roman period, is the key to such unifying compounds as "the Germanic world;' "Germanic migrations;' "Germanic peoples;' "Germanic style;' "Germanic law;' "Germanic grave goods": wherever it turns up it simplifies and unifies, and presides over collective actions that did not take place... "German" will not go away by itself; it has to be stubbornly shown the door.
    • p. 5
  • The main goal of this book is to reform thinking and writing about the barbarians in late antiquity by driving out the anachronistic terms "German" and "Germanic" and the baggage that goes with them.
    • p. 6
  • The prehistoric Germans never existed... they are an illusion of misguided scholars. The nonexistence of ancient Germans is perhaps the most important thing one can say about the barbarians of late antiquity... The "Germanic world" is a damaging modern invention and usage that badly needs to be abandoned.
    • p. 20
  • Germanic collectivity exists in linguistics but never existed anywhere else... [A]n "early Germanic world"... had no existence anywhere until it took form in the minds of scholars in sixteenth-century Europe and was thoughtlessly espoused by everyone else.
    • p. 25
  • [The] theme-the "early Germans"-is still far from being repudiated.
    • p. 27
  • [M]any scholars of today in Europe and the United States still cherish the existence of a "Germanic world" long antedating medieval and modern Germany.
    • p. 40
  • [Gustav] Kossinna's ideas about the early Germans, which have long circulated apart from his name, have been only superficially purged from the writings of today.
    • p. 42
  • If Europe has had a supreme invented tradition, that of the Germans before Germany is it-so much so that most people who speak about it do not realize that they are dealing with fiction.
    • p. 43
  • [D]eutsche Altertumskunde... [is a] still honored "science" of German antiquity.
    • p. 50
  • [Hewrig] Wolfram is listened to with approval in all countries that care about this subject.
    • p. 51
  • The myth of the Germans before Germany is hard to suppress because, owing to its great age and genesis in the sources themselves.
    • p. 51
  • The faith in Germanic continuity has prevailed for many centuries, damaging everything it has touched: Germans and other Europeans need to be assured that they can dispense with a link to the Germanen, that there is such a thing as historical change, and that the transgressions of national pasts can indeed be outgrown.
    • p. 52
  • Experts in Germanic literature... solemnly assent: emigration from Scandinavia is an authentic "tribal memory"...
    • p. 55
  • Superfluous... is the unthinking modern transposition into history of a common "Germanic" language family-a concept borrowed from comparative philology. The history of a language as known to philologists has nothing to do with that of human beings... No discernible benefit comes from our being reminded again and again in modern writings that many of these barbarians at each other's throats probably spoke dialects of the same language. The G-word can be dispensed with.
    • p. 221
  • As long ago as 1972, I expressed a wish that someone should write a history of the Migration Age detached from German nationalism... Nothing has happened since then to fill this desideratum. On the contrary, the front of the stage has been occupied by talk of "ethnogenesis" and of the importance of ethnicity in late antiquity. Philology, archaeology, comparative religion, etymology, and whatever else have been exploited in the tried and true fashion of deutsche Altertumskunde in efforts to render the "tribes" more tribal than ever. As little thought as possible has been given to making them less resolutely German... This model... found regaining strength after World War II in the Gottingen historian Reinhard Wenskus, in the Cambridge classicist A. H. M. Jones, and in hundreds of scholars outside as well as inside Germany, all agreed in seeing an existing "Germanic world" getting the better of a "Roman world." That vision of outsiders intruding successfully where they were not wanted is an illusion fostered however innocently and festering ever since the sixteenth century.
    • pp. ix, 227-228
  • There were no Germans until a Germany materialized little by little in the European Middle Ages. Rome faced outward toward multiple and mutually antagonistic peoples. The existence of an ancient common Germanic civilization reaching deep into the B.C. period is a learned invention of sixteenth-century Germans, based on classical sources well known to us... There was no "Germanic civilization" long ripening north and east of the imperial frontiers.
    • pp. 233-234

Quotes about Goffart[edit]

  • The debate has led to an unfortunate division between Walter Goffart with his disciples, on the one side, and the so-called ‘Viennese School’ and scholars working with an ‘ethnogenesis’ paradigm, on the other. Scholars have been cast — especially by Goffart and his allies — as being either the good ones or the bad ones.
  • Goffart simply summarizes the positions of his opponents, without providing us with direct quotes; instead he regularly paraphrases and generically comments, giving no room for alternative opinion... The author emphasizes over and over again that we really need to differentiate among the various Germanic peoples instead of talking about an attack by the Germanic barbarians as a national movement against the Romans. It seems incomprehensible to assume that any serious historian (Goffart attacks primarily German-language scholars) would hold such a position today. No one assumes that there was anything like a German nation attacking the Roman empire. This is simply in the head of the author who fights a straw puppet."
    • Classen, Albrecht (2010). Walter Goffart, Barbarian Tides. The Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire. 23. 418-420. 
  • Walter Goffart... is a more serious critic, but to some extent even he is tilting at windmills... Goffart's main point is that one cannot heal the Germanische Altertumskunde - the study of Germanic Antiquity - by surgically removing the racist element as if this was just a recent blemish of limited size caused by Nazism. In fact, he says, what one needs is a full-scale rethinking. The racist element is not just something that was added by the Nazis, but was inherent in the way Germanic Antiquity has been studied for centuries. In Goffart's view the Germanische Altertumeskunde was connected with a large body of anti-Enlightenment thought and nationalism long before the Nazis came and took from it whatever they could use... Goffart is mistaken in his analysis... Goffart is aiming his guns at a position that has long been abandoned.
  • From the mid-1990s onward, Walter Goffart and his school (Gillett 2002b; Goffart 2006) have directed their critique not against any current views, but against the old Wenskus “kernel of tradition” model: according to them, it was only a more sophisticated way to maintain German nationalist claims of ethnic continuity. The only way out of nationalist myths was to show that ethnicity was irrelevant in the migration age, as were the barbarians altogether. Therefore, Goffart’s approach is a vigorous attempt to prove Roman continuity after the “fall of Rome,” and to deny any barbarian impact on the end of the Western empire.
  • One of the primary exponents of this relatively sunny view of the fifth-century 'transformation' has been Walter Goffart... Goffart sets out how the fragmented foreign peoples once living on the edges of the Empire participated with the Romans in the larger stirrings of late antiquity.' Rome did not fall, it experienced 'stirrings'; barbarians did not invade and conquer, foreign peoples 'participated' with the Romans in the 'stirrings'. This is the essence of the revisionist 'trans-formation and accommodation' view of the fall of Rome. This revisionist approach got a great boost from the European Science Foundation's ongoing project on The Transformation of the Roman World which, since 1995, has sponsored conferences and workshops, and published papers in a monograph series (The Transformation of the Roman World) that has now reached fourteen volumes. This project has turned the transformation-of-Rome theory into a scholarly industry. It tends to reflect the political climate of the contemporary European Union, with values such as multiculturalism, relativism, and a distaste for judgements...
  • When Goffart launched his theory of peaceful 'accommodation'... it fell on fertile ground. Goffart himself seems to have intended his book to play down the role of the Germanic peoples in European history... The European Union needs to forge a spirit of cooperation between the once warring nations of the Continent, and it is no coincidence that the European Science Foundation's research project into this period was entitled 'The Transformation of the Roman World'—implying a seamless and peaceful transition from Roman times to the 'Middle Ages' and beyond.
  • At one end of the spectrum stands Walter Goffart who, fearful of modern German nationalism, has for decades fought a dogged campaign against any “Germanic” influence in early European history, including any significant role for barbarian invasion in the fifth century. His latest book is entirely true to form. For Goffart, the “Germanic invasions” of the Western empire never really happened, and the barbarian peoples who did settle in Roman territory during the fifth century were largely there at the invitation of the Romans, and then very rapidly adopted Roman ways. Important changes happened, but Germanic settlers played little part in bringing these about — and anyway we should never call these peoples “Germanic”, lest this gives modern Germans dangerous ideas about their importance in history. In the early 21st century, this blanket fear of Germanism is perhaps a little obsessive, and more appropriate for an immediately post-war audience — though Goffart has a large and very loyal following among scholars and students in the US and Canada (where he has taught for many years). But whatever one thinks of his conclusions (and I am not a fan), Goffart’s ideas are certainly radical: the defeat of Rome and the Germanic invasions do not need to be explained, because they never really happened.

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