Massacre of Verden
The Massacre of Verden, Bloodbath of Verden, or Bloody Verdict of Verden (German Blutgericht von Verden) was a massacre of 4,500 captive Saxons in October 782. During the Saxon Wars, the Saxons rebelled against Charlemagne's invasion and subsequent attempts to christianize them from their native Germanic paganism. The massacre is recorded as having occurred in what is now Verden in Lower Saxony, Germany.
Some scholars have since attempted to exonerate Charlemagne of the massacre, but these attempts have been generally rejected. The massacre became significant among German nationalists in the early 20th century, culminating in its commemoration in Nazi Germany. In 1935, landscape architect Wilhelm Hübotter designed a memorial, known as the Sachsenhain ('Saxon Grove'), that was built at a possible site for the massacre.
An entry for the year 782 in the Royal Frankish Annals records that, after Charlemagne lost two envoys, four counts, and around 20 nobles in battle with the Saxons, Charlemagne responded by massacring 4,500 rebelling Saxons near what is now Verden. Regarding this massacre, the entry reads:
- When he heard this, the Lord King Charles rushed to the place with all the Franks that he could gather on short notice and advanced to where the Aller flows into the Weser. Then all the Saxons came together again, submitted to the authority of the Lord King, and surrendered the evildoers who were chiefly responsible for this revolt to be put to death—four thousand and five hundred of them. This sentence was carried out. Widukind was not among them since he had fled to Nordmannia. When he had finished this business, the Lord King returned to Francia.
Historian Alessandro Barbero says that, regarding Charlemagne, the massacre "produced perhaps the greatest stain on his reputation". In his survey on scholarship regarding Charlemagne, Barbero comments on attempts at exonerating Charlemagne and his forces from the massacre:
Several historians have attempted to lessen Charles's responsibility for the massacre, by stressing that until a few months earlier the king thought he had pacified the country, the Saxons nobles had sworn allegiance, and many of them had been appointed counts. Thus the rebellion constituted an act of treason punishable by death, the same penalty that the extremely harsh Saxon law imposed with great facility, even for the most insignificant of crimes. Others have attempted to twist the accounts provided by sources, arguing that the Saxons were killed in battle and not massacred in cold blood, or even that the verb decollare (to decapitate) was a copyist's error in place of delocare (to relocate), so the prisoners were deported. None of these attempts has proved credible.
Barbero comments that the incident would be little more than a footnote in scholarship were it not for controversy in German circles due to Nationalistic sentiment before and during the Nazi era in Germany. He concludes that "in reality, the most likely inspiration for the mass execution of Verden was the Bible", citing the biblical tale of the total extermination of the Amalekites and conquest of the Moabites by David (after the Moabites were defeated, two out of three are recorded as having been stretched out and killed). Barbero says that, in turn, Charlemagne likely "wanted to act like a true King of Israel". Barbero further points out that a few years later, a royal chronicler, commenting on Charlemagne's treatment of the Saxons, records that "either they were defeated or subjected to the Christian religion or completely swept away."
The controversy over the massacre was linked to disputes among German nationalists about the image of Charlemagne. Some Germans saw the victims of the massacre as defenders of Germany's traditional beliefs, resisting the foreign religion of Christianity. Wilhelm Teudt mentions the site of the massacre in his 1929 book Germanische Heiligtümer ('Germanic Shrines'). Some Christian nationalists linked Charlemagne with the humiliation of French domination after World War I, especially the occupation of the Rhineland.
Hermann Gauch, Heinrich Himmler's adjutant for culture, took the view that Charlemagne (known in German as Karl der Große 'Karl the Great') should be officially renamed "Karl the Slaughterer" because of the massacre. He advocated a memorial to the victims. Alfred Rosenberg also stated that the Saxon leader Widukind, not Karl, should be called "the Great". During the Third Reich the massacre became a major topic of debate. In 1934, two plays about Widukind were performed. The first, Der Sieger (The Victor) by Friedrich Forster, portrayed Charlemagne as brutal but his goal, Christianization of the pagan Saxons, as necessary. Reception was mixed. The second, Wittekind, by Edmund Kiß, was more controversial for its criticism of Christianization. The play saw various disturbances during its run.
In 1935, landscape architect Wilhelm Hübotter was commissioned to build the Sachsenhain (German 'Grove of the Saxons') in Verden, a monument to commemorate the massacre consisting of 4,500 large stones. The monument was used as both a memorial to the event and as a meeting place for the Schutzstaffel. The memorial was inscribed to "Baptism-Resistant Germans Massacred by Karl, the Slaughterer of the Saxons". In the same year the annual celebration of Charlemagne in Aachen, where he is buried, was cancelled and replaced by a lecture on "Karl the Great, Saxon Butcher." However, attacks on the legacy of Charlemagne were ended after Charlemagne was officially rehabilitated as a "German hero" under the Third Reich.
- Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae, a law code imposed by Charlemagne in 785 that prescribes death for Saxon pagans refusing to convert to Christianity
- Council of Cannstatt, a massacre of several thousand noblemen of the Alemanni recorded to have occurred in 746
- Scholz (1970:61).
- Barbero (2004:46).
- Barbero (2004:46-47).
- Gadberry (2004:156-166).
- Wolschke-Bulmahn (2001:283-284).
- Gauch, Sigfrid, Traces of my Father, Northwestern University Press, p.50.
- Barbero, Alessandro (2004). Charlemagne: Father of a Continent. University of California Press.
- Gadberry, Glen W. (2004). "An 'Ancient German Rediscovered' The Nazi Widukind Plays of Forster and Kiß" as published in Essays on Twentieth-Century German Drama and Theater: An American Reception, 1977-1999. Peter Lang. ISBN 9780820444031
- Scholz, Bernard Walter (Trans.) (1970). Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard's Histories. University of Michigan Press. ISBN 978-0-472-06186-0
- Wolschke-Bulmahn, Joachim (2001). "The Landscape Design of the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp Memorial" as collected in Places of Commemoration: Search for Identity and Landscape Design. Dumbarton Oaks. ISBN 978-0-884-02260-2