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For themes of conflict, present in any country, see Studying War.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Sachsenhain: Saxons' Grove. Charlemagne's Slaughter of 4,500 Saxon Prisoners. Stories.

Saxon's Woods
Year 782 CE. Charlemagne's massacre at Verden of 4,500 Saxon prisoners of war.
What his history done to that travesty?
1.  Summary.  A walk in the woods. The old Saxony.  Standing stones set at Verden. A long story. The year:  780-82 AD.  Saxons, defending home territory, refusing to accept Christianity, opposing the great Charlemagne. Charlemagne's response after some 30 years of back and forth:  slaughter 4,500 Saxon prisoners of war, at Sachsenhain, Saxon's Woods, the Massacre of Verden.  
  • Ask first, however, where are the bones.  For such a mass decapitation event, heads severed, the remains could not easily have been identified and returned home, and by whom?  Where is the actual killing field, the skulls, the tibia, the femurs. Even if burned, there would be remains.  Research continues, several explanations possible.
So the Saxons rose up again and again, over some 30 years.  Charlemagne would think he had won, then the insurgency popped up somewhere else. Whack-a-Saxon as they popped up was not working.  The Saxons were not responding they way "normal" defeated groups reacted.  They refused to quit.

2.  The setting: 

 Charlemagne was pushing to take over Saxon lands and to force the Saxons to convert to his version of Christianity (the institutional Pope's version, the more contemplative forms having been targeted and removed as a threat to the institution).  Pope Adrian at the time had had his own troubles with the Lombards, and Charlemagne had come to attack them, so the relationship with the Pope was a good one.  

At Verden and Saxony, however, he had been thwarted for decades. These people wanted nothing to do with his religion or his invasion. Sometimes Charlemagne won, sometimes he did not. He became infuriated that the Saxons would not stay defeated. Read a 1902 account of that, and history of the time: Medieval and Modern History, Part I, The Middle Ages by Philip Van Ness Myers at p. 122 ff.

3.  Issues of proof.  

Where are the bones?  I recall no mass grave indication, or account of identifications of the dead made and relatives returning home with them.  That would not have happened. Without an ossuary-find, even chars, how to explain where the bodies went? The story of the Massacre of Verden is told and retold, even at children's level, see but without the proofs. Research continues.

3.1.  Is the absence of bones related to a rewrite of history, to downplay this vicious side of Charlemagne?

 Read versions written after Charlemagne was in process of beatification -- apparently never concluded.  He was "sainted" by Paschal III, an "anti-pope".  See  He has never been recognized by the Catholic Church as a saint, see site.  Nonetheless, supporters would stress Charlemagne's goodness, as would be needed for a saint. Rewrite history, downplay Verden, and so it was done. See accounts at Internet History Sourcebook,

 If he was to be a saint,

a) All his sins had to be forgiven for that status.

b) So forget about the massacre at Pamplona, where it is said that 30,000 were killed in his leveling of the city, see this view of Charlemagne from the Evil side, ://; and

c) So forget about the massacre here at Sachsenhain, Massacre at Verden, and excise it from the written histories.  Or, ameliorate them:  Charlemagne had asked for the Saxons only to identify their leaders, and the rest could go; but they all stood up, is one version (looking for the cite).

The victor Charlemagne supporters had the written language.  And they wrote what they wanted, is one explanation for official scribes, biographers to omit details of Verden.  You will not find a negative account of Charlemagne there. So what did happen?  Smart:  rewrite history. Who is to say what is right? Repetition gives even falsehood credibility.

3.2  Or did the massacre never happen?
  • Others say that a Latin word from the early texts was mistranslated, so that a concept for "exiled" or "relocated" became "beheaded". See ://  That site also notes, however, that a 681 AD edict by Bishops in Toledo called for beheading nonbelievers, so the policy was in place.  
  • And Charlemagne himself issued laws known as capitularies for the killing of those Saxons who still refused to convert, and this was several years after Verden, and even those who conspired with the Saxons, see History of the Christian Church,
The oral tradition of the Saxons, however, whether tied to a mistranslation, or an example of history's rewrite to purge it, held. Either way, the story of a massive massacre was passed on, and on. And fit with other acts of Charlemagne, as at Pamplona.

4   Origin of the stones themselves.  The Third Reich.

The stones around the long road-walk were set in place by German Nazis to promote nationalism, as a gesture that they were serving the public good.  Enter the Third Reich.

They erected a walkway.  Issue: How many stones ring the walkway?  This site says only 1000. See ://

It may be more.  Heinrich Himmler put together a public works project in 1934-35, a memorial at Sachsenhain, ostensibly to honor the Saxon dead -- all 4,500 with 4,500 standing stones.  Who has counted? The stones line a broad smooth dirt road around a rural pastureland, through woods, around.  Wide enough for vehicles.  Handy because, once the community was thankful to the Reich for their memorial, the Reich took it over for the Hitler Youth and the SS.  See next post.

5.  More variations on the story.

The slaughter -- out came the swords, and down the lines, around the circle, went Charlemagne's executioners.  Whack, Whack.  Other stories tell of fathers and sons clinging together, or brothers, or friends, as the sword descended nearer and nearer.  It was a travesty, if it happened that way. The Saxons never forgot. This was their Wood.  Their Grove. Sachsenhain. Saxon's Grove.  I am looking back for the cite offering these possible details.

6.  Cultural, heritage distinctions underlying the refusal to submit.

What made the Saxons so different from more southern European Germanic tribes, that these should be such holdouts.  See overview at
  •  The Saxons were not inclined toward the Roman organization, with its institutionalized hierarchies. They were a decentralized group: many within the larger tribe over a large area, with a common culture; and leaders arising as needed, then blending back into the community to carry on with an ordinary life. 
  •  Thought Charlemagne, perhaps, the only way to ensure subjugation is kill them all.  This is part of Western tradition.
    • See Stonewall Jackson debating with Colonel Patton on whether to kill brave men:  “I should have spared them because they were men who had gotten into a desperate situation,” replied Patton.    Jackson replied, “No, Colonel, shoot them all, I don’t want them to be brave.” Fair use, see, at The Death of Turner Ashby May 6
    • See Cistercian monk Amalric, ordering the massacre at Beziers, by Simon de Montfort, : Albigensian Crusade, Cathar Christians, in essence  Kill them all. The Lord will know his 
    • See also Crusaders sacking Jerusalem and Constantinople, etc.
So the Saxons continued to fight, melt away, feign conversion, and Charlemagne had had enough.

As a memorial, however, it remains moving, with stones seemingly tilting toward each other, some sheltering lesser sized stones, others defiantly to themselves.

 Individualized standing stones, Sachsenhain, Germany

7.  Now, diminution.

The current owners and operators, an evangelical group, unfortunately has defaced some of them.  They etched in the stones their own religious motivational slogan words, but ignore those.

The area is now owned and operated by an Evangelical group, with slogans and words on the stones difficult to translate.  We think this is Menschen Wie Vele Leben or men will live, something like that. Some stones as we recall had one word, or perhaps two.  Looking for others' accounts of the translations.  We simply prefer historic stones kept as they are, free of any agenda.

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