The original Huns were a tribe of nomadic horsemen from Central Asia who rode fast and fought hard.* When they reached Europe in the second half of the fourth century, the Huns triggered a mass migration of Germanic tribes that contributed to the fall of Rome in the fifth century. Under the leadership of Attila, they invaded Italy in 452–and were defeated by an alliance of Germanic tribes in 455.
The Huns may have been the barbarian’s barbarians, but they certainly weren’t Germanic. (Unlike the Vandals, the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths and the Franks.) So who pinned the name “the Hun” on Germany as a term of abuse?
Ironically, it was Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who first linked Germany to the Huns. Speaking in 1900 to German soldiers waiting to sail to China to help lift the siege of Peking in the Boxer Rebellion, Kaiser Wilhelm told his troops to fight “like the Huns under their King Attila a thousand years ago” so that “the name of Germany shall become known in China to such affect that no Chinaman will ever again dare so much as to look askance at a German.” Ruthless was the name of the game, according to the Kaiser: “Pardon will not be given, prisoners will not be taken. Whoever falles into your hands will fall to your sword.”
Way to go, Wilhelm! The Allies couldn’t have come up with a nastier description if they tried.
*Sometimes it seems like Central Asia had an inexhaustible supply of armed horsemen ready to ride across the Russian steppes or the Hindu Kush and change history. Think Ghengis Khan’s Mongol hordes.