Public Dismay

Despite the widespread awareness of changing circumstances, news of the Empire’s dissolution caused consternation. The idea that the general population were indifferent is a myth elaborated by later historians, usually by taking a few quotations from Goethe and others out of context.1 Some intellectuals and artists indeed welcomed its demise and looked to Napoleon as the herald of a new age. However, many were deeply affected, like the painter Caspar David Friedrich, who fell ill as a result.2 On 20 July 1806 the French envoy in Bavaria already reported waves of ‘nostalgia’ at the Empire’s imminent end, and noted the widespread concern at losing a system that protected the weak against the strong.3 The remaining envoys at the Reichstag received the formal announcement with dismay.4 The newly minted elector of Hessen-Kassel, with tears in his eyes, told an Austrian envoy that he regretted the loss of ‘a constitution from which Germany has long derived its happiness and freedom’.5 Even those who directly benefited were upset. Von Dalberg was close to tears when he signed the Confederation Act, while the dour, authoritarian Friedrich I, who had just become Württemberg’s first king, privately mourned the Empire’s end.6

With Germany full of Napoleon’s troops, few dared to protest. Johann Palm, a Nuremberg book dealer, was executed on 26 August for writing an anonymous 150-page pamphlet criticizing French policy.7 Hans von Gagern wrote that, as a government minister in Nassau, he could take no action, because the French occupied the principality, yet he deeply regretted the division of ‘my general fatherland’. Many others noted how, in contrast to 1801–3, people were now too frightened to discuss political reform.8

Public discussion of the Empire’s end was thus delayed until 1813 when allied troops began liberating Germany after Napoleon’s defeat in Russia the year before. The period immediately following Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815 was profoundly conservative and saw debate constrained by tight censorship laws. These circumstances affected those who published memoirs, especially the last ‘imperial generation’ who reached later middle age around 1820. Their accounts reflected how their careers had fared after 1806. Predictably, those who had suffered most expressed the deepest regret, notably the old aristocratic and legal elite, and the princes mediatized after 1801.

Continuity amidst Change

Hegel famously described the imperial constitution as constructed of round stones that would roll away if pushed. Many historians have followed him in depicting 1806 as ‘zero hour’, deliberately using the term ‘old Empire’ (Altes Reich) to consign the imperial socio-political order to history and to present modern Germany as a product of nineteenth-century war and economic developments. ‘In the beginning was Napoleon,’ writes Thomas Nipperdey at the start of his general history.9 Many of Hegel’s stones in fact proved immovable boulders, because it took several years to dismantle the constitutional order and many more to remove underlying socio-legal arrangements.

The legality of Francis II’s abdication was the most immediate issue since the majority of central Europeans remained governed by rulers who, till then, had been imperial vassals. Austrian ministers carefully phrased the abdication patent to blame the new Confederation of the Rhine for having already wrecked the Empire, reducing Francis’s act to simply releasing his vassals from their feudal ties. For this reason, Austria’s representative told the later German Federal Assembly on 5 November 1816 that the Empire had ceased to exist when the Confederation princes ratified their alliance with Napoleon on 1 August 1806.10 Legalism still guided behaviour. Austrian ministers seriously debated whether the imperial insignia belonged to the Habsburgs or the Empire collectively, and strove to avoid the impression that Francis had simply stolen them. As in 1803, there was a continued sense of duty towards those who had served the Empire, and Austria provided pensions for the Reichshofrat staff who found themselves unemployed.

Sweden issued an official protest on 22 August 1806, arguing that the Empire still existed but was merely under French occupation. Britain took a similar line, even briefly going to war with Prussia for having annexed Hanover. Most imperial lawyers concluded that, though Francis was entitled to abdicate, he could not unilaterally dissolve the Empire, which was a collective order of emperor and imperial Estates.11 The sense of uncertainty was heightened by the continued existence of the Prussian-controlled northern neutrality zone, which still adhered to the constitutional order established in 1803 and whose princes had refrained from joining the Confederation of the Rhine.

Prussia used the opportunity to increase pressure on the northern princes from July onwards, presenting them with a stark choice of either accepting closer cooperation on its terms or becoming French vassals. Prussian ministers envisaged annexing the three wealthy cities of Hamburg, Bremen and Lübeck, whilst allowing Hanover and Saxony to assume royal titles and permitting Hessen-Kassel to take the remaining smaller north-western territories. Hessen-Kassel and Saxony were prepared to accept a Kayßer von Preußen, but wanted to retain more of the old structures, including the Westphalian and Lower and Upper Saxon Kreise. Even Prussia wanted to preserve a Danish presence in Holstein and accept Russian possession of the tiny lordship of Jever. Russia rejected this, refusing to respond to official notification of Francis’s abdication and acting as if the Empire still existed. However, Austria was prepared to accept Prussian plans, because it saw these as the only way to restrict the Confederation of the Rhine to the south and west. France did not have to do much to block Prussia’s belated imperial project. Minor north German princes like those of Waldeck and Lippe-Detmold had already joined the Confederation in August 1806 to escape annexation. Prussia failed to secure more than defensive treaties with Saxony and Hessen-Kassel, leaving it isolated when Napoleon decided to settle matters by war in October.12

Liquidating the Empire

The imperial postal service was already in difficulties during the 1790s and fragmented into 30 rival territorial networks during 1806, though the Thurn und Taxis family would continue to operate a reduced business until forced by Prussia to sell this in July 1867.13Otherwise, the deeply engrained legalism persisted, smoothing the new territorial reorganization, as it had done in 1801–3. However, this time there was no longer a single, superior constitutional order, and it was not clear where formal responsibility lay. In practice, the Imperial Deputation’s Final Decision from March 1803 continued to operate and its guidelines were incorporated in the Confederation Act of July 1806 by obliging members to look after the employees and debts of the territories Napoleon permitted them to annex.14

For example, the 300-square-kilometre Westphalian county of Rietberg had been elevated to a principality in 1803 and survived into 1806 through its incorporation within the neutrality zone. It was assigned to the Department of Fulda, an administrative subdivision of the new kingdom of Westphalia, created in 1807 by Napoleon for his brother Jérôme, using the Hessen-Kassel and former Westphalian and Lower Saxon bishoprics recently annexed by Prussia. The new district official reported on the fate of Rietberg’s ‘army’ of one lieutenant and 23 men ‘that these soldiers are not National Guards, but were a real and long-standing military force, maintained partly to discharge obligations to the Empire and partly for police and public-order duties’. Accordingly, the new government ruled that they were entitled to pensions at public expense.15

Meanwhile, the grand duchy of Berg, another Napoleonic creation, inherited responsibility for liquidating the affairs of the Westphalian Kreis on the grounds that the former duke of Berg had been the Kreis convenor. It took until 1811 to wind up business and arrange pensions for former officials. Liquidation of the Swabian Kreis fell to Württemberg and was completed in 1809. Austria did what it could to disrupt this, entrusting the former Reichshofrat president Count Philipp Öttingen-Wallerstein with heading a commission in February 1807 to divide the court’s cases between those still ongoing and a historic archive. The work was incomplete when renewed French occupation of Vienna forced Austria to surrender the documents in 1809. Napoleon planned a central archive for all Europe and had the court papers, along with some other Habsburg material, carted off in 2,500 chests to Paris. After Napoleon’s defeat, the Treaty of Paris (May 1814) compelled France to return to Austria all documents relating to l’ancien Empire Germanique.16

The Reichskammergericht staff fared less well than those of the Reichshofrat, because no one wanted to take responsibility for what had been a common institution maintained by all imperial Estates. Nonetheless, thanks to their prestige and competence, over half the former judges found posts in the successor states, including Karl Albert von Kamptz, who became Prussian minister of justice.17 The court’s base, the former imperial city of Wetzlar, had already been assigned in 1803 to Dalberg’s new arch-chancellor principality. He established a new law school there in 1808 ostensibly modelled on French examples, but in practice continuing the Reichskammergericht’s function to train jurists for all Germany. Former staff were employed as teachers. The German Confederation confirmed the employment of Reichskammergericht archivists to look after the court’s documents in 1816. Prussia, which had received Wetzlar within the renewed redistribution of territory after Napoleon’s final defeat the year before, forced the Confederation to establish a commission in 1821 to disperse the documents. It is a measure of the complexity of the Empire’s legal history that it took 24 years to work out where to send them, since it was far from clear which of the successor states ‘owned’ individual cases. The papers were sent across Germany between 1847 and 1852, much to the frustration of modern historians, who ever since have had to search numerous regional archives to reconstruct imperial legal history.18

The Persistence of Corporate Society

The continuity of personnel encouraged that of practice, contributing to the uneven experience in the Empire’s former territories across 1806–15. Full French-style legal and administrative reforms were limited to Berg and Westphalia, the two states governed by Napoleon’s relations, as well as the Rhineland directly annexed to France, and to the grand duchy of Würzburg and Dalberg’s grand duchy of Frankfurt, established in 1806. Elsewhere, change was largely an acceleration of earlier rationalization and codification, driven now by the need to incorporate mediatized territories and to meet Napoleon’s demands for military support. Württemberg more than doubled in size between 1802 and 1810, annexing 78 smaller territories, while its population changed from being solidly Lutheran to nearly one-third Catholic.19 The situation was similar in Baden, Bavaria, Hessen-Darmstadt and Nassau, which all made significant gains. Existing administrations could not cope, and were hastily overhauled using prevailing enlightened ideas, French models and pure expediency. Saxony, Mecklenburg and the surviving smaller principalities were more stable, because they were given little or no additional territory after 1806.

Much of the socio-legal order survived even multiple territorial reorganizations. Mecklenburg retained its 1755 constitution until 1918. The Saxon Estates survived until 1831, Hadeln’s peasant assembly met until 1884, while corporatism continued to shape Prussia’s internal politics long after that. The mediatized princes retained privileged legal status, and control of their own domains and over clerical appointments, plus lesser jurisdiction, hunting and fishing rights within the boundaries of their former imperial fiefs, until 1848. Prussian manors enjoyed tax exemption until 1861, police authority up to 1872, and favourable control over servants until 1918, with lordly influence over local churches persisting even after that. Manorial districts remained the primary units of state administration in Prussia until 1927, all despite the fact that reforms between 1807 and 1821 emancipated serfs from the manorial economy.20 Hamburg’s Jewish Ordinance from 1710 remained in force into the later nineteenth century, while Bavaria’s partially codified civil code from 1754 persisted until 1900. Prussia lacked a uniform commercial code before 1861, while a supreme court for the German states was not established again until 1879. Codification of civil law across the states of the Second German Empire took from 1879 until 1900 to complete. Some cultural elements of the old order displayed still greater longevity: Buchenbach parish near Freiburg assumed the spiritual responsibilities of the Swabian monasteries secularized in 1803 and continued to say prayers in memory of Emperor Frederick I ‘Barbarossa’ until after the First World War.21

The Confederation of the Rhine

Political fragmentation was in some ways greater after 1806, because dissolution of imperial structures removed the common framework, leaving central Europe divided into the Austrian Empire, Prussia and the sovereign states grouped into Napoleon’s Confederation of the Rhine. Fragments of the Empire persisted alongside these larger entities. West Pomerania remained Swedish until 1815, Jever was still Russian up to 1818, while Denmark held Holstein until forced to relinquish this in 1864. All three enclaves owed their survival to Napoleon’s reluctance to antagonize the powers that owned them. The Teutonic Order commandery at Mergentheim was reserved to Austria by the Peace of Pressburg. Austrian troops guarded this outpost in Swabia until the 1809 war with France, which saw Mergentheim annexed by Württemberg as Napoleon’s ally.22 Although Hanover disappeared in the territorial redistribution after 1806, it retained a shadowy existence through the service of most of its former army as the King’s German Legion with the British from 1803 to 1815.

Dynastic continuity was still more striking. Not only did the Habsburgs and Hohenzollerns remain rulers of large states, but 39 princely families and dynastic branches survived as sovereigns in the Confederation of the Rhine. These included the rulers of tiny Schaumburg-Lippe, which had only just escaped Hessian annexation, thanks to the imperial courts in 1787 (see p. 642). The von der Leyen family, elevated from imperial knights to counts as recently as 1711, became princes in 1803 and survived after 1806 thanks to kinship with both Dalberg and Josephine Bonaparte. Their possessions were only mediatized in 1815, passing first to Austria and then Baden after 1819. The Liechtensteins made it all the way from former ministeriales to twenty-first-century sovereigns, having acquired huge estates in Styria, Moravia, Bohemia and Silesia after the twelfth century to become imperial princes in 1623. They finally obtained a Reichstag vote a century later for their lordship of Vaduz, comprising a mere 165 square kilometres, which they bought in 1712. The Liechtensteins secured independence by joining the Confederation of the Rhine in 1806, though their real wealth lay in the estates they retained in the Austrian empire. They escaped integration within Bismarck’s Germany by forging a customs union between Vaduz and Austria in 1866. A similar relationship with Switzerland then ensured the continued survival of the Liechtensteins after 1919.

The Confederation developed in four stages, with the initial 16 members leaving the Empire in July 1806. Electoral Saxony joined the Confederation in December, becoming a kingdom, as did the Ernestine Saxon dukes, all of whom sought a closer relationship with Napoleon after his comprehensive victory over Prussia that October. The third phase began in April 1807 when 12 northern and central German principalities from the former neutrality zone joined the Confederation, and ended when Napoleon created the new kingdom of Westphalia in December. Finally, Oldenburg and the two branches of Mecklenburg joined in 1808. Napoleon deliberately preserved some of the smaller states as thorns in the sides of their larger neighbours like Bavaria and Württemberg to hold these in check. Although fully sovereign, all were vulnerable. Napoleon was the Confederation’s ‘protector’, but annexed Oldenburg, Salm-Salm, Salm-Kyrburg and Arenberg, as well as truncating the grand duchy of Berg to expand French territory to the North Sea coast in December 1810. Simultaneously, he seized the cities of Hamburg, Bremen and Lübeck, which had survived since 1806 without joining the Confederation.

Many continued to draw inspiration from the Empire in their efforts to make the Confederation more viable and less vulnerable to Napoleonic whim. Franz Joseph von Albini, Dalberg’s chief minister, persuaded Dalberg not to resign, but instead to lay down his imperial arch-chancellorship on 31 July 1806 and accept Napoleon’s offer to become the Confederation’s ‘prince-premier’ (Fürstprimus).23 Dalberg hoped the position would allow him to shape the Confederation as a modernized, streamlined, federal version of the Empire. Napoleon indulged him, allowing him to submit various draft constitutions, all of which envisaged the French emperor as ‘protector’ with the position of prince-premier as substitute arch-chancellor. A ‘federal assembly’ (Bundestag) would convene in Regensburg in place of the Reichstag. Votes were to be distributed roughly according to size, with Bavaria receiving six, Württemberg four, the prince-premier and all grand dukes three each, Nassau two and the rest one apiece. Status thinking persisted in the idea of dividing the assembly into a college of kings and one of princes.

The plans attracted some interest, especially as the weaker Confederation princes hoped a constitution would silence the legal debate as to whether the Empire had been dissolved or was merely currently occupied by France and its allies.24 However, all princes clung to their new sovereignty and feared that, like today’s opponents of the EU, common institutions would cramp their independence. Napoleon had no interest in federal structures that might provide a platform to oppose his military and political demands. Dalberg persisted, remaining loyal to the Confederation till the end and refusing to open negotiations with the Allies once it became obvious that Napoleon was losing the war. Instead, Dalberg abdicated on 28 October 1813 in favour of Eugène de Beauharnais, Napoleon’s stepson, who had been designated next prince-premier in 1810. After temporary exile in Konstanz, Dalberg was allowed by Bavaria to return as the new, purely clerical, archbishop of Regensburg in 1814.

Confirming the End

Compared to the Empire, the Confederation offered very little to its inhabitants who experienced it, much as the Habsburg official Joseph Haas predicted, now simply as Napoleon’s recruiting sergeant and tax collector. After France’s defeat, there was a strong desire to return to normality, which most still associated with the Empire. Many expected that the Congress of Vienna (1814–15), convened to agree the post-Napoleonic settlement, would restore the Empire. The future Prussian king, Frederick William IV, felt the Empire had simply been in ‘abeyance’ since 1806 and wanted to revive as much of it as possible.25 The prince regent and future king George IV and his ministers saw restoring the Empire as a way to recover Hanover. George only assumed the title of king of Hanover in October 1814 when it became obvious the Empire would not be resurrected, making it necessary to match Bavarian, Saxon and Württemberg royal status.26

Others persisted further, notably Count Friedrich Ludwig of Solms-Laubach, who had been a prime mover in Prince Karl of Isenburg-Birstein’s Frankfurt Union of 1803. Unlike his fellow princes after 1806, Count Friedrich wanted to reverse the mediatization of minor rulers like those in Erbach and Leiningen and he lobbied Napoleon on their behalf – unsurprisingly without effect. He adapted the older rhetoric of imperial patriotism to the new language of German nationalism voiced during the 1813 campaign to present the aristocrats as fighting for their fatherland. At the end of the year he formed an association reminiscent of those of the early modern counts to mobilize minor princes who had lost their autonomy since 1803 or were likely to do so now. He won some sympathy from the influential Prussian minister Baron Stein, but merely managed to secure an extension of the mediatized rulers’ existing privileges when the German Confederation was established in June 1815.27 Rather more surprising was the desire among many ordinary inhabitants for a reversal of the changes since 1803, particularly for their communities to recover autonomy or to be returned to their previous rulers. Baden and Württemberg arrested pro-Austrian sympathizers to scotch a movement calling for a restoration of Habsburg rule in Swabian lands they had acquired in 1806.28

The process of defeating Napoleon had already rendered such hopes illusory by the autumn of 1813 when the Allies confirmed that Bavaria and Württemberg could keep their new territories in return for changing sides against France. By then, a decade of near-continuous warfare had demonstrated the military potential of the enlarged principalities, ensuring that the interests of their sovereigns could not be ignored by Austria and Prussia. With partition between the two great powers now off the agenda for the moment, the Congress of Vienna defaulted to the Empire for inspiration as how to organize central Europe. Taking their cue from Dalberg – though without saying so – all proposals presented a rationalized, federal version of the old order. Despite his famous advocacy of a ‘national monarchy’, Stein’s proposal was really a romanticized version of medieval emperorship presiding over a federalized Empire including enlarged Austrian and Prussian monarchies.29 The past shaped discussions directly. For example, the agreements from the last two imperial elections in 1790 and 1792 were used to guide what powers any new emperor might have. Most proposals envisaged some kind of Kreis structure to group the smaller states. All proposed a federal congress based on the Reichstag. No one seriously considered a republic.

The result was the German Confederation of Austria, Prussia, 4 kingdoms, 18 grand duchies, 11 principalities and 4 free cities. All were considered sovereign, yet combined within elements of a federal state. The new Federal Diet (Bundestag) opened in November 1816 in the Thurn und Taxis palace in Frankfurt, establishing a symbolic link to the Empire, because princes from that family had been the Habsburgs’ principal commissioners to the Reichstag during the later eighteenth century. The Confederation shared much of the Empire’s imprecision and fudge. Its constitution was drawn up hastily during the Hundred Days campaign after Napoleon’s surprise return from Elba in February 1815. Many elements were little more than vague suggestions, leaving future developments open, though convergence along federal lines was clearly an option.

Lacking precision, the Confederation partly defaulted to old imperial practice. Austria’s emperors were formally hereditary Confederation presidents, but were still treated with a general deference owing more to the Holy Roman imperial legacy than the Austrian imperial title assumed only in 1804. The Habsburgs were still the only German imperial family. They fared no worse than the Hohenzollerns, who had been humiliatingly defeated in 1806 and had to be pushed by their generals into changing sides against Napoleon at the end of 1812. Austria’s further defeat in 1809 had at least burnished the Habsburgs’ patriotic credentials, since they had assumed the challenge of liberating Germany without support from other German rulers. All the new German princes gathered at Schönbrunn Palace when Ferdinand succeeded Francis II in 1835 as the first Habsburg emperor who had not also once held the Holy Roman title. Frankfurt city council embarked on a 15-year project after 1838 to decorate the ‘emperor’s room’ in their city hall with portraits of every monarch from Charlemagne to Francis II. The Habsburgs attracted considerable sympathy when Austria fought alone and lost against France and Piedmont in the War of Italian Unification in 1859. Only the Hohenzollerns contested their leadership role and even then not consistently before mid-century. Prussia’s king was the only Confederation sovereign absent when Austria’s new emperor, Franz Joseph, convened a summit in Frankfurt in 1863 to debate political reforms.

The Confederation Act of 1815 established the judicial sovereignty of each member state, instructing them to create their own courts of appeal. Article 12 allowed the four free cities to refer cases to courts in other states to ensure impartiality, rather like the practice of seeking judicial advice used in the early modern Empire (see pp. 628–36). Similarly, the Federal Diet acted as an informal supreme court, in the same manner as the Reichstag, which had performed this function without its being specified constitutionally. As with so many other early liberal aspirations, these vague arrangements proved incapable of preventing arbitrary justice in some Confederation members.30

Article 14 declared some previous laws null and void in an effort to prevent conflict between the legal systems of Confederation members and those of the mediatized territories within their new borders. However, it was unclear whether Francis’s abdication in 1806 had ended the validity of imperial law, especially as territorial law largely derived from this and often incorporated it verbatim. Only Berg and Westphalia had adopted the Napoleonic Code. Austria, Bavaria and Oldenburg had reformed their codes by 1814, but the process was slow elsewhere, lasting between 1769 and 1820 in Hessen-Darmstadt. Holstein already declared in September 1806 that the Carolina penal code and other imperial laws remained valid unless they explicitly contradicted its own law. Most followed this expedient, and it was adopted in Article 23 of the Vienna Congress Final Accord of 1820, which endorsed the continued validity of all imperial laws and norms that were still useful in the successor states.31 The difficulties encountered in changing existing legal arrangements help explain the survival of corporate society beyond 1806.


Attitudes outside Germany

Dealing with the Empire’s historical legacy took far longer. The viability of the German Confederation was compromised by Austria’s dual role as its president and as guarantor of the settlement imposed on Italy by the Vienna Congress. This superficially mirrored the geographic extent of the Empire, but the circumstances were very different, because the former princely houses and civic republics of imperial Italy had been swept away by the French after 1796. Only the House of Savoy was restored (to Piedmont in 1814), but was considered too weak to defend Italy against possible future French aggression. Austria now ruled Lombardy and Venetia as possessions outside the German Confederation. Three of the other remaining four north Italian states were governed by the Habsburgs’ relations. Meanwhile, the papacy was restored in central Italy and the Bourbons resumed as kings of Naples-Sicily. As neither were interested in Italian unity, Piedmont emerged as Italy’s champion, assuming a place equivalent to Prussia for many German nationalists.

In these circumstances, the Empire appeared either irrelevant to ‘true’ Italian history or as a symbol of ‘German oppression’. Giuseppe Verdi’s opera La battaglia di Legnano premiered in Rome on 27 January 1849, two months after Pope Pius IX had fled a liberal-nationalist revolution. Its theme of the victory of the Lombard League over Emperor Barbarossa and his ‘German’ knights in 1176 was a clear inspiration to the revolutionaries battling to eject the Austrians from Italy. Although the opera was suppressed by Austrian censors following the defeat of Piedmont and the Roman Republic that summer, a reference to Legnano was inserted into the Italian national anthem after unification and independence had been achieved in the 1860s. The Empire has remained associated with hegemony, with, for example, Umberto Bossi’s Lega Nord also claiming the Lombard League’s legacy in its campaign against the national government in Rome during the 1990s.32

Other than claiming Charlemagne exclusively for themselves, French observers broadly agreed with the generally negative view of the Empire propagated by Leopold von Ranke and his fellow German historians. The Empire, it was believed, belonged only to the medieval past, when ‘the weight of Christian universalism’ crushed any potential for a viable nation state. Having apparently disappeared completely in the 840s, its revival under Otto I merely created a ‘true colossus with feet of clay’.33 This weakness was a constant source of anxiety, since French statesmen and historians believed that any attempt to forge a truly national German state would involve aggressive expansion at the expense of Germany’s current neighbours – a view amply reinforced by the experience of 1870–71, 1914–18 and 1938–45.34

Non-Germans still within the Confederation’s frontiers were less hostile, because the post-1815 political and legal arrangements preserved something of their old autonomy. This acquired political significance during the 1848–9 revolutions, which forced the Confederation to confront the discrepancy between its political framework and the new, more militant and essentialist nationalist ideas. By 1851, the option of incorporating all Habsburg and Hohenzollern land within the Confederation was off the table due to opposition from other powers, who feared it would create a central European superstate. Discussions, therefore, increasingly narrowed to a Greater German solution incorporating German-speakers beyond existing frontiers, or a Lesser German variant excluding Austria if it did not want to detach itself from the other Habsburg lands.

The controversy greatly accelerated ethnic nationalism within non-German parts of the Habsburg monarchy. The Czechs were particularly anxious to avoid marginalization if incorporated within a unified Germany. Czech liberals rejected an offer to participate in the Frankfurt Parliament during 1848–9, preferring to remain within the multilingual Habsburg monarchy. Czech historians grew more interested in the Empire, which they presented positively, as it had not threatened Bohemian autonomy. Views only became more hostile in the later nineteenth century when nationalists struggled to assert a more distinct identity, sucking historical interpretations of the Empire into general anti-German sentiment. German historians conveniently supplied ammunition with their studies detailing the Empire’s numerous failings.35

German Perspectives

Many Germans were initially more sympathetic to the Empire. The new liberal-nationalist ideals attracted limited popular support. Only 468 students participated in the famous Wartburg Festival on 18 October 1817, held on the fourth anniversary of the allied victory over Napoleon at Leipzig in a location also befitting the tercentenary just two weeks later of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses that sparked the Reformation. Even the Hambach Festival in 1832 drew fewer than 30,000 liberals, compared to the 1.1 million pilgrims visiting Trier in 1844 to see what was believed to be Christ’s Holy Robe.36 For most, identity remained multilayered. Wilhelm von Humboldt, writing in 1813, argued that living in a particular land within a wider community was what defined the German character.37 Incremental identification from community through state to nation was in tune with the Confederation’s political structure and has been labelled ‘federal nationalism’.38 It contrasted with the situation in Italy after 1815 where there was no federal political structure and where fragmentation was associated with foreign (Habsburg) oppression.

However, it still left many dissatisfied. Only Austria and Prussia were still decentralized, with strong provincial as well as communal and state identities. Military necessity had produced more strongly centralized political systems in the other German states, whose rulers had no desire to foster separate identities for the areas they had mediatized between 1803 and 1815.39 Meanwhile, the process of mediatization raised false hopes amongst intellectuals for more progressive socio-economic and political change, whereas actual reforms were primarily limited to improving fiscal-military efficiency. Many of the post-1815 states failed to introduce more democratic representation. Increasingly, progressive intellectuals saw the Third Germany of smaller principalities as a reactionary holdover from what was now understood as the pre-revolutionary ‘old regime’.40 The experience of 1792–1815 transformed the understanding of ‘the people’, with many calling for the segregated society of Estates to be replaced by a more equal relationship amongst inhabitants, and between them and the state. The ‘nation’ was increasingly viewed as composed of ‘the people’, rather than defined by legal and constitutional arrangements. Nationalism became an oppositional strategy for those critical of the established order, rather than an endorsement of existing structures.41

Encouraged by the spread of Romanticism, nationalists looked to the past for inspiration to shape Germany’s future. The Empire’s more recent history appeared only a tale of decline towards inglorious demise. While many liberals remained uncomfortable with earlier emperors’ close associations with the papacy, the medieval Empire appeared more promising. The Middle Ages were sufficiently distant to be romanticized as a lost harmonious society. Conveniently, liberal and conservative agendas chimed with the prevailing historical scholarship, which distinguished a powerful German national monarchy until 1250 from a supposedly long period of terminal decline. This interpretation was popularized by the spread of local-history societies after 1819. Some served the agendas of small-state patriotism by focusing on the local dynasty, perhaps most successfully in Bavaria, where the reign of Louis IV ‘the Bavarian’ was used to underpin the new Wittelsbach kingdom.42 However, others took a broader view, notably theMonumenta Germaniae Historica, dedicated to publishing documents on the medieval German church.

Artists and writers attractively packaged the Middle Ages for a wider audience. Johann Jakob Bodmer’s rediscovery of the Nibelungenlied in 1757 was popularized from the early nineteenth century through new collections of German literature and folk tales. Another influential example was Goethe’s play about Götz von Berlichingen, the sixteenth-century ‘robber baron’, which he published in 1773. Casting 62 characters in addition to supporting masses, it is almost impossible to perform, and often departs from history: Götz dies at the end of the Peasants War in 1525, rather than in reality from old age in 1562. However, Goethe’s Götz is a powerful symbol of martial ‘German freedom’ who deals directly with the emperor, rather than through a lordly hierarchy.43 The idea was taken up by many others in an attempt to reconnect with a supposedly more authentic and less corrupt age. For instance, Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s story Die Zauberring (1812) is a courtly romance of knights, damsels and swordplay set in a landscape of dark forests and castles on rocky crags.

The past was also physically invoked. Cologne Cathedral had been begun in 1248 but was still unfinished when work was abandoned in 1560. A local initiative in 1808 to restart it won the support of Prussian Crown Prince Frederick William, who laid the foundation stone for the new work in 1842, explicitly linking construction to the task of building national unity.44 Max von Schenkendorf’s poem The German Cities stimulated interest in Albrecht Dürer and Hans Sachs, and offered a way to reclaim some of the early modern past without engaging with Reformation history and its still-difficult legacy for nineteenth-century Germany, where religious divisions assumed new political significance.45 The first monuments to Dürer and Sachs were unveiled in the early 1840s, while Sachs was celebrated at the Pan-German Song Festival in 1861, in turn inspiring Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Hans von Aufseß’s collection of medieval German art became the basis of the German National Museum, which opened in Nuremberg in 1852 and was adopted the following year as a ‘national undertaking’ by the German Confederation.

Romanticism’s ‘back to the future’ vision was open to both conservative and liberal interpretations. Many celebrated medieval society as an organic, harmonious social order, and claimed that corporatism would render formal constitutions unnecessary. This was a politicized version of Richard Wagner’s ideal of a complete synthesis of the arts (Gesamtkunstwerk), fusing all elements into a common whole. The appeal through metaphors, stories and images often found greater popular resonance than abstract arguments and political programmes. Above all, it suggested a distinctly Germanic solution to the problems of modernity superior to what many perceived as the excesses of British liberalism or mechanistic French Revolutionary ideology. Francophobia was a convenient way to gloss over current tensions within Germany, and the official commemoration of the ‘Wars of Liberation’ (1813–15) ignored the fact that German troops had fought on both sides in 1806, 1809 and 1813.46

The search for a more authentically ‘German’ past involved a rejection of ancient Rome, not least because liberal nationalists increasingly pinned their hopes on Protestant Prussia in opposition to Catholic Austria. The earlier celebration of imperial translation was reversed in favour of interpreting Roman culture as passing through Charlemagne to France, bypassing Germany almost entirely. Ancient Greece supplanted Rome as the classical model, boosted by German involvement in Greek independence in 1829. Ludwig I of Bavaria, father of modern Greece’s first king, built Valhalla (1830–42) overlooking the Danube near Regensburg as a pantheon fusing Greek and Germanic influences.47 The eaves of one side were decorated with personifications of the German states and Germania, while Arminius – now Germanified as ‘Hermann’ – looked out from the other, typifying the broader trend to celebrate the ancient Germans’ resistance to the Romans. The emergence of archaeology as a specialist discipline in Germany from the 1780s saw virtually any non-Roman object labelled as ‘Germanic’ in a bid to demonstrate the superiority of Kultur over Western, Frenchified ‘civilization’. Fund-raising for the Hermann Memorial in the Teutoüberg forest began in 1841, attracting sponsorship from the British, Austrian and Dutch royal families – demonstrating the portability of the story, which was also construed as a victory for freedom over (Napoleonic-French) oppression. Things had changed somewhat by the time the monument was actually built in 1871–5, with Hermann now overtly linked to Kaiser Wilhelm I in an attempt to root the new Second Empire in the ancient past.48

The 1848 Revolution exposed the difficulties of combining these disparate elements within the desired harmony. The revolutionary parliament convened in Frankfurt, partly as the location of the Federal Diet, but also thanks to its earlier imperial associations. Unable to meet in the unfinished Kaisersaal in the town hall, the envoys convened in the nearby Paulskirche. The parliament adopted black, red and gold as the new national colours in an attempt to forge a further connection with the Middle Ages. Although all three colours were associated with the medieval Empire, they were only combined as a tricolour by the Lützow rifle corps during the Napoleonic Wars and were used subsequently by liberals from 1817. The parliament added a black double eagle on a gold shield, though without the halos, and this remained the Confederation’s symbol until 1866.49 Prussia was obliged to find a different set of colours once it defeated Austria and formed its own North German Confederation in 1867. Hanseatic red and white were combined with the black of Prussia’s royal eagle and became the official colours from 1871, appearing as a new tricolour belatedly adopted as a national flag in 1892. Although both were intended to root new states in the past, the two sets of colours had acquired distinct ideological associations by 1919 that had nothing to do with the pre-1806 Empire. The Weimar Republic compromised by using democratic black, red and gold as the national flag, and conservative black, white and red for the mercantile marine.

The Second Empire

Italian and German unification between 1859 and 1871 was a disaster for Europe’s small states, 12 of which lost their independence.50 The Habsburgs were compelled to grant Hungary equal political status, creating the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary in 1867. This failed to resolve whether this was still an empire or a personal union, with the Habsburgs continuing the early modern fudge already characteristic in their adoption of a hereditary imperial title in 1804.51 It proved difficult to decide when Austrian history began. Actual separation from Germany sprang from the defeat of 1866, which hardly offered a suitably patriotic starting point. Consequently, Austrian history only became a compulsory subject at the country’s universities in 1893 when it adopted the wider scholarly convention of tracing the country’s development as part of wider ‘imperial history’ (Reichsgeschichte), until the reign of Charles V, when Habsburg emperors subtly morphed into good Austrians who dealt with the Empire almost as if it was a separate, fairly minor country.

Prussia’s victory over France in 1870–71 allowed it to convert the expedient of the North German Confederation into the Second Empire by absorbing the south German states of Baden, Bavaria, Hessen-Darmstadt and Württemberg. The new empire was proclaimed on 18 January 1871 in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles in a ceremony staged deliberately not only to demonstrate victory over France, but to echo selected elements of the Holy Roman past in an effort to base the new state on something broader than military triumph. Otto von Bismarck persuaded Ludwig II of Bavaria to lead the surviving German princes to acclaim Wilhelm I as emperor in an act drawing directly on what was believed to be early medieval practice. The proclamation explicitly referred to the ‘German imperial title dormant for over 60 years’.52 Holy Roman connections continued as Wilhelm sat on the Ottonian Goslar throne rather than his royal Prussian one when he opened the new Reichstag on 21 March. The early modern formulation ‘emperor and empire’ (Kaiser und Reich  ) was also used to accommodate the fact that the Second Empire consisted of a much-enlarged Prussia (itself still a kingdom), 21 kingdoms and principalities and three free cities.

These actions derived from expediency rather than genuine commitment to the Holy Roman past. The Goslar throne was used because the Habsburgs still held the Aachen treasures and imperial insignia. Bismarck needed to mask the fact that creating the Second Empire had involved severing historic ties to Austria, suppressing six sovereign German states and asserting Prussian dominance over the remainder. A vague association with the earlier imperial title avoided calling Wilhelm I ‘federal president’, which sounded dangerously republican after the experiences of 1848. The interim imperial coat of arms devised for January 1871 used the Prussian eagle with a shield emblazoned with Hohenzollern devices underneath Charlemagne’s crown. The latter appeared on the 1871 commemorative medal and on major historical monuments built between the 1870s and 1890s to evoke a common German past, but it was embarrassing that the real crown was still in the Habsburg treasury.53 New official arms were soon devised combining a fantasy crown with the Prussian Order of the Black Eagle. Prussian traditions became clearer when Wilhelm I’s son Frederick numbered himself third at his succession in 1888 following the sequence from Frederick II ‘the Great’ rather than the fifteenth-century Emperor Frederick III. The popular historian Gustav Freytag had already written in 1870 that a new emperor should wear an army officer’s helmet and coat, not an imperial crown and robes, and indeed Anton von Werner’s famous 1885 painting of the January 1871 ceremony shows the assembled German royalty dressed in military uniforms.

After 1871, Holy Roman traditions were discarded in favour of a romanticized medieval German past that existed in artificial detachment from its actual historical context. The Thuringian poet Friedrich Rückert had popularized the local Kyffhäuser legend that Emperor Barbarossa had been sleeping under a mountain until Germany was reborn. The story attracted growing attention after it appeared in the second part of the Grimm brothers’ folk-tale collection in 1817. This chimed with Romantic ideas of rebirth that were popular in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. Meanwhile, Friedrich Raumer began what became a six-volume history of the Staufers under the immediate influence of Francis’s abdication in 1806. Raumer presented the Staufers as a dramatic story of rise and fall, cementing the popular view of them as representing the last age of German greatness. Subsequent governments invoked the Staufers to suggest the birth of a new Germany. Barbarossa was the name chosen for the first flagship of the new Federal Navy established by the Frankfurt parliament in 1848.54 The elderly Wilhelm I was already dubbed Barbablanca (‘White Beard’) at his acclamation in 1871. Veterans from the wars of 1866 and 1871 petitioned to erect a national monument at Kyffhäuser. As soon as scholars pronounced that the mountain had once been sacred to Wotan, the idea seemed doubly appropriate and the new emperor, Wilhelm II, laid the foundation stone in 1892. The grandiose structure was formally inaugurated on 18 June 1896 with a march-past of 30,000 veterans. It combines an equestrian statue of Wilhelm I with a second showing Barbarossa waking at the foot of the plinth.55 Rückert’s poem remained on the school curriculum into the twentieth century.

Meanwhile, the decaying Goslar imperial palace was restored as a national monument between 1868 and 1897 and decorated with paintings depicting selected aspects of imperial history, including the waking Barbarossa (see Plate 32). Otherwise, national monuments were not built at sites associated with the Holy Roman Empire but at ahistorical locations like the junction of the Mosel and Rhine, which was dubbed the ‘German Corner’ (Deutsches Eck) and adorned in 1897 with another grandiose monument to Wilhelm I.56 A huge statue of Germania was constructed between 1871 and 1883 outside Rüdesheim on the Rhine to present the Second Empire as cementing German unity. The 500 ‘Bismarck Towers’ built across Germany from 1900 to 1910 celebrating that statesman were modelled on Theodoric’s tomb at Ravenna to claim a common Gothic past. Meanwhile, the Hanseatic League was reinvented as a purely German enterprise to lend legitimacy to Wilhelmine naval and colonial policy.57

The Empire and the ‘German Problem’

Both Austria-Hungary and the Second Empire collapsed at the end of the First World War as revolutions forced all German monarchs to abdicate. Both empires had been successful in many respects, especially Germany, which had become the world’s fourth largest economy by 1914. Their imperialism was contemporary, a product of the highly competitive environment of the late nineteenth-century world, rather than the pre-1806 imperial past. Neither empire solved the question of belonging. Official policy in Austria-Hungary had continued to place dynastic loyalty above local or national identity, inadvertently creating a situation similar to that in earlier nineteenth-century Germany as nationalism became an ideology of those opposed to the government. Austria-Hungary was broken up in the Versailles Settlement of 1919, which left Austria as a small republic shorn of empire. Even with the Habsburgs gone, it proved difficult to historicize the imperial past. Conservative writers tried to claim it as a civilizing mission, to allow Austria to escape its much-reduced frontiers by suggesting that the country might once again provide order for an otherwise fragmented and chaotic central Europe. Hugo Hantsch emphasized Catholicism as a unifying element, while Heinrich Ritter von Srbik stressed a common Germantum, though without racial overtones. Friedrich Heer did both in his romanticized presentation of the Empire as a benign force.58

Imperial Germany’s initial toleration of multilayered identities angered those who felt that the process of unification had not gone far enough in 1871. A variety of groups agitated for a more homogeneous cultural identity and for the incorporation German-speakers still outside the Empire.59 The declaration of German as the state language throughout Prussia proved counter-productive, stirring a Polish nationalist backlash. The targeting of Catholics, Jews and Socialists as unpatriotic was equally divisive. Disagreement over German nationality was one of many factors undermining the Weimar Republic established amidst revolution and civil war in 1919. Article 127 of the Weimar constitution provided communal autonomy and self-regulation within a wider legal framework, drawing directly on historical studies of communal forms in the Holy Roman Empire and broader German past. However, many rejected republican government as ‘un-German’, regarding the Weimar regime as another ‘interregnum’ like 1250–73. Again, it seemed that a weakened and divided Germany was waiting for its Barbarossa to awake and provide leadership. A new generation of historians, including Ernst Kantorowicz, who – ironically – was Jewish, repeated Raumer’s earlier rehabilitation of the Staufers, who were celebrated as far-sighted empire-builders. Kantorowicz’s biography of Frederick II inspired Heinrich Himmler, while Hermann Goering sent Mussolini a copy. The Hitler Youth staged their flag-dedication ceremony amidst the ruins of Hohenstaufen castle in June 1933.60

Most professional historians were deeply conservative and their studies of the Empire’s elective monarchy lent weight to the popular critique of Weimar democracy as pointless and divisive. The anti-Roman interpretation of the German past was consolidated in the so-called New Constitutional History pursued between the 1930s and 1970s by Theodor Mayer, Otto Brunner, Walter Schlesinger and others, who tried to identify a specifically Germanic medieval socio-political organization, supposedly based on the personal elements of lordship, to define the pre-modern state as an aristocratic association of kings and nobles (Herrschaftsverband).61 Although adhering to the professional standards of German scholarship, their studies romanticized warrior nobles and provided ideal material for less scrupulous writers to extrapolate a theory of Germanic leader–follower society.

Having seized power, the Nazis abolished the separate identities of Bavaria, Saxony, Württemberg and other regions, replacing these on 5 February 1934 with a unitary nationality derived from racist criteria. The old political units, which often still used boundaries deriving from imperial fiefs, were replaced by new subdivisions called Gaue, a name associated with Germanic tribal homelands. Many Nazis found the Holy Roman past unusable. Joseph Goebbels planned an exhibition in Münster to demonstrate how the Peace of Westphalia had supposedly divided Germany, but abandoned this after the fall of France in 1940 eradicated the Nazis’ sense of shame at their country’s ‘weak’ past. Hitler repeatedly used the Holy Roman Empire as a rhetorical counterpoint to his united Germany, parroting decades of conservative historical critique by, for instance, claiming that ‘if the German feudal princes had been loyal to the German emperors, the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation would have become a mega-empire’.62The Second Empire was commended for having briefly achieved national unity, but was otherwise condemned as a missed opportunity. A circular was sent to all Nazi Party organizations on 13 June 1939 banning further use of the adjective ‘third’ in reference to the Reich, since Hitler wished to avoid any comparisons with the two previous empires.63 The Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg was outspokenly hostile, dismissing the Holy Roman Empire as a tool of the papacy and trying to claim that the 4,500 Saxons executed by Charlemagne for refusing to convert to Christianity were precursors to Nazi fighters; for this he was reprimanded by Hitler, who had a more heroic image of the Frankish king (who was, of course, a German).64

Hitler’s intervention indicated the difficulties of ignoring the Holy Roman Empire altogether, if for no other reason than it encompassed so much of Germany’s past. After the Anschluss with Austria in 1938, an SS honour guard was sent to fetch the imperial insignia from Vienna and escort them to Nuremberg, which had both been their location during early modernity and was now home to the Nazi Party headquarters. Although staged to symbolize the return of Austria (now dubbed the Ostmark) to Germany, the enterprise was problematic since Charlemagne’s crown was decorated with images of the Jewish kings David, Solomon and Hezekiah.65 Himmler was perhaps the most enthusiastic of the senior leadership in appropriating the medieval Empire to legitimate the ‘new order’. He chose July 1936, the thousandth anniversary of the death of his Ottonian namesake Henry I, to inaugurate an annual Heinrichsfeier at Quedlinburg castle for the SS (see Plate 33). Like many of his contemporaries, Himmler was influenced by the nineteenth-century misinterpretation of Henry as ‘founder’ of a ‘German empire’. An SS division was named ‘Hohenstaufen’, while French SS volunteers formed another called ‘Charlemagne’ in 1944.

Karl Richard Ganzer, the head of the Nazified national historical institute, celebrated a continuous Germanic imperial mission from Charlemagne to the present in a book that sold 850,000 copies soon after its appearance at the height of the German Blitzkrieg. Ganzer’s work appealed because it was simply a cruder version of what many Austrian historians and others like Fredrich Wilhelm Foerster had claimed since the 1920s, that the Empire had provided order for Europe.66 The misuse and misunderstanding of history are perhaps best exemplified in the naming of the invasion of Russia. The general staff intended the banal code name ‘Fritz’ or ‘Otto’, but Hitler insisted on calling it Operation Barbarossa, probably because he regarded the emperor’s crusading credentials as suitable for a mission to eradicate Bolshevism.67

Later Twentieth-Century Perspectives

Nazi distortions had relatively little impact on the historical understanding of most Germans, who remained wedded to the conservative interpretations deriving from Ranke and later nineteenth-century scholarship. They continued to believe a medieval Empire had existed until 1250 or possibly the reign of Charles V, and thought this had been a stabilizing Christian order, whereas the early modern Empire was condemned as weak and responsible for delaying national greatness.68 These now traditional views survived Germany’s total defeat in 1945, because they were shared by the victorious Allied powers. British, American and French scholarship drew on the same detailed studies by nineteenth-century German historians for their interpretative framework, not least because this had been transplanted by the numerous intellectuals fleeing Germany in the 1930s who now held influential teaching posts in US universities.

The new German Democratic Republic established in 1949 had little interest in the Empire, simply continuing nineteenth-century interpretations repackaged within Marxist stadial history as the ‘feudal age’. Princely power supposedly triumphed over ‘universal imperial policy’ by 1550, condemning Germany to political weakness and retarding economic development, which Marxist historiography attributed to centralizing national states.69 Meanwhile, the GDR government continued the Nazis’ centralized state in a new form, reorganizing its territory into new ‘districts’ (Bezirke) in a deliberate attempt to break lingering regional identities.

Germany’s partition between 1945 and 1990 assisted the Western Allies’ project of de-Prussifying Germany, since the former Hohenzollern lands conveniently lay in the Soviet zone, including the rump of old Prussia that survives today as the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. Cold War historiography distinguished sharply between Western liberal traditions and alleged Eastern European authoritarianism. The standard interpretation of agrarian relations underpinned this with its model of a ‘second serfdom’ developing east of the Elbe from the late Middle Ages (see pp. 496–7). This political project did not challenge received wisdom about the Holy Roman Empire, since the conservative reading of German history unwittingly provided evidence to support Anglo-American interpretations of that country deviating from a Western liberal norm along its own ‘special path’ to Hitler (see p. 3).

Meanwhile, the West German republic’s federal structure reinvigorated regional history, as each of the new federal states (Bundesländer) established or revived historical commissions and journals dedicated to its area’s history. Heraldic devices were borrowed from those of the leading principalities that had once existed within the boundary of each federal state, for example modern Lower Saxony’s use of the white horse of Hanover. Detailed historical atlases and multivolume regional studies all reinforced long-standing popular perceptions of the German past as consisting of a multitude of fragmented local histories in which medieval emperors might occasionally put in an appearance, but for which otherwise the Empire was largely irrelevant.

The word ‘Reich’ was now indelibly tainted with Nazism, inhibiting the wider reception of the more positive scholarly reappraisal of the early modern Empire under way since the late 1960s. Organizers of an exhibition on early modern Germany in Regensburg in 2000 deliberately avoided it, because they thought the public would confuse a reference to the Holy Roman Empire with Hitler’s Germany or Bismarck’s Second Empire.70 Exhibitions concentrated on displaying glittering medieval treasures and artworks, rather than explaining how the Empire had functioned. Already in 1946 the Allies returned the imperial insignia to Vienna from Nuremberg, where they had survived the war hidden in a bunker (see Plate 34). West Germany’s new Federal Parliament considered appealing in 1952 for their return, while Aachen’s cathedral chapter insisted that the three items removed by Austrian troops in 1794 were holy relics that should be restored.71 Individual emperors remained fixed in public consciousness through their place in the school curriculum and depiction in popular TV dramas and documentaries, but perspectives remained stubbornly those of the nineteenth century.

At best, the Empire seemed harmless compared to Germany’s more recent past. A 9-metre high, 18-ton concrete figure was erected secretly one night in April 1993 on the stump of an old lighthouse in Konstanz’s lakeside harbour (see Plate 35). Designed by sculptor Peter Lenz, the figure is named ‘Imperia’, but unlike the pompous monuments of the Second Empire, this does not refer to the Empire, but to a character in a story by Balzac, in turn loosely based on a courtesan who lived around a century after Konstanz hosted the famous church council. Probably the world’s largest monument to a prostitute, Imperia is also representative of the 700 real courtesans who actually serviced the council. Turning every three minutes on her own axis, the voluptuous figure holds diminutive naked figures of Pope Martin V and Emperor Sigismund – identifiable primarily by their headgear – in the palm of each upturned hand, while her tiara resembles a medieval fool’s hat, adding to the mockery of power. She remains the subject of continual objections from the diocese of Freiburg and local conservative politicians. Yet the council is powerless to remove Imperia, because her location belongs to German Federal Railways, which part-financed her erection, while she has become a major tourist attraction. Throughout, controversy has focused on the apparent mockery of the papacy, whereas no one complains about a naked emperor.72


The Europeanization of Imperial History

The scholarly reappraisal of the Empire since the late 1960s is representative of a broader Europeanization of German history, reconnecting with traditions till then denigrated as inferior to Teutonic Kultur. One aspect has involved examining previously neglected themes, especially in German political history, and has tended to view the Empire through the lens of the post-1949 German Federal Republic and its place in European integration.73 Another element has been to reinterpret the history of Europe’s current states in less national terms. This has not progressed very far for the history of the Empire, which German historians are far more likely to refer to as ‘of the German nation’ than were its actual inhabitants.

In some respects the Europeanization of the imperial past resembles the nineteenth-century nationalist projects, especially in the way medieval history has been plundered for personalities and images that could be appropriated to articulate present-day agendas. Since 1977, several exhibitions have promoted the Staufers as transnational European rulers whose Empire incorporated ‘regions of innovation’ transmitting culture, trade and ideas between Germany and Italy.74 Above all, Charlemagne has come to personify the links between the Empire and post-1945 aspirations for a united Europe, whereas other emperors, notably Charles V, remain viewed in national terms, even if these perspectives might now appear together in the same volume.75 Charlemagne’s new European status owes much to the superficial coincidence between his actual empire and the space occupied by France, West Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries behind initial post-war European integration. At a press conference in 1950, Charles de Gaulle presented Franco-German cooperation as ‘picking up Charlemagne’s project, this time on modern economic, social, strategic and cultural grounds’.76 Nationalists had found Charlemagne problematic by the 1870s, as he appeared too French for the Germans and too German for the French. Already in the 1840s, the French historian François Guizot seized on a ninth-century source’s presentation of Charlemagne as the ‘Father of Europe’ to claim the Franks were ‘European’. The annual Charlemagne Prize, inaugurated in Aachen in December 1949 as the new German Federal Republic’s first political award, is explicitly intended to promote European integration.77 Aachen Cathedral was the first German monument to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site (1978).

The Empire as Model

Conservative politicians favouring European integration found the Empire an attractive model with which to underpin their arguments. The heir to the Habsburg throne, Otto von Habsburg, in his speeches and writings during the 1970s drew on Austrian historiography of the 1920s and 1930s, which had already presented the medieval Empire as a positive factor in ordering Europe, and which chimed with his contrast between democratic Western European countries and the godless Communist Eastern Bloc: ‘the imperial idea will rise again in the form of European unity’.78 Although several leading historians of the Empire have explicitly rejected such arguments,79 others openly present the early modern Empire as a blueprint ‘to create a Europe of the regions’.80 These claims draw on the positive reappraisal of the early modern Empire emerging from specialist studies published since 1967 and which some use to interpret it as polycentric, federal, and embodying the complementary division of responsibility between regions and the centre that the European Commission calls ‘subsidiarity’. Further alleged parallels include the Empire’s conciliatory tendencies, its internal rule of law, and its tolerance of differing identities, which provided ‘an ideal framework for flourishing and diverse cultures’ whilst inhibiting the development of a modern nationalism ‘that has spread so much evil across Europe and the world’.81 The Council of Europe sponsored a major exhibition in Berlin and Magdeburg in 2006 to mark the bicentenary of the Empire’s dissolution. Opening the exhibition, the German culture minister Bernd Neumann presented the medieval Empire as a ‘model of a functioning supra-state order’. In the run-up to the fiftieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome the following year, Neumann referred to the Empire as a model for the EU. Pope Benedict XVI drew similar parallels based on an oddly upbeat reading of medieval church–state relations.82

At least such statements have the merit of presenting the Empire in terms that make it intelligible to a wider public, by contrast with the stress on complexity, exceptions and qualifications that otherwise characterizes modern scholarship. Making a subject ‘relevant’ to the contemporary world is increasingly important as public funding becomes restricted to research that can demonstrate practical ‘impact’. However, two significant problems emerge. Despite record attendances at the recent exhibitions, the older negative narratives retain their grip on the broader public understanding of the Empire. Europeans still generally conceive their past through the prism of nineteenth-century nation states, and are often encouraged to do so by conservative governments and education policies. The past remains a ‘road to modernity’, with some routes rated better than others according to a common yardstick still largely defined by the national sovereign state. This can have direct political repercussions, as the German foreign minister Joschka Fischer discovered in spring 2000 when he compared an ‘expanded EU without institutional reform’ to the ‘late phase of the Holy Roman Empire’. Fischer’s understanding of the Empire was still the weak structure presented by older historiography, but the French interior minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement read the reference to ‘Reich’ to mean that Germans wanted to remove European nation states in order to establish a new imperial dominance over the continent.83 Several leading German historians have also expressed alarm at their colleagues’ equation of the Empire with the EU, believing this could stir ‘latent fears of German hegemonic ambitions’, and mean that ‘German enthusiasm for Europe will be misinterpreted as a cloak for German national interests’.84

Beyond the potential for misunderstanding, there is a second problem of how the Empire’s history might actually help understand some of the problems facing today’s Europe. Since the 2004 enlargement and 2008 economic crisis, opinion on the EU has divided ever more sharply into two camps. One advocates forging a closer political union, including making the European Parliament a more effective democratic body. Older, negative assessments of the Empire provide ammunition for these arguments. Like Fischer, the British historian Brendan Simms has compared the unreformed EU to the Empire, claiming both ‘are characterized by interminable and inconclusive debate’. Echoing Hamilton and Madison’s equally dim assessment of 1787 (see pp. 1–2 and 8), Simms argues that the EU should become ‘The United States of Europe’ along Anglo-American lines, subordinating its member states to a fully federal system, whilst reforming the European Parliament to provide a democratic mandate for a new common government.85 The counter-argument is provided by nationalists like those in the UK Independence Party (UKIP) who believe that the EU can never match the vitality of sovereign states, both as governments and as foci for identity. For them, current problems can only be solved by reducing the union to a free trade area, or dissolving it entirely.

Although arriving at opposite conclusions, both perspectives are bound by the same understanding of the state as a single, centralized monopoly of legitimate power over a recognized territory. This definition is a European invention, retrospectively backdated to the Peace of Westphalia and used to articulate an international order based on mutually recognized sovereign states. Such states are supposedly hermetically sealed containers, with their populations free to decide internally how they are governed, whilst acting internationally with one voice through their national government. While this still underpins organizations like the United Nations, it is increasingly unlikely that such states are political history’s final destination: wide aspects of daily and national life are clearly beyond the effective control of most governments, which are increasingly vulnerable to global economic, popular, technological and environmental forces.86

Imperial History as Guide for Today’s Issues

EU enlargement has been interpreted as hegemonic imperialism, acting in the manner of nineteenth-century European colonialism by imposing its own norms and standards of civilization on those it admits as new members.87 This perspective is close to the nationalist critique of the EU as a union that imposes an unwelcome uniformity on its citizens, smothering rather than liberating them. However, many Europeans regard their own national governments as more immediately oppressive than the European Commission, and feel they would be better off without them. In September 2014 the United Kingdom only narrowly avoided fragmentation when the Scots voted in a referendum against independence. It is far from clear that recovery of ‘national sovereignty’ along the lines advocated by UKIP and its equivalents in other countries would restore citizens’ confidence in national governments controlled largely by colourless politicians widely criticized for being out of touch with local and individual needs. There is considerable concern at a ‘democracy deficit’ throughout the Western world, where disillusionment with the political process is leading to self-disenfranchisement, manifest through dwindling voter turnout and widespread cynicism.

Several attempts to address this have described the EU as a ‘neo-medieval empire’, arguing that it is not converging along the Westphalian model into a federal superstate, but is evolving instead as a complex structure of fragmented sovereignty and ‘plurilateral’ governance.88 The concept of neo-medievalism is an analytical construct that would benefit from closer engagement with the actual history of the Holy Roman Empire, at least during its last three centuries. Comparisons can be instructive, if not necessarily flattering to either the EU or the Empire. First, the Empire’s history is a reminder that decentralized political systems are not necessarily peaceful in their intentions. Like the Empire, the EU does not possess its own armed forces, nor has it waged wars, yet decentralization ensures a significant proportion of wealth continues to be spent on defence as each member remains fully armed. The EU has remained at peace, but individual member states such as France and the UK have been involved in several wars and other substantial military operations, not all of them clearly sanctioned by the UN or any other multilateral organization. Although celebrated in the more positive scholarly interpretations as having peaceful intentions, the eighteenth-century Empire was the most heavily armed part of Europe, and it proved incapable of preventing individual members, such as Austria or Saxony, from waging their own wars outside its frontiers.89

Both the EU and the Empire have lacked a single capital or a clear political core. Although individual elements have enjoyed more influence than others, this did not result in subjugation – except in the final stages of the Empire after 1801. The EU displays clear differences from the Empire in that its members retain the formal legal equality accorded to sovereign states. This extends to special cultural provisions, such as ensuring official documentation is prepared in all national languages, as well as equal freedom of movement for citizens, goods and capital. By contrast, autonomy in the Empire was embedded in a hierarchy defined by status and differing constitutional rights. However, the EU struggles to reconcile formal equality with the considerable diversity in population, wealth and economic potential across its membership, as evidenced by the repeated revisions to voting arrangements in its central institutions. It also shares the Empire’s imprecision around frontiers, which remain only superficially defined by national boundaries. Member states are combined in different overlapping levels of jurisdiction, such as the Schengen border agreement, the Eurozone and the EU itself. Additionally, individual members have binding commitments to states outside the union, such as the UK’s leadership of the Commonwealth, just as early modern Austria and Prussia had extensive hereditary possessions outside the Empire.

The EU further resembles the Empire in lacking an organized uniform body of citizens. Its relationship to its inhabitants is indirect and mediated by autonomous political levels, such as the member states, which can still set their own criteria for citizenship, yet issue passports conferring rights extending across the entire union. The Empire appears to have done rather better than the EU in fostering attachment amongst its inhabitants, who valued it as a framework sustaining local and particular liberties, and in respecting diversity, autonomy and difference. It is here that perhaps the most interesting comparisons can be made. Sovereignty is fragmented in the EU, as it was in the Empire. In both, policy implementation depends on members’ cooperation, allowing scope for local adaptation and initiative. These arrangements require consensus to a far higher extent than in centralized sovereign polities, including federal ones like the United States where central institutions (for example Congress) act directly on citizens through their ability to pass laws affecting their lives, tax their wealth, or conscript them as soldiers. It is precisely this arrangement that appears threatened by voter apathy and disenchantment, because citizens risk losing control of the institutions of government. By contrast, decentralized, fragmented political structures do not lend themselves to common direct democratic control, as evidenced by the European Parliament’s struggle to find a meaningful role within the EU and in the minds of European voters.

Some political scientists now argue that decentralized, fragmented systems might offer different, perhaps even better ways to forge consensus by ‘legitimation through deliberation’.90 Decentralized structures can spread authority, creating multiple, more local and thereby perhaps more meaningful arenas for decisions to be reached. Consensus becomes a more open-ended, ongoing process of bargaining between interested parties, rather than a periodic assignment of mandates to elected representatives expected to agree definitive decisions. Democratic legitimacy derives from the openness of debate, not the practice of voting. Citizenship is about involvement in and access to discussion through civil society and a free media, not simply formal rights and institutions.

It seems likely that, for such ideas to work, participants must accept that politics can no longer be guided by absolutes, rather in the manner that conflict resolution in the Empire was about workable compromises, not questions of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Like current practice within the EU, the Empire relied on peer pressure, which was often more effective and less costly than coercion, and which functioned thanks to the broad acceptance of the wider framework and a common political culture. However, our review of the Empire has also revealed that these structures were far from perfect and could fail, even catastrophically. Success usually depended on compromise and fudge. Although outwardly stressing unity and harmony, the Empire in fact functioned by accepting disagreement and disgruntlement as permanent elements of its internal politics. Rather than providing a blueprint for today’s Europe, the history of the Empire suggests ways in which we might understand current problems more clearly.

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