Holy Roman Empire: Obstruction or Dead Weight?

That seemed to be the question historians of Central Europe asked in the Twentieth Century. At least until a new generation started waving their hands and saying, ” ‘Scuze me, but if it was so bad, why was it kept around after 1648, and why did the members vote to dissolve it rather than allow Napoleon to try to claim the title?” Institutions that serve no purpose, and have become a drag on society, don’t survive shocks like the Thirty Years War. Maybe the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation wasn’t the drag on society that earlier writers had declared it to be.

The “problem” of the H.R.E. goes back to Rousseau, and to the rise of the Prussian German Empire in the late 1800s. Rousseau, a French philosophe, seems never to have met an institution that he could tolerate. The French Catholic Church, and Christianity in general, attracted a great deal of his ire, and he is the one who declared that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. He also helped give us the idea that the three monotheisms lived in peace and harmony under the rule of the Moors in Iberia for 700 years, until the abusive Castilian Catholics took over in 1492. Oh, and he gets credit for the idea of the General Will, which passed through some Prussian philosophers (Germany didn’t exist yet), was picked up by Marx and a few others, and went downhill from there.

The “problem” of the H.R.E. then passed to Berlin. After Napoleon, the much enlarged Hohenzollern kingdom of Prussia-Brandenburg vied with the Habsburgs of Austria-Hungary for domination of Central Europe. The Habsburgs had turned their attention more east than north, and had their hands full dealing with the Ottomans (still.) They also had difficulties with the growing tensions of nationalism in a multi-ethnic empire. This left an opening for Prussia. As Prussia gained more and more power north of the Alps, historians and politicians both sought for justifications to explain why Prussia was more German than Austria was. If Prussia was more German, than it just made sense for Prussia to be the senior partner in running the German (and Polish, and Czech) speaking parts of Europe. Rousseau’s indictment filled the bill, and was expanded by academic historians.

The H. R. E. had been a valuable and useful institution at first. Upon that all agreed. Certainly as late as the 1200s, perhaps into the late 1500s, having a place where disputes could be settled, defenses organized, and culture encouraged made excellent historical sense. Since, at that time, Vienna and the Habsburgs had the older history, having them run things for a while posed no problems. However . . . Once the Reformation kicked in, and the corrupt—or just misguided—Catholic Church encouraged the emperors to prevent the natural growth and development of Lutheranism, it was time for a change. The Thirty Years War certainly, per the Berlin historians, should have been the end of the HRE. A real empire needs a strong emperor who can exercise tight central control, after all, and that certainly was not, oh, Leopold II, or Maria-Theresa. Frederick II of Prussia was a better model for a true emperor. Fast-forward to 1820, and it was obvious to the pro-Prussian school that the northern German Protestant kingdom really was the true inheritor of Germanitas, of all that made one truly Deutsch, and the Habsburgs should have gone quietly into the twilight of history.

I’m glossing a LOT of politics and academic debate and writing. There were always historians who either 1) felt the HRE should have died with Louis the German or with Frederick Barbarossa or 2) thought that the Austro-Hungarian empire wasn’t as bad as all that. However. American academics studied in Germany, not Austria, and we based our academic system on Berlin, not Vienna. For their part, the Austrians had other fish to fry, and anyone who is familiar with Vienna and that part of the world in the late 1800s-1914 knows that the place was going a bit round the bend in terms of culture and identity crises. It didn’t help in the 1920s when the groups that conflated culture with race with really bad social-Darwinism declared that the northern “Aryans” were, in fact, the true Germans and rightful leaders of Europe and the world.

The H.R.E. as “dead weight” got folded into post-WWII questions about “What the heck happened that Germany went insane while the rest of Europe became civilized? And how do we keep anyone from going that nuts ever again?” The Berlin School (as I call it) of academic history came to dominate for several academic generations, which then trickled down into popular history. I really didn’t start seeing English-speaking historians saying, “Um, hold on a moment. What do the documents say?” until the late 1990s and even more into the early 2000s. Then the “Vienna School” scholars began producing articles and monographs in support of a reappraisal of the Habsburgs and of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.

As you know, I’m a bit of a buff for the Holy Roman Empire, both the region and the institution. It served a very important purpose for a very long time, and if it wasn’t a “real” empire with a central, all-powerful leader, well, that was probably one of its strengths as well as a weakness. The institution served some purpose, and was regarded with respect even in it’s declining years, much like the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef in the late 1800s. It was an intriguing place and institution.


7 thoughts on “Holy Roman Empire: Obstruction or Dead Weight?

  1. I can’t help but notice the parallels between Prussia gaining control of Germany, and the German efforts under the Common Market and EU.

    • Huh. Interesting thought.
      I had the impression the Germans controlled the banks, while the French controlled the EU government, and they split the markets between them. I kind of like the dual power structure. It reminds me of medieval church/state power feuds.

  2. Prussia wasn’t a state needing an army, it was an army in need of a State. That aphorism explained so much; Prussia never when when or where to stop. Apparently that’s still a problem.

    Ah, Rosseau. Yesterday’s post, meet today. Do not tell him “I told you so;” he was far too fond of telling everyone what and how to think.

    • Brandenburg and Prussia both suffered the problem that they lacked clear, easily-defensible natural borders. No wide, deep rivers, no mountain ranges. The wetlands and shallow rivers meant that invading and fighting in winter (as the Teutonic Knights did in the 1200s-1300s) as well as summer was a distinct possibility. I suspect that explains part of the “army with a state attached” mentality. Being on the route for several invasions didn’t help.

      • That sounds a lot like the type of terrain Russian apologists use as an excuse for why Russian expansionism over the centuries should be considered justified.

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