From Charlemagne to Jean-Claude Junker

Review: Peter H. Wilson, ‘The Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire’

Charlemagne and Pope Adrian I
Charlemagne and Pope Adrian I / Wikimedia Commons

On August 6, 1806, Francis II of the Holy Roman Empire officially abdicated his title and surrendered to Napoleon Bonaparte, who had decisively defeated the emperor and the Russian Tsar Alexander I at Austerlitz six months earlier. The Empire had only six years prior celebrated a millennium of existence, having originated on Christmas Day, 800, when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne "most serene Augustus, crowned by God, the great, peaceful emperor ruling the Roman Empire." As Charlemagne rolled over in his grave, Napoleon forced Francis to dissolve the millennium-old regime and set up in its place the Confederation of the Rhine.

Two months later, on October 13, Napoleon took a leisurely reconnaissance ride into the university town of Jena, where he would defeat the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm III the next day. The Prussian philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel happened to be finishing his masterpiece The Phenomenology of Spirit in town that day and he marveled at Napoleon, whom he saw as the embodiment of "world-spirit." Hegel’s philosophical system, which was to greatly influence philosophy, culture, and education in nineteenth century Germany, emphasized "history"—an as yet unscientific branch of learning. Hegel saw the dynamics of history as the arena in which the contradictions of the world are reconciled and new contradictions come to be. But the contradictory nature of the world isn’t directionless—indeed, Hegel was one of the first philosophers to give an account of historical progress, which results from contradiction and reconciliation of "spirit."

The study of history took off in the nineteenth century German university. Hegel’s colleague at the newly founded University of Berlin, Leopold von Ranke, wrote historical books about Europe and the new state that would come to be known as Germany. Von Ranke and others like him recorded the "national story, and to shape it they constructed linear narratives based around the centralization of political power or their people’s emancipation from foreign domination." With the assumption that "every nation was supposed to have its own state," the Holy Roman Empire’s "history was reduced to that of medieval Germany…." Not only was the Empire merely an early form of Germany but those who ran the Empire were responsible for delaying the birth of the national German state. "Individual monarchs were praised or condemned according to an anachronistic scale of ‘German interests.’" As such, the rulers and "the Empire took the blame for Germany being a ‘delayed nation.’"

It was not only German historians of the nineteenth century that used the Holy Roman Empire as a punching bag for criticism. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 19 that the Empire was "a nerveless body; incapable of regulating its own members; insecure against external dangers; and agitated with unceasing fermentation in its own bowels." The harshness of Publius’ condemnation may be attributed to the necessity of convincing the people of New York, to whom the papers were addressed, to opt for the Constitution of the United States rather than the Articles of Confederation, the structure of which bears a resemblance to the Empire’s confederate system. Whatever the cause, the Empire was considered a failure by both German historians on the continent and Anglosphere statesmen.

But the Empire has of late received new attention from historians and European statesmen. Peter H. Wilson, Chichele professor of the history of war at Oxford University and author of The Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire, writes that numerous European leaders have recently put it to work as a model for the European Union. Indeed, "Charlemagne has come to personify the links between the Empire and post-1945 aspirations for a united Europe…." While nineteenth century historians thought Charlemagne not nationalistic enough to uphold him as a model ruler, he is now the model of European integration and universalism—as is the Empire, the leaders of which tried to stitch together the disparate threads that proliferated after the downfall of Rome in 476. They tried again to hold together Europe while it splintered along religious and national lines.

The Empire reached its apex with the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the catastrophic Thirty Years War between Protestants and Catholics in 1648. The European Union, having adopted the "imperial idea," is now trying to stitch together the great continental nations that were born in the nineteenth century and turned on each other in the first half of the twentieth in two great world wars.

While the parallels between the Empire and the European Union are helpful, even Wilson’s optimistic (and insightful) history is unpersuasive that the Empire had a constitution worth adopting. The German historians of the nineteenth century certainly treated the Empire unfairly when they made it into a delayed Germany. But there’s something to Madison and Hamilton’s critique of the Empire’s "nerveless body" confederacy as against American federalism: namely, that when Napoleon comes along, there isn’t a leader "energetic" enough to do anything but dissolve his own Empire.

Still, Wilson’s claim that the Empire’s history "lies at the heart of the European experience" is true and is proved nicely in this history, which is sometimes dense and sometimes entertaining. The intertwined nature of temporal and spiritual power, church and state, and local and centralized political power all reach their greatest complexity on the continental European stage in the Empire’s history. That complexity, and the policy measures taken to address it, eventually rendered the Empire incapable of adequately changing with the rise of nationalism. Given the complexity to be managed and the ultimate demise of the Empire, Wilson’s parting thought regarding the parallel between it and the European Union is appropriately cautious: "Although outwardly stressing unity and harmony, the Empire in fact functioned by 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." Wilson’s book is a good place to start.