"The Holy Roman Empire lasted a thousand years, far longer than ancient Rome. Yet this formidable dominion never inspired the awe of its predecessor. Voltaire distilled the disdain of generations when he quipped it was neither holy, Roman, nor an empire. Yet as Peter Wilson shows, the Holy Roman Empire tells a millennial story of Europe better than the histories of individual nation-states. And its legacy can be seen today in debates over the nature of the European Union. Heart of Europe traces the Empire from its origins within Charlemagne's kingdom in 800 to its demise in 1806. By the mid-tenth century its core rested in the German kingdom, and ultimately its territory stretched from France and Denmark to Italy and Poland. Yet the Empire remained stubbornly abstract, with no fixed capital and no common language or culture. The source of its continuity and legitimacy was the ideal of a unified Christian civilization, but this did not prevent emperors from clashing with the pope over supremacy--the nadir being the sack of Rome in 1527 that killed 147 Vatican soldiers. Though the title of Holy Roman Emperor retained prestige, rising states such as Austria and Prussia wielded power in a way the Empire could not. While it gradually lost the flexibility to cope with political, economic, and social changes, the Empire was far from being in crisis until the onslaught of the French revolutionary wars, when a crushing defeat by Napoleon at Austerlitz compelled Francis II to dissolve his realm."--Provided by publisher.
Or you can do what Peter H. Wilson does here: abandon chronology altogether, and structure your book entirely thematically. It sounds logical but having read this, I don't think it really works. Arguably, the problem of trying to maintain a working timeline in your head is even worse than the problem of trying to maintain themes in your head when reading a chronological study. What happens here is that you leap centuries from one paragraph to the next in pursuit of details relating to (for instance) the empire's interaction with the papacy, but you never stay anywhere long enough to get a sense of the personalities or societies at play.
Frederick Barbarossa, the twelfth-century emperor, should have been a shoo-in for compelling hero: a dashingly handsome, multilingual polymath who rewrote law codes and led an army on the Third Crusade. Here, he's a nonentity who shuffles vaguely in and out at intervals of several hundred pages. Similarly, I've read a fair bit about Ferdinand II in books about the Thirty Years War, and was hoping to get a fuller picture of him: he remains a complete cipher. Social convulsions like the witchcraft craze or the Black Death might as well never have happened, and even such enormities as the Reformation only seem to feature when they intersect with one of Wilson's master-themes. I am told that the Nine Years War required the calling-up of 31,340 Kreistruppen – but when it comes to who they were fighting, or where, or why, I'm completely in the dark.
On page 490 of The Holy Roman Empire, Wilson pauses to note that Bishop Meinward of Paderborn ‘once had a woman dragged on her bottom across her garden until it was clear of weeds’. It's funny to see how this detail reappears in almost every printed review of the book – because it's the only thing even vaguely anecdotal in the whole one thousand pages. There is a huge lack of first-person sources – diaries, journals, letters, something to connect the history with real life. If you have a particular area of interest, and look it up in the index, then Wilson's book is sure to be very enlightening (I was interested in how Switzerland came about, and he's great on that subject). He's enlightening and thorough and admirable on loads of subjects. But the book's structure abandons any attempt at narrative history by definition – it leaves the whole thing working fairly well in an encyclopaedic way, but not as something to read through in sequence.
Perhaps the most interesting and important sections are Part Two, which discusses the geographical entities that made up the Empire (why he delays this for so long is beyond me), and the last section where Wilson looks at the empire's reputation in subsequent historiography. Through the blunt force of repetition, his central argument is at least pretty clear: that the empire, as a decentralised entity with multiple sites of power (Germany still doesn't have a single dominant metropolis), did not fit the emerging model of sovereign states – but that it worked rather well all the same, and might be a useful study for contemporary structures like the European Union.
This is a counterargument to the traditional view, which is that it was already an inefficient and moribund dinosaur when Napoleon put it out of its misery in 1806. Adolf Hitler often talked about the Holy Roman Empire for a rhetorical contrast to his own vision of a united Germany, and at one point sent an internal memo that people should stop referring to Germany as the ‘Third Reich’ because it would put people in mind of the hopelessness of the first empire. (Which is ironic, considering that one of the things that has interfered with reassessments of the Holy Roman Empire is the fact that the very word Reich, even in German, has become tainted by Nazism.)
I think overall this book feels like a necessary, but sometimes tedious, laying-out of the groundwork, presenting a lot of otherwise inaccessible German historiography to an English audience and bringing the conversation up to date. It does a really good job of that, but I am definitely looking forward to future writers who can build on this work to do something with a bit more narrative power – because it really is an interesting story, to have this huge and very unusual ‘state’ that was right in the middle of Europe for a thousand years, and then almost completely forgotten.
Nowadays, with Brexit hurtling towards us, the debate is split between people who are ‘pro-Europe’ and people who are ‘anti-Europe’ – but both sides, Wilson points out, 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…’. The Holy Roman Empire was qualitatively different, and including such differences might be a crucial necessity for modern politics. It's a fascinating idea, but in the end I don't think you really need to push through this whole thing to get the point.
The form doesn't really help in what seems to be the main goal of this book, which is to convince people that old historiography of the HRE is wrong to see it as a doddering mess always holding back the development of nation states. It is, you'll be surprised to learn, more complex than that. All well and good; do we need to be reminded in every section? In every chapter? Every part of every chapter? Yes, because that's the only thing holding this mass of small bits together. Otherwise it is a compendium of short essays on various topics, each one very worthwhile, but on the whole utterly unreadable. A better way to hold them together would have been some sense of narrative, but that would have required a more traditionally chronological book, which would have vitiated all that great avoiding the Great Men and avoiding the Materialists stuff.
Unless that stuff isn't really all that much of a worry, when the third option is a collection of very well-researched, cutting edge wikipedia entries on, e.g., the position of the Hohenzollerns in the Prussian governance systems between 1680 and 1700, particularly when Wilson has literally one sentence structure available to him: clause, but anti-clause, at the same time synthesis clause.
Two things to note: Wilson clearly knows a lot about his subject matter, and I'd love to take a class with him on it. And there's a chronology at the back of the book, f0r mere mortals like me who can't handle the constant flipping between time periods. It's 54 pages long, detailed, but focused. If only the book had more in common with that.
For an entire millennium, from 800 to 1806, from its birth with Charlemagne to its death at the hands of Napoleon, the Holy Roman Empire’s borders defined the heart of Europe. As the dust jacket for Peter Wilson’s new book puts it, Europe made “no sense without it”. Centred on Germany, it also encompassed much of what is now France, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovenia and Italy.
Yet for over two centuries, the empire has had a bad reputation. Voltaire disparaged it as not holy, not Roman, and not an empire. James Madison deemed its institutions “feeble”, its history one of “general imbecility, confusion, and misery”. And Leopold von Ranke, father of the modern study of history, thought it one long decline and failure. With exhaustive detail, Wilson argues that these titanic figures were wrong. He encourages us to reassess the history of Europe with an empire state of mind.
Wilson, who is Chichele professor of the history of war at Oxford, makes the complex understandable, but the sheer depth and daunting length of the book – and its focus on ideas and institutions rather than individuals and stories – may mean that only the most motivated non-academic readers are likely to reach the end. For those who do, there are many interesting and provocative ideas.
A patchwork of principalities, free cities, archbishoprics, confederations, grand duchies and even full kingdoms, the imperial system worked surprisingly well. Neither a “single command chain nor a neat pyramid”, it was instead a framework, focused on consensus not coercion, accepting rather than rationalising anomalies and diversity. Its guiding principle was “workable compromise” (in practice, often fudge) but it was not impotent: pioneering the first commercial postal service is one of many examples of the empire’s highly developed governance.
Sign up for Bookmarks: discover new books our weekly email
This decentralised structure was supported and reinforced by a multicentred society. Unlike the national dominations of London and Paris, the empire had many different concentrations of power, business and culture: Vienna, Prague, Antwerp, Hamburg, Augsburg, Milan. Power was “local and particular”, not universal or linear. Ordered imperial society encompassed diverse peoples and corporate groups, and the empire’s role was to protect their patterns and hierarchies. It survived centuries of change, the schism of the Reformation, and even the catastrophe of the thirty years’ war. As one of its last chancellors commented, while it “might not conform to all the building regulations”, it was a “permanent Gothic structure … in which one lives securely”.
Instead of criticising it for the lack of a centralised state, Wilson’s focus is how the empire’s territories and groups generally succeeded on their own terms. While there were many failures of consensus – endless tolls restricting trade; dozens of shifting currencies; outdated fiscal structures – it is only in hindsight or ideology that the 18th-century empire appears as dying. While not overlooking the destabilising effect of Prussian and Austrian expansion, Wilson shows that the growth of territorial states was integrated within the imperial framework, rather than destroying it from the inside out. Had Napoleon not intervened, the empire could have persisted well into the 1800s until it felt the “leveling and homogenising forces” of industrialisation.
The empire has often flummoxed scholars because its history is so difficult to tell. After 24 volumes explaining the imperial constitution the 18th-century legal scholar Johann Jakob Moser effectively gave up, concluding that “Germany is governed in the German way”. A comprehensive narrative of the empire’s millennium would consume a small forest – Joachim Whaley’s excellent recent history of its last 300 years required two volumes – and be dizzyingly complicated.
To escape such pitfalls, Wilson takes an approach somewhat reminiscent of Marc Bloch’s 1939 classic Feudal Society, assessing the institution in its entirety (“like an eagle flying over the empire”). Rather than telling a chronological story, Wilson asks what it was, “how it worked, why it mattered” and inquires into its legacy for today. The book is structured in four parts: ideal, belonging, governance and society. It is a challenging format, but it allows conceptual analysis that would be impossible in a linear narrative.
Wilson aims to avoid the pervasive idea of history as a road to modernity, a tradition that often relegates the empire to the slow lane while England races ahead. Indeed he argues that “the empire’s greatest posthumous influence lay in how criticism of its structures created the discipline of modern history’: ideas of progress and national histories have coloured our view of it ever since. The empire did not “fail” to build a centralised German state or nation because “no one felt either needed building”.
Rather than a distant irrelevance, the empire was an important focus of attachment for its people. Individuals and groups had multiple identities within an imperial framework of solidarities and hierarchies. A Berliner could be a Lutheran, a city burgher, a father, a guildsman, and a Prussian. Many weaker groups, such as religious minorities and those with grievances against their rulers, saw the empire as protection from the strong. Far from it being just “German”, Wilson emphasises the overlooked engagement of Czechs, Italians and others in the imperial framework, all the way through to its end.
Not many books stretch from Charlemagne to Ukip, but today’s multinational European framework is central to Wilson’s epilogue on the empire’s afterlife. The EU shares many of the its structures – permeable boundaries, multilayered jurisdictions – and its problems: Byzantine complexity, a reliance on fudge. Yet while Eurofederalists and Eurosceptics both see political institutions as centralising rulers of hermetically sealed areas, the empire reminds us that that was not Europe’s past, and – with disenchantment in our current model of democracy – is unlikely to be its future.
Wilson argues that legitimacy can come from debate, not just votes; citizenship from civil society, not just formal rights; and that politics can be a multicentred process of consensus bargaining. He is too good a historian to suggest that the empire – with its stark pre-modern hierarchies and inequalities – is a blueprint for today. But he is right to suggest that it could help us understand current problems more clearly
Peter Wilson’s comprehensive book resolves any uncertainties about the nature, extent, achievements and ultimate decline of the Holy Roman Empire. He has produced a deeply researched and clearly written history, from its roots encompassing the western relic of the original Roman Empire. The general consensus dates the start of the Holy Roman Empire to Christmas Day, 800, when Charlemagne, King of the Franks, was crowned Emperor by Pope Leo III. This cemented one of the key relationships that would characterise the history of the Empire. The Emperor and the Pope found themselves in a form of symbiosis, with each dependent upon, though contributing to, the authority and status of the other.
Oddly, the term ‘Holy Roman Empire’ did not emerge until the thirteenth century, because the status of the emperor relied to a considerable extent upon the kudos derived from association with the original empire. It also marked an intriguing early experiment in the concept of international federation. The various lands making up the Holy Roman Empire all had their own, largely autonomous rulers, with the German ‘Prince Electors’ electing one of their number to be elevated to Emperor.
Wilson handles his material well. His exposition is clear, and his prose is engaging. The subject is complicated, not least because of the plethora of unfamiliar names, many of them recast through several different languages, but Wilson retains the reader’s attention, peppering his account with amusing, often bizarre anecdotes.