What was the Holy Roman Empire?
On this day, August 6, in 1806 Kaiser (Emperor) Franz II dissolved the Holy Roman Empire (Heiliges Römisches Reich Deutscher Nation), finally bringing to an end a political entity that had been around for a thousand years, if you count the emperors from Karl der Große (Charlemagne), a little less if you believe the Empire began with Otto der Große in 962. This action was a result of the decisive defeat of the armies of the Empire at Austerlitz by Napoleon, after which Franz concluded that his role as Holy Roman Emperor now lacked all credibility. He did however remain on what was by then his ‘other’ throne, as Kaiser Franz I of Austria, and in that role he played a decisive part in the Congress of Vienna that followed Napoleon’s defeat a few years later. The Holy Roman Empire was never restored, and in the new political realities that followed Prussia gradually became the dominant German power, culminating in the establishment of the new German Empire (Reich) in Versailles in 1871.
But what was this Holy Roman Empire? Politically it was an increasingly loose federation of states and statelets, at times numbering over 300, some of them astonishingly small. A map of the Empire from the late 18th century can be seen here, and it shows the confusing political make-up, with larger kingdoms and princedoms sitting alongside tiny feudal entities and church-run dioceses with their own political independence.
And yet, understanding the political, cultural and religious history of the Holy Roman Empire tells you much about Europe. Its chief national culture was Germanic, but the empire also contained Italian, slavic and Dutch elements. The search for political cohesion was in some ways a forerunner of similar quests in the European Union today. The gradual weakening and finally the dissolution of the Empire involved a transfer of geo-political power in Europe from Austria and the Habsburgs to Prussia and the Hohenzollern, and this created a new European power balance that, notwithstanding the convulsions of the two 20th century world wars, remains a reality of sorts today.
I suspect there isn’t too much interest in the Holy Roman Empire today. But there probably should be – understanding the Empire will help in understanding Europe. And right now we need that.