Posted tagged ‘Napoleon’

What was the Holy Roman Empire?

August 5, 2011

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.


A date in history

June 18, 2009

Today, as I suspect not too many people are aware, is Waterloo Day. On this day in 1815 the Battle of Waterloo was fought (near the small Belgian town of that name), between the French armies under Napoleon on the one side, and the Prussians and British on the other. Napoleon lost the battle, and was sent into exile on the South Atlantic island of St Helena, where he died in 1821. Waterloo was decisive in shaping 19th century European history.

A few years ago I was driving through a rural part of England with a colleague – we were going to a conference – when we passed under a rather splendid Regency era railway bridge. On the side of the bridge was an inscription that said that it was built in the year of the Battle of Waterloo. So when was that, I asked my colleague. He had no idea. And who fought and won the battle? No, nothing. He thought, eventually, that it involved the French.

We have got used to the idea of history not being just about monarchs, big battles and important dates. And yet, it seems to me that certain milestones in history should be known and remembered and understood, and I was, I confess, shocked at my colleague’s laid back ignorance in this case. The Napoleonic wars were about more than just battles and conquests, they were about political evolution and competing cultures, and the fall-out of the era continues to affect us nearly two centuries later. People should know about it. Indeed, it seems to me to be important that we do not entirely neglect the key dates and personalities of history.

After we had driven on a little I suddenly noticed that my colleague was whistling the tune of Abba‘s song Waterloo. At first that kind of irritated me, but then I pointed out to him that if only he had paid attention to the first line of the song his earlier answer to me would have been better. Maybe it’s not surprising he never sought another lift from me.