The (Holy Roman) Empire Strikes Back

1 June 2017
The (Holy Roman) Empire Strikes Back - Featured image

An ambitious history of the Holy Roman Empire holds important lessons for modern Europe, writes Morgan Begg.

One of the most pivotal moments in the history of Western Civilisation unfolded on the plains of Lechfeld in 955 AD when Otto, Duke of Saxony and King of Germany, defeated Hungarian raiders who had plagued most corners of Europe throughout the ninth and tenth centuries.

Otto’s victorious German lords raised their shields and proclaimed their leader ‘Emperor’, reviving the title held by the legendary Frankish king Charlemagne. With control of the German territories secured, Otto was able to convince Pope John XII in 962 AD to officially crown him the Emperor, uniting the kingdoms of Italy and Germany into one common realm. This formed what later became known as the Holy Roman Empire, one of the longest running, yet also one of the most underrated political systems in history.

The popular view of the empire in recent centuries has persistently been one of mockery and derision. Voltaire described it as ‘neither holy, Roman, nor an empire’. Seventeenth-century philosopher Samuel Pufendorf called it a ‘monstrosity’ and an ‘irregular body’. German philosopher Hegel compared it to a pile of round stones that would roll away if pushed. Future US President James Madison described the empire at the 1787 Continental Congress as ‘a nerveless body; incapable of regulating its own members; insecure against external dangers; and agitated with unceasing fermentation in its own bowels’ whose history was that of ‘the licentiousness of the strong, and oppression of the weak… of general imbecility, confusion and misery.’

Longevity alone would bely this harsh treatment. The empire thrived until 1806 as the centre of culture in continental Europe, outlasting many of its contemporaries and withstanding the Reformation and the Thirty Years War. However, it seems modern expectations of centralised, unaccountable nation states make the success of such an empire difficult to appreciate. Once we step away from our contemporary taste for bureaucracy, there is much to learn from this decentralised system of government.

An important new tome detailing the history of the Holy Roman Empire, from the crowning of Charlemagne in 800 to its unilateral dissolution in 1806 and beyond, dismantles the popular view. Heart of Europe, by British historian of war Peter H. Wilson, pieces together the stories of the almost innumerable duchies, principalities, bishoprics, free cities, baronies and fiefdoms that comprised the empire.


According to Wilson, the popular critiques of the Holy Roman Empire are based on nationalistic ideas of a proper nation state, such as centralised institutions and national identities. On this yardstick, the empire did fail to live up to these ideals. But the objectives of the empire were never those of a nation state as we understand it today. The empire’s core governing philosophy was good kingship and consensus rule, between the rulers of the Imperial constituencies, and between the rulers and the ruled. This consensus was achieved by distributing power throughout the imperial realm, which underlies popular nationalist reinterpretations that were critical of the empire for stalling the progression of the German territories into a single, centralised German nation.

Considering what the centralised German state would accomplish in the twentieth century, it is a shame that this interpretation has enforced modern opinion of the empire.

In contrast to other major European powers at the time, power in the empire never centralised in one location. The duties of the Emperor were, as Wilson explains, ‘moral leadership and guardianship of the church, not hegemonic, direct control’ over the realm, as eventuated in Paris and London. Emperors, seeking to maintain support for their reign, granted autonomy to the lower level rulers which left them able to govern their own territories largely as they saw fit.

This distribution of power led to the development of various prestigious royal courts and cultural centres throughout the empire. The first postal network appeared in the empire under the management of the Thurn and Taxis family. In 1655, the first daily newspaper went to print, 67 years before Britain. At the time of the empire’s dissolution, it boasted 45 universities, double that of France.

It is perhaps unsurprising then that modern day erstwhile conservatives in Europe see the empire as a precedent for further European unification. But this is deeply illogical. As Wilson explains, the empire was unified by transcendental ideals such as Roman law and Christianity. Indeed, he describes the empire as the ‘secular arm of Christianity’. This is in stark contrast to the secularist European Union (EU). Furthermore, a plethora of centralised bureaucracies have developed in Brussels to administer an overabundance of EU regulations.

In contrast to the stifling regulatory culture and top-down conformity found in the EU, the empire was characterised by a series of checks and balances embedded in the feudal system. Institutional innovations included the first sitting of the Reichstag in 1663—a quasi-parliamentary body that sat permanently 60 years before the English parliament did the same. The Reichskammergericht was established in 1495 as the final court of appeal in the empire. An independent body, it was able to make judgments in favour of the poor against the powerful. Indeed, one report from a French envoy ‘reported the waves of nostalgia at the empire’s imminent end, and noted the widespread concern at losing a system that protected the weak against the strong’.

Many know the story of the collapse of the empire, but it was not the inevitable, protracted decline that historians tend to claim. ‘If it was sick,’ Wilson notes, ‘it was not yet on life support.’ If not for the French Revolution and Napoleon’s wars, the empire would have continued, although it may have struggled to adapt to wider European cultural changes, such as nationalism and movements towards democratic governance.


Less academic readers may find the level of detail in Heart of Europe a challenge. The book’s thematic structure, rather than chronological ordering, could make it difficult for non-historians to follow. It is, nonetheless, a tour de force from Wilson in reassessing the much-maligned empire.

No understanding of Western Civilisation is complete without understanding the Holy Roman Empire as it stood at the centre of European affairs for 1000 years. And no understanding or appreciation of the decentralised political system of the empire is complete without Wilson’s commendable and powerful work.

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