Sunday, December 15, 2019

December's Book: The Holy Roman Empire

The Holy Roman Empire: A Short History by Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger
History (2006/2018* - 146 pp.)

Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger's The Holy Roman Empire: A Short History is exactly what it says on the tin: 146 pages, divided into ten chapters, covering the Holy Roman Empire from the inaugural Reichstag of 1495 until the Empire's dissolution in 1806. The first chapter, "What Was the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation?" is mirrored by the last chapter, "Once Again: What Was the Holy Roman Empire?" Answering that question is the book's mandate.

This mandate was notably unmet by 19th-century historians, who wished to differentiate their Grosdeutsch (Austrian-dominated) and Kleindeutsch (Prussian-dominated) German unification plans, or by 20th-century historians, who used the Empire's historical territories as a justification for the Anschluss in 1938. Stollberg-Rilinger takes a postmodernist, relativist approach to the Empire: realistically, this is the only viable approach when assessing such a "strange and alien" (8) polity. Stollberg-Rilinger's analogy of a head (the Emperor) and limbs (the noblemen) is apt. The head directs the body but cannot control every cell.

The Holy Roman Empire: A Short History is a book for specialists in early modern European history. Without my history degree and subsequent education, I would have been completely lost. This is neither a strength nor a weakness of the book, just something to keep in mind considering it is the perfect size to fit into a gift bag this Christmas. It is also perfect for a "book a week" early modern European survey seminar or for a German history survey seminar. So many of the book's events are so fascinating or so bizarre they would make good sparring material for eager undergraduate and master's students.

I have a Holy Roman Empire T-shirt. I bought it in 2012, having no idea I would read this book someday. The picture is from just now. Whether the average reader of this book has such a T-shirt, I have no idea. It can't hurt, though.
At the book's outset, the newly crowned Maximilian I (since 1493) inherited an empire that was still fundamentally medieval in character. The vassalage relationships between the Emperor and his subjects varied wildly, from princes to dukes to bishops. Maximilian I initiated a series of institutional reforms that transformed the Empire from its medieval origins into a body that was neither a medieval feud nor a modern nation-state. In 1495, Maximilian I instituted the Imperial Chamber Court "that would allow for the resolution of political conflicts without the use of violence". (50) In the sixteenth century, imperial diets became standardized, including a Mass to the Holy Spirit. Despite various parties' best efforts, the Empire was beset by disputes over minutiae, such as the seating arrangement at mealtimes; with so many different ranks and titles among the Empire's nobility, who had precedence over whom? (54) The question of who held the highest rank or authority was never resolved, and was a factor in the Empire's eventual decline.

The increasing tendency for electors to be monarchs of non-Imperial jurisdictions gave them strength far exceeding their Imperial holdings. When the Elector of Brandenburg became the King in Prussia in 1701, he presented himself to the Habsburgs and to foreign powers as their equal. (As Stollberg-Rilinger aptly notes, Emperor Leopold I was compensated generously for acknowledging this change in title.) The Habsburgs themselves held their highest non-Imperial title in Hungary. The Elector of Saxony became king of Poland in 1697, transforming him from an Imperial subject to a foreign dignitary. Increasingly, medieval-style vassalage seemed outright silly; why would the King in Prussia or the King of Poland prostrate himself before the mere archduke of Austria? 

The emperor, kings, princes, dukes, margraves and bishops frequently engaged in behaviour that would be considered outrageous by modern political standards. Protestant princes frequently secularized local churches in order to consolidate power and raise funds, similarly to Henry VIII in England. (78) During the Thirty Years' War, Imperial forces under Count Tilly burnt Magdeburg to the ground; when the Emperor decided to attack his traditional ally Saxony next, Saxony promptly switched sides to ally with the Swedish. (95) Angry noblemen responded to the Habsburgs' later attempts at centralization by again allying with foreign powers, such as Bavaria allying with France during the War of the Spanish Succession. (111) When the Electors conferred the Imperial title upon Charles Albert of Bavaria in 1742, the only non-Habsburg to be elected Emperor during the book's timeline, the Austrians responded by occupying Munich. (124) This is roughly the equivalent of the Government of Ontario protesting Justin Trudeau's re-election by ordering the Ontario Provincial Police to patrol the streets of Montreal.

Whether these examples are features or bugs of the Empire's unique decentralization is entirely subjective. Later commentators criticized the Empire's lack of nation-state status, which Stollberg-Rilinger discusses extensively in her notations that eighteenth-century pundits called the Empire "medieval" and "Gothic" in contrast to modern countries. (121) Joseph II appears to have agreed based on his doctrine of "enlightened absolutism" that placed his status as archduke of Austria and king of Hungary ahead of his traditional feudal obligations within Germany. The most flagrant example of this reversal of priorities occurred when Joseph II offered the Austrian Netherlands (now Belgium) to the prince of Bavaria in return for Bavaria; although this was a roughly fair trade economically, the inhabitants of these territories were understandably mortified.** The proposal fell through when Joseph II, no doubt impatient, invaded Bavaria shortly thereafter. (130) Francis II dissolved the Empire nine years later amidst numerous German nobles seceding from the Empire to join "Napoleon's attempted conquest of Europe. "Having withstood Luther, Gustavus Adolphus and Louis XIV, the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation ultimately fell victim to its inability to reform itself." (146)

What was the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, then? Stollberg-Rilinger's conclusion is an 11-point laundry list of various facets of the Empire. It was "a political association based on tradition and consensus", built upon the personal relationships between the Emperor and the noblemen. (140) It was a hierarchical place where politics mixed with religion and social customs, and where disenfranchised groups formed corporations or "estates"*** to advance their interests. It was subject to an uneasy balance of power between the Emperor and the noblemen. It adapted at some times (the Religious Peace of Augsburg of 1555, the Peace of Westphalia of 1648) better than others (the events leading up to the Thirty Years' War, the dissolution of 1806). All of these aspects held the Empire together, and they all tore it apart.

Ease of Reading: 2
Educational Content: 9

*Although the book was originally published in German in 2006, it was not translated into English until 2018.

**Land swaps of this type typically occurred in colonial settings, such as the infamous New York City for Suriname trade between England and the Netherlands in 1667. They also typically formed parts of peace treaties, as the NYC-Suriname trade did. For major European territories to be swapped during peacetime, with the added sting of awarding Bavaria's electoral vote to Joseph II, was unheard of.

***"Estates" in Imperial terms were "groups of people who enjoyed the same rights, shared the same obligations, and pursued their common interests in an organized manner, for example, through membership in the chambers of the Imperial diet, the territorial assemblies, and urban or knightly diets."(143)

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