- The Holy Roman Empire: A Thousand Years of Europe's History by Peter Wilson
"Neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire"—Voltaire's description of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation has often been cited to underline the worthlessness of this polity that Napoleon destroyed in 1806. German historians traditionally despised it for not being a nation-state and indeed for delaying German unification. Since 1945, scholars have been more positive, and some have even viewed it as a transnational precursor of the European Union. The empire's history has generally been written to serve the needs of the present. Peter Wilson offers the first modern survey.
Pope Leo III crowned the Frankish king Charlemagne emperor in 800 because the papacy needed a new protector after the relocation of the later Roman emperors to Constantinople. The Holy Roman Empire's continuous history only began in 962, however, when the German kings assumed the imperial crown. Thereafter, the empire, under various dynasties, notably the Habsburgs from 1438, was essentially German. The Holy Roman Empire was not expansionist. [End Page 542] The kingdom of Italy came with the imperial crown and Burgundy was inherited, but both were ultimately lost again, with the exception of parts of northern Italy that recognized the Habsburg emperors as overlords until 1806. The Swiss cantons and the northern Netherlands seceded in the sixteenth century. France acquired Metz, Toul, Verdun, and Alsace in 1648.
The empire was an elective monarchy that gradually developed a legal system that pacified the territories and cities of German-speaking Europe. By 1519, it had a supreme court and a regional enforcement system that ended feuding. An electoral capitulation, which the emperor was obliged to sign, guaranteed the rights of all Germans. By the eighteenth century, subjects of the empire had more rights enforceable by courts than those of any other European polity. The system's essentially defensive character was ultimately its downfall. Relentless French military campaigns from 1792 culminated in its dissolution. The map of Germany was redrawn, making a revival unfeasible. But the sense of a common history over a thousand years and the legal traditions established by the empire have shaped the history of German-speaking Europe ever since.
Joachim Whaley is professor of German history and thought at Cambridge University and a fellow of both the British Academy and the Royal Historical Society. His books include Religious Toleration and Social Change in Hamburg, 1529–1819; the two volumes of Germany and the Holy Roman Empire, 1648–1806; and (as editor) Mirrors of Mortality: Studies in the Social History of Death.