- The Habsburg Empire: A New History by Pieter M. Judson, and: Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire by Peter H. Wilson
Harvard University Press and its Executive Editor for History Kathleen McDermott have released two major, in-depth studies of [End Page 284] related continental empires. (A third, similarly large-scale work on a related topic, the life and reign of the emperor Charlemagne, was released by this important US printing house later in 2016.) Based largely on English and German-language secondary sources, the two books provide important overviews of alternative political and social organizations that pre-dated and rivalled the more familiar nation-states of modern European history. They also point to a fascination with empires and their origins and ends which seems again to be popular, perhaps particularly in the United States at this point in that country’s history. Both works point to the destructive results of warfare on the two empires’ history. Far from helping to expand and consolidate empire, for these two empires, which together lasted for over a millennium, the authors point to the ultimately fatal consequences of war: the Holy Roman Empire fell apart under the strains of the Napoleonic Wars, and the Habsburg Empire did the same amidst the chaos of the First World War.
Peter H. Wilson, who recently took up a new position at Oxford University in the United Kingdom, is the author of many works on aspects of Holy Roman Imperial history, including probably the best short introduction to the subject.1 He traces the histories of the empire back at least to the third century of the Common Era and over 942 pages of text discusses the themes “ideal,” “belonging,” “governance,” and “society.” Perhaps this thematic approach will make it difficult for non-specialists to follow; it does lead to a certain amount of repetition and many internal cross-references to other parts of the book. To counter these difficulties, Wilson has included a detailed chronology, a glossary, 35 color illustrations, 16 tables, 22 (!) maps, and seven genealogical charts. The book is more than a narrative or argument; it is a compendium and reference work for anyone looking to become familiar with the histories and institutions of this frustratingly complex organization.
Wilson is clearly indebted, as he points out at the very start of his Acknowledgements (np), to his connections with the German research group at the University of Münster “Symbolic Communication and Social Value Systems from the Middle Ages to the French Revolution.” This group, led by Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger and Gerd Althoff, has influenced the way the Holy Roman Empire is now imagined. Readers of the works of Stollberg-Rilinger on the topic will recognize her influence on Wilson and the book currently under review. (For English-language readers, the German Studies Association has recently released a [End Page 285] translation of Stollberg-Rilinger’s important book The Emperor’s Old Clothes: Constitutional History and the Symbolic Language of the Holy Roman Empire [NY: Berghahn, 2015].) The Münster group and Wilson analyze empire as more than institutions, but as practice and imaginary as well.
This type of analysis fits well with the ever-evolving, shape-shifting Holy Roman Empire, an empire based on “integration through deliberation” and process, on consensus-building and debate, on peer pressure not coercion (p. 686). Sprawling over much of the European continent for centuries on end, the formal structure and functioning of the Empire has confounded historians: was it a constitutional monarchy? A despotism? A monstrosity? For contemporary historians of empires, the sections at the end of this appropriately sprawling work are perhaps of most interest. (Chapter 13: “Afterlife.”) Here Wilson attempts to explain both why modern historians have chosen not to look too closely at the Holy Roman Empire and why its...