This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper
T.S. Eliot wasn't actually describing the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire when he wrote those words in his poem, “The Hollow Men.” Nonetheless, his words are an extremely apt way to describe the end of the Holy Roman Empire, which ended quietly with a stroke of a pen exactly 212 years ago in August of 1806.
That’s when the last emperor decided it was his duty to abdicate, letting the ancient dominion under his protection dissolve rather than allow Napoleon to usurp the role of Holy Roman Emperor and everything that came with it.
|Francis II, the last Holy Roman Emperor
By that August the end of the empire had become inevitable. Napoleon’s victory over Russia and Austria at the Battle of Austerlitz in December of 1805 and his formation of the Confederation of the Rhine the following July (after he convinced 16 German princes to renounce their allegiance to the Holy Roman Empire and join him) were fatal blows.
Throughout its thousand-year history, the Empire encompassed a web of territories in central Europe, including much of what is today Germany and Italy. At its height, it was a formidable medieval institution, an unbeatable force that combined the divine power of the Pope with the temporal power of a monarch.
However, by the end of the 18th century, the Holy Roman Empire was, as Voltaire cynically remarked, neither holy, nor Roman, nor even an empire. The wars and political convulsions that resulted from the French Revolution weakened the realm, and it became a casualty of Napoleon’s insatiable thirst for conquest.
During the Regency era, some statesmen believed that once Napoleon was defeated the Holy Roman Empire would be restored, perhaps by the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15. It was a reasonable assumption; the Congress was hosted, after all, by Francis I of Austria, who was the last Holy Roman Emperor.
But that didn’t happen when the Congress re-drew the map of Europe in an effort to balance the power of its nations. The Holy Roman Empire didn’t make a comeback, but also, Napoleon’s Confederation of the Rhine didn’t survive, either.
What did emerge from the deliberations was a new Germany made up of 39 states, with land from the two great powers of the day, Austria and Prussia, as well as many smaller kingdoms, including Bavaria, Saxony, and Hanover. And with that action, the Congress sowed the seeds of German nationalism, which grew and became a factor in the development a century later of two major wars.
It’s hard for us to imagine today, after so much time has passed, what it must have been like for Europeans in the early 19th century to see the Holy Roman Empire fall apart.
|The Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Empire.
On its panels are priceless jewels and scenes
from the life of Jesus Christ.
They were no doubt aware that their ancient empire had lost much of its lands and political clout in the wake of Napoleon’s conquests, which had toppled monarchies across the Continent.
Still, the Holy Roman Empire had existed as a governing body for more than 10 centuries, and at least 30 generations had lived and died in its long shadow. In that summer of 1806 Europeans must have felt that the world as they knew it was coming to an end.
To put it in perspective, the United States of America has been around a mere 242 years, yet I believe most U.S. citizens would feel acutely bereft if they suddenly lost their national identity.
But an entity like the Holy Roman Empire doesn’t disappear that easily. Even though the empire became defunct, its influence didn’t end in 1806.
During the 19th century, the history and traditions of the Holy Roman Empire gave the fledgling country of Germany a foundation. And in the 20th century, Adolf Hitler was fascinated by the Holy Roman Empire and kept it in mind as he developed his Third Reich, which eventually led to many of the horrors of World War II.
In particular, the Führer’s cruel and twisted ideas concerning a master Aryan race and the need to “purify” the German populace came out of his warped understanding of the mission of the empire’s fabled Teutonic Knights.
And while the Nazis famously looted and plundered a vast array of Europe’s art treasures during the war, one of Hitler’s top priorities was to capture the magnificent crown jewels that once belonged to the empire. No doubt he dreamed of using them in the future to give added legitimacy to his coronation as the ruler of a gloriously resurrected Holy Roman Empire.
Fortunately, most of the Imperial Crown Jewels have been recovered since the end of the war and are now on display in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. I’d like to see these jeweled relics someday; I think they serve as a potent reminder that nothing endures forever, not even a thousand-year-old empire.
And for me, the sight of the recovered crown jewels would also reinforce that other fundamental lesson of history — that the past, no matter how dead it may seem, is somehow always with us.
What would the world look like if the Holy Roman Empire hadn’t been dissolved but had continued for another 200 years, into our 21st century? Here’s a short video that answers that question:
For more information on this subject, check out these sources:
Hitler’s Holy Relics, A True Story of Nazi Plunder and the Race to Recover the Crown Jewels of the Holy Roman Empire, by Sidney D. Kirkpatrick, Simon & Schuster, Ltd, New York, New York, 2010
Heart of Europe, A History of the Holy Roman Empire, by Peter H. Wilson, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2016
The Holy Roman Empire by James Bryce, Wildside Press, Cabin John, Maryland, 2009
Images in this post are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons