Europe’s Never Ending Struggle
Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire
By Peter H. Wilson
Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 2016
HC, 942 pages, US$39.95
Reviewed by Nicholas Dima l March 1, 2017
Heart of Europe: A History of Holy Roman Empire is an encyclopedic study covering over one thousand years of Western European Christianity, roughly from 800 to 1806. Peter Wilson did a detailed job chronicling every event and personality that shaped the “Empire.” As a geographer, I was fascinated by the changing maps and focused primarily on geography rather than history. Yet, I soon realized that the Empire’s fluid geography was as blurred as its history was complex and convoluted. And, I realized once more how different was the evolution of Western Europe from that of my native Eastern Europe. I wished the Empire had been analyzed alongside the full evolution of the Byzantine and Euro-Russian empires. However, the other two were analyzed whenever their history and geography intertwined with the West.
Wilson’s text is organized topically into four parts: Ideal, Belonging, Governance, and Society. Each part has several chapters: Christendom, Sovereignty, Lands, Identities, Nations, Kingship, Territory, Dynasty, Authority, Association, Justice, and Afterlife as conclusion. The thick study has numerous tables, illustrations, princely genealogies, as well as numerous maps and a very useful Chronology section. If one were to draw a quick conclusion, it would be how much Europe has changed over the millennia. And, the aftermath of this thought is that ‘change’ is the permanent state of affairs in the world, and that ‘change’ is unmistakably coming again to Europe.
Unlike the Byzantine Empire that fell under the Ottomans and Eastern Europe that fell under the Russians, the Holy Roman Empire remained free and became the heart of today’s Western Europe. As such, the same area experienced the Renaissance, Church Reformation, Industrialization and Modernization, and recently, the process of Globalization. More importantly, the area of the former Empire led to the formation of the European Economic Community in the middle of the 20th Century and gradually to the current European Union. In this regard and as the author states at the beginning, “the Holy Roman Empire’s history lies at the heart of the European experience.”
While perusing or scanning the book looking primarily for relevance to our century, I asked myself: What lessons can Europe learn from the experience of its Western ‘imperial’ past? It is worth recalling that in 1787, when theoretically the Empire still existed, James Madison, the future American President, wanted to get inspiration from the Empire’s experience for the organization of the United States. Nonetheless, he concluded that the Empire “was a nervous body; incapable of regulating its own members, and agitated with unceasing fermentation of its own bowels…” thus causing licentious behavior of the strong, oppression of the weak, confusion and misery. (p. 2) Apparently, human nature has not changed much! Yet, can the EU draw from past experience and avoid those old traps one thousand years later?
Wilson makes no direct comparisons with the European Union, but some thoughts come to mind. As emphasized, the Empire did not have clear borders and although it was based territorially on today’s France, Germany and northern Italy, it did not have a stable heartland. And, it did not have a permanent capital city, unifying political institutions, and most importantly, it did not have a core ‘nation.’ The Empire was in many ways a lax confederation of cities and lands that changed loyalties and alliances and survived the vagaries of time rather pragmatically. The struggles between contending princes, between emperors, kings and aristocrats, or between papal claims and secular authorities, were never ending. But, what else could have been done in a ‘dark age’ when kings considered themselves ‘God-chosen’ and the populace lacked the most elementary of rights? It was much later that nation-states took central stage in Europe and led to the modern world as we know it. Though, some similarities, differences and contradictions, can still be established between the Empire that according to Voltaire ‘was neither holy nor an empire,’ and the present-day European Union.
Take identity as an example. The backbone of the Empire was the Germanic people of the old, but they were far from being a homogenous stock. Language was not a unifying element either, since they spoke different tongues and identified primarily with their local states. Customs and mores were also different even among Germans. A chronicler identified among them “cunning Swabians, greedy Bavarians who lived in poverty, quarrelsome Lorrainers prone to rebellion, and loyal Saxons…” (p. 237). Then, identification and loyalties shifted over time and were often multiple for the same group. Even the core German area was “a land of many languages, while political and linguistic boundaries never aligned.” (p. 259) While gradually German replaced Latin, “the Golden Bull of 1356 specified German, Latin, Upper Italian and Czech as imperial, administrative languages.” (p.260) Then, what can the EU learn from this almost completely forgotten Empire?
Unlike the Holy Roman Empire, the European Union has a well-defined territory and a strong capital city. However, like the former Empire, the EU is made up of many nations with different loyalties and identities. Worst still, instead of emphasizing its common European stock and Christian Heritage, the EU refuses to acknowledge either one of the two traits, thus building its structures on shaky ground. Nevertheless, trying to compensate for the lack of unifying laws that sapped the vanished Empire, the EU bureaucrats are enacting so many laws that they are in fact stifling normal everyday life. No wonder England has opted out of the Union!
Two other parallels can also be drawn from the evolution of the Empire. First: England was peripheral to the Empire for most of the middle ages and was also a late comer to the evolution of the European Union. But once it got involved, England became an important European player. Second: For most of their history, the Germans tried to control the Empire the same way Germany is trying to control the European Union today. In this regard, the presence of England is crucial in the EU to maintain a balance of power on the continent and especially between Germany and France. Interestingly, the author traces the rivalry between France and Germany to the ninth Century AD Franks, when Louis II was known as rex Germanie and his brother Charles the Bald as rex Galliae. (p. 256) Rivalry between France and Germany, the core of the EU, has lasted throughout the millennia. Currently, some European analysts are afraid that Germany is trying to enroll France as a partner to saddle the continent. Therefore, Great Britain is even more needed now to keep Europe in balance and to bring it close to the United States. Other than that, two more important conclusions can be drawn from the experience of the Holy Roman Empire. One is that the idea of unifying the continent is probably as old as history itself. And, another one is that as they did in the past, the Europeans would continue to bicker for a long time to come before finding a new Modus Vivendi. After all, this is not such a bad thing. Maybe diversity, democracy and individual cultures will be preserved in Europe!
In the last chapter of the book, the author asks himself if the former Empire can serve as a model for the organization of the European Union. From this point of view, opinions differ. Arguments are pro and con, as they were in the young United States between those who advocated strong federal powers over state powers. America, however, was a particular case. By 1776 there were many nationalities in America, but they did not have their own territorial bases and were already in a melting pot on their way to becoming a new nation. Unlike early America, the European nations are strongly attached to their land and languages, and are not looking toward melting themselves into a new nation. Practically, this would be impossible since the formation of national consciousness takes hundreds of years. Instead, the British historian Brendan Simms suggests that the EU should become The United States of Europe with clearly defined federal and state prerogatives that would suit better the future evolution of the old continent.
In conclusion, the book is too detailed for the average reader, but useful for the scholars of the field. The bibliography is also comprehensive, and as a whole, the study makes a good reference for any library. The author should be congratulated for his laborious work and dedication to the subject.
Nicholas Dima, Ph.D, is a former professor and author of numerous books and articles including the autobiographical memoir, Journey to Freedom, a description of the effects of communist dictatorship on a nation, a family and an individual. He currently lectures and is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis of the online-conservative-journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research. [WORD COUNT=1399/1506]
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