Publication Date

December 1, 1997

In 1980 Jack Gagliardo noted that the Holy Roman Empire had "virtually disappeared from modern European history textbooks." The situation has probably gotten worse in the past 15 years. Despite the efforts of historians like Mack Walker, one would be hard pressed to find a Western civilization student who has even a remote understanding of or interest in the empire. The reasons for this neglect are well known. European history has long been fettered by an overly teleological conception of history, in which the "modern" nation is seen as the inevitable culmination of human development. Within this context the Holy Roman Empire appears as an embryonic German nation-state that died before it could be born—and thus as a failure. A reconsideration of the way we teach the "Old Reich" would be welcome, if only because it offers us a unique opportunity to break out of the linear and highly nationalist framework of the standard survey.1

But to transcend the nationalist framework, we need to understand it. A brief examination of the main Western civilization texts shows that they continue to evaluate institutions like the Old Reich in terms of how they contributed to the development of the modern nation. Although more recently published survey texts generally pay lip service to the idea that we cannot really project the notion of "France" and "Germany" into medieval times, they nevertheless treat the empire as an essentially German entity, even when they know otherwise. Marvin Perry, for one, sees the empire merely as a "kingdom consisting mainly of German-speaking principalities." In the same vein, Thomas Greer and Galvin Lewis note that "by the eleventh century there were three principal feudal states in Europe; the Holy Roman Empire, the kingdom of France, and the kingdom of England," thus putting all three on the same footing and tempting us to regard them all as embryonic national monarchies.2

Confining the facts about the empire within the nationalist paradigm inherited from the 19th century distorts the history of central Europe by prematurely marking it off as unique. For example, by holding that Otto and his successors were merely kings of Germany, the Investiture Contest and its sequelae appear as the harbingers of a kind of political anarchy unique to Middle Europe. Likewise, equating the disintegration of the Holy Roman Empire with the disintegration of the German state gives central European history a uniquely anarchic and "backward" character. This in turn implies that German history in particular is cursed with a lingering barbarism, preventing Germans from forming a modern state. The rulers of central European states like Austria, Bavaria, Prussia, and Württemberg thus appear as purely destructive forces of decentralization rebelling against an imaginary German kingdom that never was.

Chaos Theory

Any reconsideration of the empire's place in European history really depends on emancipating ourselves from the nationalist presuppositions of the last two centuries and beginning with entirely new categories. But to ask whether the nation-state was the inevitable culmination of some developmental sequence is ultimately to question whether historical outcomes are always predetermined. One way to approach this question is to examine the emerging science of "chaos."

According to evolutionary paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, a distinction must be made between historical and experimental knowledge. While theoretical physics may attempt to deduce universal laws which can be tested in the lab, historical explanations depend on "contingent detail" that occurs only once. Although "we can explain an event after it occurs," Gould argues that "contingency precludes its repetition, even from an identical starting point."3 Astronomer Stephen Dole affords an example of this contingency on a vast scale. With the aid of a computer program known as ACRETE, Dole suggests how the present planetary system might have evolved from a primeval gas cloud. Specifying the exact size and shape of the gas, Dole simulated the evolution of a number of alternative solar systems out of more or less the same cloud. Some of the solar systems generated featured planets even larger than Jupiter, while others ended up with a number of smaller planets. In a later discussion of Dole’s work, Richard Isaacman and Carl Sagan noted that it was possible to generate very different solar systems by only slightly varying the initial conditions.4

If Isaacman and Sagan are correct, the history of our solar system apparently depended on contingencies which preclude that history being repeated, even if one started with more or less the same conditions. At some point in the historical process, the chance collision of two gas molecules might have set in motion a chain of events leading to the formation of a very different solar system. Moreover, even if we accept the inevitability of our solar system and the formation of Earth as we know it, the human species' rise to prominence was by no means guaranteed. Gould thus argues that humanity's ascension to dominance was the result of a "curious chain of events" that "would probably never happen again."5

A Matter of Probability

Now, I would argue that the history of Europe lends itself to a chaos approach. Although authors of the major texts write as if nationalism was some ineluctable component of "modernity," the emergence of nations such as France or Germany may have actually been a mere matter of probability. If the Carolinian Empire had either held together or fallen apart completely, the history of the West would have been radically different. Even the Treaty of Verdun in 843 was, according to Geoffrey Barraclough, "the result not of racial or provincial differences, but simply of dynastic conflicts within the royal house" in which power was up for grabs.6 In this context, the emergence of the various states in the West appears as a fortuitous accretion of territorial units not unlike the emergence of our solar system out of some primeval gas cloud. While the cloud (Europe) might have resolved itself into a single star (empire) or fragmented into billions of asteroids (anarchy), it ended up slowly resolving itself into a number of small planets (nations).

That the western Frankish kingdom eventually resolved itself into one state while the eastern developed into a number of states may have been the result of a series of unpredictable choices made by real individuals at crucial points in the historical process. The constant division and redivision of the Carolinian realm after Verdun meant that any rival king within that realm had the right to take the imperial power if he was strong enough. No supposed “national character” predisposed Otto the Great, rather than his royal contemporary across the Rhine, to take the imperial title. Not only was the imperial title not reserved for the eastern (as opposed to the western) Franks, but Otto’s assumption of the imperial crown was a kind of accident. If Otto had died or a West Frankish ruler of equal ability had arisen, the latter might have taken the imperial crown, intervened in papal affairs and fragmented his realm. Consequently, the association of the “Empire” with the East Franks (and thus the Germans) was also a mere accident of history. Moreover, as D.J.A. Matthew has pointed out, the medieval emperors had every reason for believing that the division between East and West Francia was not permanent.7 The fact that the eastern rather than western kingdom happened to produce a leader powerful enough to claim the imperial title does not in any way establish some kind of metaphysical link between the eastern Franks and the Reich.

Even after the division between the eastern and western Frankish kingdom, Otto and his successors claimed a spiritual domain over the West in some ways similar to that of the Pope. In this context, the East Frankish domains of the Ottonian rulers appear analogous to the Papal states, because both were local temporal symbols of a universal moral authority. The emperors' special relationship with the church gave them an indirect authority over other European kings that should not be underestimated. According to Barraclough, there was thus originally "less divergence between Europe and Asia [China] than is sometimes supposed," because the European imperial "ideal" embodied by the Reich "was basically the same as that of the Chinese and other Oriental rulers."8

Regarding the empire as a vestigial universal state that only gradually shrank to its final dimensions, rather than a stillborn German national entity, allows us to open up a whole new way of looking at central European history. By recognizing the genuinely universal characteristics of the empire, we are in a position to see the history of Mitteleuropa in a new light. The universal claims of Otto and his successors, we may now argue, led to two related developments concerning the princes. On the one hand, Otto’s elevation promoted them. When their liege lord claimed a vague supremacy over even the king of France, the East Frankish vassals became potentially equal to that king. On the other hand, the Papacy confirmed the independence of the great princes by periodically excommunicating the emperors.

A Common European History

In other words, by putting the story of the empire on an equal level with that of the Papacy, we put the history of Württemberg and Bavaria on an equal level with that of France. If the empire, like the Papacy, was a fundamentally universalist institution, it became the framework for a system of states that stretched far beyond the domains of "Germany." What the princely states had in common with states such as France was their basis in dynastic politics. In The Making of a State: Württemberg, 1593–1793, James A. Vann delineated in the greatest detail how even one of the smaller central European states followed the same pattern of centralization as its larger neighbors on both sides of the Rhine, at a time when the Old Reich itself was becoming a sort of league of central European states.9 Again, Mary Fulbrook notes that “concomitant with” the “overall pattern of Imperial decentralization was … a rather high degree of centralization of power at the territorial level,” a fact that takes on new significance when we free ourselves from the erroneous notion that the Old Reich was the national German state that should have evolved in Middle Europe.10

Only such a reinterpretation of the history of the empire will enable us to recognize that the development of central Europe was "normal" and not inherently "backward," thus avoiding the necessity of postulating a German special path predestined from time immemorial—a postulate that has provided both an explanation and an alibi for Nazism. Like other European rulers, the German princes were not proponents but opponents of feudalism. No less than the kings of France, the princes struggled against the pretensions of their vassals. Indeed, the transformation of the empire during the struggle between the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation makes perfect sense within a larger European context. Like elsewhere in Europe, religious war in central Europe actually strengthened the dynastic state (as opposed to European unity under emperor or Pope). Within this framework, a good deal of the peculiarity of central European history—at least before the 19th century—begins to disappear.

If European history was not some inevitable progress toward the nation as 19th-century scholars would have had it, if chance events could have enormous long-run consequences, we can ask ourselves what might have happened if the emperors had been successful in creating a Chinese-like Europe dominated by a universal empire, or if the West Frankish rather than the East Frankish rulers had taken the imperial crown. Clearly, a different Europe with different national boundaries, or perhaps no nations at all as we understand them, might have resulted. By opening up a new appreciation of the unpredictability of the historical process, the study of the Holy Roman Empire might well have a truly universal significance to students of history after all.


1. See John Gagliardo, Reich and Nation:The Holy Roman Empire as Idea and Reality, 1763–1806 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980), 3.

2. Thomas Greer and Galvin Lewis, A Brief History of the Western World, 6th ed. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992), 214; Marvin Perry, Western Civilization: A Brief History, 3rd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), 260.

3. Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1989), 278.

4. Stephen Dole, “Computer Simulation of the Formation of Planetary Systems,” Icarus 13 (1970): 494–508; Richard Isaacman and Carl Sagan, “Computer Simulation of Planetary Accretion Dynamics: Sensitivity to Initial Conditions,” Icarus 31 (1977): 530.

5. Gould, Wonderful Life, 285.

6. Geoffrey Barraclough, Factors in German History (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1979), 6.

7. D.J.A. Matthew, “Reflections on the Medieval Roman Empire,” History 77 (October 1992), 368–69, 390.

8. Geoffrey Barraclough, Turning Points in World History (London: Thames and Hudson, 1977), 21–22.

9. James A. Vann, The Making of a State: Württemberg, 1593–1793 (Ithaca: Cornell University, 1984), 18–19, 34–35.

10. Mary Fulbrook,A Concise History of Germany (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 70.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.