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Response to Review of Germany and the Holy Roman Empire

I am most grateful to Professor Sked for his generous appreciation of my work. His review raises a number of important and interesting issues and poses questions which invite a response.

Can any book really claim to be wholly definitive and to provide the last word on its subject? I doubt it! My aim in writing a history of the Holy Roman Empire and its territories during the last three centuries of its existence was to give my understanding of the development of the German lands in the early modern period and to introduce readers to the substantial German scholarship that has been devoted to that subject over the last few decades. It was once conventional to view the Holy Roman Empire as a worthless institution and early modern German history as a story of conflict and division, characterised by the emergence of authoritarian governments, notably that of Brandenburg-Prussia. My own preoccupation has been with the factors which unified the German territories and which gave many of their inhabitants a sense of identification with the Reich. I developed my theme at three levels: the development of the Holy Roman Empire in the European system; the evolution of the Holy Roman Empire and its institutions as a German polity; the development within that polity of the German territories and the social, economic, religious, and cultural oly HHfactors that shaped the evolution of German society.

Professor Sked wonders whether my work might ‘come to be seen to represent a sort of sanitised, post-war version of German history reflecting the ethos of the Federal Republic and the European Union.’ I hold no particular brief for either the Federal Republic or the European Union. To be sceptical about teleological views that emphasise the inevitability of the emergence of the nation state or that view all German history as leading to Hitler, does not commit one to a new teleological view of German history which culminates in the Berlin Republic. Nor do I regard the Holy Roman Empire as any kind of precursor to the EU, even though it is undoubtedly part of the EU’s past. The idea of Germany as a ‘federative nation’ long predated the Federal Republic: it was a view that most educated Germans in the 18th and early 19th centuries took for granted, and which remained strong even after the unification of Germany in 1871.(1) Federalism was not invented in the Federal Republic.

The awareness of the natural and historical diversity of the Germans went hand in hand with an equally strong sense of their fundamental unity. Throughout my work I underline the development of patriotism and a sense of common identity. This was anchored on the Reich and its institutions and was reinforced by the sense of a common cause in the face of common enemies. For much of the 16th and 17th centuries France and the Ottomans periodically posed a serious threat. The German estates repeatedly united in the face of these threats and a vast contemporary literature testifies to the feeling of a common German cause in the face of external aggression. Equally, domestic developments such as the Reformation, the various religious compromises, the constant negotiations between emperor and estates generated discussion of key concepts such as ‘German liberty’ which also fostered a sense of common cause and of unity. This is not to deny that there were civil wars in German history – the most notable was of course the Thirty Years War – but what is striking is that, again and again, these confrontations ended in compromise, with a restatement of the fundamental principles of the German polity that had been established in the reign of Maximilian I.

Would it really be ‘more convincing … to see the story of the Reich … as a cumulative determination of the German princes to betray and undermine it…’? Was there any early modern polity which some group or other did not seek to undermine or betray? Was the early modern history of the Reich really more violent than that of France, Spain or Italy? The views expressed by the Berlin theologian Daniel Jenisch were typical of those articulated by many commentators of the late 18th century. Jenisch praised the variety of territories in the Reich which fostered the development of a rich and varied culture, unlike the ‘French uniformity’. He contrasted the disasters of English, French, Spanish and Swiss history of recent centuries with the ‘peaceful development of our constitution free of bloodshed’.(2) If Jenisch was guilty of hyperbole, it still surely remains true that almost all early modern polities experienced civil war and revolution. The German Reich was not exceptional in that. One area in which it was exceptional, however, was in the formulation of a series of ground-breaking religious constitutional compromises from the 1530s which collectively contributed to what commentators in the mid 18th century referred to as a catalogue of fundamental rights and liberties enjoyed by all Germans. At the same time, an imperial judicial system emerged to which Germans could appeal if their rights were infringed. The ability of German subjects to appeal against the actions of their rulers was rightly viewed as one of the most important features of the legal system of the Reich.

Many have questioned whether early modern patriotism even existed at all. This has long been a controversial question and it is likely to remain so. Pre-modern patriotism was clearly not identical to the kind of nationalism that emerged in the 19th century. Yet the notions of nationhood that were developed in the Middle Ages undoubtedly developed new meanings in the early modern period and began to have both a wider social reach and a more complex political and constitutional meaning. In a book published too late for me to include in my own work, Caspar Hirschi has forcefully restated the case for locating the origins of nationalism in the Middles Ages and its development in the early modern period.(3) Even more recently, Hirschi’s findings have been reinforced by Len Scales’s work on the shaping of German identity in the 13th and 13th centuries.(4) The ‘modernist’ historians may still insist that what emerged in the 19th century was crucially different, but it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to argue that ‘modern’ nationalism had no antecedents.

It is undeniable that the sense of identification with the Reich varied over time and between regions. Whether Prussians revered the Reich is surely less significant than whether the inhabitants of the various Hohenzollern lands had a sense of being subjects of the Reich as well as of the Elector of Brandenburg or, after 1701, King of Prussia. Much surely depends on whether one is talking about the inhabitants of the Lower Rhineland, of Magdeburg and Halberstadt, or of Brandenburg (Prussia, of course, lay outside the Reich anyway). It is certainly interesting to note that in the early 18th century the Berlin authorities were much exercised by the inclination of their master’s subjects to appeal to the higher courts of the Reich. Frederick the Great undoubtedly tried to challenge the position of the Habsburgs, but ultimately he failed. He held on to Silesia but the effort of doing so nearly destroyed him. Later he was unable to take control of the opposition to Joseph II’s attempts to acquire Bavaria. Professor Sked suggests that Joseph II’s plans were perfectly reasonable and that Joseph had a ‘mutual agreement with the ruler of Bavaria to peacefully swap the Austrian Netherlands … for Bavaria …, which was to become part of Austria and so strengthen the Reich’. That wasn’t the view taken by the Bavarian estates in Munich. Moreover pretty well all German rulers believed that the emperor’s plan was wholly unacceptable, if not actually illegal, and that its execution would upset the constitutional balance and seriously threaten the very existence of the Reich.

Finally, Professor Sked notes that there was no explicit discussion of particularism in my introduction. This was not an oversight, but rather reflects the extent to which this issue is implicit in my discussion of the traditional ‘Prussian-German’ view of the history of the early modern Reich, with which I have engaged throughout my work. It should be clear that I do not have much sympathy for the idea that the Reich was perpetually paralysed by internal conflicts, or the view that after the Reformation the Reich descended into Kleinstaaterei, fell victim to French subjugation and succumbed to political backwardness and repression. Yet the members of the Reich, its several thousand constituent parts, are integral to my account of early modern German history. Their conflicts and compromises are a key theme in my work. Furthermore, roughly one third of the whole text is devoted to the internal development of the various territories: not just the well-known few, such as Brandenburg, Bavaria, Hanover or the Palatinate, but also the minor principalities, counties, abbeys, cities and the lands of the Imperial Knights. Here again, however, it is striking how many similarities there were between the territories, how they developed in parallel ways within the same overall framework of the Reich and its legal and legislative framework.

As I argue in my two volumes, recent research has rendered the traditional view of the early Holy Roman Empire untenable. Work on national identity and patriotism, into the workings of the imperial constitution and the institutions of the Reich, and into virtually every aspect of the development of the German territories has generated insights into topics that were all but ignored by the nationalist historians of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. Collectively, these insights point to the cohesiveness of the German lands and to aspects of their experience that were rightly eulogised by commentators in the late 18th century. While in 1815 there was no enthusiasm for reviving the Reich, much of the legal and political culture endured, as did the insistence on the virtues of diversity and a perennial resistance to the notion of a centralised state.


  1. Joachim Whaley, ‘Kulturelle Toleranz – die deutsche Nation im europäischen Vergleich’, in Die deutsche Nation im frühneuzeitlichen Europa, ed. Georg Schmidt (Munich, 2010), pp. 201–23; Dieter Langewiesche, ‘Föderativer Nationalismus als Erbe der deutschen Reichsnation. Über Föderalismus und Zentralismus in der deutschen Nationalgeschichte’, in idem, Nation, Nationalismus, Nationalstaat in Deutschland und Europa (Munich 2000), pp. 55–79. See also essays in Föderative Nation: Deutschlandkonzepte von der Reformation bis zu Ersten Weltkrieg, ed. Dieter Langewiesche and Georg Schmidt (Munich, 2000).Back to (1)
  2. Daniel Jenisch, Geist und Charakter des achtzehnten Jahrhunderts, politisch, moralisch, ästhetisch und wissenschaftlich betrachtet (3 vols, Berlin, 1800–1), pp. ii, 50.Back to (2)
  3. Caspar Hirschi, The Origins of Nationalism: An Alternative History from Ancient Rome to Early Modern Germany (Cambridge, 2012).Back to (3)
  4. Len Scales, The Shaping of German Identity: Authority and Crisis, 1245–1414 (Cambridge, 2012).Back to (4)