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§ 58. Survey of the History of the Holy Roman Empire.

The readiness with which the Romans responded to the crowning act of Leo proves that the re-establishment of the Western empire was timely. The Holy Roman Empire seemed to be the necessary counterpart of the Holy Roman Church. For many, centuries the nations of Europe had been used to the concentration of all secular power in one head. It is true, several Roman emperors from Nero to Diocletian had persecuted Christianity by fire and sword, but Constantine and his successors had raised the church to dignity and power, and bestowed upon it all the privileges of a state religion. The transfer of the seat of empire from Rome to Constantinople withdrew from the Western church the protection of the secular arm, and exposed Europe to the horrors of barbarian invasion and the chaos of civil wars. The popes were among the chief sufferers, their territory, being again and again overrun and laid waste by the savage Lombards. Hence the instinctive desire for the protecting arm of a new empire, and this could only be expected from the fresh and vigorous Teutonic power which had risen beyond the Alps and Christianized by Roman missionaries. Into this empire “all the life of the ancient world was gathered; out of it all the life of the modern world arose.”256256    Bryce, p. 396 (8th ed.)

The Empire and the Papacy, The Two Ruling Powers of the Middle Ages.

Henceforward the mediaeval history of Europe is chiefly a history of the papacy and the empire. They were regarded as the two arms of God in governing the church and the world. This twofold government was upon the whole the best training-school of the barbarian for Christian civilization and freedom. The papacy acted as a wholesome check upon military despotism, the empire as a check upon the abuses of priestcraft. Both secured order and unity against the disintegrating tendencies of society; both nourished the great idea of a commonwealth of nations, of a brotherhood of mankind, of a communion of saints. By its connection with Rome, the empire infused new blood into the old nationalities of the South, and transferred the remaining treasures of classical culture and the Roman law to the new nations of the North. The tendency of both was ultimately self-destructive; they fostered, while seeming to oppose, the spirit of ecclesiastical and national independence. The discipline of authority always produces freedom as its legitimate result. The law is a schoolmaster to lead men to the gospel.

Otho the Great.

In the opening chapter of the history of the empire we find it under the control of a master-mind and in friendly alliance with the papacy. Under the weak successors of Charlemagne it dwindled down to a merely nominal existence. But it revived again in Otho I. or the Great (936–973), of the Saxon dynasty. He was master of the pope and defender of the Roman church, and left everywhere the impress of an heroic character, inferior only to that of Charles. Under Henry III. (1039–1056), when the papacy sank lowest, the empire again proved a reforming power. He deposed three rival popes, and elected a worthy, successor. But as the papacy rose from its degradation, it overawed the empire.

Henry IV. and Gregory VII.

Under Henry IV. (1056–1106) and Gregory VII. (1073–1085) the two power; came into the sharpest conflict concerning the right of investiture, or the supreme control in the election of bishops and abbots. The papacy achieved a moral triumph over the empire at Canossa, when the mightiest prince kneeled as a penitent at the feet of the proud successor of Peter (1077); but Henry recovered his manhood and his power, set up an antipope, and Gregory died in exile at Salerno, yet without yielding an inch of his principles and pretensions. The conflict lasted fifty years, and ended with the Concordat of Worms (Sept. 23, 1122), which was a compromise, but with a limitation of the imperial prerogative: the pope secured the right to invest the bishops with the ring and crozier, but the new bishop before his consecration was to receive his temporal estates as a fief of the crown by the touch of the emperor’s sceptre.

The House of Hohenstaufen.

Under the Swabian emperors of the house of Hohenstaufen (1138–1254) the Roman empire reached its highest power in connection with the Crusades, in the palmy days of mediaeval chivalry, poetry and song. They excelled in personal greatness and renown the Saxon and the Salic emperors, but were too much concerned with Italian affairs for the good of Germany. Frederick Barbarossa (Redbeard), during his long reign (1152–1190), was a worthy successor of Charlemagne and Otho the Great. He subdued Northern Italy, quarrelled with pope Alexander III., enthroned two rival popes (Paschal III., and after his death Calixtus III.), but ultimately submitted to Alexander, fell at his feet at Venice, and was embraced by the pope with tears of joy and the kiss of peace (1177). He died at the head of an army of crusaders, while attempting to cross the Cydnus in Cilicia (June 10, 1190), and entered upon his long enchanted sleep in Kyffhäuser till his spirit reappeared to establish a new German empire in 1871.257257    Friedrich Rückert has reproduced this significant German legend in a poem beginning:
   Der alte Barbarossa,

   Der Kaiser Friederich,

   Im unterird’schen Schlosse

   Hält er verzaubert sich.


   Er ist niemals gestorben,

   Er lebt darin noch jetzt;

   Er hat im Schloss verborgen

   Zum Schlaf sich hingesetzt.


   Er hat hinabgenommen

   Des Reiches Herrlichkeit,

   Und wird einst wiederkommen

   Mit ihr zu seiner Zeit,“etc.


Under Innocent III. (1198–1216) the papacy reached the acme of its power, and maintained it till the time of Boniface VIII. (1294–1303). Emperor Frederick II. (1215–1250), Barbarossa’s grandson, was equal to the best of his predecessors in genius and energy, superior to them in culture, but more an Italian than a German, and a skeptic on the subject of religion. He reconquered Jerusalem in the fifth crusade, but cared little for the church, and was put under the ban by pope Gregory IX., who denounced him as a heretic and blasphemer, and compared him to the Apocalyptic beast from the abyss.258258    He alone, of all the emperors, is consigned to hell by Dante (Inferno, x. 119):
   “Within here is the second Frederick.”
The news of his sudden death was hailed by pope Innocent IV. with the exclamation: “Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad.” His death was the collapse of the house of Hohenstaufen, and for a time also of the Roman empire. His son and successor Conrad IV. ruled but a few years, and his grandson Conradin, a bright and innocent youth of sixteen, was opposed by the pope, and beheaded at Naples in sight of his hereditary kingdom (October 29, 1268).

Italy was at once the paradise and the grave of German ambition.

The German Empire.

After “the great interregnum” when might was right,259259    Schiller calls it ”die kaiserlose, die schreckliche Zeit.” the Swiss count Rudolf of Hapsburg (a castle in the Swiss canton of Aargau) was elected emperor by the seven electors, and crowned at Aachen (1273–1291). He restored peace and order, never visited Italy, escaped the ruinous quarrels with the pope, built up a German kingdom, and laid the foundation of the conservative, orthodox, tenacious, and selfish house of Austria.

The empire continued to live for more than five centuries with varying fortunes, in nominal connection with Rome and at the head of the secular powers in Christendom, but without controlling influence over the fortunes of the papacy and the course of Europe. Occasionally it sent forth a gleam of its universal aim, as under Henry VII., who was crowned in Rome and hailed by Dante as the saviour of Italy, but died of fever (if not of poison administered by a Dominican monk in the sacramental cup) in Tuscany (1313); under Sigismund, the convener and protector of the oecumenical Council at Constance which deposed popes and burned Hus (1414), a much better man than either the emperor or the contemporary popes; under Charles V. (1519–1558), who wore the crown of Spain and Austria as well as of Germany, and on whose dominions the sun never set; and under Joseph II. (1765–1790), who renounced the intolerant policy of his ancestors, unmindful of the pope’s protest, and narrowly escaped greatness.260260    The pope Pius VI. even made a journey to Vienna, but when he extended his hand to the minister Kaunitz to kiss, the minister took it and shook it. Joseph in turn visited Rome, and was received by the people with the shout:Evviva il nostro imperatore!” But the emperors after Rudolf, with a few exceptions, were no more crowned in Rome, and withdrew from Italy.261261    Dante (Purgat. VII. 94) represents Rudolf of Hapsburg as seated gloomily apart in purgatory, and mourning his sin of neglecting

   “To heal the wounds that Italy have slain.”


   Weary of the endless strife of domestic tyrants and factions in every city, Dante longed for some controlling power that should restore unity and peace to his beloved but unfortunate Italy. He expounded his political ideas in his work De Monarchia.
They were chosen at Frankfort by the Seven Electors, three spiritual, and four temporal: the archbishops of Mentz, Treves, and Cologne, the king of Bohemia, and the Electors of the Palatinate, Saxony, and Brandenburg (afterwards enlarged to nine). The competition, however, was confined to a few powerful houses, until in the 15th century the Hapsburgs grasped the crown and held it tenaciously, with one exception, till the dissolution. The Hapsburg emperors always cared more for their hereditary dominions, which they steadily increased by fortunate marriages, than for Germany and the papacy.

The Decline and Fall of the Empire.

Many causes contributed to the gradual downfall of the German empire: the successful revolt of the Swiss mountaineers, the growth of the independent kingdoms of Spain, France, and England, the jealousies of the electors and the minor German princes, the discovery of a new Continent in the West, the invasion of the Turks from the East, the Reformation which divided the German people into two hostile religions, the fearful devastations of the thirty years’ war, the rise of the house of Hohenzollern and the kingdom of Prussia on German soil with the brilliant genius of Frederick II., and the wars growing out of the French Revolution. In its last stages it became a mere shadow, and justified the satirical description (traced to Voltaire), that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. The last of the emperors, Francis II., in August 6th, 1806, abdicated the elective crown of Germany and substituted for it the hereditary crown of Austria as Francis I. (d. 1835).

Thus the holy Roman empire died in peace at the venerable age of one thousand and six years.

The Empire of Napoleon.

Napoleon, hurled into sudden power by the whirlwind of revolution on the wings of his military genius, aimed at the double glory of a second Caesar and a second Charlemagne, and constructed, by arbitrary force, a huge military empire on the basis of France, with the pope as an obedient paid servant at Paris, but it collapsed on the battle fields of Leipzig and Waterloo, without the hope of a resurrection. “I have not succeeded Louis Quatorze,” he said, “but Charlemagne.” He dismissed his wife and married a daughter of the last German and first Austrian emperor; he assumed the Lombard crown at Milan; he made his ill-fated son “King of Rome” in imitation of the German “King of the Romans.” He revoked “the donations which my predecessors, the French emperors have made,” and appropriated them to France. “Your holiness,” he wrote to Pius VII., who had once addressed him as his “very dear Son in Christ,” “is sovereign of Rome, but I am the emperor thereof.” “You are right,” he wrote to Cardinal Fesch, his uncle, “that I am Charlemagne, and I ought to be treated as the emperor of the papal court. I shall inform the pope of my intentions in a few words, and if he declines to acquiesce, I shall reduce him to the same condition in which he was before Charlemagne.”262262   2 In another letter to Fesch (Correspond. de l’ empereur Napol. Ier, Tom. xi. 528), he writes, ”Pour le pape je suis Charemagne. parce que comme Charlemagne je réunis la couronne de Prance à celle du Lombards et que mon empire confine avec l’ Orient.” Quoted by Bryce. It is reported that he proposed to the pope to reside in Paris with a large salary, and rule the conscience of Europe under the military, supremacy of the emperor, that the pope listened first to his persuasion with the single remark: “Comedian,” and then to his threats with the reply: “Tragedian,” and turned him his back. The papacy utilized the empire of the uncle and the nephew, as well as it could, and survived them. But the first Napoleon swept away the effete institutions of feudalism, and by his ruthless and scornful treatment of conquered nationalities provoked a powerful revival of these very nationalities which overthrew and buried his own artificial empire. The deepest humiliation of the German nation, and especially of Prussia, was the beginning of its uprising in the war of liberation.

The German Confederation.

The Congress of Vienna erected a temporary substitute for the old empire in the German “Bund” at Frankfort. It was no federal state, but a loose confederacy of 38 sovereign states, or princes rather, without any popular representation; it was a rope of sand, a sham unity, under the leadership of Austria; and Austria shrewdly and selfishly used the petty rivalries and jealousies of the smaller principalities as a means to check the progress of Prussia and to suppress all liberal movements.

The New German Empire.

In the meantime the popular desire for national union, awakened by the war of liberation and a great national literature, made steady progress, and found at last its embodiment in a new German empire with a liberal constitution and a national parliament. But this great result was brought about by great events and achievements under the leadership of Prussia against foreign aggression. The first step was the brilliant victory of Prussia over Austria at Königgrätz, which resulted in the formation of the North German Confederation (1866). The second step was the still more remarkable triumph of united Germany in a war of self-defence against the empire of Napoleon III., which ended in the proclamation of William I. as German emperor by the united wishes of the German princes and peoples in the palace of Louis XIV. at Versailles (1870).

Thus the long dream of the German nation was fulfilled through a series of the most brilliant military and diplomatic victories recorded in modern history, by the combined genius of Bismarck, Moltke, and William, and the valor, discipline, and intelligence of the German army.

Simultaneously with this German movement, Italy under the lead of Cavour and Victor Emmanuel, achieved her national unity, with Rome as the political capital.

But the new German empire is not a continuation or revival of the old. It differs from it in several essential particulars. It is the result of popular national aspiration and of a war of self-defence, not of conquest; it is based on the predominance of Prussia and North Germany, not of Austria and South Germany; it is hereditary, not elective; it is controlled by modern ideas of liberty and progress, not by mediaeval notions and institutions; it is essentially Protestant, and not Roman Catholic; it is a German, not a Roman empire. Its rise is indirectly connected with the simultaneous downfall of the temporal power of the pope, who is the hereditary and unchangeable enemy both of German and Italian unity and freedom. The new empire is independent of the church, and has officially no connection with religion, resembling in this respect the government of the United States; but its Protestant animus appears not only in the hereditary religion of the first emperor, but also in the expulsion of the Jesuits (1872), and the “Culturkampf” against the politico-hierarchical aspirations of the ultramontane papacy. When Pius IX., in a letter to William I. (1873), claimed a sort of jurisdiction over all baptized Christians, the emperor courteously informed the infallible pope that he, with all Protestants, recognized no other mediator between God and man but our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The new German empire will and ought to do full justice to the Catholic church, but “will never go to Canossa.”

We pause at the close of a long and weighty chapter in history; we wonder what the next chapter will be.

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