Reich and Nation

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

“The Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” These words of Voltaire have for so long been used to describe the Holy Roman Empire that they almost immediately come to mind whenever that erstwhile institution appears in print or speech. The implication is that by Voltaire’s own time—the mid-eighteenth century—the Empire had not only ceased to be what it was intended to be but also no longer served any purpose whatsoever. Consequently, it deserved to expire, and, when it did so in 1806, no one mourned its passing.

As John G. Gagliardo himself points out in his Introduction, historians have recently taken a fresh look at the Holy Roman Empire, and, while not finding that it was indeed holy, Roman, and an empire, they have displayed convincingly that it was more than an anachronism in the minds of many Germans. There are two recent and impressive studies of the Empire in its last days; one is the two-volume work of Karl Otmar von Aretin entitled Heiliges Römisches Reich, 1776-1806 and the other is this book. Each has a focus that complements the other. Whereas Aretin shows that the officials of large and small German states regarded being part of the Empire a fact of considerable importance, Gagliardo asserts that among popular writers as well there was not only an interest in the fate of the Empire but also substantial desire that it continue.

Before beginning his central thesis, Gagliardo offers three chapters on the nature of the Empire since 1648, including explanations of its constitution, the kinds of territories belonging to it, the major bodies involved in political affairs, and the purposes the Empire was supposed to serve. Nowhere can one find a clearer, more succinct discussion of these complex and often confusing institutions. For those in need of a brief, lucid description of the Empire’s structure after 1648, this is indeed the place to look.

The main body of the work is not, however, concerned with institutional history but with the Holy Roman Empire in popular literature. Gagliardo implies that German popular writers gave the Empire little serious thought until after the Seven Years’ War, when events confirmed what had begun in 1740: the Holy Roman Empire was entering a period of serious crisis. Gagliardo cites the writings of Friedrich Karl von Moser, a Pietist who had supported Prussia in the Seven Years’ War, but who afterward began to wonder if Germany needed to be divided into warring factions or if there were instead a true, uniting “German spirit.” Moser believed that at one time there had been such a spirit, but that it had slowly and surely dissolved in the religious strife of the Reformation, the provincialism encouraged by the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), and the Austro-Prussian rivalry. There was but one institution left that reflected that spirit, Moser concluded, and that was the Holy Roman Empire. He proposed no changes in the Empire, because a revival of spirit could not take place through institutional reform. His idea of revival was spiritual, and so he focused his ideas of reform on changing attitudes through education and law.

Moser’s works touched off spirited debate in German literary circles, and from then on the Empire remained a favorite topic of discussion, not only because many realized that it was of importance, but also because in the last two decades of the eighteenth century events vital to the future of both it and Germany came tumbling one after another. The first of these events was the formation in 1784 of the League of German Princes. It grew out of a proposal by Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor and head of the House of Habsburg, to trade the Austrian Netherlands (today’s Belgium and Luxembourg) and a title of King to Karl Theodore of Bavaria for Bavaria itself. To prevent this exchange, which would add considerably to Habsburg power in Germany, Frederick the Great of Prussia organized the League of German Princes, which eventually included many of the large, medium, and small princes of the Empire. The two primary antagonists, Joseph and Frederick, viewed the League as a purely Prussian device to stop the Belgian-Bavarian exchange, but the lesser princes who joined and many writers who discussed it looked upon it as a...

(The entire section is 1743 words.)