How the Nazis weaponised Charlemagne

  • Themes: History

Nazi historiographers sought to present Adolf Hitler as the heir to Charlemagne. They were neither the first, nor the last, to mythologise Charlemagne and attempt to shape his legacy for their own ends.

A large Sèvres presentation plate celebrating Nazism's alleged debt to Charlemagne.
A large Sèvres presentation plate celebrating Nazism's alleged debt to Charlemagne. Credit: INTERFOTO / Alamy Stock Photo

One of the most arresting items in the German Historical Museum in Berlin is a porcelain plate produced at Sèvres, in occupied France, during the Second World War. On the front appears a famous equestrian statuette of Charlemagne, and inscribed on the back are the words:


(The empire of Charlemagne, having been divided among his grandsons in the year 843, Adolf Hitler defends, together with all the peoples of Europe, in the year 1943.)

Hitler donated 80 of these plates to members of the 33rd Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS, a unit of French collaborationists which went under the codename ‘Charlemagne’. ‘Charlemagne’, they called themselves, not ‘Karl der Große’: the fleur-de-lys above the inscription indicates that they had lost none of their national feeling. The inscription itself, meanwhile, appears neither in German nor French but Latin: the language of a common European civilisation, transcending national boundaries. The plate’s implications could not have been clearer. By unifying ‘all the peoples of Europe’, restoring an empire that Charlemagne’s grandsons Lothair, Louis, and Charles had carved up at Verdun 1,100 years prior, Hitler was ‘defending’ the legacy of their grandfather, his ‘Third Reich’ inheriting Charlemagne’s First.

It is peculiar to find Charlemagne here in a French or transnational garb, for the emperor had long enjoyed a solid place within the German nationalist pantheon. ‘Charles the Great’ was portrayed on stained-glass windows at the train station in Metz in Alsace, then part of the Second Reich, as though to rub salt in French wounds. Otto von Bismarck likewise wanted to erect a statue of him, though had to settle in the end for ‘Germania’ instead. To the well-worn question asked incessantly on both sides of the Rhine, ‘Karl der Große or Charlemagne?’, no German of the late 19th century would have thought twice about affirming the former.

In 1912 a third option was invented, and one which many Nazis would come to embrace: ‘Karl der Sachsenschlächter’ or ‘Charlemagne the Saxon-butcher.’ This was dreamt up by the writer Hermann Löns, who later perished in the First World War, and rooted in local, North German grievances. According to Löns, Charlemagne was not a great German king worthy of celebration, but a brutal warlord and foreign conqueror: his greatest crime, hence the new epithet, was his massacre of the Saxons at Verden in 782. Charlemagne was also, as völkisch writers liked to emphasise, the man who had first polluted the German spirit with (‘Jewish’) Christianity, and who supposedly had permitted Jewish settlement in the Germanic lands. Charlemagne’s nemesis, the pagan Saxon Duke Widukind, was now fashioned into a tragic hero.

The key figure in developing the Widukind cult was Alfred Rosenberg, who regarded himself as the Nazis’ house philosopher. In his Mythus des XX. Jahrhunderts (1930), Rosenberg praised Widukind as a hero who had fought ‘for the freedom of all the Nordic peoples’. A new figure had, of course, come along to liberate the Nordic peoples from world Jewry and foreign oppression. ‘If Duke Widukind was defeated in the eighth century’, Rosenberg said on the radio in 1934, ‘he triumphed forever in Adolf Hitler in the 20th century.’

Rosenberg’s arguments sparked an intense debate in Nazi Germany. ‘At parties, at games of tennis, around the tables in pubs’, as one Nazi subject reflected in 1941, ‘the question surfaced: was Karl der Große a blessing for what was then called Germany?’ The debate even summoned some academic intervention. When Franz Schnabel, one of the bravest anti-Nazi historians, published a book in 1936 emphasising the ‘Christian-religious heritage’ of the Germans, he must have had Rosenberg in mind. In 1935, Theo Schaller’s Karl und Widukind likewise defended Charlemagne from Rosenberg’s assault. By far the most significant instance of dissent came in a volume that year edited by the doyen of the German medievalists, Karl Hampe, which directly posed the old question: Karl der Große oder Charlemagne?

In a way, Hampe met Rosenberg on his own turf. It was Rosenberg, Hampe argued, who was really imposing foreign ideas onto German culture, much as he had accused Charlemagne of doing. Criticisms of Charlemagne, Hampe pointed out, are nothing new; they were articulated by the great enemy, Voltaire, in the age of the Enlightenment. Rosenberg, then, was the real Jacobin, the real subversive. ‘Today we certainly have less reason than ever’, Hampe concluded, ‘to follow this pioneer of the French Revolution’ – as Rosenberg had followed Voltaire – ‘in disrespecting the first emperor of Germanic descent and to adopt his grounds for so doing’. Later in the volume, in an essay on Charlemagne’s character, Hampe emphasised Charlemagne’s pure Germanic blood, describing him (rather absurdly) as ‘untainted by Romanisation’.

In a sense, then, Hampe’s edited volume was an exercise in old-fashioned, 19th-century nationalist historiography, at times expressed in Nazified terms. Some contributions to the volume were willing to dissent still further. Unlike Hampe, Martin Lintzel cast the whole ‘Karl der Große oder Charlemagne?’ debate as an anachronism. In Charlemagne’s day, Lintzel boldly declared, ‘there was no German Volk, no German nation, and absolutely no concept of “German” in our sense’.

Then a blow to the ‘Sachsenschlächter’ charge came in 1938, with the publication of a short philological essay by Karl Bauer. The charge, Bauer pointed out, was based on a single source, the Royal Frankish Annals. Attending closely to the manuscripts, Bauer suggested that the Latin term ‘decollati’ (‘decapitated’), on which Löns and Rosenberg had placed so much weight, in fact was a scribal error for ‘delocati’ (‘relocated’) – a rather less distressing fate for an eighth-century Saxon, and one that seemed to cast Charlemagne in a more favourable light. (Bauer’s argument is still debated by historians but most reject it.)

As these academic challenges began to mount, Rosenberg’s hostile attitude towards Charlemagne lost favour within the Nazi party. Charlemagne was rehabilitated in official Nazi propaganda. History books in Germany reverted, as Hampe might have wished, to an older vein of nationalist historiography. ‘Karl was no Romanised Charlemagne’, the historian Hans Hallmann insisted in 1943, ‘but rather remained a Germanic Frank.’ April 1942 saw a burst of ‘Charlemagnia’, in celebration of his supposed 1200th birthday: the Reichspost issued a special stamp to mark the occasion. Even Rosenberg changed his tune. By 1938 Hitler, once the heir of Widukind, could now be described by Rosenberg as the heir of Charlemagne. All this meant that Hitler, the lord of all Europe, could flatter himself as the new Charlemagne in the porcelain plates which he had sent off to the SS ‘Charlemagne’.

As Germany’s empire expanded across Europe, with it grew the image of Charlemagne as a European ruler. This became the standard narrative, and academic historians in Nazi Germany hewed to it. In 1940 the historian Gerd Tellenbach celebrated Charlemagne, in the type of language that would be picked up by proponents of European integration after the war, as the ‘forger of western unity’. Two years later, Willy Hoppe proclaimed Charlemagne as the ‘trailblazer of the European idea’. This was the intellectual ferment out of which the Sèvres plates emerged. ‘Karl der Große’, after the brief ‘Sachsenschlächter’ interlude, had been refashioned into a symbol of the Great Domination of Europe.

Some historians were able to offer some resistance to Nazi abuses of the past. It is difficult, however, to measure the actual impact of their interventions. Rosenberg’s anti-Charlemagne stance was probably always a minority position within the NSDAP; his rants and ramblings never amounted to official party doctrine. Hitler – who was not from Rosenberg’s (or Löns’s) North German world, and who did not really partake in his rabid anti-Christianity – never seems to have felt much sympathy for the ‘Sachsenschlächter’ idea; according to Albert Speer, he felt great personal admiration for Charlemagne, who was a ‘forerunner to his own plans for European power’. He was naturally more flattered to be compared with the famous, victorious Charlemagne than the obscure loser Widukind.

Before Hampe’s edited volume had time to make much of an impact, the gap between Hitler and Rosenberg on the question of Charlemagne was already starting to show. In his concluding address at Nuremberg in 1935, Hitler celebrated Charlemagne – who nonetheless remained unnamed – as the man who had unified the German nation, though at the cost of spilling some German blood. In his Table Talk, from during the war, Hitler is said to have repeated this argument: ‘Charlemagne was one of the greatest men in world history, because he managed to bring together the quarrelling German tribes.’ Once again, Hitler appears to have seen something of himself in Charlemagne. Indeed, he was afraid that one day, perhaps in a thousand years, a new Rosenberg would come along and traduce him, for his own efforts to unify the German Volk, as the ‘slayer of the Austrians’: he was thinking perhaps of the assassination of Austria’s chancellor Engelbert Dolfuß by Nazi conspirators in 1934. Hitler did not deny – as Bauer had given him plausible grounds to do – that Charlemagne had brutally massacred the Saxons at Verden. His chilling argument, rather, was that violence was absolutely justified in the service of the German Volk.

It was perhaps for these reasons that, after the war, some historians, from countries which had experienced Nazi occupation, bore a broadly negative view towards Charlemagne’s Europe. When in 1948 the Belgian F.-L. Ganshof described how Charlemagne’s empire had ‘decomposed’ in the latter phase of his reign, the fate of the Third Reich might have been weighing on his mind. He was also, to some degree, resisting the postwar efforts to disentangle Charlemagne and Hitler after a war which had seen such strong identification between the two. He was not alone in this. The medieval historian Jacques Le Goff described the portrayal of Charlemagne as the ‘father of Europe’ as a ‘distortion of history’ not supported by the evidence. The Czech historian František Graus likewise thought that it was not a fruitful path for those invested in the European idea to go down, and that Charlemagne ‘will remain just as bland as a symbol of European unity as he has been in all the previous roles assigned to him’.

The image of Charlemagne as ‘father of Europe’ was not banished wholesale in 1945, and it bequeathed to the postwar European order some recognisable legacies. Early enthusiasts for European integration found ample inspiration in the Carolingian past. Here, according to Jean Monnet, is how General de Gaulle regarded the potential ‘combination of German and French strength’: ‘it would mean giving modern economic, social, strategic, and cultural shape to the work of the emperor Charlemagne’. Konrad Adenauer, meanwhile, effused in 1951 that the freshly-signed Treaty of Paris heralded a ‘turning point’ in European history ‘back to the time of Charlemagne’. This was the position taken by Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi, the great prophet of the ‘European idea’, when he accepted the inaugural Charlemagne Prize at Aachen in 1950. ‘We have gathered here’, he grandly declared, ‘in the name of the European emperor Charlemagne, in the venerable capital of his enormous empire that encompassed Italy, Germany, and France.’ Of course, Coudenhove-Kalergi’s neo-Carolingian empire – unlike the original, and unlike Hitler’s – was to be built ‘atop a ‘democratic, federalist, and social foundation’.

It helped that the ‘Inner Six’, the founding signatories to the European Coal and Steel Community, seemed so strongly to resemble the boundaries of Charlemagne’s empire. Inspired by this, historians around this time began to pay attention to the single contemporary reference to Charlemagne, in the anonymous epic ‘Charlemagne and Pope Leo’, as ‘pater Europae’. Scholars including Percy Ernst Schramm – the medieval historian who spent the final two years of the Second World War as the official diarist of the Wehrmacht – had scarcely noticed this before the war, but it appears throughout his later oeuvre. It has supplied the key motif to some 21st century discussions of Charlemagne, by historians such as Rosamond McKitterick, Dame Janet Nelson, and Alessandro Barbero. A veritable historiographical micro-industry was unleashed, and one which placed more weight on a single reference than it could reasonably be expected to bear.

‘Charlemagne the European’, in other words, may not have been so bland an idea as František Graus had forewarned: it clearly packs something of a punch. It is not an idea, however, that has fallen into our laps unblemished or ‘unproblematic’. It was conceived in the crucible of the Second World War, where it was put to particular uses. It was the solution to an intellectual debate that raged in Germany in the 1930s: and it was a solution that, as it were, ‘bit the bullet’ of Charlemagne’s massacre of the Saxons at Verden, casting it as something right and necessary for German unity and, ultimately, for German hegemony in Europe. All of which leads to a broader point, and one which applies beyond the realm of academic historiography: that the past will imprint itself upon the present however much this is resisted, and the present upon the past however much this is denied.


Samuel Rubinstein