What did it mean to belong to the Holy Roman Empire?

The Holy Roman Empire was neither a nation state nor indeed a conventional empire. Instead, its inhabitants were unified through a web of legal rights.
holy roman empire
A miniature of the Treaty of Verdun, 843. Emperor Louis I (right) blessing the division of the Frankish Empire in 843 into West Francia, Middle Francia, and East Francia. Credit: Wikimedia commons.
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This essay originally appeared under the title ‘Identity and belonging in the Holy Roman Empire in Nation, State and Empire: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar, published by Bokförlaget Stolpe in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation for Public Benefit, 2017.

The Holy Roman Empire sprawled across much of Europe for over a millennium, encompassing what are now Germany, Austria, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, much of Italy, and parts of France, Denmark, and Poland. This geographic heterogeneity is reflected in how the empire’s history has been written, as that of a loose confederation with little binding it together beyond a vague sense that the empire embodied the fading ideal of a single Christendom. Even this was denied by some sceptical observers, notably Voltaire, who famously dismissed the empire as ‘neither holy, Roman, nor an empire’ in 1756. Others, like the political philosopher Samuel Pufendorf a century earlier, described the empire as ‘resembling a monstrosity’ because it did not conform to any of the recognised categories of state. He argued that the empire had declined from a ‘regular kingdom’ into an ‘irregular’ one, suggesting that its political development somehow ran opposite to that of other European states by becoming progressively weaker and more decentralised.

Later writers have been even more critical, accusing successive emperors of neglecting state-building in favour of pursuing the chimera of imperial power and prestige. Increasingly, after its dissolution in 1806, the empire was regarded as a purely ‘German’ project as the other states emerging from it fashioned their own stories of national emancipation from foreign rule. The empire was reduced to Germany’s Middle Ages and early modernity, leaving its history to be written as a sorry story of repeated failure to forge a strong, centralised nation state. The received interpretation reduces the empire’s history to a narrative of high politics, and conveys the false impression that it was only inhabited by princes and aristocrats. This chapter argues that the empire’s inhabitants did identify with it as their homeland, but did so in ways that often differed from those in other states.

Multi-centred identity

The first key point is that identity in the Holy Roman Empire was always multi-centred as there was no stable heartland, nor a single dominant people. The conventional modern definition of an empire impedes our understanding of the Holy Roman Empire. Most modern scholarship equates empire with hegemony, and explains imperial expansion and rule in terms of a core/periphery relationship. The core expands by conquering and absorbing various more distant peripheral lands. The relationship between core and periphery is characterised by exploitation, with resources being extracted from the periphery for the benefit of the core, as was obviously the case in the European colonial empires of the late fifteenth to mid-twentieth centuries. This exploitative character of empire hinders a common sense of belonging. Imperial governance is akin to a ‘rimless wheel’: each peripheral territory is connected to the core, but the imperial centre deliberately disrupts connections between the various subjugated areas to reduce the risk of mass opposition.

The Holy Roman Empire only briefly and imperfectly matched this model. The expansion of the Frankish kingdom during the later eighth century certainly saw the conquest of the Lombards and other peoples, as well as their assimilation and often forced Christianisation. However, Frankish rule remained decentralised even once their king, Charlemagne, had been crowned emperor on Christmas Day, 800. The empire was founded in an age which did not think in modern constitutional terms, and the parameters of power were not clearly defined in written documents. Contemporaries used the same terms, loosely translating as ‘realm’ for both empire and kingdom. They lived in the post-Roman world with the ancient legacy mediated by their reading of the Bible and Christian commentary. For them, there was only one civilisation — and that was their own Christian world. Just as there was only one God in heaven, earthly political and spiritual authority were also singular, though commentators often disagreed on which power was superior to the other, and how.

This thinking influenced how the empire was governed. Hereditary succession and elective monarchy were not seen as clear alternatives, and imperial politics blended both. The leading lords acclaimed one of themselves as king, who assumed the full prerogatives of power for the entire empire, and it was perfectly possible for him to rule without being crowned emperor by the pope. However, actual governance always depended on convincing the lordly and clerical elite to cooperate. It was this that made imperial coronations politically significant. A core part of the Roman aspect of the empire was that the imperial title signified responsibility for all of Christendom’s security, well-being and peace. Coronation elevated the emperor above all other rulers, including kings, regardless of whether his actual authority extended across their possessions. More immediately, it enabled him to outrank members of his own family, including his sons who might provide rallying points for malcontents.

Acclamation suggested an element of election, but there were no formal procedures for casting votes before the fourteenth century and it was perfectly possible for the assembled lords to choose the son of the previous ruler. In fact, of the twenty-four German kings between 800 and 1254, twenty-two came from just four families — the Carolingians, Ottonians, Salians, and Staufers — and sons followed fathers directly on twelve occasions. The next seven kings — between 1254 and 1347 — came from six families, but it became increasingly obvious that only a few princely dynasties had both the desire and the resources to be serious candidates. By 1300 it was clear that only the Wittelsbachs, Luxembourgs and Habsburgs remained serious contenders. The desire to exclude both the papacy from interference, as well as partisans of rival families, led to the consolidation of the empire as an elective monarchy, notably in the Golden Bull of 1356 which restricted the right of selecting each emperor to seven leading princes (known as ‘electors’). After the Luxembourgs’ extinction in 1437, the Habsburgs remained the only viable choice, not least because the growing Ottoman threat meant that whoever became emperor would need considerable resources to defend the eastern frontier. The Habsburgs’ own core possession of Austria lay directly in the Ottomans’ path, especially once the sultan had conquered most of Hungary in 1526. Meanwhile, astute dynastic marriages had led to successive inheritances during 1477–1526, greatly expanding Habsburg possessions which now totalled a third of the entire empire. Unsurprisingly, the Habsburgs provided seventeen of the next eighteen monarchs (the exception being the Bavarian Wittelsbach, Charles VII, 1742–45).

Thus, despite evolving as an elective monarchy, the empire enjoyed considerable political continuity, with the centre of political gravity shifting with each great family — beginning with the Frankish Carolingians, then the Ottonians from Saxony around 919, then the Salian family from the Rhineland in 1024, followed by the Staufers from Swabia (and later Sicily) in 1138. Though no great dynasty immediately replaced the Staufers after 1250, imperial politics was far from chaotic. The onset of a fairly continuous line of Luxembourg monarchs after 1347 saw imperial rule based in Prague. With the Habsburgs’ succession in 1438, power moved southwards to Vienna. Each shift changed the configuration of high politics, since each family had different local roots and kinship networks. However, the change of dynasty did not bring a different ethnic group to power. Rather, the gradual perambulation of imperial rule left a trail of palaces, castles, hunting grounds, manors, towns, monasteries and cathedrals, all with imperial associations. These places and the rights and identities of their inhabitants were forever linked to the monarch who had founded them and endowed their privileges.

The empire never had a single, fixed imperial capital. Rome was important, but was only briefly considered as the emperor’s primary residence in the late tenth century, and early medieval emperors always used other residences like Aachen as well. Its politics — and as a consequence its identities also — were always multi-centred, reflecting the underlying imperial ideology as well as the practical exigencies of governing such a vast space. The empire claimed to be the direct continuation of the Christian Roman empire of late antiquity because Pope Leo III used the excuse of an inter-regnum in Byzantium to ‘translate’, or switch the imperial title from a distant and increasingly ineffective patron in Constantinople and instead bestow this dignity on Charlemagne, the Frankish warlord, who appeared to offer more immediate and effective protection for the church. Of course, Leo lacked any clear authority for his action, which left a problematic legacy since it suggested the pope was superior to the emperor. The actual balance of power lay with the emperor into the later eleventh century when Pope Gregory VII challenged Henry IV’s powers over bishops. The resulting Investiture Dispute (1075–1122), and its second, somewhat different round in the century after 1150, severely damaged both imperial and papal power, and accelerated the trend among Europe’s royalty to claim they were ‘emperors in their own kingdoms’, and thus subordinate to no one. This process was gradual and protracted, but served to demarcate the empire as a distinct political space in the heart of Europe, rather than as encompassing the entire Latin west.

However, the idea that (Catholic) Europe was a single political order proved surprisingly durable. Byzantium survived until the Ottoman capture of Constantinople, but neither the pope nor the Holy Roman emperor accepted the eastern emperor as fully imperial, calling him instead the ‘king of the Greeks’. Though it became clear that Europe’s other kings, such as those in France, Spain or England, were not the emperor’s vassals, none of these monarchs was presumptuous enough to assume an imperial title. The Habsburgs were forced to accept that the sultan was akin to an emperor in 1606, and they made the same arrangement with the tsar in 1726 to obtain a Russian alliance. They reluctantly accepted Napoleon’s declaration of himself as ‘emperor of the French’ in 1804, but adopted their own Austrian hereditary imperial status to maintain parity while still claiming that the Holy Roman imperial title outranked everyone. Francis II’s dissolution of the empire in August 1806 was primarily motivated by the desire to prevent Napoleon usurping its imperial prestige to bolster French influence in Germany.

Being multi-centred also suited the practicalities of medieval governance. The empire was a vast, sparsely-inhabited territory, in which literacy remained restricted to the small clerical elite prior to the fourteenth century. The emperor reversed the standard pattern of European royalty. Rather than expecting his lords and vassals to visit a single royal capital at his expense, he travelled to them, staying either at his own strategically located palaces, or lodging in abbeys or monasteries at the cost of the church. This itinerant monarchy continued even after the significance of royal lands declined in the thirteenth century, because the emperor founded new, autonomous imperial cities which were required to lodge him and his retinue in return for their privileges. Indeed, far from being threatened by their vassals’ growing autonomy, twelfth and thirteenth-century emperors deliberately expanded the lordly elite, adding new distinctions by raising some to princely rank. This rebalanced the relationship between emperor and lords along more recognisably feudal lines and represented a deliberate division of labour. Princes, lords and cities all remained the emperor’s direct vassals. Their privileges were intended to enable them to look after the problems of daily life within their jurisdictions, and leave the emperor free to get on with his task of upholding justice and protecting the church.

These arrangements were institutionalised during the later fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as imperial politics increasingly shifted from face-to-face meetings to written communication and formalised negotiations. The immediate vassals were now identified as imperial estates, sharing governance of the empire as a mixed monarchy in which the emperor remained sovereign, but shared the exercise of important prerogatives with a complex hierarchy of princes, lords and cities. The new institutions, such as the Reichstag (Imperial Diet), the two imperial supreme courts and various other agencies also remained itinerant into the seventeenth century. This left multiple locations with long associations with the empire through having hosted the emperor, or important meetings or institutions, at some time in the past.

Meanwhile, the gradual demarcation of distinct territories within the empire was not a process of progressive fragmentation of a once unified state as suggested by Pufendorf, but instead a co-evolution on multiple levels of locality, territory, region and empire. The empire emerged from the Frankish realm (Francia) which had recently incorporated the kingdom of Lombardy, conquered by Charlemagne in the 770s. The Frankish elite had always been turbulent and soon resumed internecine conflicts around a decade after Charlemagne’s death in 814. These struggles resulted in a series of partitions, notably the Treaty of Verdun (843) which separated East and West Francia, and founded a straggling middle kingdom called Lotharingia. Lotharingia subsequently split, creating what became Burgundy (a kingdom that covered what is now the Netherlands and parts of the Rhineland), Lorraine (that the Germans still call Lothringen), and Italy.

Later generations interpreted these partitions as the ‘birth’ of modern nations, especially France (from West Francia) and Germany (from East Francia). In fact, that process took centuries. Though the Franks recognised distinct kingdoms (regna), they acted as if all belonged to a common political order. That order was the Holy Roman Empire, which never had precisely defined outer limits because it regarded itself as a singular, universal order encompassing all of Christendom. West Francia was considered fully distinct by the early tenth century, but its king was regarded as inferior to the emperor. All the Frankish kings saw themselves as potential candidates for the imperial title, even after the different Carolingian lines died out and were replaced by other families, notably the Ottonians, who became kings of East Francia after 919.

The spectacular victory of the second Ottonian king, Otto I, over the Magyars at Lechfeld in 955 cemented his reputation as a great warrior and provided the basis to bid for the imperial title. Having intervened in Italy and deposed a local rival, Otto was crowned emperor in Rome in 962. Otto’s power and that of his immediate successors firmly established the empire as composed of three principal kingdoms in hierarchical status and significance. Foremost was East Francia, now called Germany, ranked ahead of Italy and Burgundy, both of which were now firmly distinct from former Lotharingia. By the 1030s it had become established that whomever was chosen as German king automatically became Italian and Burgundian king as well, and was the primary candidate among all European monarchs to be crowned emperor.

Bohemia was the largest of the Slavic areas incorporated as the empire gradually expanded eastwards. It was recognised as a kingdom in 1085, but always remained subordinate to the German king and thus to the empire as a whole. Austria and Brandenburg were former militarised border zones originally established to protect the empire against Slavic and Magyar raiders. Despite their subsequent importance as the hereditary possessions of the Habsburgs and Hohenzollerns respectively, neither became a kingdom. The Habsburgs shelved plans to elevate Austria to a kingdom in the 1620s, while Brandenburg always remained an electorate. Prussia emerged from the possessions of the Teutonic Order (itself autonomous from the empire), and remained outside the empire, despite being inherited by the Hohenzollerns in 1618. It was Prussia’s distinct status that provided the basis for a separate Hohenzollern royal identity after 1700: something that set them apart from other German princely families and a major factor in their growing rivalry with the Habsburgs. Other princely houses were linked to royal titles through ‘personal unions’: notably Saxony-Poland 1697–1763, and Hanover-England 1714–1837. Switzerland and the northern Netherlands only slowly separated from the empire during the seventeenth century. There was no formal date of independence in either case, despite what international relations textbooks claim for the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. For example, it was not until the late seventeenth century that the emperor stopped referring to the Swiss as his ‘loyal subjects’. Thus, the empire remained embedded within the history of much of Europe. Its frontiers were never entirely clear, a legacy of its ideological origins in the belief in a single Christendom.

The German and Italian kingdoms were subdivided into imperial fiefs held by dukes or counts as royal vassals. Fief-holding was hereditary, but succession always formally depended on the emperor’s recognition. Lordly families could hold several fiefs at once, and gradually these conglomerates of duchies and counties became identified as ‘territories’ around 1500. By that point, many leading families had been granted princely titles, further distinguishing them from the more numerous counts and barons. Thirty-five of these families (including the Liechtensteins) survived the empire’s dissolution to become fully sovereign rulers after 1815, grouped into the German Confederation. A key element in legitimating their survival was the visual depiction of their long heritage through cartographic conventions. Historical atlases showed the area of the former empire as divided into the possessions of the dynasties which survived its demise, thus establishing the practice of showing Central Europe and Italy as colourful mosaics, whereas countries like France or Spain are always shown as solid blocks of colour despite the fact they had always been subdivided into historic kingdoms and provinces. By contrast, maps produced while the empire was still in existence generally show the boundaries of the regions (Kreise) established in imperial law in 1500–12 as an intermediary political level to coordinate action among the imperial estates.

Princely dynasties were important, but their possessions’ status and rights always depended on their relationship to the empire. For instance, the Hohenzollerns had several princely and counts’ votes in the Reichstag thanks to holding the relevant fiefs, but they had no vote for Prussia because that was outside the empire. Likewise, Denmark and later Sweden were represented in the Reichstag not as foreign monarchies, but because their kings held German lands recognised as imperial fiefs. The Hohenzollerns were at the forefront of fostering a separate sense of loyalty among their subjects, for example by banning the traditional prayers for the emperor and forbidding their subjects to refer lawsuits to the imperial supreme courts. However, all princes recognised that their authority and prestige derived ultimately from their continued membership of the empire, and even the Hohenzollerns refused an offer from Napoleon to become ‘Emperor of North Germany’ in October 1804. Two years later, the Swedish king lodged a diplomatic protest at Francis’ dissolution of the empire.

Multi-layered identity

This leads to a second major point. Identity in the empire was always multi-layered, matching the corporate character of society and the diffusion of political, spiritual, legal, and economic rights across different levels and locations of authority: household, community, territory, region, empire. Though the empire was the most distant in this sequence, it was valued because it guaranteed local distinctiveness and autonomy. It worked because localities could generally seek redress from higher authorities over the heads of their more immediate lords. It also appealed to those without distinct home territories, most notably the Jews who had enjoyed specific imperial protection since the eleventh century. Though not always successful in preventing pogroms, these protections were widened around 1500 and Jews were far more likely to appeal to the imperial courts than Christians — and often successfully.

Much has been made of the addition of ‘the German Nation’ to the formula ‘Holy Roman Empire’ which first appeared in 1474. Contrary to popular belief, this never became an official designation and was rarely used in formal documents. Most often, the empire was simply ‘the Empire’. The German national associations largely post-date the empire when its history was reduced to that of medieval and early modern Germany. For example, Louis II, who ruled East Francia after the Treaty of Verdun, only acquired the sobriquet ‘the German’ in Heinrich von Bünau’s history published in 1739, which reinterpreted the Frankish partition treaty as the ‘birth’ of Germany.

Medieval and early modern writers certainly identified factors like language, culture and clothing as part of a ‘national’ identity. German was already an important administrative language in the empire by the early thirteenth century and its use by the imperial court chancellery did as much to standardise grammar and spelling as Luther’s more famous German Bible. Imperial institutions, like the Reichstag, were quick to exploit the new print media developing around 1500 to disseminate legislation, mandates and news. However, there was no attempt to impose German as a single national language. The famous Golden Bull of 1356 specified German, Latin, Upper Italian and Czech as imperial administrative languages and within a few years the imperial chancellery adopted the practice of communicating in the language of the intended recipients. Sixteenth-century humanists certainly debated the origins of different languages, and several advocated adopting distinctive Germanic dress to emphasise Germans’ alleged moral superiority over other peoples, including Italians and Burgundians who were also imperial subjects. However, these elements always remained secondary in discussions about the empire, not least because humanists were unable to agree on what German fashion looked like or, more broadly, what German cultural achievements actually were, beyond the invention of printing.

German identity was essentially political. First, it was the Germans’ entitlement to the imperial title that distinguished them from other Europeans. Secondly, identity coalesced around a distinct ideal of multiple freedoms and liberties, rather than abstract, universal ‘Liberty’. Rights were particular to each locality and social group, and expressed the identity and autonomy of each. This ideal of ‘German freedom’ was boosted by the humanists’ rediscovery of Tacitus’ Germania in the mid-fifthteenth century. Writing in 98 AD, Tacitus presented the Germans as a free, unconquered people who had defeated the Romans at Teutoburg Forest. The humanists read this work through the legacy of many centuries of political development, and the contemporaneous emergence of institutions like the Reichstag. This fostered the belief that liberties derived from the imperial constitution rather than from underlying ‘natural’ or ‘common’ laws, as in the case of France or England. Thus, German freedom depended on belonging to the empire, not emancipation from it. This was a crucial factor in blunting the Reformation’s potential to become a separatist movement in the early sixteenth century because few Protestants were prepared to defy imperial authority altogether.

The language of local, particular rights bound together the multiple political and social centres and layers. All were mutually dependent in maintaining the empire as the collective guarantor of their own special status. By the eighteenth century, the word ‘German’ was used as shorthand for ‘imperial’ when discussing the empire. Of course, Bohemians, Burgundians, Italians and others in the empire did not feel ‘German’, but they nonetheless identified with the empire because it also guaranteed their rights and autonomy. The empire was valued precisely because it was distant. Its institutions might not always be swift or particularly effective, but they demanded relatively little in the way of taxes or other requirements, yet remained useful to legitimate and protect cherished local liberties.

Political rather than cultural

The preceding two points suggest a third: we should reject the nineteenth-century idea of Germany being a land of poets and thinkers, rather than a state. On the contrary, it was the other way around. The empire was the German state. It was a small group of poets and thinkers who were dissatisfied with this, but not without reason. The eighteenth-century empire had serious problems, not least the demographic and economic changes which were eroding the hierarchical corporate social order. Whereas the full impact of these underlying trends was not felt until the 1848 revolutions, those living in the eighteenth century were fully conscious of the disproportionate growth of Austria and Prussia as distinct European great powers. This became more pronounced as both joined Russia in partitioning Poland between 1772 and 1795. By 1795, Brandenburg-Prussia encompassed over 309,000 sq km, more than double its size in 1740 and nearly three times as large as it had been in 1648. Its population meanwhile had grown tenfold. The Habsburgs’ own hereditary possessions vastly expanded with the reconquest of Hungary from the Ottomans between 1683 and 1699 and the subsequent acquisition of additional Ottoman and former Spanish territory during the next two decades. Their participation in the partitions of Poland pushed their total empire to over 710,000 sq km. Both Prussia and Austria now ruled far more land outside the empire than within it, while combined, their possessions within the empire accounted for over half its total territory. The growth in Austro-Prussian military power was even more dramatic. Whereas the armies of the other imperial estates accounted for half the 343,000 men under arms in 1710, combined, these numbered only 106,000 in 1790, compared to 497,700 Austrian and 195,000 Prussian personnel.

The shift in real power threatened to unbalance the empire and made a mockery of the formal constitutional order. For example, the elector of Mainz remained the premier imperial prince, yet ruled only 336,000 subjects in 1795 compared to 26 million in the Habsburg lands, and 8.2 million in those of Prussia. It seemed obvious to many that the empire faced a ‘Polish future’, as imperial institutions appeared powerless to prevent Austria and Prussia dictating its affairs, which is precisely what happened after the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars in 1792 — when the two forced the other imperial estates to declare war on France.

Austro-Prussian rivalry had religious overtones, accentuating differences between Catholics and Protestants present since the Reformation. Friedrich Carl von Moser termed this the ‘double Fatherland’ of divided political and religious loyalties. While most writers still favoured his recommendation to live within the existing framework, more radical thinkers around 1760 began demanding a new kind of Romantic national identity based on essentialist criteria, like language and culture. These ideas gained ground amid the renewed warfare of the 1790s when some believed it was necessary for the empire to die in order for Germany to be reborn. Their ideas had little practical impact on events which were determined by the exigencies of warfare. However, they rapidly gained ground during the debate on Germany’s political future after 1815, when liberal nationalists demanded a single German identity in place of the previous multiple and multi-layered identities.

Discussions of identity lurched down the self-destructive path inherent in all modern nationalisms which rely on us/them distinctions that are always contested. Attempts to define who belongs to the nation always entail exclusion and cannot escape the vicious, ever-decreasing circle this imposes. Homogenous purity invariably proves elusive, and efforts to articulate identity based on essentialist criteria generally fragment populations into ever smaller groups. It was this that proved so explosive during the 1860s when restricting ‘Germanness’ to language and culture forced the political partition of central Europe, and ultimately resulted in a ‘little German’ solution of a Prussian-dominated Germany excluding Habsburg Austria and their non-German subjects. Even this Little Germany was a fiction, because Prussia continued to rule millions of Poles and Lithuanians.


The Holy Roman Empire certainly never conformed to the model of a nation state defined by centralised, unitary sovereign government and inhabited by a culturally homogenous population. However, neither was it a conventional empire possessing a stable metropolitan core inhabited by an imperial people dominating and exploiting subjugated peripheral lands and populations. Instead, it was a multi-centred and multi-layered entity in which no single area or people dominated all the others. Its inhabitants identified with it through a web of legal rights rooted in a hierarchical corporate social order. This fostered genuine sentimental attachment, but it is questionable whether these bonds would have endured for much longer, given the political, social and economic pressures already developing prior to the empire’s demise in the Napoleonic Wars.

Peter Wilson

Peter Wilson is Chichele Professor of the History of War at the University of Oxford, a Fellow of All Souls College and Principal Investigator of a five-year research project on the ‘European Fiscal- Military System 1530–1870’ funded by the European Research Council. His books have been widely translated and include The Holy Roman Empire: a thousand years of Europe’s history, and Europe’s Tragedy: a history of the Thirty Years War which won the Society for Military History’s Distinguished Book Award. His latest book, Lützen, was published in 2018 by Oxford University Press in its Great Battles series.

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