Peter H. Wilson


On his book Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire

Cover Interview of November 22, 2016

In a nutshell

The Holy Roman Empire’s history is central to the European experience and the question of European identity. Founded with Charlemagne’s coronation on Christmas Day 800, it lasted just over a millennium before being dissolved in August 1806 by Emperor Francis II to prevent its legacy being usurped by Napoleon. In addition to what is now Germany, it encompassed at one point or another all or part of Austria, Switzerland, Italy, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Czech Republic, Denmark, and Poland. Other countries were linked to its history and internal affairs, such as Hungary, Croatia, Spain or Sweden. Europe’s east-west and north-south tensions intersected in the Empire’s core lands between the Alps and the Rhine, Elbe and Oder rivers, while trade, cultural exchange and military campaigns ranged across it in all directions.

Yet, the Empire scarcely figures in most histories of Europe. If it is remembered at all, it is usually through Voltaire’s famous quip that it was ‘neither holy, Roman or an empire’. Voltaire was writing at a time when history was emerging as a professional academic discipline that took the centralised national state as its primary focus. Europe’s history came to be written as a series of discrete national stories, each constructed around homelands, cultures and heroes and heroines credited with forging modern states. Many of these states emerged in direct opposition to the two predominantly German-speaking empires of the nineteenth century: Austria-Hungary and imperial Germany. Nineteenth-century nation-builders in Italy, the Netherlands or elsewhere had no use for the Empire’s history which was reduced to that of medieval Germany. Meanwhile, German writers increasingly regarded it as a source of national shame because it did not develop as the kind of powerful, centralised national monarchy that they believed necessary in their own time.