The millennium-long history of the Holy Roman Empire has been wilfully misunderstood since the rise of the nation state. But can its past shed light on Europe’s future?
For more than a thousand years, following its foundation on Christmas Day 800, the Holy Roman Empire embodied the ideal that Europe was a single pacific Christian order upheld by the emperor as pre-eminent monarch and guardian of the papacy. More directly, it provided the political framework for what are now Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, as well as most of Italy and parts of Denmark, France and Poland. Few of these countries were more than geographical expressions for most of the Empire’s existence and none occupied its present borders. Yet it is these countries and their neighbours that now shape how Europe’s deeper past is remembered, rather than the Empire, which has largely been written out of history or simply reduced to Germany’s middle ages. The Empire’s transnational character already jarred with outside observers by the 18th century, prompting the French philosopher Voltaire to quip that it was ‘neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire’. Its demise in 1806, amid the Napoleonic Wars, reinforced the belief that it had outlived its purpose and had long been rendered irrelevant by the rise of sovereign national states.