A German doom

A custom that is difficult to understand today leads to the tragedy that ultimately broke the German Empire: the coronation of German emperors, unlike all other European powers, could only take place by the pope and on Roman soil. The regular problem-laden military campaigns to Rome for this purpose overstretched the empire's forces.

Even those who know little of German history know at least one date: the year 800, when on Christmas Day the Frankish king Charlemagne (742-814) in Rome by Pope Leo III was crowned emperor. Whether the biography of Charles was completely or partially invented, seems recently to some researchers no longer so certain (2); but it is certain that with the tradition of the imperial coronations in Rome began a drama that decisively shaped the history of the Middle Ages and contributed to the decline of the "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation".

After Charlemagne, his Frankish empire split into East and West Franconia. East and West Frankish kings were also crowned emperor, but these are not yet called "German" kings or emperors. The first "German king" is considered to be Conrad I (King from 911-918).

On a war campaign to the imperial coronation

The emperor of the "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation". saw itself as the legitimate successor to the Roman emperors; this meant a claim to supremacy in Europe[1]. This inevitably resulted in tensions that wore down the empire and ultimately led to its downfall:

- Only a pope was allowed to crown a German king as emperor. So German kings were forced to travel to Rome, and the popes gained influence over German politics. The sooner or later inevitable clashes between spiritual and secular power then focused on the struggle between the emperor and the pope.

- In the Middle Ages, the trip to Rome necessary for an imperial coronation of an elected German king had to be a military campaign. Italian cities and states often could not and would not tolerate such military campaigns through their territories, and wars in distant Italy were the inevitable consequence.

- In every generation, the German imperial army crossed the Alps once - or even several times - in the spring. By the time it finally reached Rome, the dreaded malaria, which for centuries had been considered the most reliable protection of the "Holy City," was already rampant there in the summer. Many of the invading warriors became infected, and hundreds, even thousands, died. No nation can permanently cope with such a recurring bloodletting, especially when it particularly affects the elites who are obliged to serve in the army.

- Last but not least, the claim to supremacy in Europe associated with the title of emperor created an enmity with France (sometimes also with England); for no French king wanted to subordinate himself - even if only formally - to a German emperor.

The decline of the empire

After the (historically allegedly not secured) coronation of "Charles the Fictitious" there were still imperial coronations of Frankish kings.

The first "German Emperor" was Otto I. (the Great) who in the year 962 by Pope John XII received the imperial crown in Rome. The great Otto was the actual founder of the German Empire. Otto's undoubted historical achievements are often confused with those of Charlemagne or wrongly attributed to him. But in Charlemagne's time there was no "German Empire", at most a "Frankenreich"to which France belonged just as much as the later Germany. The idea of the empire created by Otto set the tone for centuries to come. The Ottonian imperial idea of the High Middle Ages also included the coronation in Rome as documentation of the claim to rule. Thus, in the 258 years between 962 (Otto I.) and 1220 (Frederick II.) thirteen German kings were crowned emperor in Rome, on average one every 19.8 years.

Then followed the interregnum, "the emperorless, the terrible time". (1254-1273), the "Babylonian Captivity of the Popes". in Avignon (1309-1377) and the great schism of the Church with seven antipopes (1378-1418).

In this late medieval period there were two imperial coronations in Rome by papal legates; for example, in 1328 the banished Louis IV ("The Bavarian") was crowned emperor by the Roman people in the absence of the pope. After the death Frederick II. in 1250, it took 183 years before an emperor could again be crowned by a pope in 1433: Siegmund (Sigismund). The last emperor crowned in Rome was the Habsburg Frederick III (1415-1493, crowned emperor in Rome in 1452), the first of this dynasty to wear the German royal and imperial crown.

The genius created by the Otto I. had outlived its usefulness, the German Empire of the Middle Ages had disintegrated, and it was not until the 19th century that an opportunity for renewal arose.

The First Empire was torn apart by the quarrels between the princes, the power struggles between the emperor and the pope, and last but not least, the numerous campaigns in Italy overtaxed the possibilities of the empire, which did not have enough strength for other, more essential tasks.

Is it worth the imperial coronation?

The coronation of the emperor in Rome did not mean an actual increase in power either for Otto I. nor for any other emperor. At best, it brought prestige and proved that imperial power was sufficient to penetrate through northern Italy to Rome and, if necessary (and it often became necessary), to fight its way out.

In and around the Mediterranean Sea, most of the "world trade" was going on at that time (from the point of view of Europe, which knew little about India and China). For medieval Germany, therefore, a connection to the Mediterranean was significant. But was it worth the costly military campaigns to and bloody wars in Italy? In the long run, a united France, which had convenient access to the Mediterranean and did not need the costly Italian campaigns, was bound to outstrip the German Empire.

A German Tragedy

The builder of the medieval German Empire was not the founder of the empire, who was revered by the French and the Germans. Charlemagnebut Otto I. He defeated the Slavs and Hungarians and created a united empire at a time when almost no nobleman other than himself thought further than the increase of his personal possessions. Otto was also the one who realized that France and Germany had grown so far apart that a union (possible under Otto) would not last; wisely, he limited his domains. His idea of empire became authoritative, his monarchical idea withstood centuries.

What this genius on a German throne could not see (or could not change?), however, was the binding of the imperial state idea to a coronation ceremony, which for traditional reasons (since Charlemagne?) had to take place in Rome and only in Rome. And this coronation in Rome became the German tragedy. The empire created unnecessary enemies, got entangled in superfluous wars, wasted a large part of its forces on military campaigns through northern Italy, got into disputes with the Roman Church and lost many of its most valuable men to malaria, which they had contracted in Rome. Finally, the empire perished from these excessive demands.

A fragmented yet underestimated empire

Thus, the Germans did not succeed in growing together into a unified people: while the English, French, Russians, and Spaniards had long since united in a unified empire, the Germans remained Badenser, Bavarians, Brandenburgers, Hanoverians, Hessians, Holsteiners, Mecklenburgers, Palatines, Pomeranians, Prussians, Rhinelanders, Saxons, Schaumburg-Lippers, Thuringians, Württembergers, and so on until the 19th century. The Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) destroyed the divided country. And the Peace of Westphalia separated North and South by their hostile confessions.

Even German emigrants found little in common. In the U.S., for example, the Irish, who were far fewer in number, gained some influence, for example through Irish trade unions, while even in states like Wisconsin, where German-born immigrants were in the majority, the influence of the Germans remained low due to their lack of national consciousness.

In long centuries, since the Interregnum, the European states had become accustomed to the fact that the German speakers, divided into many small states, were easy to manipulate and thus not a political factor to be taken seriously. That a German state like Prussia could stand up to many enemies and even expand its territory in the 18th century seemed like a miracle; its king was called "The Great".

Then, when a unification of the Germans into a common state came about in the 19th century, the European balance of powers shifted and the catastrophe of World War I occurred.

Thus, one may even still see part of the causes for the two world wars of the 20th century in the centuries-long fragmentation of Germany, to which not least the unfortunate Rome campaigns of the emperors contributed.

How would German and European history have developed if the German kings, like the other kings of Europe, had only been crowned in their own country?

(1) Fernau, Joachim, Die Genies der Deutschen, Goldmann, Munich 1972.
(2) Illig, Heribert, Did Charlemagne ever live ?, Mantis, Graefelfing 1996.
(3) Randa, Alexander, Handbuch der Weltgeschichte, Walter, Olten 1962.
Final grade:
[1] The same claim was, of course, made by the Eastern Roman Emperor in Constantinople. But in the Middle Ages, Eastern Rome was so busy with its defense against enemies advancing from the East that it could not seriously engage in Central Europe.