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Imperial Passivity of the Holy Roman Empire Allowed Liberty and Diversity



(p. C7) On Aug. 6, 1806, an imperial herald decked out in full court regalia galloped purposefully through the streets of Vienna to a magnificent medieval church at the center of the city. Once there, he ascended to the balcony, blew his silver trumpet and declared that the Holy Roman Empire, an institution that had lasted for more than 1,000 years, was no more.


. . .


But because the empire never evolved into a viable nation-state, many scholars and politicians regarded it as a failure. The Germans in particular (including the great 19th-century historian Leopold von Ranke) blamed the empire for the fact that Germany remained a "delayed nation" that was only unified (through Prussian machinations) in 1871.

Yet it was precisely this lack of political centralization, Mr. Wilson argues, that provided the empire with its greatest strength. Imperial passivity meant that individual rulers and states were largely left alone to govern as they wished. And all subjects had the right to appeal to the emperor if they believed their rights had been trammeled upon. Jews, for example, were given imperial protection as early as 1090; and though forced to live as second-class citizens during much of the empire's history, many viewed its dissolution as a catastrophe.

Political fragmentation also had cultural benefits. Unlike France and England, with their single capital and monarch, the Holy Roman Empire had numerous kings, courts and centers of patronage. The result was a remarkably wide distribution of educational and cultural institutions, one that is still observable in the former imperial lands. It was probably also no coincidence that both the printing press and Europe's first mail service were launched within the fragmented empire or that the imperial territories experienced higher levels of economic growth than regions of Europe with more centralized control.


. . .


Though far from perfect, the empire lasted for as long as it did because it strove to provide the two things most hoped for in a state: liberty and security.



For the full review, see:

MARK MOLESKY. "The Strength of a Weak State; In the Holy Roman Empire, individual rulers and states were largely left to govern as they wished." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., May 21, 2016): C7.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 20, 2016.)


The book under review, is:

Wilson, Peter H. Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2016.






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