Rerun: First Reich

So I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus from the blog while I tried to squeeze the last bits of summer out of the past month or two.  Now that fall is fully in swing, I’m back with a vengeance.

Some of you, seeing this post, might choose to believe that I actually spent all my time away writing this one article.  Unfortunately, I can’t prove otherwise.  Those of you with an aversion to reading, it’d be best if you went and turned on the TV now; if you’re lucky, you might just catch the latest Jersey Shore episode.

Growing up in the late 20th Century, we all heard about the dreaded Third Reich of the Germans, and could easily recite at least two or three movies set in that general historical period (perhaps our resident film expert would care to come up with The 7?  Maybe make it a little tougher on him and add the stipulation that all seven can’t be war movies…?).  But how much do we really know about the other two Reichs?  What the hell is a “Reich” anyway?  Noble questions, my friends…

Generally speaking, a Reich is simply an empire/realm.  Etymologically related to the English word “rich”, it essentially implied a sovereign and imperial state of the Germanic Nation, and was applied to a few separate national/political entities – hence First Reich, Second Reich, etc.  Compare to königreich, “kingdom”.  For this Rerun, we will be going all the way back to the First Reich of the German People, otherwise known as the Holy Roman Empire.  Sounds impressive, eh?  Cue the lights…

enter, this guy:

Otto IV, Holy Roman Emperor

epic movie trailer announcer guy:

‘Tis October the 21st, in this the 1209th year of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The sun rises over the Eternal City.
A man journeys hither to kneel – but when he rises,   he       will       be             Emperor.

We look back on an era long past, the Middle Ages of European history.  The majority of the Continent was controlled by a vast and powerful empire of an old and warlike people, conquerors/inheritors of the legacy of the Ancient Romans.  After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 (and a subsequent period of power-jockeying lasting a little over 300 years), the Franco-Germanic tribes, having already invaded and settled on much of its territory, founded a new “empire of the Romans” in 800, headed by the Frankish King Charles the Great (a.k.a. Charlemagne), and stretching from the Pyrenees mountains to the Elbe and down into northern Italy .  Like its predecessor, this empire eventually split into (effectively independent) western and eastern realms.  The western half (West Francia) was molded into the medieval Kingdom of France by descendants of the youngest grandson of Charlemagne.  On the other hand, the eastern half (East Francia) under the descendants of Charlemagne’s second grandson became the Kingdom of Germany, and soon after that the Holy Roman Empire, as it acquired other Frankish and Italian territories.   Got all that?  Good.  There might be a pop quiz later…

During the year in question (1209 AD, remember?), the Holy Roman Empire was comprised of modern day Germany, and parts of the Low Countries, France, Austria, and Italy.  Much to the consternation of the Pope and certain members of the German nobility, Otto the IV of Brunswick and the noble house of Welf, King of the Romans (which is a title that actually meant ”King of the Germans”, who were more or less a Romanized people by the time Ancient Rome fell), King of Italy, and King of Burgundy, was being crowned and anointed by Pope Innocent III as Romanorum Imperator Augustus.  Technically the German monarchs weren’t called “Holy Roman Emperor”, at least not in those exact words.  In fact, the word “Holy” never had a place in the actual title of the emperor; it’s there essentially as a result of the modern understanding of the monarch’s position as leader of the Holy Roman Empire.  Nonetheless, as the empire grew in power and controlled more of Italy (and as a result, had some measure of unofficial control over the papacy), and owing to the fact that only the Pope, being the supreme representative of the last surviving institution of Ancient Rome, could crown someone as “Emperor of the Romans”, it was increasingly understood that the power to rule was of divine origin.  Of course, the real power was given to the king by the German princes (Germanic kings were elected by a council of the nobility, and the office was not necessarily hereditary); there could be no Holy Roman Emperor who was not also “King of the Germans”, and the emperor would forget that only at his peril.  At the same time however, an emperor without the blessing of the Pope was technically only emperor-elect, and viewed as somewhat less than legitimate in – and outside – of Germany.  Notwithstanding this fact, there were many times when the emperors were at strife with the Church, and more than a few Holy Roman Emperors that spent the majority (or all) of their reign without the actual title because they had incurred the wrath of the Pope.  On this day, however, Otto IV of Brunswick stood enough in the good graces of the Pope to be crowned.  Further, he was only the second emperor to be crowned since Frederick I had re-introduced the concept of divine right to rule by twisting the Justinian Code to his own purpose, and the Church had yet to regain much of the power (and lands) it had lost to the German empire over the centuries since the fall of Rome.  The Pope dared not refuse to crown Otto – at least, not at this time.  Anyway, he had made quite a bargain with the would-be emperor; what was a little ceremonial hocus-pocus when compared to the return of papal lands that had been in the hands of the German nobility for centuries?

Confusing, isn’t it?  Well, put your seatbelts on, it gets worse.  While technically Otto was being crowned by the Pope as Emperor of the Romans, his claim as the king of Germany was on shaky ground, only recently coming out of a long and bitter struggle with Phillip of Swabia, the youngest son of Emperor Frederick I and brother to Frederick’s successor, Emperor Henry VI.  Frederick (dubbed Barbarossa by the Italians for his coppery red beard) had been a popular king in German eyes, and was credited with restoring much of the lost glory of the Empire in his day.  As a result, his sons were looked on favorably by much of the German nobility, to the point that two of them ended up being elected as king, though only the elder, Henry VI ever truly reigned as emperor.  However, when Henry died in 1197, Phillip was elected as guardian of Henry’s son, the young heir (and later Emperor) Frederick II, which effectively made him (Phillip) prince-regent of the realm.  While at first Phillip appeared to have his nephew Frederick’s best interest at heart, he eventually capitulated to pressure from the southern nobles (who did not like the idea of having a boy king), or depending on who you ask, bribed them with promises of land and gold in return for their support, and was himself crowned in 1198.  Several others of the German nobility, no doubt bitter that they hadn’t been invited to the coronation party, immediately elected their own king, Otto.  I think we all know what happened next…

Yep, you guessed it.  Only, minus the whole muskets, artillery, and African slavery thing; I imagine “states’ rights” had a bit of a hand in it, however…

At any rate, the realm descended into warfare, while the Pope used the resulting confusion to kick a few German lords out of the fiefdoms of Ancona, Spoleto, and Perugia, which had been papal lands before Henry VI.  At the same time, the Pope encouraged the cities in Tuscany to form an anti-imperial league under his protection to further strengthen his position.  Nonetheless, the Pope declared Otto the only legitimate king in 1201.  Oh, that crafty Pope…  After much back and forth fighting that brought both claimants to the brink of defeat more than once, and at the point when victory finally seemed in sight for Phillip, Pope Innocent forced the two parties into peace talks in 1208, after which Phillip was murdered (quite un-peacefully, I might add), leaving Otto as the uncontested King of the Romans and paving the way for his coronation as Emperor.  Thus Otto was able to wrest the imperial prize out of the hands of the Hohenstaufen (Frederick I and his descendants) and take it for himself and House Welf.

However, victory was short-lived for Otto.  He quickly proved himself and inept ruler, focusing on the ancient power struggle between the German imperium and the Roman Catholic Church, warring with the Italian city-states, and neglecting domestic German affairs.  By the time Frederick II (Phillip’s nephew and Frederick I’s grandson) came of age and into his power, Otto was thoroughly despised by the majority of his nobility, who then proceeded to throw their lots in with Frederick and support his claim to the throne.  After another period of civil war, Otto eventually ended his reign excommunicated from the Church and bereft of his power.  He abdicated in 1215 and died three years later, beaten to death – supposedly of his own free will – by his priests as atonement for his many grievous sins.  Meanwhile his lifelong rivals (and cousins – all the German dynastic families were related in their descent from Charlemagne) of House Hohenstaufen were vindicated with the rise of Frederick II to the imperial throne.

Sometimes that’s just the way the Kaiser crumbles…

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2 thoughts on “Rerun: First Reich

    1. Well, yeah! You didn’t think they just made it up, did you? How do you think the Holy Roman Empire lasted for like a thousand years? Superior firepower. Well, that and a decided lack of homicidal bunnies…

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