An outline of German history until 1815

British history can be told as a single narrative of the evolution of a single state – or at least of one state that came to absorb others. It is a story of invasion and consolidation, of revolution and empire, and finally decline as a world power. The sense of historical unity is partly created Britain’s mostly clear and highly defendable geographic boundaries which meant that the last time it was conquered by a foreign power was in 1066. A sense of narrative coherence is also created by the emergence of institutions that have survived revolution – including its monarchy and parliament. The British constitution can be understood as having emerged from a conflict for power between monarchy and people as translated by parliament, and it is easy enough to trace the history of those conflicts from Magna Carta, through Civil Wars and the Glorious Revolution of 1689, the Great Reform Act of 1832, and finally the Reform Acts of 1867, 1884, 1918, 1928 and 1969. Although now with devolved parliaments, the United Kingdom is still a unitary state, whose sovereignty resides in its Westminster Parliament made up of monarchy, House of Commons and House of Lords.

German history is very different from this. It is not a story of coherence. ‘Germany’ was never a unified state before the nineteenth century but merely a geographic and linguistic expression. Europe’s most powerful state has enjoyed neither the political nor geographic unity associated with Britain and France. The history of Germany is a story of many different states with shared characteristics, but not with all states sharing all of those characteristics at the same time. The history of Germany from earliest times to the present day is a history of changing maps and of changing constitutions. Modern Germany was at least in part an invention of the nineteenth century, and is partly the product of competition between its two great rival states – Prussia and Austria – and the triumph of the former over the latter for dominance over the rest of ‘Germany’.

Phase one: the classical and medieval past
German tribes appear to have played a significant part in the decline of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, although there is much debate as to whether the Germanic tribes of Vandals, Franks, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Angles, Saxons, Jutes etc. into Roman territories was the main cause or the symptom of Roman decline.


The emergence of the Franks as the dominant tribe in Europe saw the creation of a monarchy whose territorial influence straddled lands that became modern day France and Germany. Frankish power culminated in the coronation of the Emperor Charlemagne (the name preferred by the French) or Karl der Grosse (the name preferred by the Germans) in Rome on Christmas Day 800. The so-called ‘Holy Roman Empire’ traces its origins to that moment and, as an institution whose influence fluctuated over the next several hundred years, it lasted until 1806 and could therefore be justly considered a ‘thousand year Reich’.


Charlemagne passed on his territories to his son Louis the Pious who then divided them among his own offspring in 843, thus creating three distinct ‘kingdoms’ that roughly match the present day positions of Germany, France, Holland and Belgium.


The idea of the Holy Roman Empire was renewed by the 10th century Saxon dynasty, the Ottonians, later in the 12th century by the Hohenstaufens, and eventually by the Habsburgs. However, the Holy Roman Empire never achieved the political unity that was created under the French or English monarchies. It evolved instead into a decentralised limited elective monarchy composed of hundreds of sub-units, principalities, duchies, counties, Free Imperial Cities, and other domains. Moreover, the power of the emperor was limited, and while the various princes, lords, bishops and cities of the empire were vassals who owed the emperor their allegiance, they also possessed privileges that gave them de facto independence within their territories. The complexity of Germany’s past is perhaps best conveyed by double clicking on the map below of the collection of over 300 distinct territories that made up the Holy Roman Empire in the year of the French Revolution, 1789:


Phase two: The Thirty Years’ War and the rise of Prussia

Political, economic and administrative divisions were complicated further by religious differences that were brought about by the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Northern German territories tended to embrace protestantism whilst others in the south, such as Bavaria, remained loyal to Rome. Religious divisions culminated in Germany’s first great trauma of the modern era – the thirty years war (1618-48), which saw every German state and troops from every major European power fighting on German soil. It is widely accepted that the economic consequences and the misery inflicted on the German people by this war was still visible by the 19th century. When Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and Armaments minister, rationalised the decision to surrender in May 1945, he wrote:

‘The destruction that has been inflicted on Germany can only be compared to that of the Thirty Years’ War. The decimation of our people through hunger and deprivation must not be allowed to reach the scale of that epoch.’

To get a better idea of the impact of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) it is worth listening to the following podcast from Misha Glenny, from the series ‘The Invention of Germany’: The Thirty Years’ War. What matters about this story from our perspective is what it illustrates about Germany before the 19th century: it was for much of the period Europe’s battlefield, where German states fought one another, and into which other states – particularly Sweden and later France, came to interfere and to dominate.

Part of the reason for Germany’s eventual emergence as a powerful state in its own right lies in the rise of Prussia under the leadership of Frederick the Great (1740-1786). When he became king of Prussia in 1740, his territories were still scattered – East Prussia was centred in Königsberg in the north, the state of Brandenberg in Berlin and in the West his lands amounted to a few small territories including Cleves, Mark and Ravensberg. Much of Frederick’s territory in the East lay outside of the Holy Roman Empire, and the heritage of Prussia (including that of his own family) was as much Polish as it was German. Moreover, unlike other German States, such as Saxony and Austria, Prussia was a backwater. Frederick’s ambition was to change that, culturally, politically and militarily.

Prussia was always a highly militarised state – lacking natural frontiers, it could not be otherwise. In most countries, Frederick’s military successes would be enough to make him a national hero, but because so many of his successes were won at the expense of other German states – it has been difficult for Frederick to emerge as a true national hero: a hero in Berlin, he is a villain in Dresden. Frederick united his disparate territories to make Prussia one of Europe’s five Great Powers, mainly by fighting Austria whose rulers, the Habsburgs, were the Holy Roman Emperors. In particular, he disputed the succession of Maria Theresa to the throne of Austria and in the process acquired lands in Silesia.


The story of the rise of Prussia is discussed by Misha Glenny and historian Michael Stürmer

Phase three: Napoleon and the rise of German nationalism
The second great trauma of the modern era lies at the root of modern German history: the French revolution and the outbreak of European war in 1792, which saw French Revolutionary armies invade the Rhineland. Many parts of Western Germany were occupied and many of Germany’s most historical cities, including Charlemagne’s capital, Aachen, along with Mainz and Cologne, were incorporated into France for almost 20 years. Napoleon’s Grand Armée defeated a much larger Russian and Austrian force in what was known as the battle of the three emperors at Austerlitz on December 2nd 1805. After routing the Prussian army at the battles of Jena and Auerstadt in 1806, Napoleon entered Berlin – the capital of Prussia – passing through the Brandenburg Gate in triumph. He then took the Quadriga – the chariot drawn by four horses, that sits atop the gate – back to Paris.

Yet Napoleon furthered the cause of German unity in at least two ways. Firstly, Napoleon created the ‘Confederation of the Rhine’ initially comprising 16 client German states and this led Emperor Francis II to dissolve the Holy Roman Empire on 6 August 1806. Prussia herself had lost territory after the Treaty of Tilsit (7th July 1807). By 1808 only Prussia and Austria, Danish Holstein and Pomerania remained outside the confederation, but virtually all German speaking territory between the Netherlands and the Russian frontier, was under French control. King William Frederick III called for a people’s war of liberation following Napoleon’s retreat from Russia. He was joined by Austria and Russia, at the Battle of Leipzig, on the 19th October, 1813 (the costliest land-battle of 19th century with 60,000 lives lost on both sides); and at this point the Confederation of the Rhine itself dissolved, with most German states swapping sides against Napoleon. There then followed an invasion of France and occupation of Paris which forced Napoleon to abdicate. The Quadriga was returned to Berlin, but more importantly, the map of Germany was much simplified, the number of separate states reduced from 314 to 39 (the kingdom of Bavaria, for example, now incorporated 80 former states). Germany was by no means close to unification, but some of the complications that had existed in the past were now removed.

The second way in which the trauma of Napoleonic invasion furthered German unity was in the boost it gave to German nationalism and to the very idea of ‘Germany’. To understand why this might be the case it is worth considering the example of the Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria. In the midst of German defeat and French domination, he dreamt of re-creating Germany by honouring its outstanding historical figures in a kind of German Parthenon built high above the Danube, known as the Walhalla. Walhala was the majestic hall which, in Note mythology, the heroic dead were carried by the Valkyries, to join their predecessors and comrades. In the early 1800s, the legends of the north were in fashion. The Brothers Grimm rediscovered and published German folk tales and the medieval German epic, the Nibelungenlied, was held up as Germanic Iliad. Richard Wagner (1813-1883) would later transform the sags of the Vikings the poetry of the German Middle Ages into his Ring Cycle. Unable to begin the architectural work in 1807, Ludwig nonetheless began commissioning a series of portrait busts of Great Germans, including even Frederick the Great and Maria Theresa, Bach and Haydn, Leibniz and Kant, Schiller and Goethe. ‘The Holy Roman Empire no longer existed, but the German empire of the spirit endured’ (Neil McGregor, Germany: Memories of a Nation (Allen Lane, 2014), p. 154).

When Ludwig became King in 1825, he began work on the temple and situated Walhalla at Regensburg (newly incorporated into Bavaria), which had been the site where the Holy Roman Emperor had summoned his notables. It is approached from the river by a huge staircase, like the Propylaeum in Athens, which leads to the Acropolis and the Parthenon.


The whole history of the German achievement is told here between two defining moments of national resistance – one against Romans, the other against the French. On the north pediment there is a colossal statue of Hermann, shown with his soldiers from different German tribes, all fighting together to defeat the Romans at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in AD 9. On the South pediment is the figure of Germania, surrounded by those who fought Napoleon to free Germany once again from foreign aggression and invasion.


Inside the hall itself there are 130-odd white marble busts of those who are the inhabitants of Walhalla.


Ludwig himself defined criterion for inclusion, and in doing so enunciated one of the key ideas of German romantic nationalism: ‘To become an inhabitant of Walhalla, it is necessary to be of German origin and to speak the German language. But as the Greek remained a Greek, neither from Ionia or Sicilia, so the German remains a German whether from the Balktic or Alsace, from Switzerland or the Netherlands. Yes – the Netherlands. For Flemish and Dutch are but dialects of Low German. What decides the continued existence of a people is not the place of residence but the language.’

Yet whilst Ludwig’s definition is incredibly broad – Germany is all places where people spoke Germany – including ‘Low German’ dialects such as English! – he could not find room for what would be one of the great heroes of northern German nationalism – the founder of Protestant revolt against Rome, Martin Luther. The Hall of Heroes thus betrays some of the contradictions that were inherent within Romantic nationalism.

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