Story of Europe - H. E. Marshall

The Holy Roman Empire—Saxon Emperors

The fortunes of the three countries carved out of the Empire of Charlemagne were widely different. France slowly, but surely, became welded into a nation, but Germany remained merely a conglomeration of independent states. For while France struggled towards unity, Germany chased after the phantom of world dominion, claiming with the title of emperor the right to rule over Italy. This claim brought great evil to Italy, it brought scarcely less evil to Germany. It produced endless wars and strife with the Church, it was a constant hindrance to the real progress of Germany, and for nine hundred years it prevented Italy from becoming a united nation.

Feebleness of Later Carolingians

The family of Charlemagne died out in feebleness. Of that feebleness we get some idea from the names borne by the last rulers of his house, such as "the Bald," "the Fat," "the Simple," "the Child." In Germany the line came to an end in 911 with Louis the Child; in France it lasted a little longer, and came to an end in 987 with Louis the Fainéant. In both countries upon the death of the last Carolingian the nobles met together and chose a successor from among their number. But whereas in France the monarchy at once became hereditary, and remained so until the Revolution, in Germany an elective monarchy continued, in name at least, until the eighteenth century.

Upon the death of Louis the Child the German nobles chose Conrad of Franconia as their ruler. But his power was visionary. The great princes ruled like kings in their own domains, quarrelling among themselves and flouting imperial authority.

Still, small although his power was, Conrad kept the Empire from being broken up into absolutely independent states. He saw, however, how slight his influence was, and at his death he prayed the princes to choose as his successor, not one of his own family, but Henry of Saxony.

The Saxon Emperors

The nobles followed Conrad's advice, and Henry became the first of the Saxon emperors who held the regal power in Germany for more than a hundred years, 918-1024. For although the crown was elective in theory, it very often descended from father to son, the son being chosen and crowned as successor in his father's lifetime.

Conrad kept the Empire from falling asunder. Henry gave it some sort of unity, the effect of which lasted long after his death. He wrought peace within the Empire, forcing the great princes to own him as overlord, so that before the end of his reign there was no German-speaking people who did not own allegiance to the Empire. He quelled the fierce Hungarians who were a constant menace to the German states. He built towns, encouraged industries and agriculture, and colonized many parts of Germany which had before been almost bare of inhabitants.

Henry gave his life to Germany, and did not trouble about Italy, or the phantom glory of the imperial title, and therein lay much of his success. Towards the end of his life, indeed, when his work for Germany seemed done, he felt the fatal lure, and made up his mind to go to Rome to be crowned. But he died before his purpose was accomplished.

Henry was succeeded by his son Otto I, the Great. He was only twenty-four when he came to the throne, and the powerful nobles who had bowed to his father refused to bow to him. So his reign began with civil war, the chief among the rebels being members of his own family. His reign, indeed, was full of wars at home and abroad, but in the end he was victorious everywhere. He subjugated the Bohemians, he forced the Danes to own him as overlord, and in the great battle of Lechfield in 955, he so thoroughly defeated the Hungarians that they ceased to be a menace to Germany, and began to settle down in a civilized manner in the country which is still called by their name.

Otto I—Dreams of World Dominion

By all these wars Otto strengthened and consolidated his kingdom, and Germany took a first place among the states of Europe. But unfortunately for the future of Germany Otto's ambition did not end there. Germany was not everything to him as it had been to his father. His thoughts turned to world dominion, and when the Princess Adelheid of Italy prayed him to come and release her from the oppression of King Berenger, he answered her call eagerly.

Otto defeated Berenger, married the Princess Adelheid, and took the title of king of Italy. Then he marched to Rome and received the imperial crown at the hands of the pope.

For more than sixty years no German king had held the title of emperor, and during that time Germany had made strides towards unity. The title meanwhile had not lapsed, but it had been held by petty kings, who had little power and who were of no account in the politics of Europe. In theory the holder was the secular lord of the world, in theory he was overlord of every king or prince in Europe, but having been held by princes of no real power, men had grown to regard it little. Now Otto, already a great and powerful ruler, pulled the imperial title out of the mud, and made it great again. From his reign, in fact, we may date the true beginning of the Holy Roman Empire. He revived the Empire of Charlemagne, with less territory indeed, but with no less splendour. But in doing this he linked the fortunes of Germany with those of Italy, to the lasting misfortune of both. To both the connection was fatal. Instead of strengthening their own kingdom, henceforth the German kings, driven on by the baleful enchantment, dreamt of world-power, and for nine hundred years poured out blood and treasure in a vain endeavour to subjugate Italy, thus keeping Germany weak and Italy disunited.

Meanwhile Otto ruled the Empire with a high hand. He even ruled the Church, for by the middle of the tenth century the papacy had fallen low, and the lives of the popes had become a scandal. Otto dethroned popes at will and imposed others of his own choosing on the Roman people, and so asserted his power that by the end of his reign he had pulled the papacy, even as he had pulled the imperial title, out of the mud in which he had found it. But the Church was under the state; the popes had to bow to the emperor's will.