Historical Tales: 5—German - Charles Morris

The Old Empire and the New

During the Christmas festival of the year 800 the crown of the imperial dignity was placed at Rome on the head of Charles the Great, and the Roman Empire of the West again came into being, so far as a dead thing could be restored to life. For one thousand and six years afterwards this title of emperor was retained in Germany, though the power represented by it became at times a very shadowy affair. The authority and influence of the emperors reached their culmination during the reign of the Hohenstauffens (1138 to 1254). For a few centuries afterwards the title represented an empire which was but a quarter fact, three-quarters tradition, the emperor being duly elected by the diet of German princes, but by no means submissively obeyed. The fraction of fact which remained of the old empire perished in the Thirty Years' War. After that date the title continued in existence, being held by the Hapsburgs of Austria as an hereditary dignity, but the empire had vanished except as a tradition or superstition. Finally, on the 6th of August, 1806, Francis II., at the absolute dictum of Napoleon, laid down the title of "Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation," and the long defunct empire was finally buried.

The shadow which remained of the empire of Charlemagne had vanished before the rise of a greater and more vital thing, the empire of France, brought into existence by the genius of Napoleon Bonaparte, the successor of Charles the Great as a mighty conqueror. For a few years it seemed as if the original empire might be restored. The power of Napoleon, indeed, extended farther than that of his great predecessor, all Europe west of Russia becoming virtually his. Some of the kings were replaced by monarchs of his creation. Others were left upon their thrones, but with their power shorn, their dignity being largely one of vassalage to France. Not content with an empire that stretched beyond the limits of that of Charlemagne or of the Roman Empire of the West, Napoleon ambitiously sought to subdue all Europe to his imperial will, and marched into Russia with nearly all the remaining nations of Europe as his forced allies.

His career as a conqueror ended in the snows of Muscovy and amid the flames of Moscow. The shattered fragment of the grand army of conquest that came back from that terrible expedition found crushed and dismayed Germany rising into hostile vitality in its rear. Russia pursued its vanquished invader, Prussia rose against him, Austria joined his foes, and at length, in October, 1813, united Germany was marshalled in arms against its mighty enemy before the city of Leipsic, the scene of the great battles of the Thirty Years' War, nearly two centuries before.

Here was fought one of the fiercest and most decisive struggles of that quarter century of conflict. It was a fight for life, a battle to decide the question of who should be lord of Europe. Napoleon had been brought to bay. Despising to the last his foes, he had weakened his army by leaving strong garrisons in the German cities, which he hoped to reoccupy after he had beaten the German armies. On the 16th of October the great contest began. It was fought fiercely throughout the day, with successive waves of victory and defeat, the advantage at the end resting with the allies through sheer force of numbers. The 17th was a day of rest and negotiation, Napoleon vainly seeking to induce the Emperor of Austria to withdraw from the alliance. While this was going on large bodies of Swedes, Russians, and Austrians were marching to join the German ranks, and the battle of the 18th was fought between a hundred and fifty thousand French and a hostile army of double that strength, which represented all northern and eastern Europe.

The battle was one of frightful slaughter. Its turning-point came when the Saxon infantry, which had hitherto fought on the French side, deserted Napoleon's cause in the thick of the fight, and went over in a body to the enemy. It was an act of treachery whose fatal effect no effort could overcome. The day ended with victory in the hands of the allies. The French were driven back close upon the walls of Leipsic, with the serried columns of Germany and Russia closing them in, and bent on giving no relaxation to their desperate foe.

The struggle was at an end. Longer resistance would have been madness. Napoleon ordered a retreat. But the Elster had to be crossed, and only a single bridge remained for the passage of the army and its stores. All night long the French poured across the bridge with what they could take of their wagons and guns. Morning dawned with the rush and hurry of the retreat still in active progress. A strong rear-guard held the town, and Napoleon himself made his way across the bridge with difficulty through the crowding masses.

Hardly had he crossed when a frightful misfortune occurred. The bridge had been mined, to blow it up on the approach of the foe. This duty had been carelessly trusted to a subaltern, who, frightened by seeing some of the enemy on the river-side, set fire hastily to the train. The bridge blew up with a tremendous explosion, leaving a rear-guard of twenty-five thousand men in Leipsic cut off from all hope of escape. Some officers plunged on horseback into the stream and swam across. Prince Poniatowsky, the gallant Pole, essayed the same, but perished in the attempt. The soldiers of the rear-guard were forced to surrender as prisoners of war. In this great conflict, which had continued for four days, and in which the most of the nations of Europe took part, eighty thousand men are said to have been slain. The French lost very heavily in prisoners and guns. Only a hasty retreat to the Rhine saved the remainder of their army from being cut off and captured. On the 20th Napoleon succeeded in crossing that frontier river of his kingdom with seventy thousand men, the remnant of the grand army with which he had sought to hold Prussia after the disastrous end of the invasion of Russia.

Germany was at length freed from its mighty foe. The garrisons which had been left in its cities were forced to surrender as prisoners of war. France in its turn was invaded, Paris taken, and Napoleon forced to resign the imperial crown, and to retire from his empire to the little island of Elba, near the Italian coast. In 1815 he returned, again set Europe in flame with war, and fell once more at Waterloo, to end his career in the far-off island of St. Helena.

Thus ended the empire founded by the great conqueror. The next to claim the imperial title was Louis Napoleon, who in 1851 had himself crowned as Napoleon III. But his so-called empire was confined to France, and fell in 1870 on the field of Sedan, himself and his army being taken prisoners. A republic was declared in France, and the second French empire was at an end.

German rural scene


And now the empire of Germany was restored, after having ceased to exist for sixty-five years. The remarkable success of William of Prussia gave rise to a wide-spread feeling in the German states that he should assume the imperial crown, and the old empire be brought again into existence under new conditions; no longer hampered by the tradition of a Roman empire, but as the title of united Germany.

On December 18, 1870, an address from the North German Parliament was read to King William at Versailles, asking him to accept the imperial crown. He assented, and on January 18, 1871, an imposing ceremony was held in the splendid Mirror Hall (Galerie des Glaces)  of Louis XIV., at the royal palace of Versailles. The day was a wet one, and the king rode from his quarters in the prefecture to the great gates of the chateau, where he alighted and passed through a lane of soldiers, the roar of cannon heralding his approach, and rich strains of music signalling his entrance to the hall.

William wore a general's uniform, with the ribbon of the Black Eagle on his breast. Helmet in hand he advanced slowly to the dais, bowed to the assembled clergymen, and turned to survey the scene. There had been erected an altar covered with scarlet cloth, which bore the device of the Iron Cross. Right and left of it were soldiers bearing the standards of their regiments. Attending on the king were the crown-prince, and a brilliant array of the princes, dukes, and other rulers of the German states arranged in semicircular form. Just above his head was a great allegorical painting of the Grand Monarch, with the proud subscription, "Le Roi gouverne par lui mÍme,"  the motto of the autocrat.

The ceremony began with the singing of psalms, a short sermon, and a grand German chorale, in which all present joined. Then William, in a loud but broken voice, read a paper, in which he declared the German empire re-established, and the imperial dignity revived, to be invested in him and his descendants for all future time, in accordance with the will of the German people.

Count Bismarck followed with a proclamation addressed by the emperor to the German nation. As he ended, the Grand-Duke of Baden, William's son-in-law, stepped out from the line, raised his helmet in the air, and shouted in stentorian tones, "Long live the German Emperor William! Hurrah!"

Loud cheers and waving of swords and helmets responded to his stirring appeal, the crown-prince fell on his knee to kiss the emperor's hand, and a military band outside the hall struck up the German National Anthem, while, as a warlike background to the scene, came the roar of French cannon from Mount Valerien, still besieged by the Germans, their warlike peal the last note of defiance from vanquished France. Ten days afterwards Paris surrendered, and the war was at an end. On the 16th of June the army made a triumphant entrance into Berlin, William riding at its head, to be triumphantly hailed as emperor by his own people on his own soil. All Germany, with the exception of Austria, was for the first time fully united into an empire, the minor princes having ceased to exist as ruling potentates.