Economics/Class Relations

An Empire For Our Times?

A Discussion of Peter Wilson’s The Holy Roman Empire: A Thousand Years of Europe’s History

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 December 2017

In the two centuries since its dissolution in 1806, the Holy Roman Empire has usually been viewed as an antiquated relic of the medieval past, a dysfunctional polity that hindered Germany’s development into a modern, liberal nation-state. In the wake of its demise, a chorus of famous intellectuals and statesmen—including Voltaire, James Madison, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Leopold von Ranke, and Heinrich von Treitschke—derided the Empire as a “monstrosity” hampered by outmoded institutions and backward policies. More recently, in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, advocates of the so-called Sonderweg thesis blamed the Empire for Germany’s belated unification and for the Germans’ supposedly “authoritarian” bent. In Heart of Europe [the American title of the study—Ed.], a bold and sweeping account of the Holy Roman Empire’s thousand-year history, Peter Wilson sets out to supplant these anachronistic interpretations by explaining “what it was, how it worked, why it mattered, and its legacy for today” (5). With this important book, the best single-volume history of the Holy Roman Empire currently available, Wilson succeeds in answering these fundamental questions and provides fascinating insights into European politics from the early Middle Ages to the present. I would like to focus first on what I see as Wilson’s most significant contributions to the existing scholarship on the Empire, and then examine how he treats the Protestant Reformation as a case study of the merits (and drawbacks) of his approach.

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  1. And don’t forget GOLD MONEY. Good lord, if they had modern dentists and penicillin I’d jump back to the Holy Roman Empire in a heartbeat. I am already poor as fuck and don’t own anything but books, plus I’d be like a fucking genius based on the geographic knowledge I have.

  2. Most interesting sections for panarchists, clipped together.

    *”In the two centuries since its dissolution in 1806, the Holy Roman Empire has usually been viewed as an antiquated relic of the medieval past, a dysfunctional polity that hindered Germany’s development into a modern, liberal nation-state. In the wake of its demise, a chorus of famous intellectuals and statesmen – including Voltaire, James Madison, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Leopold von Ranke, and Heinrich von Treitschke—derided the Empire as a “monstrosity” hampered by outmoded institutions and backward policies.”*

    *”In Heart of Europe, a bold and sweeping account of the Holy Roman Empire’s thousand-year history, Peter Wilson sets out to supplant these anachronistic interpretations by explaining “what it was, how it worked, why it mattered, and its legacy for today”. With this important book, the best single-volume history of the Holy Roman Empire currently available, Wilson succeeds in answering these fundamental questions and provides fascinating insights into European politics from the early Middle Ages to the present.”*

    *”In line with recent positive reappraisals of the Empire, Wilson argues that it provided an effective framework for balancing central authority and regional autonomy, for protecting corporate liberties, and for mediating disputes among princes. Refusing to consider the Empire as a precursor—or as an obstacle—to a unified Germany, he exposes the anachronism inherent in the Rankean portrayal of its history as a tale of failed nation-building.”*

    *”Wilson argues that the decentralized nature of authority in the Holy Roman Empire—supposedly its fatal flaw, according to most scholars—was actually the key to its durability and its greatest strength. He contends that the Empire was established for a specific mission, a mission that did not entail exercising sovereignty in the modern sense. Explaining that the emperor was tasked with providing moral leadership and with protecting the Church, Wilson argues that he was never expected to rule over Christendom. This quasi-religious purpose fostered a distinctive political culture within the Empire, and it helped ensure that imperial governance was always driven by attempts to gain and maintain consensus, not direct rule from the center. This form of governance, maintained largely through processes of negotiation and mediation, allowed regional identities to coexist with imperial institutions and kept the peace in Central Europe for the better part of a millennium. After the Peace of Westphalia brought an end to the Thirty Years’ War, German princes preferred to settle disputes in court rather than resort to internecine warfare—even if their territories remained the most heavily militarized in Europe.”*

    *”Within the Empire, sovereign rulers, both great and small, could set local policies, but their subjects still had recourse to imperial courts for redress. Wilson points out that the Empire did not require its inhabitants to profess exclusive loyalty, as is the case in a modern nation-state; this allowed diverse communities to live within its borders, protected by imperial institutions. As a result, for much of its history the Empire provided a haven for minorities like Jews, who often relied on imperial protection against local persecution.”*

    *”The Empire’s lack of a clear imperial capital and the concomitant development of a multiplicity of princely courts and free imperial cities also fostered technological innovation (including the introduction of the printing press) and cultural achievement. Throughout the Empire, princes competing for status established glittering courts and provided patronage for composers, authors, and artists. Small wonder, then, that the Empire’s princely courts fostered the talents of luminaries like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Lucas Cranach, and Goethe.”*

    *”While arguing the benefits of its decentralized political system, Wilson also vigorously refutes the idea that nineteenth- and twentieth-century German authoritarianism originated in the supposed “dysfunction” of the Holy Roman Empire. Scholars have long argued that, within the Empire’s “dualist” political system, liberty became associated not with the people, but rather with princes, who oppressed their subjects as they defended their own autonomy in the face of imperial tyranny. By contrast, Wilson argues that the Empire embodied a viable framework of corporate rights, one that made notions of individual equality superfluous.”*

    *”Citing overseas trading ventures to Russia, Persia, and Dutch Guiana in the seventeenth century, and the establishment of companies to conduct trade with China and India in the eighteenth, Wilson argues that “the absence of a strong, centralized monarchy did not inhibit direct colonial ventures from the Empire”*

  3. I don’t know why more libertarians don’t talk about the Holy Roman Empire. I suppose part of it is due to Americans ignorance of the Continent and distaste for monarchy and status societies.

    • Modern libertarianism doesn’t have much influence outside the US. Even in England, libertarianism is considered a tiny fringe sect. Libertarianism is heavily influenced by the Lockean-liberal tradition and by the American revolution. Even most ancaps are just a more radical version of the American Lockean tradition. The same is true of the leftist-anarchists, who are mostly a hybrid of liberalism, socialism, and, nowadays, progressivism. These are not people who are psychologically disposed to have a favorable view of a royalist imperium.

      • I never did like Locke. tabula rasa, muhRites, etc. are tedious nonsense. It’s a religion created to rationalize liberalism. I think, ala Sean Gabb, that liberalism was basically invented by accident, by medieval aristocrats and liberals ruined it. The actual origins of property and contract society have nothing to do with the NAP and everything to do queen heavily armed people jealous of their privileges (which, after all, means private law). This is why, though I’m not remotely religious and have no respect for aytho, I rather prefer Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn to the Cato Institute.

          • The Marxist view of Locke is that he merely created a philosophy that purported to provide intellectual or theological legitimacy to the class interests of the rising bourgeoisie of the early modern period, which I tend to agree with. Although I’d argue that Marxism served the same purpose for middle-class intellectuals in early industrializing societies who found their own political ambitions frustrated by entrenched elites that were impervious to reform.

            • I think that is pretty much correct.
              Sean Gabb’s defense of a landed aristocracy video on YouTube talks about how the aristocracy opposed the administrative state. Likewise, It was corporate and individual rights of people like the princes, burghers, and knights gained by feuding with the central authority that actually established many of the ideas we associate with liberalism and libertarianism. The liberals then co-opt these into their republican movements but by universalizing them and building their administrative state and attacking the aristocracy and localism they undermine actual liberty. In the Heart of Europe book Wilson talks about how people of all classes in the Empire saw the idea of universal liberty and republicanism as an attack on their actual autonomy and rights. I think this is basically why liberalism commits suicide, by destroying the actual customary, decentralized power centers in the name of abstract liberty and rationality in government they remove intermediary checks on state authority and independent force, and the bourgeoisie, now with comfortable government sinecures, find that suddenly the state isn’t so bad and start using the rationale of universalist liberty to justify the expansion of the state (and their own) power. This is why I view the libertarian fetish for the bourgeoisie with suspicion, these people did not invent liberty, commerce or ideas of individual rights – if you believe Ricardo Duchesne and Rik Storey these actually go back to quasi sociopathic indo European warriors, who relentlessly assert their rights at the point of a sword. And this is why I think the soft, effete, NAP religion is useless for actual libertarian practice because these people are afraid of violence and want to magically convince people not to intrude on their “rights”. What libertarians need is not theory and propaganda, but power: leadership and institutions which can actively resist and undermine threats to their liberty. As long as libertarianism is just about exalting commerce and middle class scribblers they will remain nothing but a cult theory, “philosophical anarchism”. I have a lot more respect for an authoritarian traditionalist who defends his independence by force than I do for someone who talks about property rights all day but never does anything about it.

          • Most anarchists, left or right, are products of Enlightenment rationalism, what Burke called “armed doctrine,” and what Hayek called “constructivism.” Most of these philosophies are de facto religions for which their adherents have a missionary zeal. “When did you accept Bakunin as your personal savior?” “Have you heard the gospel of the NAP, brother?”

            We already have enough historical evidence to identify test models for what stateless or nearly stateless societies would look like, and what kind of results a world of anarchist mass movements that became culturally and intellectually hegemonic would look like. The HRE is one of many great examples we can look at.

            • It’s the evidence of ancient and medieval societies that convinces me that decentralization is more important than trying to convince an empire to be nice. I’d rather have fifty ‘unlibertarian’ independent regions than one bureaucratic state that pretends to care about the bill of rights. This was always something that the left libertarians used to scare monger about with decentralization, what is some state doesn’t like Fags or outlaws abortion, and then we don’t have daddy Federal government to save them. Well, what if they do? Universalism and values imperialism are the brain death of anarchism.

            • And I detest Enlightenment rationalism. I’m a social rationalist and I can’t stand magical dogma, but that’s precisely what Enlightenment rationalism is, pseudo science garbage religion pretending to be philosophy. People have just replaced rationalizing their pet cultural preferences and morality with reference to Jesus with references to fake science and failed logic. The inability for people to accept that their are no objective criteria for preferences is annoying, especially coming from Austrian economists who use subjective value as a starting point. Mises, to his credit, was a moral noncognitivist who didn’t believe in rights in the abstract, but lots of libertarians are obsessed with bogus crypto Catholic nonsense about natural law and Jacobin rights propaganda. It’s basically cowardice, an unwillingness to accept responsibility for your own preferences and to accept that if you like some kind of society you’re going to have to defend it with force, not crying about muhrites. I think that the hopeless quest to convert people to libertarianism often acts as an excuse to avoid actually doing anything.

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