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A History of Diplomacy in the International Development of Europe: Vol I The Struggle for Universal Empire
- The Building of the German Nation
by David Jayne Hill, LL.D.


The transfer of the imperial office from the French to the German branch of the Carlovingian family imposed upon the King of Germany a task for which he was not prepared. We have already noticed the enforced abdication of Charles the Fat and the substitution of Arnulf in his place; but the failure of the Empire was not the result of the personal deficiencies of the Emperor alone, it was a consequence of the feudal anarchy of the time and the absence of a sufficiently vigorous national spirit to give strength to a central government. The Germans had not yet developed that consciousness of nationality which was necessary to their leadership in reconstructing the Empire. The first task before the German kings was the consolidation of their kingdom, which at that time tended to break up into independent parts. Resistance to common enemies under the guidance of heroic defenders of their country was soon to inspire that sense of unity which gave them the first place in Europe and opened visions of a German dominion of the world; but even the powerful personality of Arnulf was not sufficient to restore the Empire of the Romans.

The impotence of the Empire in this transitional period was only surpassed by the weakness of the Papacy. In the midst of his broken fortunes, John VIII had fallen by the hand of an assassin in 882, and in the following thirty years fifteen feeble and evanescent figures moved across the scene, to and from the Chair of St. Peter, sometimes as many as three in a single year, all at the mercy of the temporary despots who supported or bullied them at their will. Italy, given over to anarchy and desolated by invasion, was filled with the strife of contestants for the imperial crown. Berengar of Friuli, Guido of Spoleto, his son Lambert, Lewis of Provence, and Rudolf of Burgundy all put forth pretensions, and most of them were crowned by popes whom they either placed in the Chair of St. Peter or overawed with intimidation. That Arnuif was crowned emperor, in 896, by Pope Formosus, -- the old conspirator of the German party, -- and imposed his will upon Rome for a few weeks, is of little consequence to the history of Europe; for, broken in health by his Italian campaign, after heroic battles in the North, he died in 899, without having established his authority as emperor, leaving as King of Germany his six-year-old son, Lewis the Child.

The civil wars which followed and the invasions of the Magyars, who penetrated to the very heart of Germany, imposed upon Conrad I, Duke of Franconia, who in 911 was chosen King of Germany, a task far too difficult for his abilities. Refusing to accord to a monarch without hereditary claims the deference they had shown to the descendants of Charles the Great, -- Franks, Saxons, Suabians, and Bavarians alike all ignored the central authority, and attempted to increase their own importance by taking the power into their own hands.

When, at length, Conrad lay upon his death-bed, in 918, weary of rebellion and worn out in battling with the Magyars, he declared that, if Germany was to be saved, the nobles must offer the crown to a stronger man than he. By his own advice, his most powerful and persistent opponent, Henry the Saxon, was elected to pursue his task. Not only in Germany and Italy, but in France also, the forces of dissolution were at work. The supreme question everywhere had become, not how to secure the coherence of the Empire, but to preserve the existence of the kingdoms into which it had been divided.

When Henry, Duke of the Saxons, known as Henry the Fowler, was elected King, in April, 919, by the Saxon and Franconian nobles, the condition of Germany was one of almost hopeless anarchy and confusion. The only general authorities within the realm were the heads of the four great duchies, -- Saxony, Franconia, Suabia, and Bavaria, -- and these were exposed to the disintegrating influence of feudal rivalries. The royal power was practically extinct, and the only bonds of union amidst the wide diversity of local laws, usages, and interests, -- everywhere guarded with a tribal jealousy, -- were the memories of the Empire, and the common adhesion to the Church. Even community of language was wanting, for the dialects of the Saxon and the Suabian were widely different. The time seemed ripe for the disruption of Germany into four little kingdoms, the easy prey to the Magyar and the Dane. It was a happy decision, therefore, on the part of the Franconian magnates to unite their fortunes with those of the Saxons, who were the most vigorous and energetic representatives of the old German stock. But the Suabians and the Bavarians held aloof, while the Duchy of Lotharingia had cast in its lot with the West Franks, as a part of the kingdom of Charles the Simple.

With keen insight into the situation which confronted him, Henry resolved to abandon the pursuit of imperial illusions and turn his attention to the defence and unification of Germany. He promptly proceeded to impose his royal authority upon the other duchies; but, perceiving the futility of asserting all the pretensions of the past, he wisely accepted the autonomy of the dukes, on condition that his kingship was recognized; and then proved his utility to the German nation by organizing its defence. To this end he turned his energies against the barbarian invaders, freeing Saxony from the incursions of the Magyars, first by a nine years' truce, then by the construction of walled towns as places of refuge and sources of supplies, afterward making aggressive campaigns against the Danes and the Slavs, and finally establishing and colonizing strongly fortified marches on the eastern frontiers of his realm, destined to become important bases of action in the future expansion of Germany. Penetrating into Bohemia, he forced its duke to pay tribute and become his vassal. Before the close of his reign he had beaten back the tide of the barbarian incursions, rendered his confederation of duchies the foundation of a great and powerful state and opened the path of German conquest toward the East.

When Henry the Saxon died in 936, it was his second son, Otto, now known to us as Otto the Great, who was designated to succeed him. The eldest son, passed over as illegitimate, and the third, Henry, the first born after his father became king and on that account claiming the succession, uniting with the great dukes, who perceived in Otto a sovereign indisposed to play the modest rle of his father, celebrated the accession of the new king by organizing a formidable civil war. Otto came to the throne with a deep sense of his divine mission combined with a lofty conception of the royal prerogatives, and put down his enemies with a sturdy hand. The keynote of his reign is found in the splendid pomp of his coronation in the basilica of Charles the Great, at Aachen, and the royal banquet at which he was personally served by the chief nobles; incidents which reveal the tendency of his mind, deeply impressed by the career and ideals of the great emperor, from whom he drew the inspiration of his own ambitious projects. With a clear conviction of the impossibility of uniting the German kingdom without the support of the great dukes, he gradually either displaced them by substituting for them members of his own family and trusted vassals, or acquired their friendship by judicious marriages. Upon his rebellious brother, Henry, finally rendered obedient to his will, he bestowed the Duchy of Bavaria; the administration of Franconia was intrusted to his son-in-law, Conrad, who had married his daughter Ida; by marriage with the only daughter of Duke Hermann, his son Ludolf came into possession of Suabia; Lotharingia, which had returned to the German connection after the death of Charles the Simple, was ruled by another son-in-law, Conrad the Red; while Saxony was intrusted to his faithful liegemen, Count Hermann Bilung and Count Gero. With all these changes, many of the old ducal prerogatives were transferred to the King; but to insure the conformity of the administration to the royal will, counts palatine were appointed in the duchies, to observe and protect the royal interests. These served, in part, the purpose of the missi of Charles the Great, with the added advantage of continuous residence.

The civil strife accompanying the accession of Otto had invited new inroads by the Magyars and Slavs, who imagined the kingdom without defence; but Otto, with a wisdom and vigor equal to those of his father, organized new expeditions against the invaders and increased the number and efficiency of the marches, so that before the close of his reign an unbroken line of fortified frontiers extended from the Baltic to the Adriatic. But the erection of mere physical barriers against the barbarians appeared to Otto, as it had to Charles the Great, an inadequate defence. He perceived that the really effective subjection of the spirit of plunder and devastation must come from within, and that the best protection of Christendom lay in the extension of its borders. He, therefore, resumed the policy which had been inaugurated by Pippin the Younger, and which had so effectively confirmed the conquests of Charles the Great, sending missionaries among the Slavs and the Danes as Charles had sent them among the Saxons, and creating among them bishoprics to watch over their converts and keep them in the ways of peace. Thus the sees of Aarhaus, Ripen, and Schleswig were established in the Danish march as bases for the missionary invasion of the East under the Archbishop of Hamburg; while Magdeburg ultimately became the metropolitan centre of similar bishoprics at Brandenburg and Havelberg in the Wendish march. As Charles Martel had sustained the work of Boniface in Germany by the might of the sword, so Otto now supported the work of the missionaries and bishops with the power of his margraves. Scandinavians, Wends, Poles, Bohemians, and Hungarians were gradually brought within the borders of Christendom, and Europe was thus rescued from these later barbarians who were, in turn, to become its defenders. Wherever the missionary penetrated and the bishop planted the standard of the cross, there went the potent influence of Rome and the traditions of her imperial rule. The successes of Otto in pushing his borders eastward could not fail to remind him of the earlier time when the vanguards of his great prototype had prepared the path of empire.

The power of the Church, which Otto was able to use so effectively in the extension of his realm, appeared to him to furnish that bond of unity so deplorably needed within its borders. He clearly perceived that extended dominion, to which he began to aspire, must be based upon some universal influence, and that no influence is more general than that of religion. The youngest brother of Otto, Bruno, a scholar and a statesman as well as an ecclesiastic, presided over his chancellery, and under his direction both ecclesiastical and governmental reforms were undertaken. Otto became the friend and protector of the clergy against the rapacity of the lay nobles, who too often robbed them; and in the same manner as he had possessed himself of the great duchies by means of his family and friends, he gathered into his hand the great offices of the Church in Germany. Bruno was made Archbishop of Kln; Otto's illegitimate son William succeeded the hostile and faithless Frederick as Archbishop of Mainz; while his uncle Robert became Archbishop of Trier. The great monasteries also were drawn into his power, his daughter Matilda becoming Abbess of Quedlinburg, and his niece, Gerberge, of Gandersheim; while, by grants of land and other favors, the high clergy were won for the throne, which used their influence against the pretensions of the secular nobles. Thus Otto built the unity of the state upon the unity of the Church, which he made the chief agency in the reorganization of his kingdom.

But the astute monarch soon perceived that there was in the Church a power far superior to his own, which could cause his humiliation and defeat, even within the limits of his own dominions. He had seen that his new territorial acquisitions in the East were the physical basis of his monarchy; for here were his powerful margraves, loyally attached to his person, completely devoted to the kingdom which they had extended, and able to serve in an emergency to counter-balance, and even, if necessary, to destroy the refractory dukes of the older portions of the realm. Otto, in order to impart more unity and force to his great marches, wished to withdraw from the Archbishopric of Mainz a portion of its authority, and to transfer it to a new primate, to be installed at Magdeburg. In this his own son William, Archbishop of Mainz, opposed him; and so great was the influence of the son with the Pope that he was able for a time to obstruct his father's plans. Otto saw that it was not enough to be king in Germany, since he could not thus command his own household. In order to be master at home, he must be able to control the Pope. Gradually the idea dawned upon his mind that there was no sure path to empire which did not include the road to Rome.

Since the coronation of Charles the Bald, Italy had been the scene of disorder and anarchy. The protection of the peninsula from the ravages of the Saracens and the Hungarians had led to the development of feudalism, with its accompaniments of brute force and petty local despotism. Nowhere else was the conflict of authority so intense as in Italy; for, in addition to the great diversity of elements and interests in the peninsula, the Italian habitually sought to escape submission to one authority by appealing to its rival. Liutprand, Bishop of Cremona, has furnished a valuable key to Italian politics in his observation: "The Italians always wish to have two masters, in order to hold each of them in check by fear of the other." The Papacy, whose interest lay in permitting no other central authority than its own to become strong in Italy, well understood the art of employing this principle in the conservation of its power. Always besought for the influence it possessed, it frequently made most progress through the strife of a number of contestants. Its chief danger was the presence of a single authority greater than its own.

But the period from 881 to 962 bore no lasting fruits in Italy either for the Empire or the Papacy. The feeble princes who during those years wore, in succession, the imperial crown without exercising any general authority were hardly worthy of the title of emperor, but they were strong enough to impose their will upon the weak ecclesiastics whom they suffered to occupy the Holy See.

Far from deriving any profit from the feebleness of the nominal rulers of Italy, the Papacy itself fell a victim to the general anarchy. Rome became the arena where contending factions struggled for supremacy and sought support for their ambitious schemes through possession of the papal throne. A rude, ignorant, and superstitious populace readily became the instrument of the aristocratic classes in accomplishing their designs, and the Roman nobility was divided into rival cliques whose intrigues were as constant as they were unscrupulous. The city was perpetually rent by these factions, which are in great measure responsible for the odium which a prejudiced criticism has so often attached to the Papacy as an institution. After the departure of Arnulf, the anti-German party disinterred the remains of Pope Formosus, who had excited its hostility by crowning him emperor, subjected the body to a mock trial, and secured his condemnation by his successor, Stephen VI The corpse was then insulted, mutilated, and cast into the Tiber.

In the eight years from 896 to 904, eight popes succeeded one another. Two Roman women of unsavory character, Theodora and her daughter Marozia, became the centres of intrigue and domination, and popes were made and unmade at their bidding. One of the sons of Marozia became pope in 931, under the name of John XI. The next year another of her sons, Alberic, who assumed authority over Rome with the title of "Prince and Senator of all the Romans," having taken sole possession of the civil power, proceeded with great vigor to establish public order in Rome, while confining the Pope to the exercise of purely spiritual functions. At his death, in 954, his son Octavian succeeded him as ruler of Rome; but, having decided to combine the civil and spiritual powers in his own person, he ascended the papal throne the following year as John XII.

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