An exhibition under the patronage of the Federal President of Germany Horst Köhler
Two-hundred years ago, Emperor Franz II abdicated the imperial throne of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. This act brought about the dissolution of a political structure that had played a decisive role in the history and development of Europe from the year 962 on up to 1806.
The history of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation is the heritage not only of Germany and Austria, but of the whole of Central Europe. Territories that had once been joined together in the Old Empire now belong to Denmark, the Benelux countries, France, Switzerland, Italy, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Poland.
The Holy Roman Empire had a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual structure, a decentralized and multi-confessional form. It was held together by the person of the Emperor as the uppermost feudal lord, but opposite him stood the higher nobility with their own great power. As a result, the constitutional development of the Empire was completely different compared with other European power structures. In contrast to Spain, France or England, the Holy Roman Empire, throughout its existence, was never a hereditary monarchy; the emperor always remained dependent on the vote of the select group of ecclesiastical and princely electors.
The Berlin exhibition “Old Empire and New States” presents the history of the Empire since the reform instituted at the Imperial Diet in 1495 as a unified whole in a series of five chronological and thematic sequences. With the date 1806 – the central point of the museum show – the visitor enters the second part of the Berlin exhibition. The collapse of the Empire and the emergence of sovereign model states are discussed here in three further sections.
Under the title “Between the Times” the first section, leading into the cultural history of the period, explore the dividing line around 1500. One of the central themes of this age in Central Europe is the threat of attack by the Ottoman Empire.
As the section continues, the focus is on the religious and economic developments in Central Europe which had a decisive influence on the structure of the Empire around 1500. The foremost of these developments was the criticism of the Church associated with the name of Martin Luther. For the next 150 years, the confessional conflict was to remain one of the determinant factors of domestic and foreign politics in the Empire.
The membership of the different territories in the imperial federation originated in roots going far back into the Middle Ages. As a result of dynastic relationships it often happened that political contingencies stepped beyond the borders of the Empire. This frequently had consequences, particularly when, as in the case of the Houses of Hanover or Saxony, it was linked with an elevation in rank. The rise of the Elector August the Strong of Saxony to King of Poland in 1697 is documented in exhibits of the highest quality.
The centre of the Empire lies – both in a political and a symbolic sense – in the person of the emperor, even in the modern period, a basic idea that is reflected in the concept of the exhibition. The backbone of the exhibition is formed by a gallery of the sixteen early modern emperors, from Maximilian I to Franz II, which, in addition to introducing the person, office and period of rule of the respective emperors, has the art-historical function of presenting imperial portraiture – and thus the courtly art par excellence – over an unbroken period of three hundred years.
In the 16th century Charles V, is the dominant sovereign, whose influence shines throughout Europe. The attempt to establish a “Spanish Succession”, which would have brought Philipp II to the imperial throne, failed.
In the 17th and 18th centuries numerous new European centres of power are established by the dynasties of the Habsburgs. Rudolf II moves his residence to Prague in the East, and initiates the blossoming of the Prague courtly art. Charles VI tries for a decade to defend his claim to the Spanish royal throne. During his regency as emperor he is deeply influenced by Spanish courtly culture.
On the one hand, the Empire is marked by mediaeval, estate-based structures, as seen for example in the election of the emperor by the princely electors, canonized in the “Golden Bull”. On the other hand, a modern form of government has developed in the Empire since the 15th century. Evidence for this can be seen in the division into imperial circles and the establishment of the imperial supreme court. The form of the Reichstag, or Diet, is given legal basis – in 1663 the Reichstag prolongs itself into permanent session and becomes an everlasting congress of deputies. The “Everlasting Diet” occupies a central position among the institutions of the Empire.
In large parts of Germany, in particular in the West and Southwest, the Holy Roman Empire was a functioning political and cultural reality for centuries. The empire was literally lived in and a great many preserved artefacts can still give a lively impression of its appearance. Life in the imperial cities and their town halls, in the imperial bishoprics, abbeys and cloisters, in the small residential seats of the princes can be vividly documented. The imperial knights, who were subject only to the emperor, occupied a special position. After the states of the Teutonic Order had been transformed into a secular duchy even in East Prussia, their possessions in the empire remained intact and were governed from Mergentheim by the Grand and German Master of the Order as an imperial prince. This example illustrates the continuity of an imperial estate stemming from the Middle Ages and of traditional legal concepts.
The Jews in the empire has a special legal status. As “serfs of the treasury” (servi camerae or Kammerknechte) under the emperor and the provincial princes, the Jews were subject to particular stipulations and dependent on the protection of the nobles.
The formation of an independent, sovereign state by individual members of the Empire – primarily Austria and Prussia – burst open the integrating structure of the Empire. In the initial years of the 19th century this process continued on under the external influence of revolutionary and then Napoleonic France.
On August 6th, 1806, Emperor Franz II took the alliance concluded by a number of influential imperial princes with Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French, as grounds to abdicate the crown of the Holy Roman Empire, which no longer had any meaning. He did this, however, not before first assuring himself the title of Emperor of Austria.
In this time of upheavals, a great number of individual sovereign states grow up on the territory of the former Old Empire. With the exception of Austria and Prussia they join together in the so-called Confederation of the Rhine. Besides a broad variety of reform bills particularly the adoption of the “Code Civil” was of lasting significance for Germany. The newly created states took very different paths. While the Kingdom of Westphalia under the rule of Jérôme Bonaparte remained an artificial entity and disappeared from the map with the Vienna Congress – the unfinished painting of the tribute to Jérôme appears to confirm this –, the Kingdom of Bavaria was able to establish itself successfully.