Why the Holy Roman Empire Did and Does Not Matter

It is too easy and too often thought that because nothing is perfect, humankind will forever be divided, at odds, even doomed. A fitting read for the Christmas holidays, Peter H. Wilson’s 2016 The Holy Roman Empire: A Thousand Years of Europe’s History rebels against that dumb-headedness. With impressive scholarship and humane writing, Oxford prof. Wilson overturns prevailing notions of the Holy Roman Empire as a failed state-building project. He argues the Empire, as it was called for much of its history, should be taken seriously as a distinct political form, and not as a confused way station in the rise of modern nation-states. It endured for a thousand years, twice as long as imperial Rome. Wilson arrays the 900 plus pages into four digestible parts: Ideal, Belonging, Governance, and Society. He shows how the Empire had a political order with pragmatic political institutions, distinct ambitions, and an historically distinct form of belonging. This is an important contribution for rethinking European political experience and expands our awareness of possible political forms.

What brings this work into the concerns of the BBP, is how Wilson understands why the Holy Roman Empire does and does not matter for contemporary politics. For instance, Wilson draws attention to the problematic diplomatic relations that the Empire’s self-aggrandizing universalist suzerain outlook fostered. The final chapter, ‘Afterlife’, discusses the relevance of the Empire for the European Union. Here, Wilson displays political wisdom. Without romanticizing the Empire, he argues an awareness of the practical compromises and consensus building institutions that sustained the Empire helps to dispel notions that the EU should be governed by strict rules and have perfect consensus or none at all.

Sadly, these lessons did and do not readily apply to the take-it-or-leave-it Brexit referendum question and sentiment of Brexit means Brexit. Wilson’s grasp of the imperfect but unique and, in its own terms, important past, as a lesson for the inevitably imperfect and unique present, is, for this reader, refreshing. It nips not only the idea that the Empire is a perfect model for the EU, but also the idea that the EU is a model for a future World Union. The notion of a neo-Medieval world order (brandied about in the 1990’s and earlier by thinkers like Hedley Bull) echoes the Empire’s bad diplomacy. What this book can say about contemporary world politics, if the point is not too obvious, is that there are no perfect world orders, that no political culture has, so to speak, got the right world order fix. Disorder is normal. There are only practical compromises, consensus building institutions, unique and historically distinct ideals, ways of life, and senses of belonging. It is in these things that human hopes rest. The idea that a world unity is a perfect thing is an echo of an empire past that, in practice, was far from perfect, but mattered for a thousand years.

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