Fatal Attraction

Statue of Henry the Fowler in Quedlinburg. Photo: TES.

The great event in the tenth century was the re-establishment of the empire in Western Europe after the breakup of the Carolingian Empire in the period after 887. The dismemberment of this Empire, founded by Charlemagne in 800, was marked by an extreme political fragmentation. Eastern Francia, the German territories, extended from the left and right banks of the Rhine to the Elbe and the Danube in the East. Most of the inhabitants spoke a German dialect. Western Francia or France was the territory where Romanic languages were spoken, covering more or less the seize of today’s France. The most complex heritage was the dissolution of the territories that belonged according the Treaty of Verdun (843) to Lothair (795-855), one of the suns of Louis the Pious (778-840). Two other suns (Charles the German (806-876) and Charles the Bald (823-877) became rulers of Germany resp. France. The Treaty of Meersen (870) provided for the division of the territory of Lothair among his brothers.

Both parties established a list of bishoprics, abbeys, counties and royal domains. A conflict hat should last until 1945. The kingdom of Burgundy was of mixed population and was divided in a German and French part. Lotharingia became German. Italy consisted of the papal state, Byzantine territories, Lombard principalities and some independent principalities.

In France, Germany, Burgundy and Italy the local princes tended to make themselves autonomous. The feudal anarchy of the tenth century replaced the centralization of the Carolingian empire. The anarchy developed most effectively in France. A relatively large body of princes were bound by the Crown only by words, not by deeds. The Counts of Flanders, Normandy, Burgundy, Aquitaine are among the most important princes. This extreme fragmentation and formation of many principalities and duchies should last until the reign of Louis VII and Philip August in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when the French kings started to regain control over territories.

The fragmentation was less extreme in Germany. Henry the Fowler, Duke of Saxony, (Heinrich der Vogler 876 – 936) was the first ruler of the Ottonian Dynasty of German kings and emperors. The first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire Otto I (912-973) was crowned in 962. He obtained the nickname “the Fowler” because he was allegedly fixing his birding nets when messengers arrived to inform him that he was to be king.

The fragmentation of France was overcome by the end of the fifteenth century, the fragmentation of the German nation was already  a facta. The fatal attraction of Otto I for Italy started in 936 and should have long lasting consequences. Influenced by Carolingian traditions and prestige, Otto turned his attention towards Italy and crowned himself king in 951. The Italian attraction was to draw the German emperors into the labyrinth of Italian and papal politics, wars and intrigues with fatal consequences for the stability in the German territories.

The division and fragmentation of Italy and Germany should last until their unifications in the nineteenth century. Germany became the leading European economic power without the political prestige of the old European dynasties however. Germany (and Italy) could get the left-overs of the European colonial expansion (conference Berlin 1885). Germany could be characterized as an adolescent with a high level of frustration at international level, though it was in many aspects one of the most successful European nations. The incident in Sarajevo in the summer of 1914 had roots that go back to Henry the Fowler. (Source: F. Ganshof, A History of International Relations (New York 1971)