The Holy Roman Empire, an institution which had lasted for just over a thousand years, did not pass unnoticed or unlamented. The dissolution of the empire sent shockwaves through Germany, with most of the reactions within the former imperial boundaries being rage, grief or shame.
Even the signatories of the Confederation of the Rhine were outraged; the Bavarian emissary to the imperial diet, Rechberg, stated that he was “furious” due to having “put his signature to the destruction of the German name”, referring to his state’s involvement in the confederation, which had effectively doomed the empire.
From a legal standpoint, Franz II’s abdication was controversial. Contemporary legal commentators agreed that the abdication itself was perfectly legal but that the emperor did not have the authority to dissolve the empire. As such, several of the empire’s vassals refused to recognize that the empire had ended. As late as October 1806, farmers in Thuringia refused to accept the end of the empire, believing its dissolution to be a plot by the local authorities.
For many of the people within the former empire, its collapse made them uncertain and fearful of their future, and the future of Germany itself. Contemporary reports from Vienna describe the dissolution of the empire as “incomprehensible” and the general public’s reaction as one of horror.
The German Confederation
In contrast to the fears of the general public, many contemporary intellectuals and artists saw Napoleon as a herald of a new age, rather than a destroyer of an old order. The popular idea forwarded by German nationalists was that the final collapse of the Holy Roman Empire freed Germany from the somewhat anachronistic ideas rooted in a fading ideal of universal Christianity and paved the way for the country’s unification as the German Empire, a nation state, 65 years later.
German historian Helmut Rössler has argued that Franz II and the Austrians fought to save the largely ungrateful Germany from the forces of Napoleon, only withdrawing and abandoning the empire when most of Germany betrayed them and joined Napoleon. Indeed, the assumption of a separate Austrian imperial title in 1804 did not mean that Franz II had any intentions to abdicate his prestigious position as the Roman emperor, the idea only began to be considered as circumstances beyond Habsburg control forced decisive actions to be taken.
Compounded with fears of what now guaranteed the safety of many of the smaller German states, the poet Christoph Martin Wieland lamented that Germany had now fallen into an “apocalyptic time” and stating “Who can bear this disgrace, which weighs down upon a nation which was once so glorious?—may God improve things, if it is still possible to improve them!”.
To some, the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire was seen as the final end of the ancient Roman Empire. In the words of Christian Gottlob von Voigt, a minister in Weimar, “if poetry can go hand in hand with politics, then the abdication of the imperial dignity offers a wealth of material.
The Roman Empire now takes its place in the sequence of vanquished empires”. In the words of the English historian James Bryce, 1st Viscount Bryce in his 1864 work on the Holy Roman Empire, the empire was the “oldest political institution in the world” and the same institution as the one founded by Augustus in 27 BC.
Writing of the empire, Bryce stated that “nothing else so directly linked the old world to the new—nothing else displayed so many strange contrasts of the present and the past, and summed up in those contrasts so much of European history”.
When confronted by the fall and collapse of their empire, many contemporaries employed the catastrophic fall of ancient Troy as a metaphor, due to its association with the notion of total destruction and the end of a culture.
The image of the apocalypse was also frequently used, associating the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire with an impending end of the world (echoing medieval legends of a Last Roman Emperor, a figure prophesized to be active during the end times).
Criticism and protests against the empire’s dissolution were typically censored, especially in the French-administered Confederation of the Rhine. Among the aspects most criticized by the general populace was the removal or replacement of the traditional intercessions for the empire and emperor in the daily church prayers throughout former imperial territory. Suppression from France, combined with examples of excessive retribution against pro-empire advocates, ensured that these protests soon died down.
Official and international reactions
King Gustav IV Adolph of Sweden, who in 1806 issued a proclamation to his German subjects that the dissolution of the empire “would not destroy the German nation.”
In an official capacity, Prussia’s response was only formulaic expressions of regret owing to the “termination of an honourable bond hallowed by time”. Prussia’s representative to the Reichstag, Baron Görtz, reacted with sadness, mixed with gratitude and affection for the House of Habsburg and their former role as emperors.
Görtz had taken part as an electoral emissary of the Electorate of Brandenburg (Prussia’s territory within the formal imperial borders) in 1792, at the election of Franz II as Holy Roman Emperor, and exclaimed that “So the emperor whom I helped elect was the last emperor!—This step was no doubt to be expected, but that does not make its reality any less moving and crushing. It cuts off the last thread of hope to which one tried to cling”.
Baron von Wiessenberg, the Austrian envoy to the Electorate of Hesse-Cassel, reported that the local elector, Wilhelm I, had teared up and expressed lament at the loss of “a constitution to which Germany had for so long owed its happiness and freedom”.
Internationally, the empire’s demise was met with mixed or indifferent reactions. Emperor Alexander I of Russia offered no response and King Christian VII of Denmark formally incorporated his German lands into his kingdoms a few months after the empire’s dissolution.
Franz I, Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary, Bohemia and Croatia
King Gustav IV Adolph of Sweden (who notably hadn’t recognized the separate imperial title of Austria yet) issued a somewhat provocative proclamation to the denizens of his German lands (Swedish Pomerania and Bremen-Verden) on August 22, 1806, stating that the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire “would not destroy the German nation” and expressed hopes that the empire might be revived.
Possibility of restoration
The dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire was constituted by Franz II’s own personal abdication of the title and the release of all vassals and imperial states from their obligations and duties to the emperor. The title of Holy Roman Emperor (theoretically the same title as Roman Emperor) and the Holy Roman Empire itself as an idea and institution (the theoretically universally sovereign imperium) were never technically abolished. Dissolved yes, abolished no.
The continued existence of a universal empire, though without defined territory and lacking an emperor, was sometimes referenced in the titles of other later monarchs. For instance, the Savoyard Kings of Italy continued to claim the title “Prince and Perpetual Vicar of the Holy Roman Empire (in Italy)” (a title originating from a 14th-century imperial grant from Emperor Charles IV to their ancestor Amadeus VI, Count of Savoy) until the abolition of the Italian monarchy in 1946.
In the aftermath of Napoleon’s defeats in 1814 and 1815, there was a widespread sentiment in Germany and elsewhere which called for the revival of the Holy Roman Empire under the leadership of Emperor Franz I of Austria. At the time, there were several factors which prevented the restoration of the empire as it had been in the 18th century, notably the rise of larger, more consolidated kingdoms in Germany, such as Bavaria, Saxony and Württemberg, as well as Prussia’s interest in becoming a great power in Europe (rather than continue being a vassal to the Habsburgs).
Even then, the restoration of the Holy Roman Empire, with a modernized internal political structure, had not been out of reach at the 1814–1815 Congress of Vienna (which decided Europe’s borders in the aftermath of Napoleon’s defeat). However, Emperor Franz had come to the conclusion before the Congress of Vienna convened, that the Holy Roman Empire’s political structure would not have been superior to the new order in Europe and that restoring it was not in the interest of the Habsburg monarchy.
In an official capacity, the papacy considered the fact that the Holy Roman Empire was not restored at the Congress of Vienna (alongside other decisions made during the negotiations) to be “detrimental to the interests of the Catholic religion and the rights of the church”.
In the Holy Roman Empire’s place, the German Confederation was created by the 9th Act of the Congress of Vienna on June 8, 1815 after being alluded to in Article 6 of the 1814 Treaty of Paris, ending the War of the Sixth Coalition. The German Confederation, which was led by the Austrian emperors as “heads of the presiding power” would prove to be ineffective.
The Confederation was weakened by the German revolutions of 1848–1849, where after the Frankfurt Parliament, elected by the people of the Confederation, attempted to proclaim a German Empire and designate Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia as their Emperor.
King Friedrich Wilhelm IV himself did not approve of the idea, instead favoring a restoration of the Holy Roman Empire under the Habsburgs of Austria, though neither the Habsburgs themselves nor the German revolutionaries, still active at the time, would have approved of that idea.
Prussia went to war in 1866 with Austria in an attempt to remove Austria from German politics. With Austria successfully removed from any participation in the affairs of the German states, by 1871 Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck used the war against France (The Franco-Prussian War 1870-71) to unite the German states into a new German Empire under the authority of the Prussian king as the new German Emperor.