Szplug's Reviews > The Origins of Modern Germany

The Origins of Modern Germany by Geoffrey Barraclough
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Jan 01, 2011

really liked it

Barraclough has crafted a classic here. Though the medieval period is his bread and butter, with immensely helpful guidance to a bewilderingly complex variety of intertwining events and personages, he also does a more than adequate job of summing up the political and historic strains from the Reformation onwards that led to the evils unleashed by National Socialism. Well written, insightful, and impartially passionate, I doubt there exists another book that so brilliantly handles such a Herculean task. A warning—Barraclough assumes the reader can handle untranslated Latin, French, and German quotes! The remainder of this review is basically an attempt to sum up Barraclough's thematic progression so that I can return to it at a future date when the whole picture has become blurry and out-of-focus in that disturbingly loose and leaky mental container I'm reduced to calling my memory.

The first half of the book ends with the fall of the Hohenstaufens and the Great Interregnum—this period is right within Barraclough's wheelhouse, and his knowledge and feel for the era is masterful. Since his goal is to trace the development of the modern German identity and the state structure that arose to contain it, his history is sifted through a primarily political filter. After laying bare the origins of the East Frankish Kingdom in the division of the empire between Louis the Pious' three rapacious sons, he describes the Carolingian aura that remained attached to the figure of the monarch, as well as tracing how the imperial title became intrinsically linked with possession of the Middle Kingdom, Lotharingia. This leads into an explanation of the recovery of the East Frankish realm under the scarred grip of Arnulf of Carinthia, the evolution of the five tribal Stem Duchies, and the political strategy of the Saxon dynasty. Although Henry the Fowler and the second and third Otto's are given their due, it is Otto the Great who gets the most accolades and longest screen time. Barraclough clearly finds much to admire in the manner in which Otto used the episcopate as a check against the unruly fidelity of the princes; managed to transfer the most powerful lay titles to members of his family; permanently dealt with the Magyar menace after ending the raids by the Scandinavians; and promoted eastward expansion against the West Slavic tribes whilst maintaining good relations with the West Frankish petty kings. What's more, Barraclough rejects the judgement of historians who blame Otto and his Italian expeditions for entangling the German monarchy with the fractious nature of the peninsular realm and all of the potentiality for machinations, factional strife, and papal intrigues endemic in the possession of the iron crown of the Lombards—in the author's view, Otto had no choice other than to stake a claim to the remnants of the Middle Kingdom—and, thus, to imperial legitimacy—if he desired stability for the German people. By making himself emperor he avoided both the threat of a potentially dangerous state on his southern flank and the existence of an enticing temptation to the ambitions of the West Frankish king and the Byzantine emperor.

The Salian dynasty is described as, for the most part, continuing the monarchical strategy created by Otto, up until the turbulent and violent reign of Henry IV—who endeavored to dissolve the dukedoms and establish a centralized and absolute monarchy—and the Investiture Contest, the fifty years of civil war (including the ruinous Saxon Rebellion), violence, and anarchy instigated by the intransigent demands of Pope Gregory VII and the reformist wing of the Catholic church. With the German king having placed so much administrative power and trust in the hands of his bishops, the investiture conflict struck right at the heart of monarchical strength—and the papacy got its first taste of how involving itself within the internal politics of Germany was an effective strategy for a political organization with very little military power of its own. The damage inflicted upon the fledgling German state was considerable, in Barraclough's opinion, not least in the manner in which the episcopacy became distanced from its previous close ties with the king, and the rigid rules of feudalism, with its accompanying hierarchy of lord and vassal, were developed quickly and thoroughly across the land as a result of the lawless violence and chaos. Furthermore, the royal demesne itself—the source of the bulk of the king's power and wealth—was fractured; appropriated by rebellious princes and awarded to loyal vassals. While Barraclough freely admits the blame that Henry IV and V bear for the destruction inflicted upon the kingdom, he clearly saves the bulk of his ire for Gregory VII and the revolutionary string of popes who followed in his wake. The papal proclivity for inveigling civil strife within the German kingdom to serve its own (ofttimes seemingly amoral) ends is a theme that Barraclough returns to again and again.

In Frederick I Barbarossa, Barraclough sees a great German statesman: coming to power after two consecutive dynasty changes had further diminished the already reduced stature of the now-elective monarchy, with even fewer crown lands and the princes apparently in an overwhelmingly dominant position—by the time he died thirty-five years later the principal of heredity had been restored, Italy again united into the empire and producing a considerable portion of the king's resources, the papacy brought to terms, and the king set firmly atop the feudal hierarchy and beginning the process of centralizing the administrative apparatus. Having tamed and broken up the over-mighty princes, the king was also the singularly most powerful lord—though the seeds of future unrest, most apparent in the manner that Frederick was compelled to redistribute escheated fiefs in lieu of absorbing them into the crown demesne, had been sown even in his victories. Still, the prestige and influence of the empire was at its peak; sadly, the imperial edifice was weakened during the reign of Barbarossa's son, and was fractured at the base by the follies of his grandson. In the annexation of the Sicilian crown by Henry VI Barraclough sees the terrible mistake that fated the house of Hohenstaufen to ruin—for Frederick II, the Stupor Mundi, completely absorbed throughout his long reign in an interminable and fruitless conflict with the papacy and the Italian communes, in addition to Sicilian uprisings and a pair of crusades, allowed Germany to fester under the selfish care of the princes. Prepared to make endless concessions—even to the detriment of his own viceregal son—to the lords and prelates in exchange for a free hand south of the Alps, Frederick set the final touches to the degeneration of Germany into an elective and nominal monarchy, the guise for the autocratic rule of a multitude of petty princedoms. I had never previously seen Frederick II in this light, and have to admit that the evidence the author provides to condemn the Wonder is lengthy and compelling.

The second half begins with a very enlightening overview of the German expansion towards the east, from the triple-expeditions of Henry the Lion, Albrecht the Bear, and Adolf of Holstein, through to the the crushing of the Teutonic Knights by the Polish-Lithuanians at the Battle of Tannenberg. The complex admixture of German, Slavic, and Baltic elements involved in the expansion; the varying levels of violence from peaceful and invitational colonization to extirpating crusade; the Christianization of the pagan tribes and the influence of the episcopacy; the system of land clearing and reclamation, the structure of town and village in the colonization, the culture of colonial freedom developed as opposed to the heavy bonds of feudalism in the west, and the manner in which the eastern princes used their new demesnes as experimental zones for a new type of absolute and centralized government; it is handled briskly but deeply. The end result was a new bifurcation to add to the troubles of the German kingdom: a nascent group of powerful eastern lords—most of them lay—set in opposition to the entrenched and ancient princes of the west, of which the ecclesiastical were paramount. Two of the new eastern domains—Bohemia and Brandenburg—were elevated to electoral rank in recognition of this power shift.

Barraclough then details the lamentable period from the Great Interregnum through to the issuance of the Golden Bull in 1356 under Charles IV of Bohemia. This period, which the author declares still full of potential for a recovery from the Hohenstaufen misadventures, was one of continuous intrigue and influence—invariably pernicious—by the combined powers of the French monarchy, the cadet branch of the Capetians ruling from the Neapolitan throne, and the Papacy. Even when other strong kingdoms, such as England, allied themselves with the German Empire, disaster almost inevitably ensued. What emerged was a competition for the German kingship, in which the element desirous of a hereditary monarchy at the expense of Imperial claims to Italy or Burgundy—led by the ascendent house of Habsburg and in alliance with the French—alternated occupying the throne with the bloc promoting an elective monarchy and a renewal of Imperial claims and rights, which featured some variation of the Luxemburg family in association with the three archiepiscopal electors, and strongly against French influence and interference. With the papacy almost always occupied by a pope beholden to the French king or hostile to a unified Germany, the result was a constant and subtle loss of Rhenish and Rhônish fiefs to the encroachment of the French and the final ruin of the idea of an independent and strong German king. With the death of Louis the Bavarian representing the defeat of diplomatic efforts to get the papacy on board, his successor, Charles IV, seeing a nation exhausted and disillusioned and on the verge of implosion, firmly and decisively took up the cause of the princes—majority acclamation by the electoral college was to be the sole legitimate means to the kingship, with the papacy—the source of almost two hundred years of strife and dissent—excluded from any legal relevance to the process, squeezed out of all existing loopholes that justified its interference. From that point onward the princedoms were firmed up and given extensive semi-regal powers— the German king was to be a nullity. The position existed solely as a means of the furtherance of dynastic power while occupying the leading position in a confederacy of equals.

To round off the century between the issuance of the Golden Bull and the reoccupation of the Roman throne by the territorially powerful Habsburgs—which dynasty would possess an imperial title through to the end of the First World War —the reader is given a depressing tour of the endless anarchy, civil strife, and dynastic conflict that ebbed and flowed in a recurring fashion while the princely domains struggled to deal with their newfound nigh-sovereign status. Ironically, the same processes and intrigues they used to remove themselves from direct Imperial suzerainty was, in turn, directed upon the princes by their own feudal vassals and ministers. With the old nobility of the German Empire almost completely extinguished—through conflict, the crusades, and a lack of natural heirs—their place was taken by the ministeriales, the free knightly class which had been so effectively recruited and used by the Hohenstaufen monarchs. While the ministeriales provided their lords with competent administration, they vastly expanded their power as their numbers, responsibilities, and land grants increased: eventually, they began to form knightly confederations—often working with the city leagues and clerical associations that rose during this period—in a combined and united effort to resist the endless taxation demands of the princes. At the same time, the German feudal custom of subdivision amongst princely heirs was reducing once vast and powerful fiefs to splintered, non-contiguous, and debt-ridden parcels. Before taking up the return of the House of Habsburg under Maximilian I, Barraclough sketches the recovery the princely estate managed to make—having seemingly realized its imminent peril of utter dismemberment—and, under the competent direction of the lords of such important states as the newly reconstituted Bavaria, Brandenburg, Hesse, Meissen, Silesia, Mecklenburg, Jülich, and the Rhineland Palatinate, copied the reforms of the English and French kings in implementing a centralized, sovereign governance that, by use of the preserved Roman Law of old, forbade any further subdivision of the princedom, while at the same time enacting stringent legal, financial, and commercial amendments that codified the sovereign constitutions of each state and subdued the feudal intransigence of the ministeriales, towns, and religious institutions. Divided as they were by regional dialects, customs, and dress, in the future the Germans would embrace the particularism of this complex assemblage of princely realms even while retatining—underneath it all and waiting to be tapped into—a distinct sense of themselves as Deutsches Volk.

This innate Teutonic identity was to be put supremely to the test during the turbulent and destructive (for Germany especially) period from the lengthy reign of Maximilian I—the first of the Habsburg dynasty with preeminent territorial power in the realm—through to the French Revolution. With the princely states consolidating their dynastic power, the last of the Luxemburg emperors, continuously distracted and absorbed by the troubles in their hereditary kingdoms of Bohemia and Hungary, allowed the western states, isolated and fractious, to fall under the spell of their strong French neighbor. As Maximilian had crafted for himself—through astute marriages and political contracts—the potent middle kingdom reincarnated in Burgundy and the Netherlands, the Habsburgs turned from being in enduring alliance with the French to becoming their bitterest foe. Though Maximilian and his heir, Charles V (who was also King of Spain) possessed enough raw power to have reordered the German imperial constitution in favor of a stronger and more centralized government—and which a large part of the populace, especially the humanist writers, tired of national humiliation, would have eagerly embraced—they abstained from such measures to pursue a purely dynastic struggle with the French. This conflict took a turn for the worse during the Reformation, when the Imperial princes, almost to a man, embraced the Protestant religion while their nominal lord, the emperor, remained staunchly Catholic. The princes, using Luther's doctrines in support of the territorial rulers, strained his fiery, revolutionary personal connection with God into a bland and highly regulated orthodoxy, one which stressed both hard work for, and obedience to the earthly sovereigns who ruled through God's favor. Within this stern and disciplined religious framework the final traces of resistance by the noble estates and city leagues to the absolute rule of the territorial princes was eliminated.

The Germans suffered brutally from the massacres and scorched earth barbarity of the Thirty Years War—one in which the French and the Swedish, ever deeming it in their interest to have a divided and weak Germany as a continental neighbor, encouraged and took part in the wholesale destruction—with massive population losses (perhaps one third of sixteen million people); and the end result was an utterly exhausted and splintered confederation of states—some two-hundred and thirty-four emerged from the smoking ruin—of which only a handful could actually qualify as powers (Prussia, Austria, and Bavaria) and which were effectively divided into a protestant north and a catholic south, with each state both a lure and alluring to absorption and/or manipulation by outside dynasts as they maneuvered for a dominant position against their petty brethren. In particular, the grasping hand of Louis XIV was only prevented from seizing the westernmost German states and advancing the French frontier to its long-desired and historically-justified limit at the Rhine by the interventionary efforts of other powers like Great Britain. The aftermath of the three decades of civil strife also saw the ascendancy of a new landed class of nobility in the agrarian-rich territories of the north and the east: the Junkers who, having bloated their estates upon the carcass of enormous religious land endowments, effectively allied their interests and their military power with the absolute princes in a combined effort to reduce the peasantry to the most abject form of serfdom, of a type familiar to the unfortunate Slavic tenants who fell under the iron feudal bonds of the Polish aristocracy. This was the pitiful state of affairs that awaited the potent and massed armies of the Revolution—and the even more potent and massed armies of Napoleon that would soon follow and leave the ossified Holy Roman Empire naught but a unmourned handful of dust.

With the desire swelling for some form of political answer to a widely expressed German nationalism, the great revolutionary events of 1848 missed out on a momentous opportunity to have changed the future course of German history; but the industrial revolution only gathered speed in the German lands from 1850 onwards, and their late arrival at the capitalist party ensured that the middle-classes were far too weak—and frightened of the radical masses below them on the social ladder—to have effected a workable solution to the broad palette of problems staring the German states, and their two oversized brethren, Prussia and Austria, straight on. With a divided and quarreling Germany the permanent desire of France and Russia, the swallowing up of Poland and the subsequent acquisition by Prussia of substantial Rhineland territory, did little beyond furthering the interference and influence-peddling of the other continental powers. Not until Bismarck—the most far-sighted and realistic German statesman of his era—took over the guidance of the Prussian state was German unification achieved, at the expense of both Austria, which now turned its interest almost exclusively to the east and the south, and the democratic parties of the new German Empire. Bismarck, putting a fig-leaf upon the naked military force and reaction that underlay his governmental structures, began the processes that led to 1914, with German democratic desires subsumed by a wealthy minority, and their interests molding government policy and intent upon Prussianizing the other German states. Caught up in a colonial policy that served few but the wealthy capitalists, and a foreign policy big on confrontation and posturing, the Reich found itself at a perfect confluence of hypertrophied statecraft when those Serbian bullet cracks drew forth the first plug from the dyke.

Unfortunately, the errors and historic circumstances that so grievously affected the Germans in the 19th century worked their way to the fore at the war's end in 1918. With the military still intact and anti-radical, and the Versailles peace conference infected with enough French influence to ensure not only German misery, but an angry resentment to go along with it, the Social Democrat governments of the post-war Weimar republic were handicapped from the start in achieving a successful and resilient democracy. In short order, allied with status-quo domestic and foreign reactionary interests fearing Bolshevism above all else, and ripe with the brutal suffering caused by the Depression, Adolf Hitler took to the stage.
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Comments (showing 1-16 of 16) (16 new)

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message 1: by Szplug (last edited Jan 15, 2011 12:24PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Szplug One of the principal English texts that Barraclough refers to - though he often disagrees with the author's assessments, particularly concerning the Hohenstaufen dynasty - is James Westfall Thompson's Feudal Germany, a true classic. An online version of this text can be found here.


message 2: by Dick (new)

Dick The reigning regent of Goodreads reviews.


Szplug Am I holding the throne for you? :)


message 4: by Dick (new)

Dick Haha, not likely anytime soon. I tend to jot notes and jostle the margins as I read, but reviews are not my forte. I've got some fiction in the works, anyway.


message 5: by Paquita Maria (new)

Paquita Maria Sanchez Dammit Sastre, stop incessantly reminding me how little I know about anything ever! Is there a Complete Idiot's Guide to the History of Planet Earth and All That Has Happened To Anyone and Everyone Since the Dawn of Time out there for me to read? Or some Cliff's Notes?


message 6: by Szplug (last edited May 19, 2012 11:41AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Szplug Dammit Sastre, stop incessantly reminding me how little I know about anything ever!

Hey, PM, I'm in the same boat, just floatin' on different currents. Every time I pop in here, I'm reminded that there's so much about which I know Bo Diddley Squat. Just look at your fucking awesome Woolf review from the other day—all I could muster about her was a fapping metaphor.

Is there a Complete Idiot's Guide to the History of Planet Earth and All That Has Happened To Anyone and Everyone Since the Dawn of Time out there

Well, that's simple:

People had babies. They hunted and farmed. Built shit and fiddled around. Killed anything that moved. Kneeled to God. Ate, drank, belched, farted, puked, hacked, pissed and shat. Fucked like bunnies (fucked bunnies, for that matter). Played music, sang, and danced. Wrote and read. Lied and boasted incessantly. Couldn't ever sit still or shut the fuck up. Split the atom and a lot of hairs. Came up with the yo-yo. And passed a whole pile of time sleeping.

How's that?


message 7: by Traveller (new) - added it

Traveller Good lord.. this review is a book in itself.. :o


Szplug I find these scrolling recaps are super handy for helping me remember just what the hell I actually read.


message 9: by Paquita Maria (new)

Paquita Maria Sanchez Thanks, Chris! Now I can finally master my Trivial Pursuit game, assuming the Sports and Leisure category is ignored. Man, I hate that category.


message 10: by Traveller (new) - added it

Traveller I haven't read through the whole thing, I'll admit, but I've bookmarked it and coming back to it later; because I started asking myself if I'll still need to read the book after reading this stunning synopsis of it..

Chris, you keep my grey cells at attention. Good work, I say!


message 11: by Szplug (last edited May 19, 2012 12:02PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Szplug Man, I hate that category.

I'd suggest sticking with a response of The New York Yankees—you'll get enough of 'em right that your momentum won't flag.

Thanks, Traveller! There's just something about that whole Holy Roman Empire business that revs my historical engines.


message 12: by Paquita Maria (new)

Paquita Maria Sanchez I've been known to give baseball team names as responses to football questions, and vice versa. When I hear golf, I say 'Tiger Woods!' When I hear tennis, I say 'Serena Williams!' I can be kickin' that ayuss until the last pie, which is inevitably Sports and Leisure, then whoever I'm playing with catches up while I keep trying and trying for the pie until I get lucky enough for a bar game or video game or exercise question. Stupid sports pie.


message 13: by Traveller (last edited May 19, 2012 12:14PM) (new) - added it

Traveller It seems to cover an enormous chunk of history - but I must get it, since I'm a Charlemagne fan and always interested in anything that can give some insight in what went into the making of Nazi Germany; and wow, this book starts at Charlemagne and covers an odd 1000 years!

I like that you mention it has a political focus; I hate 'history' books that get bogged down in the minutiae of personae and individual characters on the stage of history.

I tried to see how many pages it has from the 'detail synopsis', but it doesn't say? ..so is this an intimidatingly thick tome? Can you give me an idea of how many pages and how dense the print?


message 14: by Traveller (new) - added it

Traveller Ah, nevermind - per Amazon only 460 pages. That really excites me.. sounds nice and concise!


message 15: by [deleted user] (new)

Thank you for your hard work on this review.


message 16: by Szplug (last edited May 20, 2012 04:05PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Szplug Traveller: Not intimidating at all. Considering the breadth of time it covers, and in reasonable detail, Barraclough has proved himself a master at distilling Germanic history; what's more, he's a damn fine writer to boot. This was thoroughly enjoyable coverage of what can, by its nature, come across as dry or confusing. Perhaps a more current publication, based upon updated evidence, would make for a helpful companion, but I believe that Barraclough has provided a solid foundational work herein.

Steve: Thank you! Really, I find history to be the least work of all when it comes to reviewing; I love it.


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