The Ottonians - A Blank Canvas? - History of the Germans

Episode 20

Episode 20 - A Blank Canvas

The Ottonian period (919-1024) has been a key reference point in German history ever since. Having only very few and not necessarily very enlightening documents to work from the period became a blank canvas on which historians and the population as a whole projected their own hopes, political beliefs and expectations.  In the 19th century the German speaking people who felt humiliated by the defeats against Napoleon and disenfranchised by the political rearranging of their homelands and so latched on to the few unifying historical heroes to refer to - the mighty emperors of the early and high middle ages. Viewing them – depending on political belief – into either mighty rulers of a coherent state who wasted blood, treasure and the whole empire in a fateful entanglement in Italian affairs, or were they benevolent managers of a supranational polity ruling by consent. The falsification of history peaked when the Nazis turned Henry the Fowler into their poster boy. Now, after nearly 200 years of scholarship we aim to see them in the context of their own times, but are we really?


Episode 20 – A blank Canvas

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans – Episode 20 A Blank Canvas

I know, I know, it has been two weeks since the last episode and you are wondering whether I have disappeared. No worries. I did indeed go on holiday to Portugal with the family for a week which was lovely. And then I spent the last few days getting the History of the Germans Podcast Website going. Check it out under – there are maps, images and transcripts as well as blogposts that hopefully makes the podcast more enjoyable and easier to follow.

But now I am back and rearing to go. In this episode as announced we are going to take a look at how the Ottonians were perceived by their successors and in particular in the 19th and 20th century. Why does it matter you ask? Is that not something for the History seminar at university?

Well, German history is always, always contentious and even the Ottonians, reigning a thousand years ago were and are still extremely contentious. For instance, I had a comment on one of my social media posts accusing the podcast of being “nationalistic” and suggesting that nobody should listen to it. I think once you listened to this episode you will understand that this person was not your average Social Media troll but was coming from a perspective that I can understand though fundamentally disagree with.

Ok, so let’s get going.

the reign of king Sigismund (:

Not a single word or thought Henry the Fowler and Otto the Great has said or thought has been written down. Only by the time of Otto III do we get statements that can be directly attributed and give us a glimpse of their personalities and political ambitions. And there are no portraits at all of these rulers. There are images, but these images were conveying a message of what a king should look like, not what he actually looked like.

Therefore, what you end up with is a map showing an empire much larger than any other subsequent historic polity in Western Europe on which you can project whatever narrative you want. And that is exactly what happens.

During the middle ages and early modern period the Ottonians were certainly remembered, and we find impressive works commissioned in their memory like the funeral monument to Henry II and Kunigunde in Bamberg Cathedral created by Tilman Riemenschneider, Germany’s foremost sculptor of the time. However, their fame was eclipsed by the veneration reserved for Charlemagne who was canonised in the 12th century and an extraordinary reliquary was made to hold his bones. Even the imperial crown that was likely made for an Ottonian ruler, maybe even for Otto I is now being called the “Crown of Charlemagne”.

The enlightenment of the 18th century dismissed the whole of the middle ages as the dark ages where people were held down by superstition and armed thugs on horseback. That is the time where Ottonian churches were drowned in baroque decorations until they were hardly recognisable.

Interest in the Ottonians, in particular in Otto the Great, emerged again in the 19th century, during and after the Napoleonic Wars.

The French Revolution did not just give birth to “Liberte, Egalite and Fraternite”, it also gave birth to its ugly twin, Nationalism. Suddenly everyone in Europe wanted to be living in a nation state. That was largely unproblematic if you were French or English or Swedish, because the infrastructure of a nation state was already there. It was much more of an issue if you were Italian or in particular German. These countries did not have a coherent national infrastructure but consisted of a multitude of independent polities.

And each nation created its’ own historical narrative to prove that they had always shared the same identity and had been destined to rule a certain territory. England was able to draw a straight line from William the Conqueror, the Hundred Year’s war, and the Tudors to its Empire. France created its storyline out of Jeanne d’Arc, and then a pick’n’mix depending on political affiliation of Henri IV, Louis XIV, Lafayette, the French Revolution and above all Napoleon.

And so, the people who spoke the German language too were scrambling around for a past full of glory as a unified nation dominating their territory.

That notion ran into a whole busload of problems.

n the battle of Austerlitz in:

Looking further back also yielded little joy.

The towering German figure of the 18th century was Frederick II of Prussia. But he was no good as a unifying figure since most of his wars were against Austria a fellow German state. Plus, he avoided speaking German whenever possible.

Going back one century further, the 17th century was no time for heroes either as the 30 Years War killed 2/3 of the population. The 16th century’s two key figures were Martin Luther and Charles V, neither of whom a unifying figure in a country split 50/50 between Catholics and Protestants. Then you have the 15th and 14th centuries which was a time of weak emperors and fragmentation, no time for national heroes. And that meant you had to go back all the way to the early and high middle ages to find a time of glory and that is where the Ottonian, the Salians and the Staufer emperors come in.

Wilhelm von Giesebrecht (:

Let me quote from the preface of his monumental works:


Sounds good, a time of unity and strength, a time when Germany ruled most of Europe, all boxes ticked. Should be a great national narrative.

But here comes the second problem. Where is Germany? What is in and what is not in Germany. AT that time the key question was, are the Austrians in, and hence should the Austrian emperor be the head of a new nation state, or should the Austrians stay out, leaving Prussia in charge. The debate also has a religious dimension as a Prussian-dominated Germany would be majority Protestant, whilst an Austrian inclusion would tilt it towards Catholicism.

And so, almost as soon as Giesbrecht who took a somewhat neutral stance had published his works, the debate over the so-called “grossdeutsche” or “kleindeutsche” solution turned history seminars into boxing rings.

r we have Heinrich von Sybel (:

In the Austrian corner we have Johann von Ficker (1826-1902), unfortunate name but also a gifted writer. He argued that the imperial project of Otto the Great and Otto III was neither a true empire nor a nation state but an ambitious and benevolent attempt to bring together the members of multiple nations under one roof. It was no coincidence that this model of the reign of Otto the Great looked a lot like the then Austrian empire which comprised many nations including Hungarians, Czech, Poles, Croats, Slovacs, Slovenians and many more who allegedly lived happily under Emperor Franz Joseph’s benevolent rule. Otto the Great and Otto III were his heroes.

creation of a German Reich in:

From then on, historians began ordering the medieval emperors into categories of good or bad, depending on whether their policies appeared more like Henry the Fowler’s perceived focus on Germany and Eastern expansion or Otto the Great’s perceived Globalism.

Whether despite or because of the debate about who was better, Henry the Fowler or Otto the Great, the Ottonians became a reference point for the German national narrative. It was seen as a period of great national success that anyone could ultimately be proud of. It was a bit like the Hundred Years war are for both Britain and France, a time of great heroism, towering successes, and tragic failures.

But it was also a narrative of conquests in the east that did influence German thinking into the World Wars. The greatest travesty happened during the Nazi regime. The Nazis began to style Henry the Fowler as the more “German” king who they believed was also more racially pure. The latter was an extremely hare-brained notion since it related to Otto’s paternal grandmother Hedwig being of Frankish/Italian descent. How that works when Hedwig is also Henry’s mother is lost in muddled Nazi logic. But that stupid racial argument was by no means the worst thing.

he Fowler had been buried. In:

No surprise that after the war, the name of king Henry the Fowler was mud. I went to school in the 1980s and I cannot remember him being mentioned at all. Which is really sad given that for all we know Henry the Fowler was the exact opposite of a Nazi, always looking for reconciliation, friendship agreements and ruling as a first amongst equals.

were no celebrations for the:

When West Germany looked at the middle ages in the 1970s and 1980s it looked at the empire of Charlemagne. Charlemagne was comfortable because the Carolingian empire was seen as a pan-European polity, an early EU if you like. Sharing the memory of Charlemagne with France was one of the manifestations of the Deutsch-Franzoesische Freundschaft, the Franco-German friendship, a concept like the special relationship between US and UK. The Ottonians were gradually readmitted by claiming that a true German history only started in the mid to end 11th century and what happened before was just an extension of Carolingian times. Karl Bosl even includes them in something he calls “Frankish Late Antiquity”. Theophanu was hailed as a rare example of openness towards other cultures and the Theophanu foundation awards an annual prize for individuals and organisations that make an outstanding contribution to bridging Europe’s historic diversities.

East Germany in line with Marxist theory regarded the early middle ages as a transition period from slave owning antiquity to feudalism where individual rulers would have little agency in the first place. They also had for obvious reason little enthusiasm for the Ottonian policy of eastern expansion. They believed the Western interpretation of the Ottonians as proto-European was just a smokescreen hiding bourgeois nationalist desires for world domination.

o.k., thank you for listening to this point. You really have a lot of stamina, because all this stuff is clearly bollocks. The Ottonians were neither proto-Europeans nor forerunners of a German national state. All of these narratives are nothing but projections of a contemporary narrative on to the blank canvas of a time we have very few facts about.

Already from:

When you look at the time of the Ottonians on their own terms, as I have tried as well, all the debates of the 19th and early 20th century disappear.

Getting involved in Italian affairs was not anything new Otto the Great had come up with. The dukes of Swabia and Bavaria had constantly meddled in affairs south of the alps without thinking about any long-term consequences. King Arnulf of Carinthia had gone to Italy, besieged Rome and taken the imperial crown. Aiming for the imperial crown and its inherent mission wasn’t much of a choice for whoever happened to be the strongest ruler within the Carolingian empire. And Otto certainly did not think in categories of German national interest at all. According to Widukind he identified first and foremost as Saxon, which again maybe just a reflection of Widukinds bias as a professional Saxon. Equally Otto III talks about being an uncouth Saxon wanting to be a sophisticated Greek. No mention of German anywhere.

The other big transition in the perception of the Ottonians relates to the internal organisation of the kingdom.

prevailing view well into the:

That narrative suited the 19th century historians extremely well for two reasons. First, it supported the notion that to unify Germany you needed a strong central power with a control and command hierarchy.

Roman empire was dissolved in:

It took until 1982 when Timothy Reuter fundamentally challenged the notion of a coherent Imperial Church system. He highlighted the inability of for instance Otto the Great to first create and then staff the archbishopric of Magdeburg, he pointed out that most bishops came from the high aristocracy and that in many rebellions the bishops were leading the charge against the king.

Once you remove the idea of a coherent exercise of power through the church the question is, how did the Ottonians rule?

Current scholarship focuses much on the symbols and rituals of kingship which is believed to have been the means by which the kings and emperors co-ordinated activity and resolved conflict. You have heard many times about the process of submission to the king and the obligation of the king to raise the supplicant back up into the royal favour. You also heard about the dogs to be carried to Magdeburg as a means of ritual humiliation.

Equally you saw in the narrative that the emperors moved from a purely political notion of kingship under Henry the Fowler to a predominantly religiously supported idea of sacred kingship under Henry II. The notion that a ruler has been consecrated and thereby been appointed by god was an inherent source of power and protection. I think I said in episode 11 that Otto III is unlikely to have survived the first 6 months of his reign had he only been elected but not consecrated.

I did spare you most of the detailed explanations of the imperial images in illuminated manuscripts which historians use to understand the notion of kingship for instance of Henry II versus Otto the Great. And I completely shielded you from debates about the significance of the use of lead in imperial seals. The reason I left this out is that despite reading lots and lots of articles about these topics , I could not tie this into a set of coherent arguments I believed myself.

But what I do gather from these discussions is that today’s historians see the Ottonians and their empire as a system of co-ordination where the ruler exercises power in agreement with at least his magnates. The magnates are being kept in line through a shared belief in the sacrality of the kingship reenforced through rituals.

Now here is what I am wondering. Despite 200 years of intense scholarship, we still have only a small set of known facts at our disposal when assessing the 10th century. If it is still a blank canvas, to what extent do current biases drive the assessment of the Ottonians? Are we projecting the last 30 years of a globalising economy onto these long dead polities? Are we seeing co-ordination mechanisms like the EU and the UN that do not themselves have power in the itinerant imperial courts? Do we see a reflection of rituals like the G7 and the imposition and then removal of sanctions in the way 10th century emperors dealt with their adversaries? Do we see the belief in “global values” as a source of soft power foreshadowed by the concept of the sacral kingdom?

Maybe if people listen to this podcast in 15-years time they will regard it as ridiculously outdated. Maybe by then these kings and emperors will be seen as ruthless thugs who cynically exploited the beliefs of the people to satisfy their greed and lust for power. Let’s hope not, because that would make the place behind the projector quite uncomfortable.

So, before I go, let me just remind you that the next episode is a Q&A where you can ask any question you like relating to the podcast, the Ottonians and the history of the Germans in general. Some of you have already sent some really great questions and I hope I will be able to get through all of them in two weeks time. See you then.

About the Podcast

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History of the Germans
From the Coronation of Henry the Fowler in 919 CE to German Reunification in 1990 in weekly chronological 20-30 min episodes

About your host

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Dirk Hoffmann-Becking

I am a history geek with no academic qualification in the field but a love for books and stories. I do this for fun and my personal self-aggrandisement.

I have been born, raised and educated in Germany but live in the UK for now over 20 years with my wife and two children. My professional background is in law, management consulting and banking. History has always been a hobby as are sailing, travelling, art, skiing and exercise (go BMF!).

My view of history is best summarised by Gregory of Tours (539-594): “A great many things keep happening, some good, some bad”. History has no beginning and no end and more importantly, it has no logic, no pattern and no purpose . But that does not mean there isn't progress and sometimes we humans realise that doing the same thing again and again hoping for a different outcome is indeed madness. The great moments in history are those where we realise that we cannot go on as we were and things need to change. German history - as you will hopefully see - is full of these turning points, some good, some bad!