Fragmentation of an Empire
In last month's article we reviewed some of the reasons why Bible scholars have been anticipating a "Revived Roman Empire" as part of the prelude to the "Last Days." Just as Daniel had predicted,1 the Babylonian Empire was ultimately conquered by the Persians; the Persians were, in turn, conquered by the Greeks; and, the Greeks were conquered by the Romans. But who conquered the Romans?
No one! The Roman Empire ultimately disintegrated into pieces, and each segment seems to have had its "day in the sun." The ensuing struggles for power, and the influx of external tribes into the cohesion that once was Rome, continued over almost two millennia. In our series reviewing the rise of the "New Europe," we'll take a brief glimpse at the caldron that has been stewing with tensions and ambitions for many centuries.
Europe emerged out of the shadow of the Roman Empire during a period of cultural change in the Mediterranean that lasted from about A.D. 350 to 600. After the capital of the empire was moved from Rome to Byzantium (Constantinople, the "New Rome") in the 4th century, the western part of the Empire began to disintegrate as major tribal groups continued to encroach on the remnants of "Pax Roma," each bringing their unique background into the mix. The Vikings from the north, the Muslims from the south, and the Magyars from the east; each had their impact, challenging the durability of the cohesiveness that once was Rome. However, the laws, the cultures, the religions - Christianity in its many forms - and the monetary and linguistic infrastructure were the threads and fabric that would ultimately be regathered into the final tapestry.
In each region, unique identities evolved that were tied to local or vernacular languages and sets of traditions that explained their history, values, and claims to the land. At the same time, because these regions had inherited the Roman Christian culture embodied in Latin literacy, they developed a shared identity as members of western Christendom. This common culture distinguished Europeans from neighboring peoples in the Islamic regimes and the barbarians in the east.
As Rome receded, new cultural forces swept across Europe. The migration and settlement of various Germanic peoples, the so-called barbarians, filtered into the western European territories of the Roman Empire for several centuries. By 500, when Rome no longer effectively controlled the west, Europe was divided into different homelands for various ethnic groups: the Ostrogoths settled in Italy; the Visigoths found a home in Iberia (present-day Spain and Portugal); the Franks flourished in Gaul (present-day France); and, the Angles and Saxons occupied parts of the British Isles.
By the 9th century, the fragile balance of Roman Christian and Germanic traditions was disrupted by a sometimes-violent influx of new peoples. These peoples were integrated into European society through some of the same mechanisms of settlement, conversion, and negotiation that had established the earlier wave of immigrants. These invasions initiated another phase of ethnogenesis: Europe's frontier regions developed new identities, and the central kingdoms redefined themselves.
The fact that the older kingdoms in the British Isles, France, and Germany recovered their equilibrium after these assaults underscores the strength of the earlier synthesis of Roman, Christian, and Germanic traditions.
The newcomers (the Muslims, the Vikings, and the Magyars) came from three directions and caused panic throughout Europe. Muslim raiders attacked Europe's coastline from their Mediterranean bases in the south. Their incursions were halted in the West by Charles Martel's forces in the famous battle at Tours in 731.
Scandinavian Vikings came from the north. These seafaring groups of landless Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian warriors sought fame and fortune through plundering, trading, or demanding tribute from fearful residents in the British Isles and around the coastal and river regions of the continent. Some of these Viking groups eventually established settlements and integrated with the local populations. For example, they explored Greenland and beyond, colonized Iceland, negotiated control of eastern England, built Dublin in Ireland, founded Normandy in northern France, and established the Kievan dynasty in Russia.
Nomadic Magogians (known also as Magyars or Scythians) came from the Asiatic steppes in the east (a region that includes present-day Kazakhstan and southwestern Russia) and eventually settled in Hungary and converted to Christianity.
Europe fragmented in response to these waves of attacks. Each region developed new alliances and identities. In 1450, the Muslims even overran Byzantium, ending the eastern leg of the original Roman Empire.
The "Holy Roman Empire"
The "Holy Roman Empire" had its origins in the empire established by the Frankish king Charlemagne in A.D. 800, crowned by Pope Leo III as "Emperor of the Romans," the first use of that title since the fall of the Western Roman Empire in A.D. 476. Although Charlemagne's kingdom soon disintegrated in 843, the concept of the "Holy Roman Empire" was to endure for another 1,000 years.
Early in the 13th century the Holy Roman Empire was engulfed in a civil war between rival German princes vying for the title of emperor. Emperor Frederick II, known as "the wonder of the world," restored power and prestige to the empire, bringing it to one of its highest points since the death of Charlemagne. However, in order to win the support of the German princes, he greatly increased their independence within the empire. As a result, after Frederick's death in 1250, the title of "Holy Roman Emperor" was claimed by many different princes and lords, and civil war began again within the empire.
Through advantageous alliances with other kingdoms, Emperor Charles V came to control more territory than any Holy Roman Emperor before him. He was already ruler of extensive areas in Europe, America and parts of Africa in 1530 when he became Holy Roman Emperor - the last to be crowned by the pope. Charles struggled to maintain his empire against outside threats, but his possessions gradually dwindled as territories were captured or ceded.
After the death of Charles V, the Holy Roman Empire continued to decline in both area and importance, until it was finally dissolved by Emperor Francis II in 1806, following the defeats in the Napoleonic Wars. Francis proclaimed himself the emperor of Austria and allied Austria with Britain and Russia to fight Napoleon. The united powers defeated Napoleon in 1814, and at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Francis recovered most of the territory he had lost.
In truth, the empire had existed more in the realm of ideas than as a political or administrative reality. Voltaire gave us his classic summary: "It was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire." Its legacy, however, endured. The ancient obsession with Italy, the costly conflicts with the papacy, and the continuous resistance of German nobles to any strong central authority had made the empire essentially ungovernable for over five centuries.
One will not understand the history of Europe unless one understands the struggles for temporal power with the Vatican.2
Yet despite its ignominious decline and end, the Holy Roman Empire continued to exercise a great influence on the imaginations of later German imperialists. When Otto von Bismarck and the Prussian king William I established the German Empire in 1871, they explicitly encouraged the title the "Second Empire" for their new state, so as to borrow some of the glory and power enjoyed by the Holy Roman Empire at its peak.
Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist supporters similarly appropriated the legacy of the "First Empire" by dubbing their own regime the "Third Empire" (The "Third Reich," in German) and pledging another thousand years of German hegemony. Both regimes, of course, proved considerably shorter than the original empire during its peak, although for a time they were equally as dominant in the politics of western and central Europe.
The Thirty Years' War
The great powers of 16th-century Europe were England, France, Spain, Austria, and the Ottoman Empire. The network of relations between powerful states first emerged in Europe during the 16th century and solidified during the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648).
The Thirty Years' War began as a Protestant revolt against King Ferdinand II's Catholic-controlled government in Bohemia (later Czech Republic). A series of religious and dynastic conflicts followed, involving the great powers of Europe. The majority of the war was fought on German soil, with hostilities ending in a treaty, the Peace of Westphalia, dashing hopes for German unification and significantly curtailing the power of the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburgs. The Habsburg family ruled Austria and Spain. Habsburg power peaked in the late 16th century when Spain conquered Portugal. But the Thirty Years' War resulted in the defeat of the Habsburgs by a coalition of nations, including France, Sweden, and the German principalities.
The accord created the Dutch Republic (later, The Netherlands) and Switzerland. At the end of the war, the Netherlands assumed dominance of international trading routes and joined the ranks of the great powers, displacing Spain. Spain's decline as a great power dated from their forcible expulsion of the Jews in 1492, and their subsequent string of costly wars against France and a failed attempt to invade England.
The Netherlands declined in power in the 18th century when its commercial and maritime rivalry with Britain led it into a series of debilitating wars. France then emerged as the dominant European power. In the 20th century, Britain and France declined as great powers as they attempted to hold onto their far-flung colonial empires.
World War I
Nationalist aspirations made the Balkans volatile. Seeing the decline of the Turkish Ottoman Empire as an opportunity to extend their territories, newly independent Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece attacked the Ottomans in 1912. To manage their rivalries and fearing nationalist unrest, the Great Powers of Europe formed rival alliances: Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy formed the "Triple Alliance," while Russia, the UK and France formed the "Triple Entente."
As Russia and Austria-Hungary intervened in the fighting that broke out in the Balkans, the rest of Europe found itself sucked into "The Great War" (as it was called before we learned we had to count them). This period also brought other events that were to impact the decades ahead. Revolution and civil war plunged Russia, Germany and the remains of Austria-Hungary into chaos in the years that followed World War I. The Europe that emerged from this period was radically different: the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires had disappeared and a host of smaller states had appeared.
The Russian revolution of 1917 led to the creation of the Soviet Union, a self-declared revolutionary socialist state. A secret agreement between France and Britain, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, included dividing up the Middle East, which laid the foundation of the caldron that continues to this day (See the article "The Main Roadblock to Peace").
The League of Nations gave Britain the Mandate to provide a homeland for the Jews, but Britain peeled off 75% of that land to create the state of Jordan for the Palestinians.
World War II
Reeling from the excesses of the Treaty of Versailles, the people of Germany rallied behind Adolf Hitler in a quest to reestablish themselves. In 1938 Hitler annexed his native Austria and through deceits and intimidation succeeded in annexing Sudetenland, the strategic part of Czechoslovakia. Britain and France abrogated their commitments to defend it, convinced that the appeasement would bring "peace in our time." But the rest of Czechoslovakia was then quickly overrun, and the subsequent invasion of Poland in September 1939 forced Britain and France, who had also promised to protect it, to declare war on Germany. World War II began.
Later that month the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east, and Poland was then partitioned between Germany and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union attacked Finland in the winter of 1939-40 and annexed the Baltic States and northern Romania. Germany went on to conquer Yugoslavia and Greece and launched the invasion of the USSR in 1941. Nazi Germany was at the peak of its power, with most of Europe under the control of Germany and its allies. In the USSR, Hitler's troops at first made rapid progress, advancing to the gates of Moscow and Leningrad, but the invasion turned into a war of attrition in which the German army was gradually ground down by the reviving Soviet Union. (Hitler learned the same lesson Napoleon had experienced earlier by not recognizing the "defense in depth" heritage of the ancient Scythians, the forebears of the Russians.)
The end of World War II saw Germany dramatically reduced in size and divided into East and West. Meanwhile the USSR gained Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine, and occupied northern East Prussia, including Konigsburg (Kaliningrad). Much of Eastern Europe effectively became an extension of a massively expanded Soviet Empire. The Soviet Bloc also created a buffer zone between the USSR and the rest of Western Europe.
In April 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed by 10 Western European states, the U.S. and Canada to provide a military framework for cooperation in the face of what was seen as a common enemy. Relations between the West and the Soviet Union were plunged into the freeze known as "the Cold War."
World War II had left Europe scarred with deep ruins and despair. Many leaders realized that they could never let that happen again. However, numerous attempts at alliances and treaties were attempted, but doomed to failure. The roots of the tensions ran too deep.
In our next article we'll review the innovations that led to the foundation of the "New Europe" to rise out of the ashes of over a thousand years of history - a Europe that will surprise you.
* * *