Exhibit Review, April 2007



"Heiliges Römisches Reich Deutscher Nation 962 bis 1806." 29th Exhibit of the Council of Europe. 28. August 2006 bis 10. Dezember 2006. Part I: "Von Otto dem Grossen bis zum Ausgang des Mittelalters," Kulturhistorisches Museum, Magdeburg. Part II: "Altes Reich und Neue Staaten 1495 bis 1806," Deutsches Historisches Museum Berlin. 29th exhibit of the Council of Europe.

Reviewed for H-German by Susan R. Boettcher, Department of History, University of Texas at Austin


Taking Back the Reich

2006 has been an encouraging anniversary for the Holy Roman Empire. Frankly, from the German perspective, its disappearance seems like an odd thing to commemorate, because it ended pitifully, few people seem to miss it, and it is not the locus of any particular social, political or cultural conflict (I do know of a person who supports its reconstitution, but as far as I know he hasn't put together a faction--yet--unlike the Hohenzollern crowd, which has its own Vereinsleben). [1] Commemorating it because it was better than most of what came afterwards, as an article in Die Zeit suggested one should do, seems like a lame idea: just what kind of good old days are we looking back to here? [2] Well-advertised medieval exhibits can be counted on to attract large numbers of visitors and their euros, though, so the 200th anniversary of the Reich's disappearance provided the occasion for exhibits in Vienna and Wetzlar. Other Holy Roman anniversaries were commemorated in exhibits in Frankfurt, [3] Paderborn, [4] and Speyer.[5] Complementary exhibits in Munich, Stuttgart and Nuremberg dealt not with medieval history, but with the emergence of the independent territorial states of Bavaria, [6] Württemberg, [7] and Franconia. [8] The one that garnered the most attention in the press, however, and approximately half a million visitors, was the combined exhibit at the Kulturhistorisches Museum in Magdeburg [9] and the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin. [10]

As the taz reviewer remarked, "Wohl den deutschen Stadtvätern, deren Kommune noch von alten Mauern umschlossen ist. Dann heißt es die Stadtore schließen, einen Eintrittszoll von den Touristen erheben, und los geht's mit den Mittelalterspielen."[11] While I agree in general with relevance of the practical reality that underlies this sarcastic perspective, I don't mean to imply that only filthy lucre and no historical or pedagogical concerns motivated all of these exhibits, although some of the anniversaries are more compelling than others. Why 2006 and not 2007 for Canossa, for example, and even so, 930 years? What kind of centennial is that? But the attempts at providing a scholarly basis in Berlin and Magdeburg were serious; the exhibit planners didn't simply recruit the leading lights of the profession to sit on advisory boards to legitimate their efforts in the exhibition's essay volumes (somewhat unusually, there are three!); [12] they went to the trouble to organize preliminary conferences to discuss the state of the art.

However, remembering the Reich is a tricky business, considering the role it has played in the many object lessons of German history drawn from the perpetually controversial and ongoing problem of the German state. Later-nineteenth-century nationalist historiography tended to criticize the later, "weak" Empire, which, because it meant a strong papacy and particularist states in conflict with each other, stood in the way of a "natural" national development and led to the "delayed" unification of Germany. The nineteenth century thus preferred the earlier, "strong" Empire of the Ottonians, Salians and Staufer and the connections made with the Holy Roman Empire after 1871 referred concretely to this status. [13] This later historiography erased the achievements of early modern and early-nineteenth-century historiographies less interested in power than in constitutional and legal themes. [14]

The Nazis romanticized the entire medieval period in service of racist ideals. The story of their disappointment over the mortal remains of Henry the Lion (the Guelph "colonizer of the East"), which were excavated in the midst of their renovation of the Braunschweig cathedral and construction of a special Nazi crypt--they concluded from the skeletons they found that he was a short, brown-haired cripple--is fascinating, as is the seamless continuity of their veneration of Friedrich I (Barbarossa) with late-nineteenth-century nationalist impulses that the unbridled romanticism of the Kyffhäuserdenkmal still sustains for contemporary neo-Nazis. (Now there's a defunct German state that provides a locus for cultural and political conflict.) While every schoolchild before 1945 knew who Uta von Ballenstedt (a minor figure in Reichsgeschichte despite the impressive statue in the Naumburg cathedral) was, however, the syrup of medieval history spooned out by National Socialism was seen as so distasteful after the war that medieval history of the Reich was gradually discarded in the public consciousness as too contaminated, particularly in West Germany--and in East Germany the point of medieval history was to provide a backdrop for progressive historical change anyway.[15]

The Sonderweg also did its own bit to discredit the Reich. Although the Reich was never the explicit topic of the center of the Sonderweg debates, which were concentrated on the nineteenth century, the paradigm's charges about the "normal" formation of European nationalisms pointed implicitly to earlier problems with German nationality and were occasionally applied to the medieval period. [16] Here again, the empire was read implicitly as an inadequate state, in a way strikingly reminiscent of the claims of the nineteenth-century historians. Voices that have seen the pre-modern Reich as a positive model for liberal development have been few and recent. [17] The penultimate theory formulated by a German scholar about the Reich's political qualities, Georg Schmidt's concept of a "komplementärer Reichsstaat," insists upon the healthy nationalism of the early modern German "nation" and the functionality of the state. Schmidt's work has re-animated discussion of this topic among early modernists, but has not yet succeeded in establishing itself as consensus; indeed, the most recent book I've read in this area demonstratively avoids the word "state" at all, preferring to use multiple iterations of the word Verband instead. [18]

The exhibit didn't attempt to resolve this problem, though, because it's now the twenty-first century. There is no real German nationalism anymore; in the rhetoric of the reunited Bundesrepublik Germans are Europeans and supposed to be proud of it. German inclusion in the European concert demonstrates the overcoming of the troubled twentieth century in a way with striking parallels to sentiments about the Wirtschaftswunder; anyone who thinks the feeling of "wir sind wieder wer" was over after the 1960s has missed its most recent manifestations--the euphoric announcements of the newscasters on ARD and ZDF at the turn of the year when Germany assumed the EU presidency, or the gratification in the German press when Gerhard Schröder became Germany's first representative at the D-Day memorial ceremonies in 2004. Certainly any remaining German romanticism about the Reich is still capable of arousing the concerns of other Europeans. In 2002, for instance, French socialist Jean-Pierre Chevènement accused the Germans of living out their nostalgia for the Reich in the EU Constitution. This entire complex of feelings--pride and the inability to vocalize it--was satirized in the title of the FAZ review of the exhibit: "Als wir Barbaren Kaiser waren." [19] This mood explains historian Bernd Schneidmüller's energetic exhortation in the essay opening the volume from the preparatory conference that led up to the Magdeburg exhibit--"wir können alte Wirklichkeiten aus späteren Verbiegungen herausschälen ... tausend Jahre europäischer Geschichte müssen sich nicht von einem vorgeblich tausendjährigen Reich löschen lassen." [20] The new perspective he argues for is not one of forgetting the attempts to mobilize the first Reich on behalf of its eponymous successors and their nationalism(s), but rather an approach that embeds the empire in Europe: "Damit sollen deutsche Engführungen der älteren Geschichtsschreibung überwunden werden. Unsere europäische Realität des 21. Jahrhunderts begegnet älteren Schichten europäischer Vielfalt, die nach dem Zeitalter der Nationen wieder entdeckt wird." [21]

OK, so it is an exhibition of the Council of Europe--the second one in Magdeburg in recent years--and presumably that subsidy has to be justified, and maybe it is an interesting thing to consider the current status of European unification in the mirror of Europe's historically most universal "state" or Verband or whatever we want to call it. But, comments by politicians aside, I'm still trying to figure out how the Holy Roman Empire is supposed to be more than a superficial model for a united Europe or how the writing of the history of the Reich as a "deutsche Engführung" is so seriously wrong. (I thought the problem with the pre-WWII historiography was not the question of how German the Reich actually was, but its mobilization of the Reich as a source of German nationalism--and as we have learned from Benedict Anderson, these two questions are not necessarily related). Certainly other national groups were included within its boundaries, but not every other national group. It never sought to establish a common currency, its association with Spain was relatively short-lived and dynastic rather than constitutional, and it never included the English, for example, or the Swedes. (Maybe it's not so different from the EU, after all.) I read somewhere recently that the ill-fated Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria saw the Habsburg Empire as a model for a "United States of Europe," but he was born a half-century after the Reich's dissolution and everyone except Birgit Hamann thinks he was crazy anyway.

As far as I know, no working historian really sees the Reich as a model for the EU, a point of view that came to explicit expression at the other preparatory conference, for the exhibit in Berlin. [22] Jutta Götzmann, one of the directors of the Berlin exhibit, was admittedly quoted as saying, "Die europäische Perspektive ist uns sehr wichtig.... Bei allen Unterschieden hatte das Heilige Römische Reich strukturelle Ähnlichkeiten mit der Europäischen Union mit ihrer Vielfalt der Nationen und Sprachen. Bei der Bewältigung der Probleme kann der Rückblick auf die Geschichte helfen." [23] But mostly, this is the vision of politicians, as the very end of the Berlin exhibit, which was devoted to postmortem views of the Reich, made very clear.

Magdeburg and the Multiplication of Relics

If you don't have a widely shared consensus theory to bolster your medieval exhibit, you can do two things: try to substantiate your particular view, or show your guests LOTSA STUFF. In this case, the exhibit felt like one approach led to the other. Don't get me wrong: medieval things in the numbers and quality of the objects exhibited in Magdeburg this fall accelerate my heartbeat in a way that borders on the sexual. If you think I'm crazy, keep in mind that I'm not the only one who had this sort of response, even if most of the commentaries were a little bit more discreet. Almost every review mentioned the astounding richness of the objects. [24] The reviewer for Financial Times Deutschland, following the capitalist maxim of "more is better," even appeared to say that this half of the exhibit was more convincing because there was more stuff in it. [25] I spent six hours in the exhibit on the day I visited Magdeburg and afterwards I didn't have enough energy to close my jaw anymore after having it drop so many times during the excursion. (Note to marketers: there must be some medieval garb--like a helmet or wimple--that could be sold to visitors to address this problem.)

Various reviewers complained that both parts of the exhibit were lacking in explanation and context. It's certainly true that the Magdeburg exhibit didn't push ideas on the viewer, although if one had the matter of the Reich as a connective institution within Europe in mind, at least at the beginning one could see the path the exhibitors were providing, which started, for example, with rooms on the Roman Empire as the template for later imperial efforts and Charlemagne's explicit connection of his empire with his notions of Roman imperialism That these notions were important to later emperors was implied by objects like the elaborate cover of the Ada Evangeliar, which "recycles" a cameo of the Emperor Justinian and his family, and the many imperial seals displayed in the later sections. The problem here is, of course, that Charlemagne's Frankish empire is really much better evidence for the universalist moments of the Holy Roman Empire than most subsequent medieval history--but of course, Magdeburg was a center of the Ottonians rather than the Carolingians, and the point of having the exhibit here is the reunion effort in a historically-sacred space: showing all of the accoutrements of this period in a setting where they originally belonged.

In his essay about reclaiming the Reich for Europe, Bernd Schneidmüller was at pains to tie this universalist perspective to the specific location of Magdeburg, and the reason that the state of Sachsen-Anhalt and various local agencies pay their share for all of this stuff has to do with its "missing" identity as an administrative unit with no historical tradition. [26] I even heard one of the museum docents telling a visiting school group in a pronounced Thuringian accent that they should look closely at an ivory tablet with a depiction of Otto I as the founder of Magdeburg cathedral because it had been brought all the way from New York (in this case, the Metropolitan Museum) for them to see it. Nonetheless, there was just so much stuff here--from purple-tinted parchments and manuscripts and to evangeliars and mass books of various kinds--that the viewer wasn't sure what to take away. The manuscripts seem to have been opened not simply to pretty illustrations, but to those that illustrate the theme of divine and Roman emperorship, but unfortunately the exhibit didn't really tell the visitor this or explain how the objects were supposed to be compared to each other. As the SZ reviewer noted, no intellectual history as a contextualizing force was presented here, either.

The strictly chronological presentation continued, and the way that the Kulturhistorisches Museum is constructed--along with the massive numbers of people in the rooms--didn't really allow the visitor to move out of the path. The transition to the Salians was a bit abrupt: from glorious manuscripts to a model of a fortress and a number of dingy archaeological finds. The taz reviewer's complaint that the exhibit completely neglected social history [27] was inaccurate: there were a number of spurs, buttons, styluses, dice, combs, jewelry and pottery fragments from the period on display, but it was hard to integrate them into one's own visitor narrative with the previous objects. (This problem is not unique to the exhibit: many Anglo-American survey histories of the Middle Ages often resort to a pattern of rise and fall of dynasties, so that students often never do get a real picture of what exactly happened to allow one dynasty of Holy Roman emperors to succeed another). [28] A social history exhibit focusing on archaeological remains requires a good deal of staging in order to be successful, and both the focus of this exhibit and the space available to display these objects would clearly have been at odds with such a presentation. [29]

The major theme of Salian period is church-state relations and the objects available for display are their grave goods, their charters and their art, but with exhibits in Speyer and Paderborn objects that illustrated this theme were likely to be thin on the ground this year: still, they fit in Empress Gisela's burial crown (from the diocesan museum in Speyer) and the ceremonial hose of Pope Clement II (from the cathedral museum in Bamberg). Unfortunately, the reform of the church and the increasing power of bishops in the Reich were displayed primarily via a number of manuscripts and reliquaries: again, we understand these objects are related to the bishops and demonstrate their wealth and power, but do not see how they tell us about the changed episcopal role. And while the Ottonians traveled a great deal in order to keep their clientele under control, it was hard to see how their activities related to universalist as opposed to dynastic aims; indeed, the nationalist historiography of the early twentieth century emphasized the failures of this period to supersede continuing conflicts within the Reich and thus united against the growing power of the popes--a much more likely universalizing project at the time--on the European scene.

At this point I had been in the exhibit for almost two hours, and only then did I reach the Staufer, who, with their colonization efforts, were great fodder for German nationalist views. With a stretch, though, I could see how the conquest of the East could be spun as a long-term precedent for the EU eastern expansion. OK, maybe not.

And although it boggles the mind, the panoply of objects expanded here, with recent historiographical trends on Reichsgeschichte relating to display and ceremonial starting to show their subtle influence. The exhibit made clear the expanded potential of emperors who were less occupied with pacifying their subjects and clients (aside from having to deal with the Guelphs, of course) and reforming their churches and could undertake broader activities with the rest of Europe, with sections on Wibald von Stablo and the archbishop Wichmann von Magdeburg as advisers and diplomats. Still, the expansion lost focus in this section, not because the strictly chronological narrative was set aside, but because the exhibitors seemed to think the exhibit needed to be all things to all people: Hildegard von Bingen made an appearance with three objects, for example, and in a section on Staufer efforts to canonize the Salians, confraternity and pilgrimage materials appear. The objects were fantastic (a pilgrim's badge, reliquaries, astounding textiles), but this sort of accumulation of objects is a sign that the exhibit concept was lacking coherence. Competition with the Guelphs and the crusades also made it into this portion of the exhibit, but they distracted from the next portion, the connections of the Staufers to their Sicilian possessions--and stressing that issue might indeed have more fully supported the idea of a Holy Roman Empire embedded in European relations. The Magdeburger Reiter (the first free-standing mounted figure that survives north of the Alps and one of the advertising images for the exhibit) frankly drowned in all of this stuff, some of which (a group of materials on the position of the Jews that included some whimsical anti-Jewish candelabra) really would have borne further examination in a different context. The inclusion of the materials on the Jews here seemed obligatory but not well-integrated.

The reason this lack of coherence annoyed me so was that the final room in this portion of the exhibit was devoted to courtly festivals and culture--a sense in which the Holy Roman Empire truly was integrated into wider European scene--and the treasures here required several hours to view carefully. The much-vaunted highlight was the manuscript UB Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. Germ. 848, or the Codex Manesse. This object is the central surviving source of medieval German lyric, and it hasn't been out to play for fifteen years (even in the Heidelberg Universitätsbibliothek the copy on display is a facsimile). Being able to see it in any museum is a once-in-a-lifetime event for the non-specialist, and the entire trip would have been worth it just to see this one book. It wasn't isolated by any means; indeed it was surrounded by its cousin, the Weingartner Liederhandschrift, along with a bevy of other visually gorgeous and historically significant manuscripts and numerous other miniatures and ivory pieces. I fear, unfortunately, that the placement of these treasures halfway through the exhibit (next to a rest area) as well as the very brief explanations that accompanied them, meant that many visitors passed them by.

I should interject at this point that I had been following the audioguide available for the exhibit throughout, and it was a great deal more forthcoming both with details about the objects and their location in a larger narrative about regional and European history. Unfortunately I was so busy gaping that I remember almost nothing of what was said. I wish the exhibit had done more to convey visually that these objects are not just representative of what their creators thought about the themes of emperorship and courtly culture, but that their very methods of production, presentation, preservation and usage also tells us something about their relevance.

I wanted a nap, but instead I proceeded to the remainder of the exhibit, which began with the Luxemburg emperors. Though the overwhelming display of wonderful relics that symbolized the empire continued (such as an amazing fourteenth-century Türzieher from the Lübeck Rathaus), here law and politics begin to take on a greater role of the exhibitors' efforts. The highlight of the section, of course, was the Golden Bull (the archbishop of Cologne's copy), which normally would have been a huge treat, but this was actually one of two I saw this year, and its history was naturally treated extensively in Frankfurt. Pictorial depictions of the imperial hierarchies also entered the exhibit at this point, symbolizing relationships between the emperor, the pope, the electors and their different subjects. This brief portion of the exhibit ended with the shrine for the imperial relics, used when they were exhibited in fifteenth-century Nuremberg.


Here again, universalist themes (such as those included in the writings of Dante) were noted but not explored in detail. The penultimate section concerned the House of Habsburg's decisive assumption of the throne, and the objects shown got even more interesting, since the first decorative art glass and stained glass items were shown here, along with a set of playing cards, and the liturgical books and manuscripts at this point take on features of incomparable Renaissance art. Because Maximilian I was the heir to Burgundian territories, Burgundian courtly representation made an appearance, but the jaw-dropping object here was the massive woodcut of the plan for Maximilian's Ehrenpforte, created in the workshops of Jörg Kölderer, Albrecht Dürer and Albrecht Altdorfer--an astounding representation of Maximilian's understanding of the hierarchies that dominated his empire and his own place within them. The visitor was introduced to the double-headed eagle and its symbolism and the animation of notions of Germanness under the influence of humanism. The end of the exhibit was a very abbreviated section called "Träume vom Reich," and there is little to say about it except that again, if this exhibition was about predecessor models for the EU or the Reich's vision of its own place in Europe, some of the eye candy should have been dropped in favor of a significant expansion of this theme.


Berlin: "Museum without a thesis," but in a good way

If spectacular objects are really what attracts viewers to an exhibit--and this is clearly what the press reports of this exhibit stressed-- Berlin had a hard act to follow. It felt like the DHM had not only less room at its disposal, [30] but also the least glorious part of the story to tell: the emperors stopped reflecting their importance for their courts and cloisters in illuminated manuscripts and started doing it for public consumption in engravings, so the objects are less colorful, and frankly, a narrative of decline is a great deal harder to trace in an exhibit, especially such a whimpering, ignominious end as the Holy Roman Empire experienced. Plus, Berlin got stuck with explaining the complicated arrangements that emerged from the empire's dissolution. On top of that, the DHM didn't even get all of the best parts of the part of the narrative assigned to it, as the emergence of the Habsburgs had already been covered in Magdeburg. Of course, I suppose one could argue that Berlin had no business offering an exhibit on the Holy Roman Empire at all: the city had practically nothing to do with imperial government except that Brandenburg was an electorate. There may have been no Sachsen-Anhalt before 1945, but at least Holy Roman Emperors resided in Magdeburg; no Holy Roman Emperor ever even visited Berlin. [31] The empire that dominated this city and built the Zeughaus was a different one.

Given these problems, this exhibit did really well, maybe because it found its way around them. Comparisons are odious, but as a scholar, I ended up liking this portion of this exhibit a great deal more than the Magdeburg installation, although (or maybe because?) I spent much less time glotzing around and more time putting things I learned in context. First of all, the exhibitors found a way to locate the empire in geographical space--an element neglected in Magdeburg--without allowing the discussion to descend into trivialities, by means of an animated map that started the exhibit and immediately allowed visitors to remind themselves about how the Reich changed as a political and spatial unit during its last three hundred years. Secondly, the planners must have realized that the strict chronological narrative followed in Magdeburg would stall in monotony among the later Habsburgs, lead to emperor overload and kill attention in all but the hardiest, best-educated visitor.


In order to surmount this problem, the exhibit makers set up a narrow hallway on the circumference of the entire first floor of the exhibit that covered the Habsburg emperors, so that anyone who still wanted a linear narrative could find it, but so that visitors could also leave this path to view sections on themes in the social and political history of the empire. This organization allowed the visitor to see the social and administrative aspects of the Reich as part and parcel of the progression of its sovereigns, a major component of the newer history of the Reich of which Georg Schmid's work has been exemplary, though a great deal of the social history of the last fifteen years or so is reflected here. For example, a section on "Das Gelebte Reich" integrated themes, like the role of the Jews, that seemed primarily "tacked on" in Magdeburg. Here a curtain for the ark that stored the Torah scrolls in the Alt-neu Synagogue in Prague and clearly shows the imperial crowns of Rudolf II, whose residence was there in the early seventeenth century, co-existed with objects that represent the status of other groupings within the empire such as the free imperial knights.


As a Reformationist, I found myself dismayed at first that the two museums "split up" the first Habsburgs, with Friedrich III and Maximilian left behind in Magdeburg and the Berlin exhibit beginning with the social picture of the world of Charles V. It makes sense in this form, however, because of the important caesuras that came in Charles's reign with the Reformation, changes that can allow us to see Maximilian's reign as the summit of the late medieval empire and Ferdinand's as the initiation of a new, more complicated imperial relationship with the German nation. The main link between the two exhibits was an unfortunate one: the "exhibitionist" tendencies of the Magdeburg segments, which led to an initial room that confronted the visitor all at once with the imperial cities, the commercial revolution, the Reformation, humanism, printing, the discovery of the New World, and the Turks (though it was cool to see a Turkish helmet here). At the same time, however, the room offered a significant shift in presentation from Magdeburg, which did very little to convey an image of the greater social context or the uses of its objects, and it was one of the only problematic moments in this exhibit.





The primarily thematic focus of the DHM does not mean that the Berlin exhibit lacked spectacular objects, however. For me the absolute highlight was the display of Robert Péril's woodcut commemorating Charles V's ceremonial entry into Bologna in 1530, borrowed from the Plantin-Moretus museum in Antwerp, pictured in full in the banner to this review. It was displayed at eye level so the observer could work her way carefully through all of the colored miniatures that made up the procession (go to their website: you can use your computer to look at it in extreme closeup). The high point of the procession was of course the entry of the emperor and the pope, together under a canopy, but the different hierarchies of the empire were also displayed in this woodcut, in particular the different religious participants with their distinctive garb. Here cardinals of the church display their galeri to make clear their status. The spectacular print was embedded in a clear context, however, the "Körper und Glieder" des Reiches, that displayed uses its vainglorious moments, such as the ermine caps of the electors, to help viewers understand how imperial elections (and courts, and communications, and taxes) actually worked. For those patient enough to follow it, there was also a much more extended treatment of the double-eagle symbolism, about which I had mixed feelings, because it is very hard for me to see a double-headed eagle clock with actual feathers on it without giggling. Finally, however, I got a contextualization for the painted imperial Bierhumpen that I have been seeing for years in other museums, though, and for that I was grateful. (This is something I would have been happy to buy a souvenir facsimile of).



But best of all, this thematic approach allowed the Berlin exhibitors to provide a true placement of the Reich and its early modern imperial ambitions within the European system of powers. A lightbulb went off in my head when I saw Martin Altomonte's painting of the 1697 Sejm that elected August II of Saxony King of Poland--because this is the kind of painting I am inclined to overlook when I visit museums as boring--landscapes all look the same to me, and if the picture isn't gripping, I'm generally not all that interested in the small print. The exhibit made clear not only the political significance of depictions like this one, but also the connections between medieval and early modern depictions of such themes.

Even if museums don't necessarily provide new perspectives for the professional research, then, they can cause us to look at familiar objects in new ways. And it was simultaneously the thematic portions of this exhibit, in concentrating on the functioning of the different imperial institutions in their domestic and international contexts, that did the most to make clear why we should miss the Reich, if indeed we do miss it.


The first floor allowed a very wandering approach to the exhibit: it wasn't entirely clear how the viewer was to proceed (some reviews disliked this, and I actually missed a room on my first run through, though repeated visits convinced me of the wisdom of this approach, which allowed me a break from the uninterrupted series of boring emperors). In contrast, the course through the second floor, which treated the end of the Reich, the successor states, and its Nachleben, was more obvious. In line with the rationale for funding this exhibit, this actually would have been the most important part of the exhibit, and it is a shame that it came at the end. As the NZZ reviewer noted, "Die 'Aktualität' des Reichs besteht weniger in seiner Vorbildfunktion für das heutige Europa als darin, dass es Alternativen der politischen Ordnung vor Augen führt - Alternativen zum Gewaltmonopol und zur Gewaltpotenzierung des Nationalstaats, dem es schliesslich zum Opfer fiel." [32] (It's probably easier for a Swiss reviewer to point to such alternatives, but this issue really should have been stressed throughout both exhibits--particularly in Magdeburg, where the uninterrupted line of sovereigns makes it clear that the medieval emperors were very interested in building the kinds of dynastic states that eventually became the nation-states of western Europe. But such a narrative would have required a much more extensive discussion of the consequences of the Golden Bull and the developing electoral system for the fate of a dynastic and later national state than Magdeburg provided us.)


Moreover, the objects were just not as compelling on the second floor--perhaps because as a viewer one is so overwhelmed by the richness of the Middle Ages and the first half of early modernity. Franz II's printed declaration seems so anticlimactic in comparison to the events that led up to it, and his melancholy portrait as Franz I of Austria seems to confirm the ungracious, unspectacular end of one of the most significant governmental units in European history. There are a number of entertaining political cartoons, but I often find that so much of them has to be explained that the joke goes under, and that was the case here, too.



The section on the differing successor states, their attempts at self-legitimation, and their new political models was a compression of the themes presented in Munich, Nuremberg and Württemberg, but it made clear the uneasy situation of the nineteenth century, in which states with no blueprints for completely sovereign power both engaged the traditions of the past and struggled to find places for themselves in a political order that was increasingly oriented to democracy, mass politics and the re-constituted concert of Europe. These attempts were epigonal: we find ourselves looking at the crown of Baden and noting that it is too squeaky-clean, with neither the charisma of the imperial insignia nor the patina of medieval crowns. Here for the first time in the exhibit I found myself in agreement with the funeral home-level lighting: as much as the exhibit showed the emergence of new states, I actually was viewing the funeral of a tradition.

The exhibit ended with a small room that offered a sampling of the ideas different authors, politicians and public figures expressed using Reich imagery, and this was tremendously interesting. It was the smallest room, at the end of the exhibit, and yet it was so full that it was hard to stand in without being bumped by someone. The DHM has 360 degree panoramas of all the exhibits, but unfortunately this panorama is not of a sufficiently high resolution for the viewer to be able to view the words on the wall: too bad, it would have been worth it. [33]

The best comment came from Joschka Fischer in June 2000, and is the one that, in depicting a contemporary view of the Reich, says the most about the relationship of perceptions of Reich institutions to the mood about the EU in Germany: "Wenn ich mir die erweiterte EU vorstelle ohne ein Reform der Institutionen, dann allerdings sind wir in der Spätphase des Heiligen Römischen Reiches." No workable constitution that the individual states can agree on; neurotic, overpaid bureaucrats; and a maze of rules that are being reformed and reformulated with no recognizable result: this is what Germans think of the EU, and put in this way, there is really no reason to see the Reich as a model for a future European government. Yet the problematic nature of the states that made up the Reich really became clear primarily after its dissolution: it had continued to creak along without appreciable problems until relatively late in its history, because its institutions worked. It may indeed have provided a working alternative model to the nation-state and nationalism. It's not clear that most Germans believe this to be true of the Reich's counterpart institutions in the new EU. [34]


The whole event got a tremendous amount of press coverage. Both exhibits were packed--I went to the DHM four separate times in hopes of being able to look at the objects in peace, and never succeeded in finding the exhibit even half-empty. The double exhibit received an estimated 500,000 visitors, supposedly more than any other historical exhibit since the 1981 Prussia exhibit. [35] Press reports suggested that approximately 47,000 copies of the catalogs were sold, and a limited edition Playmobil "Magdeburger Reiter" almost sold out as well. The quick purchase of 2,000 postcards and 1,000 magnets with the Codex Manesse picture of Walter von der Vogelweide caused a brief run on the Magdeburg museum gift shop's supply of these objects. [36] Magdeburg expected only 100,000 visitors; positive press reports as the exhibit went on appear to have turned it into a "must see." Several sources suggested that Magdeburg would try to capitalize on this exhibit and set up a special center for medieval exhibits. [37]

Ultimately, we no longer live in the Reich. Democratic institutions choose particular sorts of events for orchestrating their self-representations, and they measure the success of these events by the number of people who attend them and not by their ceremonial gravity or even by their willingness to follow historians' judgments. Visitors saw a wonderful assembly of objects and in Berlin at least they were presented with an exhibit that attempted to embed them in their political and social contexts. Visually, they certainly got their money's worth. Still, it was often hard to grasp the function and significance of the Reich, particularly in Magdeburg, and that is perhaps the final and decisive parallel here to the EU.




[1]. See, for example, the webpage of one such group at http://www.kaisertreuejugend.homepage.t-online.de/ .

[2]. Volker Ulrich, "844 Jahre. Warum das Heilige Römische Reich gefeiert wird," Die Zeit, "Feuilleton," August 31, 2006, accessed online.

[3]. http://www.kaisermacher.de, reviewed by Susan Boettcher for H-German, http://www.h-net.org/%7Egerman/reviews/boettcherjan07.htm.

[4]. "Canossa 1077. Die Erschütterung der Welt," July 21-November 5, 2006 at the Museum in der Kaiserpfalz, Erzbischöfliches Diözesanmuseum and Städtische Galerie am Abdinghof, website at http://www.canossa2006.de/ .

[5]. http://museum.speyer.de/de/histmus/ausstellungen/aktuell/Heinrich%20IV.%20/ , reviewed by Susan Boettcher for H-German, http://www.h-net.org/%7Egerman/reviews/boettcherfeb07.htm .

[6]. "Bayerns Krone 1806. 200 Jahre Königreich Bayern," March 30-August 16th, 2006 at the Münchner Residenz, website at http://www.bayernskrone.de/index.htm .

[7]. "Das Königreich Württemberg 1806-1918. Monarchie und Moderne," September 22, 2006-February 4, 2007 at the Landesmuseum Württemberg (Landesausstellung Baden-Württemberg), website at http://www.koenigreich-wuerttemberg.de/ .

[8]. "200 Jahre Franken," April 4, 2006-February 11, 2007, at the Museum Industriekultur Nürnberg (Bayerische Landesausstellung 2006), website at http://www.hdbg.de/franken2006/index.html .

[9]. Museum website at http://www.khm-magdeburg.de/ .

[10]. Museum website at http://www.dhm.de .

[11]. Christian Semler, "Auf kontaminierten Feld," Tageszeitung, August 30, 2006 , p. 15.

[12]. Bernd Schneidmüller and Stefan Weinfürter, eds., Heilig - Römisch - Deutsch. Das Reich im mittelalterlichen Europa (Dresden: Michael Sandstein Verlag, 2006); Matthias Puhle and Claus-Peter Hasse, eds., Heiliges Römisches Reich Deutscher Nation 962 bis 1806. Von Otto dem Grossen bis zum Ausgang des Mittelalters. Essays (Dresden: Michael Sandstein Verlag, 2006); Heinz Schilling, Werner Heun and Jutta Götzmann, eds., Heiliges Römisches Reich deutscher Nation, 962 bis 1806. Altes Reich und neue Staaten 1495 vis 1806. Essays (Dresden: Michael Sandstein Verlag, 2006).

[13]. Hans Ulrich Thamer, "Das Heilige Römische Reich als politisches Argument im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert," in Schilling et al., pp. 383-395, pp. 383-384.

[14]. Much of this material is traced in a deft article by Gerd Althoff that hits the main themes without overwhelming the reader: Gerd Althoff, "Die Rezeption des Reichs seit dem Ende des Mittelalters," in Puhle et al., pp. 477-485.

[15]. This general information gap between the older and the younger generations can have comic results. While writing this review, I was watching a TV show on RTL, "Raus aus den Schulden." The point of the show is to explain to Germans, who are apparently more self-conscious about their debt than Americans, how they can change their habits in order to live debt-free, using the help of a financial adviser. In the episode I saw, described at http://www.rtl.de/tv/tv_931619.php , an elderly financial adviser, Peter Zwegat, tells debtors Cordula Hoffmann and her husband Berndt that they will have to approach their creditors and relatives for help, and anticipating how embarrassing this step will be for them, he describes this process as "euer persönlicher Gang nach Canossa." It's clear from the expressions on their faces as they receive this message that Cordula and Berndt have no idea what Zwegat is talking about. Of course, Berndt also had no idea what Zwegat was talking about when Zwegat told him he would have to get a job. They lost their house and Cordula divorced Berndt and declared bankruptcy, but can now live within her budget. But I digress...

[16]. For example, by Timothy Reuter, interestingly the grandson of the famous mayor of Berlin; see his posthumously collected essays in Medieval Polities and Modern Mentalities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[17]. For example, Michael Rowe, From Reich to State: The Rheinland in the Revolutionary Age ( Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[18]. Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger, Das Heilige Römische Reich Deutscher Nation. Vom Ende des Mittelalters bis 1806 (Munich: Beck, 2006).

[19]. Andreas Kilb, "Als wir Barbaren Kaiser waren," Frankfurt Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, August 27, 2006 , Feuilleton, p. 27.

[20]. Bernd Schneidmüller, "Magdeburg und das geträumte Reich des Mittelalters," in idem and Stefan Weinfürter, pp. 10-43, p. 11.

[21]. Ibid., p. 11.

[22]. Oliver Jungen, "Der lange Weg der Reformpakete. Vorspiel zu einer historischen Ausstellung," FAZ, Feuilleton, March 10, 2005, p. 40.

[23]. Sabine Heimgärtner und Thomas Kunze, "800-jährige Ära wird dargestellt. Doppelschau über das Heilige Römische Reich in Berlin und Magdeburg beginnt," Mitteldeutsche Zeitung, September 1, 2006, accessed via MZ-web, at http://www.mz-web.de/servlet/ContentServer?pagename=ksta/page&atype=ksArtikel&aid=1154945380094&openMenu=987490165154&calledPageId=1013083806110&listid=1018881578428

[24]. For example, Gustav Seibt, "Eine Art Monstrum. Prunkend, aber undeutlich: Zwei Ausstellungen zum 'Heiligen Römischen Reich Deutscher Nation' in Magdeburg und Berlin," Süddeutsche Zeitung, August 26, 2006, p. 13.

[25]. Joachim Lange, "Heiliges Römisches Reich," Financial Times Deutschland, September 6, 2006, p. 40.

[26]. Robert von Lucius, "Karl der Große? Otto der Größte! Zurück ins Kernland Europas: Sachsen-Ahnhalt strengt sich mächtig an, seine Identität zu finde," FAZ, December 7, 2006, p. 42.

[27]. Something that would be worth discussion is the general move away from social history sorts of exhibits: anecdotally I have noted this move in my perception of Reformation history museums in the territories of the former DDR, particularly in Wittenberg and Mühlhausen.

[28]. One of the most widely used Anglophone medieval history texts is a classic reflection of this problem: Brian Tierney and Sidney Painter, Western Europe in the Middle Ages, 300-1475 (New York: Knopf, 1970), meanwhile in its sixth edition (New York: McGraw Hill, 1998).

[29]. One museum that does this exceptionally well in its permanent exhibit is the Historisches Museum der Pfalz Speyer, a tendency reflected effectively in its recent exhibit on the treasures stolen from the Romans by barbarian bands and then lost in the Rhine, from which it was in turn excavated.

[30]. I'm one of the three people who didn't like the Pei-Bau when it was added to the museum, and while I am growing more accustomed to its jarring, anachronistic exterior and the feeling one has of traversing the Indiana Jones version of an Egyptian pyramid when moving through the common areas of the inside, the exhibition space continues to give me a sensation of claustrophobia with its low ceilings. If you have movable walls anyway, why not use them to create bigger spaces? The three exhibits I have visited in this space have all left me either nervous or annoyed by my fellow visitors. And given that the rest of the museum has wonderful high-ceiling rooms with airy, bright space, it's annoying.

[31]. Another theme that would be worthy of analysis here is the matter of the place of a location. For some reason it "feels" more appropriate for a medieval exhibit to be housed in a state of historical medieval significance than in an entirely arbitrary place. On the other hand, if the exhibitors really want to exploit this "feeling," which shares some similarities with the sentiments exploited by pilgrimages, then they have to find a way to get the visitors to walk around the city and be educated about the historical relevance of the place. Magdeburg did not do this very effectively, although some of the tourist bureaus that offered package trips to Magdeburg made a point of including a tour of the Stiftskirche in their packages. And for obvious reasons such an approach would have been pointless in Berlin--unless there is a way to picture geographically the role that Prussia played in dismantling the empire. In this year's exhibits in Frankfurt and in Halle (on Albrecht von Brandenburg, see review at http://www.h-net.org/%7Egerman/reviews/boettchermarch07.htm), however, the exhibitors understood the importance of this element of exhibit planning--although it was more effectively achieved or at least advertised in Halle than in Frankfurt.

[32]. Thomas Maissen, "Vor dem nationalstaatlichen Gewaltmonopol," Neue Zürcher Zeitung, September 1, 2006 , p. 43.

[33]. http://www.dhm.de/ausstellungen/heiliges-roemisches-reich/panoramen.html .

[34]. As an early modernist I couldn't help musing about comparisons between the suits of certain imperial estates in the Reichskammergericht during the early Reformation (which often concerned the property of religious corporations that was confiscated or redistributed by secular institutions during the introduction of the Reformation) and the attempts of former refugees from the occupied eastern territories of Germany in the EU Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg (which concern property confiscated by newly-forming states). But I couldn't come to any conclusions: the problem was just too complicated.

[35]. Although the taz did report sarcastically that most of the visitors were forced to attend: "die Hälfte der Besucher waren Jugendliche, und die waren wohl eher nicht freiwillig da," N.a., "Unterm strich," Tageszeitung, December 11, 2006, p. 16.

[36]. “ Verkaufsschlager Minnesang," in DAMALS: Geschichte Online, December 7, 2996 , at http://www.damals.de/sixcms/detail.php?id=175776# .

[37]. Alexander Schubert, " Das Heilige Römische Reich als Erfolgsstory. Bilanz der erfolgreichsten Geschichtsausstellung seit 25 Jahren," DAMALS: Geschichte Online, December 18, 2006, at http://www.damals.de/sixcms/detail.php?id=175878; see also Klaus-Peter Voigt, "Doppelausstellung zum Heiligen Römischen Reich Deutscher Nation in Magdeburg und Berlin von Otto dem Großen bis zum Ausgang des Mittelalters--Erinnerung an Blützeit des europäischen Kulturerbes," Handelsblatt, Beilage Sachsen-Anhalt, October 23, 2006, p. b04.