The Ottonians a Blank Canvas? and other questions

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Perception and Q&A – History of the Germans
Perception and Q&A – History of the Germans

These two episodes try to get a bit closer to the question of what the Ottonians mean for us today. Episode 20 – A Blank Canvas traces the way historians have perceived and interpreted the Ottonian period since the beginning of the 19th century which is almost a 1:1 reflection of contemporaneous events – leaving us with the question whether the current interpretation is also just a reflection of where we are today. The next episode is an attempt to answer all the questions you have sent me on the Ottonians.A German history starting in the Middle Ages when the emperors fought an epic struggle with the papacy to the Reformation, the great 18th century of Kant, Goethe, Gauss, the rise of Prussia and the horrors of the Nazi regime. We will end with the post-war period of moral and physical rebuilding. As Gregory of Tours (539-594) said: “A great many things keep happening, some good, some bad” .

Episode 20 – A Blank Canvas
byDirk Hoffmann-Becking

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?

The music for the show is Flute Sonata in E-flat major, H.545 by Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach (or some claim it as BWV 1031 Johann Sebastian Bach) performed and arranged by Michel Rondeau under Common Creative Licence 3.0.

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Episode 20 – A Blank Canvas
Episode 21 – Q&A

These two episodes try to get a bit closer to the question of what the Ottonians mean for us today. Episode 20 – A Blank Canvas traces the way historians have perceived and interpreted the Ottonian period since the beginning of the 19th century which is almost a 1:1 reflection of contemporaneous events – leaving us with the question whether the current interpretation is also just a reflection of where we are today. The second episode is an attempt to answer all the questions you sent me over the last couple of months.

A Blank Canvas – about how the German writers in the 19th century created a narrative out of the history of the 10th century that supported politics of the 19th.

Episode 20

Questions & Answers

Episode 21


Transcript Episode 21 – Q& A

Episode 21 – Q&A Session

Hello and welcome to this, the first Q&A session for the History of the Germans podcast. Thank you all for taking part and sending in questions. I really enjoyed getting them and even had some fun answering them.

I have grouped questions together that were replicated or belonged together and sometimes shortened them, so apologies if I am not reading the exact text of your question. I also thought to bundle them into themes, i.e, the podcast in general, specific questions about the Ottonians, there is a special section about languages since that has attracted a lot of interest, and finally a section on German history more broadly.

So, let us not prolong the inevitable and start with the questions on the podcast specifically:

Podcast in general

Will you cover the decline of the Weimar republic and the rise of Hitler in the Podcast?


Absolutely! It will take a long time before we get there – maybe we will make it around the 90th anniversary of Hitler coming to power on January 30th 1933.

Why in English? Will there be a German version?

Various (H.S.)

First up, after 20 years speaking and writing mostly in English, I simply cannot express myself as easily in German as I can in English. And secondly, the main objective is to make German history more accessible and better understood across the world, which would be a lot harder if I did that in German. That being said, maybe I will do a German version at some point.

Have you considered publishing it as a book?

J.L.(John Lewis)

I did for a little while. However, a book and a podcast are two very different things. That means I cannot just publish my transcripts – which by the way are all available on my website. If I do not publish the transcripts, writing a book would mean doing all of it again and probably in a lot more detail. SO I will stick with Mike Duncan’s approach on this as well as in all other things, meaning I may do a book at some point, but one on a specific subject, not on the whole of German history.

Your new website is brilliant. Are you also going to post the pictures on Facebook? It is so lovely to see them in my newsfeed

Misty Ann Stone

No worries, I will still publish on Facebook. However, not everyone likes Facebook and to give you a chance to escape from mr. Zuckerberg’s clutches I publish all the posts on the website as a blogpost.

Ottonian Dynasty

How has the Ottonian period influenced how ……

(i) German’s are perceived in the English speaking West in modern times? 

(ii)… German’s ARE compared to English speaking Western peoples?

Or any variation of the above you feel works best 

Dan Newnham

First up, thanks for your question Dan, I think it is a really great one.

As for part 1, i.e., how the Ottonian have changed the way the Germans are perceived in the Anglo-Saxon west today, it is fair to say that it did not have much influence.  As far as I can make out from my circle of friends and from the responses I had to my podcast, the Ottonian period is very little known. And that is not much of a surprise since there was little interaction between Germany and England, let alone Wales, Scotland and Ireland during the 10th century. Yes, Otto I was married to a granddaughter of King Alfred the Great but the first actual meeting only happens at the coronation of the first Salian emperor Konrad II which is attended by king Canute.

As for part 2, i.e. the question how decisions in the Ottonian period has shaped German history and identity compared to the Anglo Saxons, there is a long list of things.

I would like to highlight one, extremely prosaic but hugely important difference  – taxes.

 In the 10th century the English were only able to hold back the Vikings by paying the so-called Danegeld, i.e., paying them money to go away. To cover the expenditure the English kings did introduce general and direct taxation. The king’s subjects  accepted that as the only way to avoid being raped and murdered. These taxes were still being raised after King Canute took over even though he was a Viking himself and the whole point of him being king was to end the Risk of being raped and murdered. After the Norman conquest the new rulers kept taxation going. By then the English were so used to taxation they did not really questioned it.. Being able to raise taxes, even if it later required the consent of parliament made the English kings the richest monarchs in Europe. They could raise large armies, pay off their magnates, maintain a stable currency and invest in commerce.

On the other hand the Germans did not have as much trouble from the Vikings, their bane were the Hungarians. In the early 10th century it seems German rulers  arrangements similar to the Danegeld with the Hungarians.  For instance in 926-933 King Henry the Fowler agreed to pay tribute. If you remember his speech before he did break that arrangement, Henry said that he had to raise taxes to pay the Magyars off. Where the story diverges is when Henry the Fowler and later Otto I made the mistake of defeating the Magyars at the battle of the Lechfeld.  That ended their Hungarian raids for good. But it also ended the justification to raise direct taxes from German subjects. On top of that the Ottonian rulers felt they were rich since they had the income from the silver mines in Goslar, control over church property and a still sizeable personal and royal demesne. And hence the Ottonians did not create a taxation system for the royal infrastructure. As we will see, this reliance on the personal property of the king/emperor, the church and the ever-dwindling royal demesne left the central power weak, much weaker than the kings of England and France who could rely on taxation. As the centre. shrunk the empire became a mixed monarchy of competing principalities that was unable to raise large armies, or maintain a stable currency, let alone invest in commerce and shipping. The consequences of that are manyfold. On  the downside, the political weakness of Germany has left the nation with a chip on its shoulder that contributed to the nationalist excesses in the 19th and 20th century. On the positive side, fragmentation meant that not everything that happens in Germany happens in Berlin. There are many regional centres like Munich, Hamburg, Cologne, Frankfurt etc. that can stand on their own in an international context.

And now to three great questions from Viscousdissipation:

Even before the Ottonians started favouring the imperial church/Eigenkirchen system, I was amazed by how strong the political position of the Church was (with bishops ruling cities, peasants paying tithe, monasteries owing land and tenants)

It would stretch my ability a bit too far if I wanted to give you a full rundown of Church power before the Ottonian period. However, the political interference by the Church traces back all the way to the days of Constantine. Initially the emperor was called upon to resolve conflict between different interpretations of the Christian faith, which culminated in the Council of Nicaea. The bishop Ambrose of Milan was a major mover and shaker in the late empire going as far as “excommunicating” the emperor Theodosius who in 390 had to come to his church in simple clothes and repent.

The church in many ways took over what was left of the imperial Roman infrastructure. In particular the diocese reflect the imperial diocese created in the 4th century as administrative districts. Under the Carolingians the role of the church strengthened, mainly because they controlled knowledge and education as they held the libraries. That mattered in a society that increasingly depended on paper trails to prove ownership.

A bit later we find that eminent churchmen would quite blatantly falsify documents to prove that their diocese would own this or that plot of land. There is a great book by Levi Roach called Forgery and Memory at the end of the first Millenium that looks at some of these cases.

When we talk about cities, they were often empty after centuries of war and the destruction of in particular the water supplies. The bishops had remained in the cities because that is where the churches and the relics were. In the absence of any rival authority on location, they took over.

As for the monasteries, the Carolingian emperors, Charlemagne in particular founded them as a spearhead to promote Christianity on the newly conquered lands of Saxony. They received land and slaves/serfs as a means to fund the operation, simply because there were no other ways to fund them. The local lords made donations to the monasteries to prove to the emperor that they had really become Christians and sometimes they were indeed believers and gave it for the benefit of their souls.

If I understood correctly, in Henry the Fowler’s day there was a broad analogy between dutchies and Germanic tribal divisions. But what is that made the Saxons, the (eastern+lotharingian?) Franks, the Bavarians and the Swabians to come together relatively easily and to also want to stick together, whereas the Lombards, the Burgundians and the (western?) Franks seem to have fought hard to avoid being subsumed, even at the heyday of Otto the Great’s imperial prestige?

There are probably as many opinions on that as there are historians.

The older in particular 19th century favoured a cultural , national explanation along the lines of “they shared the same language and culture and that is why they stuck together. I am quite sceptical about that. By the 10th century national identity was a lot lower down the identity pyramid than it is today.  I believe it had much more to do with the projection of power and the benefits people, and in particular high aristocrats saw in getting engaged with the empire. That is again speculation on my part because the contemporary sources give little indications of the motivations of the protagonists.

All we can divine the motivations from the actions of the leaders of the different stem duchies. That further includes the assumption that these dukes did not all act on their own accord, but acted with the consent of their respective counts and other aristocrats.

Let’s start with the alliance between Saxons and Franconians in 919 that got the whole thing started. It was clearly realpolitik rather than a sudden outburst of brotherly love since the Franconians realised they could not go it alone and the price of Saxon support may well have been the crown. As the Ottonian century progressed, Franconia lost its duke in the rebellion of Eberhard and was made a core territory of royal power and presence. Therefore Saxonia and Franconia both benefitted from the arrangement as it gave them access to the king/emperors who were spending most of their time in this territory.

As for the Swabians and Bavarians, the situation is very different. Before Henry II  the king/emperors spent very little time in these areas giving. The initial deal struck by Henry the Fowler was explicitly submission for non-interference.  That was however temporary. Under Otto I the right of investiture of bishops moved from the dukes to the king. Royal influence expanded first by investing close family members as dukes and then through the imperial church system. As for Bavaria specifically, the Henries subjugated the locals brutally, in particular in the wake of Liudolf’s revolt. With the rise of royal influence came more engagement of the Bavarians and Swabians in the royal/imperial institutions which tied them closer to the initial Saxon/Franconian alliance. Under Henry II Bavaria became the one of the centres of imperial presence and as we will see, under the Hohenstaufen emperors, Swabia will become a royal centre.

That picture is different in Lothringia, Burgundy and Italy. Though the Ottonians were nominally in charge there, they found it difficult to penetrate power structures as deeply a sthey did in Swabia and Bavaria. In Lothringia the bishops of Toul, Metz, Liege/Luettich etc. were given more and more resources in the hope to keep the opposing nobles down. But with the French king on the other side offering aid, the local aristocratic clans remained much more independent than in the four key duchies. That however does not mean they fought hard against imperial power, It was just easier to avoid being subsumed.

To talk about the Lombards as a stem in the same way as Bavarians or Swabians is difficult. The Lombards were a small warband that occupied a territory largely inhabited by a roman population. By the 10th century they had largely integrated and had been left to their own devices for most of the 9th and first half of the 10th century occasionally providing the emperors themselves. Even more importantly, the social structure in Lombardy was already quite different from north of the alps. Cities were larger and more important. The lower aristocracy was often based in the cities and teamed up with the lower classes against the bishops and the magnates. When the Ottonians tried same church-based policy in Italy they had in Germany but that was a lot less successful given these additional players.

As for Burgundy, it may have been an adjunct to Otto the Greats reign, but fully only joined the empire under Konrad II 50 years later. By that time the Burgundian kings had already become a weak central power, their royal demesne had shrunk and the local aristocratic clans enjoyed a large degree of independence. When the emperors took over, they had many other problems to deal with so filed Burgundy into the Too difficult box.

Last and final, the western Franks. Again, hard to see what went through their heads from contemporary sources. But if I were for instance a major lord in Northern France, I would be quite keen to keep my weak little king in Laon or Paris and would not want to swap him for a powerful emperor like Otto I. Equally, if I was Otto I, I would look at France and think: In their current state of disunity and perennial civil war they are no danger at all. If on the other hand I go in and start occupying their territory, they will all gang up on me and that would be a big fight. So better to leave things as they are.

Bottom line is that the relative persistence of the alliance of the five German stems has less to do with any notion of national sentiment which did not exist but was mainly a function of political structures that allowed for different degrees of integration.

Do the Teutons/Germans/Deutschen themselves have a notion of where the “natural borders” of the kingdom are? Do they even make a distinction between kingdom (homeland of the Teutons/Germans)/Deutschen) and empire (Germans + other Germanic and Slavic tribes)?

Again, I am afraid nobody really knows. My best guess is that the identity pyramid is family first, social strata second, stem duchy third then not much for a while, followed by Germany as the kingdom of East Francia and then the Empire.

For example, Widukind talks on several occasions about Saxon high aristocrats like Wichman Billung who would fight with pagan Slavic tribes against their German compatriots, usually because of some awful insult or injustice they received. But even though they were basically traitors, Widukind praises them highly for their military prowess and states that all of Saxony was sad when they died. That suggests the identity and reputation of a person, in particular a high aristocrat was much more a function of meeting the expectation of his social group, rather than his “nation”, I word he would not have understood anyway.

Secondly, the idea of borders, natural or otherwise is also a modern invention. People in the 10th century thought more in terms of tributes and obligations. A count of bishop would not look at a particular area and say – that is mine. He would rather say, these are my serfs, and they are working land I hold in fief from the king whilst the right to hold a market is the bishop’s and the courts are organised by the duke. And I hold rights over I Poland where I owe the ruler vassalage under such and such circumstances. The king would see himself in charge more of a people than a territory. The titles at the time were “king of the Franks, King of the Lombards etc, not king of France or King of Italy, even though I admit I use these terms to help people get a reference point.  The emperor was above the kings and responsible for the whole of Christendom. The latter meant that as Christendom had no borders and keeps spreading, the empire also has no borders.  

As for the distinction between “Germany” and “Empire” one could argue that in particular in the later Ottonian period fewer secular lords joined the Italian campaigns, whilst the bishops who had bigger obligations provided the bulk of the armies. I do not think you can interpret that as a political stance along the lines of people were caring more about Germany than the empire.

It is more likely a prosaic reason. The secular lords may not like to support the emperor in Italy but were perfectly happy to expand the empire eastwards. The difference is less about nationalism than about the fact that tribute from the Slavs was relatively easy to come by, whilst the Italian campaigns were notoriously unrewarding plus you had a good chance of dying from Malaria and the like. Again, we have to be careful to project our mindset of nation states and supranational entities on to the 10th century. These are words and concepts they simply did not know or care about much.


I just would like to know if their dynasty had any name other than Ottonians. From back of my head I recall many years ago, I read a book titled ‘ History of Europe in Middle Ages’ in which their royal house was called House of Saxony.

Nima Vessali

Yes, the Ottonians are sometimes called the Saxon kings or emperors and even more often the Liudolfinger after their ancestor Liudolf, father of Otto the venerable. I think the latter name is more appropriate since not all kings/emperors of the dynasty were called Otto.

I am very interested in what you can tell us about day-to-day life of peasants and city dwellers in the 1000 AD era.

Ken Szymkowiak

Ken and all the others, again thanks for your questions. I did try to pour in all I could find into the episodes about Germany in the Year 1000. As it happens we have little information about life in villages or cities during the 10th century. Chroniclers barely ever mention the peasants and city dwellers even less. What we also know far to little about is the legal position of peasants during that time. It is assumed that the genuine slave labour model of ancient Roman estates had been gradually replaced by a system of feudal serfdom. How fast this process took place is unclear. It is also unclear how the system worked in the parts of Germany that had never been under Roman rule. There were Slaves there, mainly captured from the Slavic lands, but those were allegedly sold to Byzantium or the Islamic Califate. But again, the logistics of that is unclear.

We will look at the life of the common people a lot more when we get into times with more data. In particular I will spend much more on this topic when we get to the 13th and 14th century when the great trading cities emerge, not just the Hanse cities, but also Augsburg, Nuernberg, Cologne, Rothernburg etc. We will discuss the situation of peasants in a lot more detail when we get to first the Black death and then the Peasant’s War of 1525.

You have skipped over the Babenberger family who had an important position since eat least the 9th century and ruled the Eastern marches, which later became Austria

Alex Swoboda

Alex, I am so sorry. You have reminded me several times and I have not responded. The problem is that there are already a lot of individuals and families appearing in the narrative. I try to keep things as tight as possible to make it easier for people to follow. As a consequence, a number of significant families have not yet been mentioned like the Welfs or the Otbertinger. The underlying logic was to introduce members of future ruling dynasties as soon as they take some sort of material role. That is why you have heard about the Luxemburgers and the Habsburgs as well as the ancestors of the Salians already. For families that are powerful but will ultimately not create one of the big German principalities like the Zaehringer or the Hohenlohe, I am inclined to leave them well alone.

The Babenberger are a bit of a halfway house in so far as they help create Austria, but are ultimately ousted in a clever move by the Habsburgs. But because they are fun, here is the Babenberger story.

The Babenberger go  back to a certain Robert of Hesbaye, who is also the ancestor of Hugh Capet and thereby of all French kings. Babenberg refers to a hill and castle we now know as Bamberg. They came to prominence in the 890s-900s thanks to the Babenberg feud where they collided with the strengthening Conradiner family. They fought valiantly, but ultimately lost their possessions and influence in Franconia. In 972 a member of the Babenberger family, a certain Luitpold was granted the Eastern Marches,  the borderlands with the Hungarians. These lands were in dire straits when Luitpold arrived. During the time of the Magyar raids, this was a bufferzone that was sparsely inhabited and had barely any infrastructure. Luitpold and his son, Margrave Henry I rebuild the county almost from scratch into an increasingly significant economic and political entity. In 996 for the first time it was known by its ultimate name, Ostarrichi. The Babenbergers were able to expand their territory all the way through the 11th, 12th and 13th century. They founded monasteries like Klosterneuburg and did what magnates at this time usually did, which was fighting their neighbours or the king or going on crusade. Most famously Leopold, by now promoted from margrave to duke of Austria captured Richard the Lionheart on his way back from the crusades who he had a quarrel with and sold him to emperor Henry V. The dynasty peaked under Leopold IV, named the Glorious for his cultural achievements. He turned his capital, Vienna in a centre of German culture and a favourite court for Troubadours from across Europe.

His son duke Frederick II was more belligerent man who constantly fought with the kings of Bohemia and Hungary as well as the Emperor Frederick the Great. He oppressed his people and nearly lost the duchy.

When he died childless the Babenberger went extinct in the male line. Various husbands of Babenberger ladies attempted to get hold of the duchy, but in the end king Rudolf of Habsburg despite having no valid claim simply confiscate the duchy for himself.


What Language would have commonly been spoken at the time?

If the French and the Germans sprouted from the same line how come their languages are so different?


Did the Lotharingians speak Old French or Old German or were they mixed? And the early pre-Prussians?

Laurence Coupland

Let me start by saying that I am no linguist, and my understanding of these things is sketchy at best. I also struggle with all these language theories because there is only very little written in the languages people spoke before the 12th century. Almost all documentation we have from the 10th century we are looking at here was written in Latin. Latin was the language the intellectuals used to communicate across Western Europe. Some learned Greek either because they lived in Byzantine controlled Southern Italy or because they wanted to communicate with the court in Constantinople.

Outside the intellectuals, which includes some of the rulers, namely Henry the Fowler and probably Otto the Great people spoke local languages. Initially each of the major German stems had their own languages or dialects, that means the Franks, the Swabians (or Aleman as they were also called), the Bavarians and the Saxons. These languages/dialects may have been similar enough that people could sort of understand each other. These different languages/dialects plus the Language of the Lombards gradually merged into “althochdeutsch” or “old high German” between the 7th and 9th century. There are 8th and 9th century documents claiming people spoke “German”. Though if you see the difference in dialects between different parts of Germany that we still have today, I doubt that Old High German was a consistent language easily understood and spoken by everyone.

Ultimately, we do not know since very little of that language has been written down.

If we go to the more peripheral parts of the empire, the picture is a bit muddled. Italy is comparatively simple in as much as the Germanic language of the Lombards had pretty much died out by the 10th century and replaced by Italianate languages. I read up a bit about these and I find that very confusing since the concept seems to be that these languages were sister-languages to actual Italian which took over horizontally. Not sure, not my territory.

My understanding of the development of the French language is even sketchier. As I mentioned in the Prologues, one of the smart moves of the Merovingans was that they converted to the catholic faith, instead of Arianism otherwise popular amongst Germanic tribes. That allowed them to integrate with the local romanised population since the 6th century who spoke Latin. The law of large numbers and mothers spending more time with children than husbands meant that the relatively small group of Germanic invaders learnt the Romanesque language of their wives and serfs, even though the upper aristocracy till spoke old Frankish into the 9th century. The net effect was that in Northern France the Old French was a combination of 85% Latin and 15% Germanic whilst the Southern part of France spoke Occitan, a more Romanesque language with less German in it.

Now the old kingdom of Lothar is not only a mix of geography, but also a mix of languages. There is no way I can trace all that back, but if you look at the languages spoken in that area today, you start with Provencal, a Occitan language spoken in the Provence and up the Rhone valley. Further north you have the actual border regions that stretch all the way from Western Switzerland through Alsace, Lorraine to Belgium. Peoples in these regions would have spoken either derivations of Northern French or German. Most likely they were bilingual in both dialects, as people in Switzerland, Alsace, Lorraine, Luxembourg and Belgium still are today. The further North you go the old Dutch and Old Frisian languages also get into the mix.

I mean it was a border area where ownership changed hands often and economic and family links criss-crossed language borders. Language is hardly mentioned in the sources I read, but it appeared once, when Widukind describes the battle of Birten. In the midst of the fighting the soldiers of Otto the Great started to shout “fall back, fall back” in “French” which the Lothringian troops of duke Gilbert believed to come from their own side since obviously the Saxon bodyguard of Otto the Great would only ever speak German.

As for the people living on or over the eastern frontier, they spoke a Slavic language or languages. Given the huge rift in terms of culture and religion, and the constant killing and enslaving meant the two sides probably did not mix much.

The Bohemians were the odd ones out in as much as they were part of the empire but spoke a Slavic language.

German History more broadly

Who are the Germans?, or To what extent is ‘German’ a single, stable socio-linguistic identity?, or How have notions of ‘German-ness’ been constructed and articulated during the period(s) covered in your podcast?

Bill Dorman

That is the biggest question of them all. There is a legal definition of who is and who is not German, but I guess this is not really the answer you were after.

As far as the 10th century is concerned, we should not apply our notions of nationality to these times. Reading through the primary sources and in particular Widukind and Thietmar, the way they describe their own identity is tied up much more with their Stem, in this case Saxon, their family and very importantly the religious institutions they are part of, i.e., the monastery of Corvey and the bishopric of Merseburg respectively. Did they also see themselves having a German identity as different from other parts of the empire? Probably yes. Thietmar makes no secret of his disdain of the “false” and untrustworthy Italians. But how significant as a component of their personality is that Germanness? Probably well below between their identity as churchmen and members of their aristocratic clan.

If you look at the aristocratic leaders of the time, their actions betray only very occasionally a sign of emerging national sentiment. They are happy to forge alliances with “foreign” rulers to achieve their domestic goals. One incident was the Saxon nobles rejecting Henry the Quarrelsome’s demands to become king as they feel uneasy about handing over Lothringia to King Lothar of France.

The picture is a bit clearer if we compare to the time 200 years earlier. In that period the high Aristocrats would happily move between what is now France, Italy and Germany, having personal possessions in all of those, alongside the royal lands they are controlling on account of their respective offices. By the 10th century that has stopped, probably les because of cultural gaps but more because the logistics of dealing with multiple overlords became overly complex. If you have to offer feudal obligations to the King of France, the duke of Spoleto and the King of East Francia, things can get very messy.

As for the “man on the not yet existing street”, there is nothing to go on. People may have travelled more than we previously believed, but whether that meant they had developed their own “German” identity, I doubt it.

Is it time yet to celebrate Germany and German history?

B.M (Billl Moens)

I am not a fan of celebrating history. That always ends up with a pissing contest where one side believes to be better than the other. So, no celebration in my view.

However, I think today is a time to engage with history maybe even more than any previous period in my lifetime. Historical arguments are constantly used and abused in the political discourse, whilst at the same time behaviour patterns and communication styles appear that hark back to the darkest times.

When I read the words “enemy of the people” as a headline in a newspaper that is the kind of celebration of national identity that gives me cold sweat running down my back.

In recent times, much history has been scrutinized for racism. Has the history of Germany been successfully de-nazified? Can the reprocessing of Nazi Germany be seen as a precursor to what other countries need to do?

Tyrant Fish

Thanks – that is a another big one. Do I think we have successfully de-nazified? Well for that to be true, Germany would need to be a place where no Nazi or other anti-democratic politician could gain support. That is quite obviously not the case. So, the answer to that has to be no.

Do I feel Germany has done a lot more than other countries confronting its history, I would say yes. I cannot think of a country that puts a monument to its abject moral failure into the heart of its capital, like Germany does. One of my favourite project are the “Stolpersteine” in Berlin. These are small concrete squares that are put into the pavement, standing a little bit up from the surface. They are put in front of the last known freely chosen address of people who have been persecuted by the Nazi regime. The concrete square is covered with a plaque describing the person and what happened to him or her. The stones are small so people inadvertedly stumble over them and get reminded of what had happened to their neighbours in their city.  

Do other countries have to do the same? That is not for me to say. There is also no point in forcing a people to go through such a process. Germany underwent a de-Nazification process right after the war, which ultimately failed. The absolute top of the Nazi elite and a few randomly chosen murders were executed or imprisoned, but the vast majority of supporters of the regime including many perpetrators of crimes against humanity remained untouched.

What happened in the 1960s and 1970s was that the young  were asking their fathers and grandfathers about their individual role during the Nazi regime. This was a personal and painful process but one I still feel was worth it.

That is harder to replicate when it comes to actions that have taken place a long time ago even if they still reverberate in today’s society. But even in these situations an open discussion and willingness to confront the failings of your forefathers is key.

The second learning from the German experience  is that you cannot ask for absolution or forgiveness ever. There are things that cannot be forgiven, only understood. What is much more important is finding a way to live together and learn to fight the remaining or returning signs of evil – wehret den Anfaengen.

So, these were all the questions I saw. If I missed one I apologise. I did not organise this process particularly well.

Now that really is the end of the Ottonians. We will start with the Salians on July 8th and I will try to get back into the weekly rhythm. It will be great. We will see both the peak of the early medieval empire under Henry III as well as the great pivotal moment of German history when his son emperor Henry IV finds himself kneeling in the snow outside the castle of Canossa begging the pope to accept him back into the bosom of the church.

Transcript Episode 20 – A Blank Canvas

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 first and probably most important point to make is that the time of the Ottonians is a blank canvas. There are very few written sources. For Henry the Fowler and Otto the Great the Regesta Imperii, which is the list of all royal charter contains about 1,000 documents, most of which are land donations to monasteries etc. If you compare that to the reign of king Sigismund (1410-1437) there are about 14,000 registered documents though his reign was a mere third of the first Ottonians. On top of that, the contemporary chroniclers like Liudprand, Widukind and Thietmar are more interested in saint’s miracles than political analysis.

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.

First up, the most recent past had little on offer when it came to glory and unity. After the humiliating defeat in the battle of Austerlitz in 1805 the Holy Roman Empire had been dissolved, Emperor Francis II had put down the “Crown of Charlemagne” and the institutions of the state like the Reichskammergericht and the Immerwaehrende Reichstag were closed. Moreover, by order of Napoleon the hundreds of German states were reduced to 39, which became satellite states of France destined to provide soldiers to die in the Russian steppes.

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 (1814-1889) and his “Geschichte der Deutschen Kaiserzeit” or “History of the time of the German Emperors” perfectly encapsulates this notion.

Let me quote from the preface of his monumental works:

Though the importance of these times (919-1250) for the development of world history is broadly recognised, it does hold a special meaning for our people. Not only did the emperors emerge from Germany and Germany had become the seat of power during this period, but it was also the time where the German Stems for the first time unified in a common political entity that separated themselves from the surrounding peoples. We became our own peoples who could pursue our own unique and special developments in church, state, arts and science. Moreover, during the time of the German emperors the German people were strong through unity so that they reached the highest power, being free not only to decide its own affairs but also to command other nations, where the German man was the most respected and the name of Germany had the greatest resonance.”

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.

In the Prussian corner we have Heinrich von Sybel (1817-1895). An accomplished historian and, like Giesebrecht, trained by the godfather of the modern science of history, Leopold von Ranke. He argued that Henry the Fowler was the greatest Ottonian ruler since he focused on unifying the German stems, defending the realm against the Magyars, and expanding eastwards. On the other hand, he thought Otto the Great was misguided and did terrible harm to Germany by going after the imperial crown. The entanglement in Italy forced him and his successors to waste blood and treasure in fruitless fights with the Italian states and most of all, the papacy. Taking the eye off the ball in Germany allowed the local princes to expand their power which ultimately led to the collapse of central authority in Germany and all the misery ever since. His bottom line was that Germany should focus on inner unity and coherence and avoid entanglement with foreigners in general and Roman Catholics in particular.

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.

Fun fact is that both Sybel and Ficker were disappointed by Bismarck’s creation of a German Reich in 1871, Ficker for obvious reasons, but Sybel as well, because he was at heart a liberal and had hoped for a less autocratic more open society.

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.

Heinrich Himmler and the SS took over the abbey church of Quedlinburg where Henry the Fowler had been buried. In 1938 they destroyed the altar and interior decoration and created the “Weihestaette der SS”, a sort of secular Nazi chapel to consecrate SS fighters into the force. Himmler was completely obsessed with Henry the Fowler and even believed he had communed with the dead king in this “chapel”. His entourage even called him “King Henry”.

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.

Otto the Great was also taken off the Christmas card list in both West and East Germany. There were no celebrations for the 1000 years since his coronation as emperor in 1962 or the 1000-year anniversary of his death in 1973.

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 1880s onwards more enlightened scholars insisted on trying to understand the early middle ages on their own terms. That trend really gained traction in the 90s and 2000s and today dominates the debate.

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.

The prevailing view well into the 1980s was that the Ottonians and Salians ran the kingdom through the bishops and abbots. The Imperial Church system was seen as a tightknit structure with a cadre of bishops available to the emperor at his back and call. In exchange the emperors would gradually shift land, positions and money from the aristocracy into church hands.

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.

And secondly it provided a superbly convenient narrative about how the mighty empire had fallen. The story goes a bit like that. The popes regained moral authority thanks to the Gregorian reforms in the middle of the 11th century and took control over the German bishops away from the emperors. Having lost their main source of power the emperors could no longer hold down the princes and so the state fragmented until it became a mere spectre by the time the Holy Roman empire was dissolved in 1806. That can be shortened down to “the evil popes caused Germany’s weakness” which is a really good story if you want protestant Prussia to lead the new Germany.

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.


The music for the show is Flute Sonata in E-flat major, H.545 by Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach (or some claim it as BWV 1031 Johann Sebastian Bach) performed and arranged by Michel Rondeau under Common Creative Licence 3.0.

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About Me

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!

Hope you enjoy the Podcast