Friday, Jan. 20, was the 200th anniversary of the dissolution of a remarkable institution that had dominated Europe for over a thousand years.
The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation traced its origins back to the time of Charlemagne (Karl Der Grosse in German), crowned by the pope on Dec. 25, A.D. 800. It ended with Napoleon’s victory at the Battle of Austerlitz, the Battle of the Three Emperors, when the empires of Russia and Austria were defeated. The Austrian Emperor Francis was forced to renounce the title of Holy Roman emperor, thereby formally ending an empire that had lasted a thousand years.
The coronation of Charlemagne was a deliberate act on the part of Pope Leo III. In crowning Charlemagne emperor, the pope was effectively declaring the rebirth of the western Roman Empire, which had collapsed in the fifth century.
The only Roman emperor in the year 800 was the ruler of Byzantium, the eastern Roman Empire, who ruled from Constantinople. To the Byzantines there could be only one “Imperator Romanorum” (Roman emperor). An earlier attempt to revive the western empire had been led by an eastern emperor, Justinian, in the sixth century. Pope Leo’s crowning of Charlemagne, in their minds, was an illegal act and a deliberately provocative one.
Charlemagne’s elevation to emperor was “the result of Charlemagne having defended the pope against the rebellious inhabitants of Rome, which initiated the notion of the Reich being the protector of the Church” (wikipedia.org/wiki/Holy_Roman_Empire).
Reich is the German word for empire. The Holy Roman Empire was the First Reich.
The French philosopher Voltaire in the 18th century famously said that the Holy Roman Empire was “neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.”
Unique nature of the Holy Roman Empire
It’s difficult for people to understand the nature of the Holy Roman Empire because it was so unlike any other empire. It was unique in world history, and it bears no resemblance to nation-states like England or France. The Holy Roman Empire was more of an ideal than an ethnic grouping. At times that ideal could galvanize armies from various kingdoms and ethnic groups to create muscle for the emperor’s goals.
In European history, whereas a king ruled over a single nation, an emperor ruled over a vast territory made up of many nations or ethnic groups. The Hapsburg emperors of Austria, for example, right up until well into the 20th century ruled over 11 distinct nations. And this was when they were in decline.
Charles V, one of the more famous emperors in the 16th century at the time of the Protestant Reformation, ruled over the Austrian Empire, the Spanish Empire (including Portugal), the Netherlands, foreign dominions including South America and the southwestern part of what is now the United States. He was also Holy Roman emperor and, like Charlemagne, crowned by the pope.
In fact, “until 1508, German Kings were not considered Emperors of the Reich until the Pope had formally crowned them as such” (ibid.). The reich was always considered the ultimate protector of the church based in Rome.
Although most of the empire’s rulers and subjects were of German ethnicity, many ethnic groups constituted the empire, whose borders fluctuated down through the centuries. At its height the following countries were a part of the empire: “Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Czech Republic and Slovenia, as well as eastern France, northern Italy and western Poland” (ibid.). It was never Roman as was the original Roman Empire.
What made the empire unique was the fact that the various parts of the empire had a different connection to the center, to the emperor himself. The emperor was elected by seven electors. One of them, the elector of Hanover, became the British monarch in 1714, although England was never a part of the empire. “Numerous secular and ecclesiastical princes, prelates, counts, imperial knights, and free cities” constituted the empire, which made it rather unwieldy (ibid.).
It was a secular power, but one with strong ecclesiastical connections. It had a major role in being the protector of the church.
This church-state relationship was prophesied in the biblical book of Revelation. Whereas the Roman Empire, foreseen by Daniel almost six centuries before the time of Jesus Christ, was described as a “beast” in Daniel 7, Revelation describes the church as “the image of the beast” (Revelation 13:15 Revelation 13:15And he had power to give life to the image of the beast, that the image of the beast should both speak, and cause that as many as would not worship the image of the beast should be killed.
American King James Version×). British historian Paul Johnson put it another way, describing the Roman Church as the continuation of the empire: “The Roman Church still spoke for the Empire” ( The Offshore Islanders, 1972, p. 57.)
The church, however, needed a military power to defend its interests. Charlemagne provided that in the late eighth century and was rewarded with his coronation by the pope, the beginning of a close relationship between the reich and the church.
This ecclesiastical connection is the reason the empire carried the prefix holy . “The support of powerful kings was needed for the disciplining of local churches and the support of missionary enterprise” (J.M. Roberts, A Short History of the World, 1997, p. 227).
Relations were not always easy, however. “Papal power ebbed and flowed as the centuries went by” (p. 227). “The emperors were bound to find themselves in conflict with the Papacy sooner or later” (p. 233). In the late 11th century, the clash between the church and the emperor reached its climax with the humiliation of Emperor Henry IV who “waited in the snow barefoot until [Pope] Gregory [VII] would receive his penance” (p. 233).
This helps us understand how the church was the most powerful institution of the Middle Ages. From the fall of the Roman Empire until the Protestant Reformation, the church remained the one constant in Western Europe.
The relationship between church and state is described in the Scriptures as one of “fornication” (Revelation 17:2 Revelation 17:2With whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication.
American King James Version×). Unlike marriage where two people give themselves to each other, a relationship of fornication between a man and a woman is a selfish one, with each trying to get from the other. This is exactly how the relationship has been between the church and the secular European leaders down through history, each seeking its own advantage over the other.
“The inhabitants of the earth [have been] made drunk with the wine of her fornication” (Revelation 17:2 Revelation 17:2With whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication.
American King James Version×)—the people have been deceived by this false religious system that has been backed up for most of its existence by the secular authority. Between them, the emperors and the popes kept the people under control for well over a thousand years, until the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.
Significance for today
The same chapter 17 of the book of Revelation says that the church (pictured by a woman) would sit on “seven mountains” (great nations or empires, verses 3 and 9). The coming Kingdom of God is described as a mountain that “shall be established on the top of the mountains [other great powers], and shall be exalted above the hills [lesser nations]” (Micah 4:1 Micah 4:1But in the last days it shall come to pass, that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established in the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills; and people shall flow to it.
American King James Version×).
Revelation 17:9-10 Revelation 17:9-10 9 And here is the mind which has wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sits.
10 And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he comes, he must continue a short space.
American King James Version×says, “The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits. There are also seven kings…” This prophecy takes us down through the last two millennia, from the time of the apostle John who wrote these words until the second coming of Jesus Christ, which is still ahead of us. It’s a prophecy about the fourth beast of Daniel 7—the Roman Empire, the Roman Church and subsequent resurrections of the Roman Empire, among which was the Holy Roman Empire.
The Holy Roman Empire was the First Reich of the German Nation. It lasted for a thousand years. The Second Reich did not last as long, but led the world into the terrible global conflict of World War I (1914-18). Fifteen years later, the Third Reich began. It soon caused World War II, which devastated the continent of Europe and killed tens of millions of people, mostly civilians.
These three reichs are among the heads and the mountains prophesied in your Bible.
These same passages of Scripture tell us that another revival of the Roman Empire is to come immediately prior to the second coming of Jesus Christ. Revelation 17 tells us that a final union of 10 kings (leaders) will come together and “will make war with the Lamb [Jesus Christ, at His return]” (verses 12-14).
Revelation 17 implies that the church will be involved in the coming together of this powerful European Union, just as it has been down through the ages. However, this time, the church-state relationship will rapidly deteriorate. “The ten horns [kings or leaders] which you saw on the beast, these will hate the harlot [the church that has sold herself spiritually for temporal gain], make her desolate and naked, eat her flesh and burn her with fire” (verse 16).
Fourth Reich already begun
This Fourth Reich, another attempt to revive the Roman Empire, is already in existence in embryonic form. It’s called the European Union, currently a union of 25 European countries that increasingly resembles the Holy Roman Empire.
All member countries are pledged to work toward “an ever closer union.” When outsiders look at this attempt at unity, they imagine a “United States of Europe” similar to the United States of America—not the Holy Roman Empire.
But Europe is not going to be another United States. The relationship between the different members that constitute the EU and their respective relationships with the center is naturally affected by historical precedent. That precedent is the Holy Roman Empire, a motley assortment of nations that owed a common allegiance to an emperor, whose title was the same as the Roman emperors of antiquity.
In this republican age, the new leader is unlikely to have the title “emperor,” but his role will be similar and the union itself will likely resemble the Holy Roman Empire.
The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation was centered around Germany, which remains strategically placed in the middle of Europe. Germany is the number one trading partner of all the other EU members with the exception of Britain, which does equal trade with the United States. When the 10 kings come together to form the revived Beast power, it is likely that Germany, already the world’s biggest exporting nation and third biggest single economy, will again be at the head of the next reich.
Following the rejection of the new federal European constitution by Dutch and French voters in 2005, British historian Niall Ferguson wrote the following observation: “Without the new constitution, Europe will look less like the United States and more like the Holy Roman Empire…with a bewildering agglomeration of overlapping institutions and jurisdictions… Rather than a single, strong executive arm, it will have multiple, overlapping tentacles” (“Federalist Style,” The New Republic, June 20, 2005). WNP