Peter H. Wilson Article Summary: German History 1648 – 1871

Today, people can easily answer the questions of who is German and where is Germany. However, during the period between the 15th and 19th centuries answering both questions with a compelling argument was a very difficult task because modern day Germany was part of the Holy Roman Empire. Since modern Germany was part of the Holy Roman Empire, no borders could be used to identify the country and its people. Historians have attempted to make the argument of what German was during this period. Peter H. Wilson attempts to analyze the works of other historians to provide clarity to answer the questions of Germany. Wilson analyzes if Germany as part of the Holy Roman Empire was a failed nation state, a federation, an empire-state or a central Europe of the Regions.[1]

Wilson’s article “Still a Monstrosity? Some Reflections on Early German Statehood,” attempts to answer both by reviewing previous theological answers to the questions. Wilson’s article references the term “monstrosity” which had been used by German Samuel von Pufendorf to describe the Holy Roman Empire because the empire does not fit into any of the four recognized definitions (failed nation state, a federation, empire-state or central Europe of the regions) of a state from that period.[2] Wilson argues von Pufendorf’s use of monstrosity is misinterpreted as a criticism, but in reality is a reference to the irregular shape of the Holy Roman Empire political system.[3] The four definitions each operate as arguments to define both Germany and the Holy Roman Empire. Wilson reviews each of the definitions based on its own merit and uses it as a way to craft his only argument on the development of Germany during this time period as a central Europe of the regions state. Wilson’s argument is based on the political organization and development of the Holy Roman Empire and the territories within the empire. Wilson looks at the political framework and development within the Empire and its effects on the relationships internally and externally as an attempt to provide clarity to the questions of who is German and what is Germany.

Wilson divides his article into four sections following his introduction. The first section focuses on the Bodinian concept of indivisible sovereignty within the Holy Roman Empire. The concept operates on the basis that the Emperor acts as the secular leader for the entire empire.[4] However, Wilson goes on to describe the lack of political organization that German speakers within the empire. The poor political organization is because the empire does not have formal institutions of government. The empire suffered because there was no consensus between the Emperor, Princes, imperial cities and other subjects.[5]

The fractured relationship stemmed from the various forms of rule throughout the empire over people, land and kingdom government.[6] This divided within the Empire leads to external conflicts with the French and Ottomon Empires. The poor relationship between the Emperor and Princes forced the Emperor to make concessions granting Princes more power. Since the Emperor shared powers and responsibilities, people had no consensus within the empire over the acceptation of authority and institutions. The relationship between the Emperor and Princes created a power struggle between the two groups. The struggle resulted in the Princes gaining more power the Empire shifted toward a federal structure. With the empire shifting towards a federal structure and the empire operating using various forms of rule the Bodinian concept that the Emperor operated as a secular, indivisible sovereign does not fit the definition of the Holy Roman Empire.

Wilson articulates in his second section how the Habsburg dynasty failed to develop as a centralized Imperial State within Austria.[7] The Habsburgs had the opportunity to create a centralized government but failed to do so, when they continually made concessions to the Princes. This allowed the Princes and their territories to emerge as powers within the empire. At the same time, further weakening the Habsburg dynasty’s own attempts to control the entire Empire.

The Prince controlled territories emerged as progressive forces that built institutions and military power. Wilson continues by looking at the works of Otto von Gierke and Hermann Wellenreuher that the empire’s shifted into a “loose confederation.”[8] The confederation allowed each territory to make their own alliances and allowed flexibility between the unions of integrated states within the Empire.[9] That allowed for the territories to operate with a national constitution and allowed for regional individualism. With the territories operating freely, it allowed territories to keep distinct qualities and allowed for cultural and political diversity throughout the Empire.[10]

In his third section, Wilson seemingly jumps backwards to look at the Empire’s sovereign reign. Wilson describes the role of the Emperor within the empire as the final and highest level of authority. Despite the Princes gaining power, they still operated as lesser powers to the Emperor. The territories within the empire were in constant states of evolution and change.[11] Wilson again articulates the lack of consensus and open interpretation of laws within territories.[12] The lack of consensus within the empire allowed for variations and an uneven political structure that left the empire again with no definition.[13]

In his final section, Wilson concedes that there is no framework and single definition that the Holy Roman Empire can fit into. Wilson attempts to create a framework that best fits the empire for a given time.[14] Wilson focuses his attention to the political development of the Empire and divides it into three separate spheres.[15] The first is monarchy, which focuses on the Habsburg dynasty and the Emperor. The second sphere is dedicated to federalism. Wilson looks at the relationship between Princes, knights and Imperial cities and the effect of alliances and confederation within the Empire. The third and final sphere Wilson describes for the political development is hierarchy. Wilson describes hierarchy as the implied equality among territories and the privileged elite that have unmediated ties to the emperor and benefit from the power shift from the Emperor.[16] Wilson concludes that the three are not mutually exclusive and require each to operate. Wilson does concede that the Empire is not a timeless entity and was constantly changing and his theory or framework will not always perfectly fit that of the Empire.

The article is not very effective because if an average person with minimal to no knowledge of German history was to pick up the article and attempt to understand what happened during the time period they would be incredibly confused. The confusion that the reader would encounter would suggest that monstrosity would be an accurate term to describe the reality that was Germany and the Holy Roman Empire because of its unclear nature and constantly shifting political structure. This is in large part because Wilson does not articulate the differences between a (failed) nation state, federation, Empire-state and a central Europe of the Region. Wilson expects the reader to have an understanding of the four distinctions prior to reading the article. The lack of clarity from Wilson instantly downgrades any argument he makes, as any argument should allow a reader with no knowledge of the topic to begin reading, understanding and agree with the points the author is making.

Wilson’s thesis is acceptable but not necessarily strong. Wilson argues that Germany was a Central Europe of the Regions. The strength of Wilson’s article is significantly weakened due to the confusion Wilson creates during the first three sections of his article. Wilson fails to articulate a clear definition of each of the four state concepts as he bounces from one idea to the other within each section causing confusion about the concepts he is writing about. The confusion created by Wilson leads the reader to believe that von Pfufendorf’s statement that the Holy Roman Empire is a monstrosity is the single most accurate term that can be used to describe the empire. If not for the concessions made by Wilson in his fourth section, where he argues his thesis the article would simply be a monstrosity. However, since Wilson concedes that the Empire needed all three of his suggested spheres to operate, and that his concept cannot always be applied to any timeframe and perspective his argument on German statehood is the strongest of the four.




Peter H. Wilson, “Still a Monstrosity? Some Reflections on Early Modern German Statehood,” The Historical Journal, 49, 2. (2006), 565-576.

[1] Peter H. Wilson, “Still a Monstrosity? Some Reflections on Early Modern German Statehood,” The Historical Journal, 49, 2. (2006), 565.

[2] Peter H. Wilson, “Still a Monstrosity? Some Reflections on Early Modern German Statehood,” The Historical Journal, 49, 2. (2006), 565.

[3] Wilson, 567.

[4] Wilson, 566.

[5] Wilson, 566-567.

[6] Wilson, 566.

[7] Wilson, 568.

[8] Wilson, 569.

[9] Wilson, 569.

[10] Wilson, 571.

[11] Wilson, 573-574.

[12] Wilson, 574.

[13] Wilson, 574.

[14] Wilson, 574.

[15] Wilson, 575.

[16] Wilson, 575-576.


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