Ever wonder why the Nazi dominion over Germany was called the “Third Reich” and who the first and second were? Well, wonder no more.
To begin with, the phrase “Third Reich” was first mentioned as the title of a book published by Arthur Moeller van den Bruck in 1923. As you might expect given the moniker for the regime caught on, the book was a hit with the far right in the region.
The author was a German cultural historian, who in the aftermath of the defeat of the First World War pondered the situation of the German nation and saw the newly established Weimar Republic with scepticism, as a non-natural entity. He wished for a more nationalistic solution. A revolution that would bring forth a German form of fascism, incorporating ideas of Nietzsche instead of those of Marx, to combine socialism with nationalism.
You’ll be further unsurprised from this description that this book had a huge influence on the Nazi party – which at the time was still in its early growing phase. Within his musings, Moeller more or less prophesied that a future ideal state with all German peoples (including Austria) would be the “Drittes Reich” in German, which we call the “Third Reich”. A more full translation however would be the “Third Empire”.
So what are those previous Empires, or Reichs? (And to prevent a flood of eye-rolling comments, the German plural of ‘Reich’ would actually be ‘Reiche’, but we’ll do as the English-speaking world does and simply add an ‘s’ to everything.)
As for the “ First Reich”, this refers to the Middle European Empire that began with Charlemagne in 800 CE. On paper, it lasted almost exactly 1000 years, to be precise until the abdication of Francis II of Austria in 1806 CE shortly after the defeat by Napoleon in the battle of Austerlitz. For careful viewers, this duration might already ring a bell, reminding them of the known Hitler proclamations of the “thousand-year Reich”. This exclamation is directly referring to this, later baptised as the “First Reich”, which as we will see served as a form of ideological background.
It is at this point we should mention that nobody except the Nazis called this the “First Riech”. The name by which it is called today is the “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation”.
This medieval entity was not a typical kingdom, united by language and with an established capital and a sort of protoethnic homogeneity like one would find in say, France or England. Rather, while the Empire was indeed mainly Germanic, it incorporated many Italians and Slavic peoples as well.
The first stage was known as the Carolingian empire. The dominion of Charlemagne extended to an area so wide it hadn’t been seen in western Europe since the fall of the Western Roman Empire. He also aided the pope against an attack from Lombards. The pope – Leo III. – who was at the time rather upset at the Eastern Roman Empire (what we call Byzantium), decided to turn to this Germanic king for an alliance. Long story short, he crowned him a “Roman emperor”, which was an effort to symbolically revive the Western Roman Empire, in which the pope in Rome would play a major role. Despite this, contemporaries would call their kingdom the “Frankish Empire”, even until the 1100s.
Without going into much detail, for the following centuries, the organisation of this state was a loose confederation of states, overseen initially by the ruling monarch. The states each belonged to hereditary dynasties such as the Staufens and the Salians. This phase begins with the Othonian dynasty, most famous for King Otho I., to whose reign (according to some historians) the beginning of the German nation can be accredited. This is mainly referring to him convincing most germanic princes to unite under his banner to fend of the Magyars, at the Battle of Lechfeld in 955 (near today’s Augsburg).
In the coming centuries until the early Renaissance, the grasp of the emperor which seemed at the beginning to be firm, began to gradually slip. This can be attributed firstly to the constant clashes for power with the pope, which undermined the authority of the emperor. The most famous clash ended in 1077 with the emperor Heinrich VI. being excommunicated and begging outside the pope’s castle at Canosa for forgiveness.
The second reason for the loss of control was the unruly nature of the smaller kingdoms within a vast empire.
From the 13th century onwards, the title of Emperor stopped being hereditary. He was instead elected, therefore being dubbed “electus Romanorum imperator”. The privilege of electing the monarch to be crowned by the pope lay with important bishops as well as princes aptly called prince-electors.
Fast-forward around the late 15th century and the full name “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation” first appeared, as the territory was concentrated north of the alps in mainly German-speaking areas.
In the meantime, the power of the emperor continued to dwindle. The slow fragmentation intensified after the 30 Years War in the 1600s. At the same time, the kingship in other European powers such as France and Spain was being consolidated as an authoritarian institution (see Louis XIV, “L’état, c’ést moi.”), strengthening a sense of unity or common identity within these regions.
During the reign of Charles V, the empire then became fatally divided along religious lines in the aftermath of the protestant reformation. As Voltaire mentioned sarcastically, the “Holy Roman Empire” was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor even an Empire.
In the last phase of this “Empire”, the main power in the German world was beginning to split between the Prussians in the north and the Austrians in the south. In Prussia, the rulers were the prince-electors of the electorate of Brandenburg, the Hohenzollern, who were proclaimed kings of Prussia in 1701. Austria was led by the Habsburgs, who were to remain the last holders of the title (of emperor) until the end.
This end finally came with the dissolvement by the storm that was Napoleon who swept over the nations in the name of bringing revolution and with cries of “down with aristocracy”… while he simultaneously more or less tried to make himself an emperor.
This brings us to the 19th century when there was a big development in art that subsequently romanticized all medieval things. This genre of art was used in the formation of national ideologies, which in the center of Europe manifested in the desire to unite all German people into one country.
Fast-forwarding a bit more and the Holy Roman Empire was seen by the Nazis as the end of the anarchy of the warlords and the birth of a medieval form of German identity. As such, its strong leaders were praised, although they had their problems with some aspects. For example Charlmagn killing Saxons by the thousands because of them being pagan allegedly nagging the Saxon-loving Hitler.
Nevertheless, in the scope of romanticizing the past, many of the old kings such as Barbarossa or the aforementioned Otho were portrayed as heroes of the German nation.
The heirlooms of these kings were seen as semi-sacred and were in fact politicized . Such as the famous crown of the empire and other regalia that were in Vienna, the seat of the last Holy Roman Emperors, which were brought to Nuremberg by the Nazis directly after the Anschluss (the taking over of Austria) in March of 1938.
Nuremberg was an embodiment of the old days, thanks to the aura of its medieval city center and ancient castle for one, but also due to the importance of the city itself. Nuremberg was one of the seats of the Imperial Diet (Reichstag) and one of the highest judicial institutions of the Holy Roman Empire (the Reichskammergericht). Also it lay conveniently almost at the center of the pre-war Nazi domain. And so it was chosen as a kind of center for mythicized ancient and modern German traditions- a sort of ideological capital. Therefore, it was home to the most glamorous Nazi party event- the Nurnberg rallies. The 1934 rally was filmed by Leni Riefenstahl, and made into a propaganda film called “Triumph des Willens” (“Triumph of the Will”), from which much of the nazi imagery that people know best comes from.
The imperial relics brought from Vienna, were displayed during the Party Congress of September 1938, six months after the Anschluss with Austria. These relics also included the Holy Lance, the spear that Longinus pierced Christ with, to which magical powers were (of course) ascribed. He who possessed it could not be defeated.
Unfortunately for the Nazis, nobody told the 3rd, 42nd and 45th infantry divisions which captured the city in April 1945, after fierce fighting.
Due to its symbolism, it was chosen by the allies as the place for the trials of the Nazi war crimes, the Nuremberg trials.
So yes, the Nazis cared a lot for what they called the “First Reich”, which, let’s not forget, was defeated by Napoleon in the end. Naturally, with the French at fault, it was yet another thing to go after them for.
This all brings us to the Second Reich.
Without looking too closely at the details, after a very tumultuous 19th century, in 1871, the king of Prussia – the most powerful of the German states – with the help of his generals and the cunning of his chancellor, Bismarck defeated the French under emperor Napoleon III. After this, whilst Paris was still under occupation, he was heralded Kaiser or Emperor of most of the German-speaking nations in Versaille.
Talk of a revival of the Holy Roman Empire was in the air. The mere act of naming the new country “Deutsches Reich”, or “German Empire” was a reference to that. That old empire – brought down by the French – was now united again based on the occasion of defeating the French- and a Napoleon at that.
The most prominent example of the symbolism is the monument at Kyffhäuser (pronunciation: “Kif-Hoy-ser”), which is the third largest of its kind in Germany. Depicted in it is the solemn petrified king Barbarossa in his sleep, and atop of him, as if emerging from the rock, king Wilhelm the first is exiting as an incarnation of the prophecy and saviour of the country.
Despite all this, no one at this point thought of dubbing this empire the “Second Reich”. Yes, the regime did make parallels to the past, but they regarded themselves as a sovereign modern state. One prone to innovation, and not technically a second iteration of the Holy Roman Empire.
After its fall in 1918 however, many felt reminded of that period after Napoleon where they had been humbled by an external enemy and their German Empire dissolved. As previously alluded to, they began seeing the period in which they were living just as another interregnum, a period without a king. Essentially, the people – particularly those opposing the democratic system – were putting their hope in a future empire.
As van den Bruck put it, this “Third Reich” would be a continuation of the previous two, now both viewed as iterations of the destiny of German unity. This Third Reich would – unlike the Holy Roman empire or First Reich – be a truly sovereign one and – unlike the German Empire or Second Reich – inclusive of all German-speaking peoples. Therefore, it would include Austria and Bohemia (which was at the time in Czech). In the Nazi national hymn, “Deutschland über alles”, the area was explicitly mentioned, and the Third Reich should reign over a part of the world ranging from northern Italy (as seen today) to the Baltic and from the Netherlands to Esthonia.
So by dubbing themselves the Third Reich, the Nazis were Implying a natural continuation within German history, even a fulfilment of a prophecy. This also forged a link between themselves, the Holy Roman Empire and the German Empire. Of course, thankfully for everyone, including its own citizens, the Third Riech didn’t exactly have the staying power the Nazis had been hoping for.
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