Giving up on the Holy Roman Empire

Francis II on his coronation Ya gotta know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em. And thus it is that Francis II abdicated as Holy Roman Emperor, and folded the Empire itself, on getting handed its head by Napoleon at the Battle of Austerlitz on August 6, 1806. Or not, because he had already founded the Austrian Empire.

Now look. The Holy Roman Empire was demolished rhetorically by Voltaire in ways no one can aspire to improve on, when he said it was none of the above. (OK, he said it was “ni saint, ni romain, ni empire” and I do like my version better.) But what can honestly be said about the Austrian or later Austro-Hungarian Empire?

I suppose in some sense Francis made good on his words; having been Holy Roman Emperor from 1792 through 1806, he managed to be Emperor of Austria from 1804 to 1835 thus decisively outlasting Napoleon and for two years swaggering about with the preposterous title “by the grace of God elected Roman Emperor, ever Augustus, hereditary Emperor of Austria” of which only the last part was true. He is thus remembered, if remembered at all, partly as the only double emperor in history.

It doesn’t sound better in German: Doppelkaiser. And Austria-Hungary existed only by default and was a purely honorific great power that Hitler once rightly derided as “this mummy of a state” in complaining about Germany’s late 19th century strategy (yes, Hitler; he was evil but regrettably also highly intelligent and a skilled communicator which is why we know and execrate his name, and this particular phrase is both apt and funny).

The Austrian Empire mutated into Austria-Hungary in 1867, the same year Canada was created and ours was a better idea. Elevating Hungary merely showed how inorganic the whole mess was, and World War I exposed its hollowness.

When Francis folded the Holy Roman Empire, he shouldn’t have held the Hapsburg lands. There was no need to run, at least after the British saved Europe from Napoleon, though in the wake of Austerlitz I can see the temptation. But he definitely should have walked away.