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Durham University

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The Kaiser Myth: Medieval Emperors and German Memory, CE 900-2000

A research project of the Department of History.


In July 1943 the German High Command in the Mediterranean, under orders from Hermann Goering himself, prepared to evacuate from Palermo cathedral, Sicily, the remains of the emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen (1194-1250), ahead of the allied advance. Frederick’s ‘rescue’, although aborted amid the press of events, is one striking instance of the phenomenon which this project seeks to explain: why medieval (Holy Roman) emperors have recurrently been invested with contemporary importance in Germany, even many centuries after their deaths. Why did these rulers become such potent figures of myth? How was their memory sustained over long periods, and how did it evolve as a result? Which social, regional, cultural, and political groups formed the main audiences for emperor-myths at different times, and why? Did invoking the memory of medieval emperors serve more to legitimize or challenge the established order? Under what circumstances did their mythic power wane? These are the questions which this project seeks to answer.

That such questions still await satisfactory answers is remarkable, since the medieval imperial theme is an old-established subject of study. Yet much of the scholarship produced, mainly in Germany, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (e.g., Ernst Kantorowicz’s best-selling Frederick II biography, 1927) is better characterized as contributions to the on-going myth than as explaining it. Many works focus excessively on the imperial theme as abstract idea and, crucially, no detailed study has yet adopted the long historical perspective needed to explain why expectations rooted in the early Middle Ages were able to exert such enduring influence.


This project will:

  • trace myths of emperorship from the political formations of tenth-century central Europe (underpinned by still older prophetic traditions) to the resonances still discernible in late twentieth-century German culture;
  • concentrate on the persons, and bodies, of the Empire’s rulers, as objects of imagination and desire;
  • approach the history of imperialist longings not in narrowly political terms but within a broader spectrum of emotional engagements;
  • emphasize the importance of the emperor’s physical absence (in life and posthumously) to his construction as a figure of longing in Germany.

Such a wide-ranging approach will facilitate a fuller and more convincing explanation of one of the most enduring, paradoxical, and unsettling themes in German cultures of memory.

While the project’s scope ranges from Ottonian East Frankia to the postwar Federal Republic, the emperors who provide its focus are all drawn from the Middle Ages. Only medieval emperors (and among them, specific individuals and dynasties) attained a mythic status sufficiently durable to persist and prove susceptible to renewal in the transformed circumstances of modernity. It was the Empire’s seemingly hegemonic position in Europe for much of the Middle Ages that legitimized modern fantasies of imperial revival. The conflicts of emperors with the papacy allowed Protestants, too, to identify with them. Above all, medieval emperors were ascribed a crucial role within prophetic schemes purporting to disclose the course of Christian-universal history. While the influence of this imperial-apocalyptic tradition was disrupted by the Reformation, its traces in thought and expectation in Germany were to prove long-lasting, and to supply a basis for engaging with the problems of a secularizing, industrialized, even post-imperial, modernity.


From the Department of History