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The Holy Roman Empire’s Quiet End: August 6, 1806

Napoleon … left the pope alone for a time because, once again, war threatened the French empire. Prussia was growing restless. King Friedrich Wilhelm III had discovered that betraying the Russians and the Austrians had not paid off; Napoleon’s power was growing and was extending into the lands Prussia wished to dominate—the numerous duchies, principalities, and kingdoms of the Holy Roman Empire.

The crown of the Holy Roman Empire, in use from the 11th century until the empire’s dissolution in 1806

Since his rise to power, Napoleon had seized several German imperial lands. He had made German territories west of the Rhine part of France. He had taken Hanover from King George III of Great Britain. He had made the kingdoms of Württemberg and Bavaria his allies. And, now, in July 1806, he threatened to force most of Germany to acknowledge his overlordship.

Napoleon was able to convince Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden, Hesse, Cleves, Berg, and 10 other German states to enter into an alliance with him. On July 12, 1806, these 16 states signed the Treaty of the Confederation of the Rhine, in which they formally left the Holy Roman Empire and proclaimed Napoleon their “protector.” The Confederation was to be a loose union; each state kept its sovereignty, but all were joined together, primarily, to support each other in war. As part of the treaty, each state was to supply troops to Napoleon’s army.

The Confederation of the Rhine was a direct violation of Franz II’s rights as Holy Roman Emperor. As emperor, of course, he held no real power over most of the German imperial states. Yet, the title of Roman Emperor still had prestige. It was ancient and venerable, evoking memories of the medieval ideal of Christendom, where pope and emperor united all Christian nations into a common society. Since the fall of the Roman Emperor of the west in 476, the Byzantines, Charlemagne, the German kings, and the Russian tsars had all claimed the imperial title. The Church herself had revived it in the west. King Henry VIII of England and French kings had sought to obtain it. And now, at the dawn of the 19th century, Napoleon Bonaparte coveted it. He wanted be the Roman Emperor, uniting all Europe under his mighty sway.

Emperor Franz II

Yet, as Pope Pius VII had reminded Napoleon, the imperial title belonged not to him, but to the Habsburgs. This vexed Napoleon—after all, had he not defeated the reigning Roman Emperor, Franz II, many times in battle and forced him to surrender vast territories? How could Napoleon tolerate the lesser man holding the greater honor?

Franz II of Austria understood Napoleon’s ambitions. The Confederation of the Rhine, he knew, meant only one thing—that the title of Roman Emperor would eventually pass from the Habsburgs to Bonaparte. To prevent this, on August 6, 1806, Franz II formally dissolved the Holy Roman Empire. From then on, he would be simply Franz I, Emperor of Austria.

The empire of Christendom over which Franz had ruled, a realm whose history reached back to the coronation of Charlemagne a thousand years before, had come to a sad but quiet end.

Another Failure in 1806

Ludwig van Beethoven wrote his  Concerto for Violin in D Major for the violinist Franz Clement. Clement premiered the piece in December 1806 at the Theater an der Wien, Vienna. It was not a success — it has been said that Beethoven (as was his wont) finished the music too late for Clement to learn it sufficiently well.  The concerto was not performed again until 1844, when it was revived by the violinist Joseph Joachim. It has since become one of the most famous of violin concertos. This performance is by the great Russian violinist, David Oistrakh, and the Moscow Philharmonic, conducted by Kirill Kondrashin.

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