Hitler and Napoleon. Your hardcore British eurosceptic really has no imagination. When all else fails bring up the subject of the continental hegemon.
The EU, so goes the argument, is an attempt to achieve by stealth what successive European warmongers failed to achieve on the battlefield.
As an argument it has more holes in it than Boris Johnson’s underpants — and it’s also deeply unimaginative. Hitler and Napoleon every single time, without pausing once to scratch their heads and think of another example. A pity in fact, because there have been so many.
I’m going to play along with the Little Englanders for a minute and ignore Britain’s many and various expansionist urges. I’ll take it for granted that you have long since realised that the island of Ireland is bordered by the Irish Sea to the east and the Atlantic to the west — and that the border which runs through it is the product of conquest.
I’ll assume that you’ve registered that when the flower of England’s manhood fell at Agincourt for Harry, England and St. George they were doing so — to paraphrase Monty Python — to “keep France British.” English at least — I’ll come back to British expansionism later.
It’s perfectly true that over the course of European history, every few decades or so a warlord has emerged who attempts to subjugate his neighbours by means of force. It’s also true that some of them were extraordinary successful. But why does it always have to be Hitler and Napoleon as an example? It’s almost as if the Little Englanders haven’t done their history homework.
There are far more interesting characters to choose from. Attila the Hun for example. Genghis Kahn even. Louis XIV of France or Philip II of Spain. You would think that Charles XII of Sweden, having fought a naked wrestling match against a bear and spent an entire Russian winter in a tent while fighting to make the Ukraine Swedish might at least warrant a mention but oh no, Hitler and Napoleon it has to be. Don’t feed the public’s paranoia with champagne when it’s used to beer.
Today I’ve come a hotbed of continental despotism to clear up the issue once and for all. You wouldn’t think so to look at the place — Aachen is both placid and posh. Founded by the Romans as a spa town, a function it still performs to this day, its buildings reflect every architectural return to classicism ever attempted since. The vibe is smug and genteel — a fine place to get away to if only you can afford it.
On a Saturday afternoon it is calm and respectable. Not for Aacheners the intoxicated tribulations of the football terrace — show jumping is the big sport here. In the shopping streets, the town’s trademark gingerbread shops doing steady trade in the runup to the Christmas season.
Aachen is quiet and respectable, a good neighbour to Holland and Belgium, whose borders run along the city limits. Very much not the sort of place you’d expect to harbour a transnational overlord — and yet it will be forever be connected not with one universal monarch but with two.
Were it not for the cathedral which dominates the centre of town Aachen would probably be of only minor historical significance. As it is, parts of the building are over twelve hundred years old and built by Charlemagne (742-814). All those years ago he found a special place in his heart for this city and the core of the cathedral is his invention.
He is still there now, lying in a golden casket behind the altar. It’s what he would have wanted — Aachen was his winter capital after all — although you fancy that the constant flow of tourists might disturb his rest.
You can pay to take the guided tour and see his throne on the upper balcony but it’s a pretty modest affair, hardly becoming for a man who was at once King of the Franks, Holy Roman Emperor, conqueror of the Saxons and destroyer of the Lombards.
Charles the Great’s Empire stretched from Northern Spain over what is now France, Germany and the Low Countries to the borders of Scandinavia and included half of Italy to boot. You can call him by this name if you prefer. He certainly left his mark on the neighbours. In Hungarian (király), Bulgarian (kralj) and Polish (król) the word for “king” derives from the name “Charles” in his honour in much the same way that “Caesar” eventually became Tsar and Kaiser.
Why the reverence and respect? Well not all continental hegemons are bad. In Charlemagne’s day an expansionist monarch was just what the doctor ordered. The tradition among the Franks was to divide land between a king’s sons upon his death. This, coupled with land given away in the form of gifts to loyal allies, lead to an increasing feeble patchwork of kinglets. Charlemagne and his dynasty reversed the trend.
He also established a working relationship between king and church which changed the perceptions of monarchy for centuries to come.
His predecessors, the Merovingian dynasty, claimed descent from a man who was born to a queen and a sea god. They viewed the land they ruled as their personal property and felt little in the way of responsibility to the subjects or churches which shared their space.
Charlemagne by contrast was very much a Christian king, a true believer — even if his relationship to the church often comes across as “strictly business”. He needed the Catholic Church to legitimise him while they needed the protection that only a strongman could give.
His coronation as Holy Roman Emperor thus had an element of farce about it. As he was kneeling before the Pope, a crown was produced and placed on his head. Before he had the chance say anything, Pope Leo III had proclaimed him the first ever Holy Roman Emperor.
I have a mental image of a row of other European crowned heads taking a synchronised pace back at this stage but I am assured that the two were alone at the throne and that Leo was not asking for volunteers. In any case, the pontiff was thereby able to establish establishing the Pope’s right to grant the title to whoever he wished in the future.
Debate still rages as to whether Charlemagne really wanted the title but the point was made. Crown and church are two branches of the same tree. That’s why it’s “God and my right” on the British royal coat of arms and not just “my right”.
For all his achievements we know relatively little about what Charlemagne was like as a person, or even what he looked like. Short descriptions exist but for the most part we just have to take the 19th century idealisations with the long, flowing hair and the manly beard as a starting point for our imaginations. Fast forward eight hundred years to Aachen’s next continental overlord and our picture becomes much sharper and more intense.
Charles V (1500-1558) was no more related to Charlemagne than I am, but he too accepted the title of Holy Roman Emperor and had himself crowned in this cathedral. Theoretically at least, the title was never designed to be hereditary but — as you know from the Borgias — early modern European diplomacy tended to keep things in the family.
For better or worse, Charles certainly had connections. He was no beauty queen, his portraits show that. It has been suggested that his enlarged lower jaw was a result of inbreeding but his parentage was as hetrogenous is it came in those days. His father, Philip the Handsome was the Duke of Burgundy while his mother, Joanna of Castile was the heir to the crowns (plural) of what would one day become Spain.
When Philip died, Charles effectively got the lot — thanks mainly to his mother. Often titled Joanna the Mad, her reaction to her husband’s death was unorthodox to say the least. In the years which followed she carried his coffin around with her wherever she went — often sleeping with it in the same room — until she was eventually confined to a convent on the grounds of insanity.
It would be wrong to laugh. It may well be that there was method in the madness. By ruling herself out of the succession she ensured that Charles controlled all of Spain upon reaching the age of majority — with a good half of Italy thrown in. That, plus the Spanish acquisitions in the New World, made quite a prize. At sixteen, Charles had an empire on which he proudly boasted, the “sun never sets”.
That did not stop him from wanting more, and indeed the family would have been disappointed if he had stopped where he was. His grandfather Maximilian was the Holy Roman Emperor and so when he died it was naturally expected that Charles would succeed him. That the title of Holy Roman Emperor was acquired through election and not through inheritance was seen as only a minor inconvenience.
Francis I of France also threw his hat into the ring among them and in a tight race Charles managed to buy off more off more of the German electors than his nearest rival. Democracy is a fine thing. By electing a nineteen year old, the electors can at least hardly be accused of age discrimination.
Charles next move was to crown himself King of the Romans here in Aachen — essentially to get his hands on the crown before Francis demanded a recount — before going to Rome and being awarded proper title by the Pope. As a result he now held much power in what is now Germany and Austria.
All this and yet so young. You can probably guess what happened next. Charles’ reign was not a happy one. As the protector of the Catholic Church in Germany, Martin Luther was a thorn in his side that never went away. He was forced into religious compromises that broke his heart as the German princes used the issue of religion to assert their familiar Bolshevism.
Francis, bad loser that he was, never ceased to cause trouble on Charles’ western border. He even stirred up trouble in the east by making a Faustian pact with the Ottoman Turks. Charles was constantly in the saddle, moving around his vast, unwieldy empire trying desperately to stamp on the next molehill to pop up on his turf.
Executive stress, 16th century style — and with a predictable outcome: burnout. Unusually for a renaissance monarch, Charles threw in the towel. He gave up his thrones and retired to a monastery where he devoted himself to God and developed a fascination with the workings of clocks. Hereditary madness is an alternative explanation for his last years.
There’s something deeply human about his end. There always is with the continental hegemon.
Attila the Hun died of a nosebleed and his empire disintegrated shortly afterwards. Napoleon? Died alone in exile in the south Atlantic, bored out of his mind, dreaming of an empire that was long dead — metric measurements and civil law codes excepted.
Just when we thought Charles XII of Sweden was going to live forever he was hit by a Norwegian bullet. As he breathed his last, his country too ran out of puff as a global superpower. Hitler? Well, you know what happened to Hitler.
The continental hegemon is usually an exceptional individual but he is not immune from that Achilles’ heel which every dictator keeps hidden away somewhere. Power flows from his person and when he meets his end, the empire too turns to dust. All flesh is grass.
Jean-Claude Juncker has said he will call it a day in 2019 but I suspect that EU will outlast him. Its very institutionalism separates it from the attempts at universal government that we’ve had in the past. It is bigger than any one man, Nigel Farage included.
If anything, it has less to do with Hitler and Napoleon and more to do with the British Empire. Or at least it would be if Farage had his way — a club of unequals based around a free trade zone.
Tall narrow arches of lazuli and gold wrap around the inner chamber of the cathedral. For all of the technological invasions of the twenty-first century you can imagine a dark age monarch being crowned among the claustrophobic chaos of the interior. What happened to Charlemagne by the way? Oh he gave his empire to his sons, who split it among their sons — just as the Franks had always done.
Time for me to step out of the darkness and into the light, a light that is fading fast in the grey November sky.
I have one last stop in Aachen before I retire for the evening. At the Elysian Fountain, a suitably neoclassical structure next to the park, the water runs up through the rocks. Warmed by the earth and rich in its minerals it pours out into a marble basin, stinking of sulphur as spa towns often do.
Peter the Great of Russia drank from this fountain and so did Clive of India. Charlemagne may have bathed in it — we know that was one of his hobbies. It feels a bit funny drinking an emperor’s bath water but I feel the need.
A pinch of the nose and a few swift gulps from the water bottle and I have purged my stomach of the last of the Finnish vodka. Pure again.