TW Viewpoint | The Restoration of Rome Part 6 - Axis PowersFebruary 5, 2020 | Stuart Wachowicz
For centuries since the fall of the Roman Empire, repeated attempts have been made to achieve the elusive goal of European unity. Charlemagne, Otto I, Charles V and Napoleon all sought a confederation of Europe, largely through the mechanism of the Holy Roman Empire.
After the Council of Vienna (1814-1815), the map of Europe was redrawn, with much of the continent fragmented into small principalities and states. France was diminished and the German speaking areas, divided into 39 entities in addition to Prussia, with Austria technically dominant. Italy also had been divided into numerous states.
The middle of the 19th century saw many revolutionary movements and changes. By 1871 Italy had been united by Giuseppe Garibaldi, and in the north of Europe the Prussian Prime Minister, Otto Von Bismarck, had brought the fragmented German states into a new country called Germany, under Prussian leadership. Bismarck started and won two wars which made his German state the dominant power on the continent. Austria was defeated in 1866 in a quick seven week campaign, and later France was defeated in 1871 after a six month conflict. To further humiliate France, Bismarck arranged to have Prussian king Wilhelm I, crowned German Emperor or Kaiser (Caesar), in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, south of Paris, declaring the establishment of the Second Reich of the German people. The First Reich generally refers to the period of the Holy Roman Empire (AD 800-1806).
Shortly after the death of Wilhelm I, his second son Wilhelm II became the new Kaiser in 1888. One of his first acts was to dismiss the architect of the new German state, Bismarck. Without Bismarck’s guiding hand, Germany was soon plunged into World War I. By 1918 the new German Empire was in ruins – defeated and impoverished. The Second Reich is dead.
Subsequently, largely under pressure from France and Russia, the Treaty of Versailles imposes crushing and humiliating terms on Germany, making economic recovery from the war very difficult. Through the 1920’s, Germany, now a democracy (the Weimar Republic), experienced a period of great social liberalism, as did Italy. At this time there was a growing presence of leftist philosophy and extreme socialism, somewhat due to the Communist regime which had taken over Russia. This resulted in the development of a marked social tension between the socialist left and the conservative right. Matters rose to a head as a consequence of the great economic depression of the 1930’s.
It Italy, a young journalist, Benito Mussolini began a movement to counter Communist influences. In 1921 he founded the Fascist Party. In addition to the black shirts that identified party supporters, they adopted as their symbol, the emblem of authority of Imperial Rome, the “fasces”. This was a bundle of elm or birch rods containing an ax, after which his party was named.
Mussolini had grown up imagining himself a successor to the Caesars. On October 22, 1922 King Victor Emmanuel III calls upon Mussolini to form a government. To quell the riots that were overtaking much of Italy Mussolini is granted emergency powers and is soon declared the dictator of Italy.
In Germany the parliament of the Weimar Republic is hamstrung by the many competing parties. The Depression has hit Germany very hard. Financial depravation and runaway inflation, combined with a fear of the far left spawned anger and a call for order in society. Out of nowhere a formerly obscure Austrian artist, leading a party filled with anger toward those it blamed for Germany’s problems rises to power. In 1933, Adolph Hitler are asked to form a government. Once in power all opposition is brutally swept aside. The Third Reich of the German people has arrived.
In 1936 the Rome-Berlin Axis is formed. Hitler and Mussolini agree to coordinate their foreign policy. As it was since the days of Charlemagne and Otto the Great, the German speaking peoples and those of Italy tie their destinies together. Although the Nazis and Fascists were far from being religious, efforts were made to reach agreements with the Roman Catholic Church which still held some sway with European populations. The Church was then limited by the two dictators.
While it is very difficult even to compare the Roman Empire with its power, stability and longevity to the rather inept and unstable Mussolini, this new alliance did not shy away from references to Rome and its symbolism.
In addition to the “fasces”, Mussolini, in 1932, ordered that the handshake be replaced with the Roman salute (Politico, The Right Arm of Royalty, July 21, 2015).
Many supporters began to call him “Divine Caesar” (“The Days of Hitler’s Jackal”, The Spectator, Oct 22, 2005).
In Germany as well allusions to the Holy Roman Empire were frequent as Hitler spoke about the need to unite all Europeans under one tent.
Nazi leader Adolf Hitler imagined his dictatorial regime as the historical successor to two great German empires. By claiming for his government the mantle of the Third Reich, Hitler attempted to position himself within the larger context of German and European history. In his mind, Hitler’s “thousand-year Reich” would serve as the natural conclusion of a process that he traced back to the coronation of Charlemagne in 800 (“Why was Nazi Germany called the Third Reich?” Encyclopedia Britannica Online).
In Hitler’s own mind he was connected with Charlemagne and the dream of a unified Europe under German domination. This is reflected in a comment he made to Albert Speer in reference to the location of his mountain residence at Oberslazberg that overlooked Mount Untersberg, which according to legend is the place where Charlemagne sleeps, waiting to rise again with his knights and restore a glorious new Reich.
“You see the Untersberg over there. It is no accident I have my residence opposite it” (Hitler at Home, p 79, Despina Stratigakos).
Clearly in the minds of Hitler and Mussolini, there was the greater goal of establishing a unified Europe as a restoration of the glory of a unified Roman Empire. Their efforts of course resulted in the horror of World War II.
The Rome-Berlin Axis collapsed in rubble in the very war they started, leaving tens of millions dead and many more homeless and destitute and a continent in ruin.
The sixth attempt to restore the Empire of Rome and the “1000 year Reich” had ended.