|An ancient Roman mosaic from Lyon, France. The Swastika is nothing new, but Naziism was good at appropriating former symbols and even empires.|
We are so accustomed to speaking of "The Third Reich" that the term has become synonymous with Adolf Hitler's empire of 1933-1945. However, that term may be popular, but it is not accurate. There was an actual name for Germany (and its conquests) for the period, and "Third Reich" is not it.
Origins of the Term "Third Reich"
In order to understand what the term "Third Reich" meant, it is helpful to have a little background on why it was the "third." There were two previous "reichs," though they may not have thought of themselves as part of any kind of succession. Below are quick summaries.
The First Reich
The first reich was the Holy Roman Empire, aka the Heiliges Römisches Reich. It derived from an empire created by Charles Martel, who took over a previous agglomeration of Frankish tribes in northern Gaul and the middle Rhine River valley area. This earlier grouping, the Merovingians of Clovis I, had formed order out of the chaos that resulted from the fall of the western Roman Empire.
Martel, "The Hammer," was not really a king, but more a power-behind-the-throne type. His family became known as the "Carolingians." Martel had two sons, Pepin and Carloman, between whom he split up the kingdom upon his death (the Hammer was a real power behind the throne). Everyone remembers Pepin; nobody remembers Carloman, because he essentially lost a power struggle with Pepin (he retired to monastic life "voluntarily," and eventually Pepin imprisoned him; it was not how Carloman wanted it to play out at all).
Pepin, unlike his father, became an actual king in 751, when Pope Stephen II travelled across the Alps to crown him in Paris. The Pope made him "patricius Romanorum (Patrician of the Romans)," and it was the first time a Pope had crowned anyone. Pepin had his first son, Charles, probably around 742. Pepin died in 768, and Charles was supposed to share Pepin's kingdom with his younger brother, also named Carloman. However, Carloman died "of natural causes" in December 771, and Charles essentially took over everything and began calling himself "Charles the Great" (Charlemagne), which also happened to be a traditional French baby name.
Charlemagne was the most powerful man in Europe, and had great military success. The current Pope, Leo, on the other hand, was absolutely powerless and hated by the people in Rome. He travelled to see Charlemagne to get help, and Charlemagne took him back to Rome to set things straight. He stayed there through the winter of 800, and what came next was a bit of a mystery to everyone, including both Charlemagne and later historians. While Charlemagne was at mass on Christmas Day, he knelt at the altar in St. Peter's. Pope Leo came over and, apparently on his own initiative, cropped a crown on his head and called him Imperator Romanorum ("Emperor of the Romans").
This was a bit tricky, because there already was an emperor - or rather, an empress, Irene in Constantinople. Since Irene was a woman, Pope Leo decided that the position of emperor was vacant, and thus he could give it to whomsoever he pleased. There is a great deal of agreement that Charlemagne in fact was behind the whole thing and had tasked Leo to crown him emperor in exchange for Charlemagne restoring Leo to power in Rome.
|One does not have to look very hard to find direct borrowings by the Nazis from the various incarnations of the Roman Empire.|
Naturally, the Byzantines were not too thrilled about this. They were the true Roman Empire, unbroken from the time of Julius Caesar. The west, though, had only been giving lip service to the idea of the Byzantine ruler being an actual emperor for centuries. Charlemagne simply took advantage of a loophole - the supposed vacancy of the throne - and this created the argument that he now was the actual emperor, not just of the west, but also of the east. The Byzantines and the west now each had an emperor, and each could claim with more or less sincerity that theirs was the "true" emperor.
This, incidentally, is a subject which even people in the field habitually get wrong. Charlemagne's ascension had absolutely nothing to do with succeeding to Romulus Augustulus, the previous western Roman emperor deposed in 476. There was no "western emperor" slot except by agreement between both halves of the empire. That had been an administrative convenience and practical reality, but in 800, there was one and only emperor - Irene. She was the legitimate successor in the continuous line of Roman Emperors. That is, unless you decided that a woman could not be emperor, in which case the throne was vacant and the Pope was the one with authority to fill it.
The Holy Roman Empire, as it was not styled, lasted through 45 official monarchs and a number of other claimants. It increasingly became more of a fiction than a reality - just as Byzantine claims over western Europe had been in 800. By the time of Napoleon, it was relegated to power in Austria. When Napoleon for all intents and purposes defeated the Hapsburgs, Francis II decided that it was better to do away with the whole thing than to be forced to give the Corsican tyrant added legitimacy. Accordingly, on 6 August 1806, Francis sent a herald decked out in full Imperial court regalia to a medieval church in the center of Vienna, where he ascended to a balcony, blew on a silver trumpet, and announced the end of the Holy Roman Empire after 1005 years.
The Second Reich
Napoleon, of course, came and went. His family, though, hung around, and eventually his nephew Napoléon Bonaparte became, in 1852, the Emperor of the Second French Empire. It wasn't much of an empire - he was just ruler of France - but this gave the next reich something to build upon.
|Portrait de l'empereur Napoleon III (1808-1873) (artist Franz Xaver Winterhalter).|
After the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire, the multitudinous German baronies and duchies and so forth (the "Kleinstaaterei") began to realize that they needed to organize in order to fend off the era's great powers such as France and Great Britain. The Congress of Vienna in 1815, rather than try to reinstate the Holy Roman Empire, created something new out of whole cloth: the German Confederation. This became a military state dominated by Prussia, and had a lot of success. The German Confederation ended in 1866, when it was replaced by the North German Confederation as a result of the Austro-Prussian war of 1866.
Napoleon III was a popular ruler, and he stirred the pot in various places around the world, including Mexico. However, the French military was in a state of decline, and the Germans noticed. Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck decided to instigate a crisis, and he used an opening on the Spanish throne to goad the French into war (the "Ems Dispatch," which was calculated to offend Napoleon III. It did, and he very unwisely declared war on the Prussians on 19 July 1870.
|William I is proclaimed German Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, France (painting by Anton von Werner).|
After a series of humiliating defeats, capped by his own capture at Sedan on 2 September 1870, Napoleon III lost his empire due to an uprising in Paris. Basically, the Germans occupied most of France except for Paris itself. The Germans were militarily ascendant, so the North German Confederation's legislature, called the Reichstag, decided to rename its state the German Empire. The new German Emperor (styled the "Kaiser," a corruption of "Caesar") was William I, the King of Prussia, who also was the President of the Confederation. He was crowned at Versailles, which the Germans then occupied. This is considered by many to be the military high point of post-medieval German history.
The German Empire lasted only about 48 years. Defeat in World War I led to the abdication and banishment of the current Kaiser, Wilhelm II. The Second Reich was not much, especially compared to the first Reich's 1005 years of history, but it had one advantage in the memory of Germans of the 1920: it was recent.
The Third Reich
The Germans by now had gotten used to the idea of empire, even though they no longer had one (and the one that they had had was hardly worthy of the name). Once again, as in the post-Holy Roman Empire era, the German people felt at loose ends, as if they needed something to unite around.
|Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, who committed suicide in 1925.|
A German "cultural historian," Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, saw this longing. He wrote a book, Das Dritte Reich ("The Third Reich"), in 1923. Van Den Bruck, like most historians, was just compiling and regurgitating various nineteenth-century Volkisch philosophical writings. It did not seem to trouble anyone that Charlemagne himself was as much French as German, or that the Holy Roman Empire only acquired a Germanic flavor over time as its center of gravity shifted eastward. In fact, one could say the whole idea was more Italian than either French or German. In essence, Van Den Bruck and the others were almost stealing another nation's empire and calling it their own. The term "Third Reich," though, resonated with Germans the way that, say, the term "Manifest Destiny" resonated with Americans of the nineteenth century. It stuck.
This book had nothing to do with Hitler, who was just one of many rabble-rousers at the time. However, it firmly established the order of succession of the Holy Roman Empire as the First Reich and the Bismarck creation as the Second Reich. The thesis of Bruck's book was that a third and final Reich would build on the first two and, after a right-wing revolution, finally get things right.
Post-war nationalists loved the idea of another Reich in the offing, so the book was fairly popular. Bruck was particularly interesting to Hitler's party, the National Socialist German Workers' Party (the NSDAP), because he had written a book in 1918, Das Recht der jungen Völker ("The Right Of Young Nations"), which posited Russia/Soviet Union as representing the extreme of communism and the United States as representing the extreme of capitalism. The clear implication of that book is that Germany could create a successful middle road between those two extremes, which seemed tailor-made for the National Socialist party.
The Nazis adopted "The Third Reich" as a political slogan, but it never really fit. Bruck met Hitler and didn't like him, noting his "proletarian primitiveness." Hitler also was not a huge fan of the term "Third Reich" itself, feeling that "third" implied impermanence. Anti-regime propaganda had taken to referring to a "Fourth Reich" and used that as a wedge to promote overcoming the Third. Christian groups also sneered at the inclusion of the Holy Roman Empire as part of the lineage of the current distinctly atheistic Nazi regime (though, as Voltaire pointed out, there was never anything particularly holy about the Holy Roman Empire). There also was something just so, oh, puerile about naming an entire empire after some unknown historian's book.
Hitler preferred the term "Thousand-Year Reich," which signified a sort of eternal quality. The official name of the German state beginning in 1933 actually was Deutsches Reich.
The term "Third Reich" remained so popular that even German state agencies, not knowing Hitler's view of the term, used it repeatedly. Hitler grew increasingly dissatisfied with the term; his idea was something bigger than just another short-lived German military dictatorship like the Second Reich. His goal was to unite the Germanic peoples around the world, not just govern a country. His conquests of Austria and Czechoslovakia were key steps in that plan, and he had his eyes on the ethnic Germans in Poland and the Baltic States. With his gaze wandering to more distant shores, he looked to break out of the limiting "Third Reich" term.
Kassel and Großdeutsches Reich
Hitler's chance to make a clean break with the term "Third Reich" came in mid-1939. On 2-4 June 1939, the city of Kassel hosted the First Greater German Reich Warrior Meeting. While this sounds kind of silly, sort of like a bunch of guys going off in the woods and beating their chests, this was a big deal in pre-war Nazi Germany. A total of 300,000 Wehrmacht troops attended, along with about 200,000 civilians. Hitler, as usual, flew in at the last minute to review the military parade and give a big speech. He invited the foreign ambassadors of Japan, Finland, Hungary and other nations that he wanted to impress.
|Hitler in Kassel.|
The Kassel event was a rousing success. The crowd was assembled using 119 special trains, and the visitors were quartered in local homes and anywhere else that room could be found (including tents). The crowd was fed using huge kettles which dished out 360,000 meals at a time. Hitler flew in, reviewed the troops, gave his speech (which was distinctly anti-British and focused on that perennial staple of inter-war German angst, the lost colonies) and left in his custom Junkers Ju 52 promptly by 19:00. Less is more, as the saying goes.
Hitler used the meeting to demark his new emphasis on pan-Germanism. Upon returning to Berlin, he crafted a new directive to all state agencies: as of 13 June 1939, they were no longer to use the term "Third Reich." Instead, henceforth, the proper way to refer to Nazi Germany was "Großdeutsches Reich," or Greater German Empire. That certainly sounded more imposing.
The reorientation away from this "Third Reich" business took some subtle forms. The Holy Roman Empire's creator, Charlemagne, was used as the name for a Wehrmacht unit of French collaborators, Brigade Charlemagne/33 Waffen-Grenadier Division der SS "Charlemagne." This subtly showed that the German Nazi state was not a true heir to that earlier "reich," whose founder's name could be best applied to collaborators.
As Hitler's own empire crumbled, he finally began using the term "Third Reich" again. By that point, Goebbels' propaganda also was showing nuns in Nazi newsreels, so things most definitely had changed. The names used to describe Hitler's rule were just there to express a certain viewpoint, so there is nothing sacrosanct about them.
Kaiser Wilhelm had this to say about Hitler:
“There is a man alone, without family, without children, without God....He builds legions but he doesn’t build a nation. A nation is created by families, a religion, and tradition: it is made up out of the hearts of mothers, the wisdom of fathers, the joy and the exuberance of children. [Of Germany under Hitler he says]....an all-swallowing State, disdainful of human dignities and the ancient structure of our race, sets itself up in place of everything else. And the man, who, alone, incorporates in himself this whole State, has neither a God to honor nor a dynasty to conserve, nor a past to consult....Kaiser Wilhelm disassociated himself from the Nazi regime over its treatment of Jews and other, and felt that the only proper course would have been the restoration of his own Reich. This really completes the case that the Third Reich had absolutely nothing to do with the first two, and thus Hitler was correct about this one thing: the term Third Reich was a complete misnomer.
For a few months I was inclined to believe in National Socialism. I thought of it as a necessary fever. And I was gratified to see that there were, associated with it for a time, some of the wisest and most outstanding Germans. But these, one by one, he has got rid of or even killed....He has left nothing but a bunch of shirted gangsters....
This man could bring home victories to our people each year without bringing them...glory....But of our Germany, which was a nation of poets and musicians and artists and soldiers, he has made a nation of hysterics and hermits, engulfed in a mob and led by a thousand liars or fanatics....”