The Other Reichs: The First and Second Before Hitler's Third

Statue of Charlemagne by Agostino Cornacchini (1725), St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican, Italy

Myrabella/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

The German word 'reich' means 'empire,' although it can also be translated as government. In 1930s Germany, the Nazi party identified their rule as a Third Reich and, in doing so, gave English speakers around the world a wholly negative connotation to the word. Some people are surprised to find that the concept, and use, of three reichs is not a solely Nazi idea, but a common component of German historiography. This misconception stems from the use of 'Reich' as a totalitarian nightmare, and not as an empire. As you can tell, there were two reichs before Hitler made his third, but you might see reference to a fourth.

The First Reich: The Holy Roman Empire (800/962 - 1806)

Although the name dates to the twelfth-century reign of Frederick Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Empire had its origins over 300 years earlier. In 800 AD, Charlemagne was crowned emperor of a territory which covered much of western and central Europe; this created an institution that would remain, in one form or another, for over a thousand years. The Empire was reinvigorated by Otto I in the tenth century, and his imperial coronation in 962 has also been used to define the start of both the Holy Roman Empire and the First Reich. By this stage, Charlemagne's empire had been divided, and the remainder was based around a set of core territories occupying much the same area as modern Germany.

The geography, politics, and strength of this empire continued to fluctuate massively over the next eight hundred years but the imperial ideal, and the German heartland, remained. In 1806, the Empire was abolished by the then Emperor Francis II, partly as a response to the Napoleonic threat. Allowing for the difficulties in summarizing the Holy Roman Empire — which parts of a fluid thousand-year history do you select? — it was generally a loose confederation of many smaller, almost independent, territories, with little desire to vastly expand across Europe. It wasn't considered the first at this point, but a follow-up to the Roman Empire of the classical world; indeed Charlemagne was meant to be a new Roman leader.

The Second Reich: The German Empire (1871 - 1918)

The dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire, combined with a growing feeling of German nationalism, led to repeated attempts at unifying the multitude of German territories before a single state was created almost solely by the will of Otto von Bismarck, aided by the military skills of Moltke. Between 1862 and 1871, this great Prussian politician used a combination of persuasion, strategy, skill, and outright warfare to create a German Empire dominated by Prussia, and ruled by the Kaiser (who had very little to do with the creation of the empire he would rule). This new state, the Kaiserreich, grew to dominate European politics at the close of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries. In 1918, after defeat in the Great War, a popular revolution forced the Kaiser into abdication and exile; a republic was then declared. This second German Empire was largely the opposite of the Holy Roman, despite having the Kaiser as a similar imperial figurehead: a centralized and authoritarian state which, after the dismissal of Bismarck in 1890, maintained an aggressive foreign policy.

Bismarck was one of the geniuses of European history, in no small part because he knew when to stop. The Second Reich fell when it was ruled by people who didn't.

The Third Reich: Nazi Germany (1933 - 1945)

In 1933, President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of the German State, which, at that point, had been a democracy. Dictatorial powers and sweeping changes soon followed, as democracy disappeared and the country militarized. The Third Reich was to have been a vastly extended German Empire, expunged of minorities and lasting for a thousand years, but it was removed in 1945 by a combined force of allied nations, which included Britain, France, Russia, and the US. The Nazi state proved to be dictatorial and expansionist, with goals of ethnic 'purity' that formed a stark contrast to the first reich's broad assortment of peoples and places.

A Complication

When using the standard definition of the term, The Holy Roman, Kaiserreich, and Nazi states were certainly reichs, and you can see how they might have been tied together in the minds of 1930s Germans: from Charlemagne to the Kaiser to Hitler. But you'd be right to also ask, how connected were they, really? Indeed, the phrase 'three reichs' refers to something more than simply three empires. Specifically, it refers to the concept of 'three empires of German history.' This might not seem a great distinction, but it's a vital one when it comes to our understanding of modern Germany and what happened before and as that nation evolved.

Three Reichs of German History?

The history of modern Germany is often summarized as being 'three reichs and three democracies.' This is broadly correct, as modern Germany did indeed evolve out of a series of three empires — as described above — interspersed with forms of democracy; however, this does not automatically make the institutions German. While 'The First Reich' is a useful name for historians and students, applying it to the Holy Roman Empire is largely anachronistic. The imperial title and office of the Holy Roman Emperor drew, originally and in part, on the traditions of the Roman Empire, considering itself as an inheritor, not as the 'first.'

Indeed, it is highly debatable at what point, if ever, the Holy Roman Empire became a German body. Despite a near continuous core of land in northern central Europe, with a growing national identity, the reich extended into many of the modern surrounding territories, contained a mix of peoples, and was dominated for centuries by a dynasty of emperors commonly associated with Austria. To consider the Holy Roman Empire as solely German, rather than an institution within which there was a considerable German element, might be to lose some of this reich's character, nature, and importance. Conversely, the Kaiserreich was a German state — with an evolving German identity — that partly defined itself in relation to the Holy Roman Empire. The Nazi Reich was also built around one particular concept of being 'German;' indeed, this latter reich certainly considered itself a descendant of the Holy Roman and German Empires, taking the title 'third,' to follow them.

Three Different Reichs

The summaries given above may be very brief, but they are enough to show how these three empires were very different types of state; the temptation for historians has been to try and find some sort of linked progression from one to another. Comparisons between the Holy Roman Empire and the Kaiserreich began before this latter state was even formed. Historians and politicians of the mid 19th century theorized an ideal state, the Machtstaat, a "centralized, authoritarian and militarized power state" (Wilson, The Holy Roman Empire, Macmillan, 1999). This was, in part, a reaction to what they considered weaknesses in the old, fragmented, empire. The Prussian-led unification was welcomed by some as the creation of this Machtstaat, a strong German empire which focused around a new emperor, the Kaiser. However, some historians began to project this unification back into both the 18th century and the Holy Roman Empire, 'finding' a long history of Prussian intervention when 'Germans' were threatened.

Different again were the actions of some scholars in the aftermath of the Second World War, when attempts to understand how the conflict occurred led to the three reichs being seen as an inevitable progression through increasingly authoritarian and militarized governments.

Modern Use

An understanding of the nature and relationship of these three reichs is necessary for more than historical study. Despite a claim in the ​Chambers Dictionary of World History that "The term [Reich] is no longer used" (Dictionary of World History, ed. Lenman and Anderson, Chambers, 1993), politicians and others are fond of describing modern Germany, and even the European union, as a fourth Reich. They almost always use the term negatively, looking to the Nazi's and the Kaiser rather than the Holy Roman Empire, which might be a far better analogy for the current EU. Clearly, there is room for many differing opinions on the three 'German' reichs, and historical parallels are still being drawn with this term today.