Peter Wilson’s HEART OF EUROPE, or The Holy Roman Empire, the Central-European Colossus, Explained

Say “the Holy Roman Empire” and you are likely to get one of four responses.

The person you are speaking to thinks you are talking about the Roman Catholic Church.

The person thinks you mean the Roman Empire.

You get the knee-jerk reply, “It wasn’t holy, Roman, nor an empire,” the person most likely unaware that they are quoting French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire.

You get a blank stare.

The Holy Roman Empire is arguably the best kept out-in-the-open secret of pre-modern European history. Located at the center of the European continent, it was a dominating force in European politics, religion, and warfare for nearly one thousand years.

It was in the Holy Roman Empire that the Roman Catholic Church faced its first major secular opposition through the Investiture Controversy. It was in the Holy Roman Empire that Martin Luther published his 95 Theses. It was in the Holy Roman Empire that Protestantism as a third branch of Christianity developed. It was because of decisions made in the Holy Roman Empire that Spain became an Empire in and of itself. The Holy Roman Empire is where the Thirty Years War, the most destructive military conflict on the European continent, second only to World War II, was fought. The Thirty Years War ended in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia, negotiated and signed in the Holy Roman Empire, and which continues to influence international politics to this day. The Holy Roman Empire is the First Reich to Adolf Hitler’s Third.

And still so few have heard of it.

One reason for the obscurity of the Holy Roman Empire could be that it is notoriously difficult to define. Starting with when the Empire existed, there is consensus that it ended in 1806 when it was dissolved to prevent Napoleon Bonaparte from getting his hands on the Imperial title. But when did it begin? Some scholars say with Charlemagne (9th century), some with Otto I (10th century). When did the Empire get its name? No one really knows. What is the Empire’s name? Well, that depends.

Another reason for the Empire’s obscurity could be that the vocabulary we use today to explain geopolitical territories lacks the words to describe what the Empire was. In one way, Voltaire was right; the Holy Roman Empire was not holy, not Roman, and not an Empire. Granted, there was an Emperor who ruled over it, which by definition makes it an Empire. Furthermore, this Emperor claimed to be the successor of the Emperors of the actual Roman Empire. But when the Holy Roman Empire came into existence, Rome had been gone from the European continent for more than three hundred years.

Moreover, the territory the Holy Roman Emperor ruled consisted of a plethora of political and judicial entities–secular and clerical, alike–who all had a different relationship to the Emperor as a person and as a sovereign. To complicate matters further, the Emperor didn’t inherit his position; he was elected by an Electoral College. Whom these Electors elected depended as much on politics and alliances as it did on pedigree. The extent of the lands that the Emperor ruled depended on the person, meaning that depending on the martial prowess of the medieval Emperors or the family ties of the early-modern Emperors, the Holy Roman Empire stretched and contracted based on who was elected Emperor.

To avoid having to get into the intricacies of the Holy Roman Empire at any given time when discussing medieval and early-modern European history, “Germany” has become sort of a short-hand, which in one way is correct because the Empire did cover much of what is Germany today, and over time, it became formally known as the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. But it is also incorrect because the Holy Roman Empire included parts of what is today Austria, France, BeNeLux, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Italy.

Swedish historian Harald Gustafsson perhaps says it best when he describes the Holy Roman Empire as “a complicated entity that floated around the map of Central Europe for a thousand years.” (my transl.)

In an attempt to make sense of this complicated thing that floated around on a map and claimed to be something it was not, historian Peter H. Wilson wrote his book Heart of Europe (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2020). Similar to the subject it tackles, the book is a colossus, clocking in on 1,008 pages (one page for each year the Empire existed?).

Instead of tracing the Empire’s history chronologically, Wilson comes at it thematically. Each chapter deals with one aspect of the Empire’s complicated existence. Still, the internal structure of each chapter is chronological so that once you get to the end of the book, you also get to the end of the Empire.

The thematic structure works well because it enables the reader to pick and choose what to read and delve deeper into. It also works well because where most histories of the Empire focus on its early-modern history, this approach gives ample room to discuss the Empire’s medieval history, without which the developments of the early-modern period would be difficult to understand (e.g., the explosiveness of the Reformation can only be fully understood if you are aware of the severity and the repercussions of the Investiture Controversy).

The problem with the thematic structure is that it becomes difficult to locate where specific turning points in the history of the Empire are explained. Same thing with terms of art, which in the case of the Empire’s government bureaucracy are numerous and often in German. The book contains a glossary and an index, but the glossary is quite short and the index quite long, which results in neither of them being particularly helpful. There is a chronology, but because the Empire existed for as long as it did, the chronology is 55 pages long and still only skims the surface.

The book contains several maps that chart the development of the Empire from its beginnings to its end, and present some of the many Leagues that formed as a result of shifting political, religious, and dynastic alliances over the centuries. The maps are detailed and meticulous, and provide a welcome visual aspect to the complicated internal structure of the Empire. Also included are the family trees of the most significant family groups and dynasties that dominated the position of Emperor in the Middle Ages and the Early-Modern Period.

Peter H. Wilson’s Heart of Europe is a much-needed deep dive into the complicated history of the Holy Roman Empire, the knowledge of which is crucial to the understanding of European history, from the Middle Ages until today.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

History Judges But Who Is Presiding Part 2: Joan Wallach Scott’s ON THE JUDGMENT OF HISTORY

In 2014, I wrote a post here on The Boomerang about a phrase I kept hearing and which puzzled me, “History will judge…” Pundits and politicians alike were throwing this phrase around as if there in the future existed a panel of historians expected to pass judgment on humanity based on our actions (or in-actions).

Since I wrote that blog post six years ago, this phrase has come into even heavier rotation as chaos and morally ambiguous behavior became the norm on behalf of members of our executive branch, and, to some extent, our legislative branch as well.

I am not alone in thinking about the use of this phrase. Historian and Professor Emerita Joan Wallach Scott became puzzled by it in 2019 when a friend of hers commented on the anti-climax of the Mueller Report by saying that history would judge those who worked to corrupt the democracy of the United States.

This exchange sent Wallach Scott on an investigative journey to find the origins and the meaning of the concept of history as an agent of judgment. The result of that journey is the book, On the Judgment of History (Columbia University Press, 2020).

To investigate the meaning of this concept, Wallach Scott presents three case studies–the Nuremberg Trials following World War II, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa following the dismantling of Apartheid, and the movement for Reparations in the United States. What binds these case studies together is that they “explore the different ways in which the idea of the state as the embodiment and enactment of history operated.” (p. xx). Moreover, they engage directly with the nation state as the telos of history; they highlight the connection between nation states and racism; and they demonstrate the use of the nation state as the impetus for what the people involved intend to achieve. In the case of the Nuremberg trials, the goal is the conviction of the war criminals who perpetrated the Holocaust. In the case of South Africa’s TRC, a path forward out of Apartheid. In the case of the Reparations Movement, a reckoning with the United States’ original sin, slavery.

The case studies are based on extensive and impeccable research, as would be expected of a historian of Wallach Scott’s caliber. It raises several important questions, explicitly (“Could the nation state exist without racism at its core?” (p. xxii)) and implicitly (What is the purpose of history?) In her case studies, Wallach Scott demonstrates how history has been utilized (Nuremberg), deferred (South Africa), and challenged (the US). In the end, however, the case studies only partially succeed in addressing the issue at hand, namely why we today refer to history as an impartial, moral judge.

Wallach Scott shows us where the idea of History as Judge comes from by stating that it “is associated with the Enlightenment belief that there is but one History, which moves in an ever-improving direction: forward, upward, cumulatively positive.” (p. xv) Because of its origins in the Enlightenment, this One History of forward-moving positivity is inherently European, male, white, colonial, Christian (Protestant, to be exact), intrinsically intertwined with the development of the nation state, and the view of the nation state as the culmination of human civilization (or the nation state as telos).

To answer the question of why this phrase has caught on the way it has, Wallach Scott states that in an increasingly secular age, History has become the “righteous Judge of the Universe.” (p. 76) That is to say, where people used to turn to God on Judgment Day for the separation of sheep and goats, we now turn to History in a future deferred.

These conclusions have led me to the following conclusions of my own.

First, as Wallach Scott concludes, the idea of History as a moral judge is an expression of increased secularism in the United States. But, it is also an expression of the normalization of Apocalyptic Christianity in the American mainstream. Writes Wallach Scott, “The unveiling of the role of race in the economic history of the United States explodes long-standing, congratulatory progressive histories as myth. [—] This acknowledgment is a form of restitution and it opens the possibility for reclaiming the lost promise of justice, the messianic hope of the judgment of history.” (My italics.) Wallach Scott’s decision not to delve deeper into this view of history is the book’s lost opportunity.

Second, there is a conspiracy at the heart of American history and the argument over what that conspiracy is, is the reason for the seemingly irreconcilable polarization in American society today. I agree with Wallach Scott’s conclusion that “appeals to the judgment of history […] function more as consolatory polemic in the present than as evidence of deep confidence in the future.” (p. 82) There is no doubt that American society is in crisis. Until we can start having a constructive conversation about the buried secrets of our past, we will continue to be a society in crisis. History will not save us, because, as Wallach Scott also states, History with a capital H is written by a group of highly trained and specialized professionals known as historians. It is not a force of its own.

Finally, the idea of History as a Moral Judge of Good and Evil is an American idea and based on American values, which in the mainstream are Christian (Protestant, to be exact) values. Of the three case studies that Wallach Scott presents, two use history to pass judgment and one does not. It is not a coincidence that the two in question (Nuremberg, Reparations) involve Americans in leading roles. The third (the TRC) was an internal South African affair. As a historian trained and educated entirely outside of the American educational system, I reacted to the use of the phrase “History will judge” already in 2014 because the idea that such a notion is even possible was (and is) completely alien to me.

On the Judgment of History by Joan Wallach Scott is a thought-provoking book that opens up for discussion on the role of history and what history is and can be. Ultimately, the book misses its mark because in its choice of case studies, it becomes a demonstration of the belief that the internal concerns of the United States are also the concerns of the world.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

One Year with the Passion Planner: Leveling Up

In the summer of 2019, I realized it was time for a change. I had been using the same calendar to plan my work since 1995 when I enrolled in my first university course. The calendar I’d been using was the Filofax, a professional calendar that doubles as a binder. Inside the cover, you fasten an annual paper calendar, which you exchange for a new one when the next year starts. For years, the Filofax filled every need I had. But last year, I noticed that I reached for it less often as I entered less information.

Just as when I started using the Filofax all those years ago, my life in 2019 was no longer what it used to be. I started using the Filofax when I went from high school to university. Now, as a university instructor who also publishes articles as a freelancer while simultaneously working on a book project, my professional life had become much more complex and the Filofax, I was sad to realize, couldn’t keep up anymore.

Once I made the decision to move on, the next step was easy. A while back there was a conversation in a Slack channel I belonged to where a group of my fellow Contributors to an online book site were raving about this planner they were using. It was called the Passion Planner. The years I spent in this community had taught me to trust the judgment of its people. So, when the time came to find myself a new planner, I knew where to go.

The Passion Planner is called a Passion Planner for a reason. It helps you plan your weekly schedule and professional to-dos while also providing you with tools to track and plan your passions, whatever they may be.

Large black calendar called a Passion Planner with a soft fabric pencil case with an image from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit
The original annual elite black Passion Planner, size large, together with my Tolkien pencil case from Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. Photo: Erika Harlitz-Kern.

The Passion Planner comes in several different versions. I chose the original Passion Planner with the weekly layout that starts on Sunday. I decided to buy the large-sized planner because what I was missing with the Filofax was the ability to get a literal overview of the week.

Not only does the Passion Planner give you an easy overview of each week, it also provides tools for creating an overview of your life. At the very beginning of the Passion Planner, there are mind maps where you can set up goals for 3 months, 1 year, 3 years, and your entire lifetime. In between June and July, there is a six-month check in, and after December there is a summary of the year.

Each month begins with a spread that contains the monthly calendar as well as goals for the coming month, such as what to focus on professionally and personally, people to see, places to go, and things to learn. Each week contains space for setting similar types of goals, as well as personal and professional to-do lists, an inspirational quote that sets a theme for the week, and a large blank box called “Space of Infinite Possibility.” At the very end of the Passion Planner are blank pages that you are free to use as you wish. On the inside of the back cover, there is a generous pocket, similar to the one you will find at the back of a Moleskin notebook. The Passion Planner has an elastic to keep the planner closed and a permanent book mark of silk that will help you keep track of where you are among its many pages.

As I’m sure you have understood by now, the Passion Planner is a big book. It’s not something you cram into your pocket, or even into a large purse. But the way I see it, that’s not the purpose of the Passion Planner. The Passion Planner demands you to sit down and engage with it, and in engaging with your Planner you are also engaging with your own life situation.

How I have engaged with my Passion Planner is plain to see on its pages. January through March are oriented towards tasks and achievements. The goals I set for those months and weeks are mostly work related, and I can tell that I was under a lot of pressure and stress.

Towards the end of March, things begin to change. The change comes not from one of the weekly inspirational quotes, but from the Passion Planner editor’s comment on that quote. The comment reads, “Focus on working smarter, not harder.” From then on, every week I wrote as my goal: Work smarter, not harder. Still together with work related tasks that I needed to complete.

In mid-May, I added a second goal, this one in the form of a question that I got from Dan Rather in one of the very few interviews where he is the interviewee. This question has been his guiding question throughout his life, and it’s now also mine, “Will this take me where I want to go?”

I abandoned the task oriented goals completely in the final week of May. And in mid-June, I added my third goal, which was Bruce Lee’s motto, “Be water.”

Since then, each new month and week, I have set the same three goals.
Work smarter, not harder.
Will this take me where I want to go?
Be water.

These three goals evolved organically over the course of six months working with the Passion Planner. In combination with the self-reflective pages at the end of each month and the long-term mind maps, the tasks gradually shifted to the to-do lists, the daily schedule, and the Space of Infinite Possibility. Instead of setting up achievement-oriented goals for myself, I began setting up goal-oriented goals.

After one year with the Passion Planner, I can safely say that I have leveled up. Not only in how I plan and keep track of my work, but also in how I plan and keep track of my life. Will I continue using the Passion Planner in 2021? Absolutely. I bought my next year’s Planner already in September.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

A Writer’s Tools of Her Trade: The Importance of a Good Pencil Case and Calendar

When I turned thirteen, my Mom gave me a pencil case. I was starting junior high school (högstadiet) in the fall and would no longer have my own desk where I could keep my stuff. Instead I would be given a locker and carry everything I needed from class to class. I used that pencil case throughout junior high and high school (gymnasiet), as a university student and beyond until the summer of 2019 when the zipper broke irreparably.

I immediately set out to find a new pencil case. Since I am a historian and book critic of history and speculative fiction, I needed a pencil case that suited my professional needs in more ways than one.

First of all, the pencil case needed to be soft. When history and writing are your line of work, you are a writer, a scholar, and a teacher all at the same time. This means that your pencil case needs to hold a large amount of stuff of different shapes and sizes. In my case, this stuff consists of pens, pencils, whiteboard markers and highlighters of different colors, erasers, and small cases of 0.5 HB graphite rods (or “leads”) for my mechanical pencil.

Second, the pencil case needed to have a historical and/or speculative fiction theme. Museum gift shops are an often-overlooked resource for fun, innovative, and unique things, and after much searching among various online museum shops, I found what I was looking for at University of Oxfords’ Bodleian Library: a soft pencil case with a picture from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, painted by the author himself. The pencil case was part of the official Tolkien merchandise collection, and it was absolutely perfect. Because I had to order it from England, the postage cost nearly as much as the pencil case itself and the delivery took nearly six weeks.

After using this pencil case for a year now, I can tell you that it was time and money well spent.

Passion Planner and The Hobbit pencil case.

Around the same time that my old trusted pencil case kicked the bucket, I also realized that I needed to get a new calendar. When I became a university student, the pocket-sized calendars I’d used as a high school student didn’t suit my needs anymore. So I moved on to the professional calendar that was all the rage at the time–the Filofax.

The Filofax is a clever type of professional calendar in that you purchase a cover that doubles as a binder. Inside the cover, you fasten an annual paper calendar, which you at the end of the year remove and replace with the paper calendar of the next year. The cover and the paper calendars are available in different types. My Filofax was a medium-sized cover in green calf leather, and the calendar I used was the Swedish (sometimes pan-Scandinavian) weekly spread starting on Mondays that also came with a political world map, a time zone world map, national holidays for all countries in the world, an address book, and extra pages for note taking.

I continued using the Filofax after I moved to the US, but using a Swedish calendar when you no longer live in Sweden is actually not a good idea. But, when you are in the habit of doing something and that habit still works for you, why change it?

Last year, I realized that I hardly used my Filofax anymore. Instead, I used note pads for lists and appointments while the Filofax lay untouched for days. At the same time, I was writing articles and book reviews for magazines and online publications. Instead of writing down deadlines and other information I needed to keep track of in the Filofax, I used the Excel spread sheet I had originally created to keep track of my pitches and submissions.

Whereas finding a new pencil case proved tricky and required a couple of months of searching, finding a new calendar turned out to be easy. I remembered a conversation on the Slack channel hosted by an online book site where I used to be a Contributor where my fellow Contributors were raving about a calendar known as the Passion Planner. From experience I knew to trust the judgment of this particular group of people, so without further ado I got myself a Passion Planner.

The Passion Planner I ordered was the large-sized, black classic Passion Planner with one week per spread that starts on Sundays. It was a bit pricey, I thought, when I placed my order, but then again, I had just ordered a pencil case from England because it answered to my needs, so I decided to take a chance, despite the cost.

Reader, I am very happy that I took that chance. After one year with the Passion Planner, I no longer use note pads and the Excel spread sheet is only for tracking pitches (whatever few there are during the pandemic). Also, I find it easier to get an overview of what I need to do each week than I did with the Filofax. In fact, I am so happy with my Passion Planner that I ordered my Planner for 2021 already in September.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Book Review Round-Up

I’ve been reviewing some interesting books for Foreword Reviews lately, and I thought I’d share those reviews with you. Hopefully they will introduce you to books you might be interested in reading. Enjoy!


Mary McAuliffe, Paris, City of Dreams. Napoleon III, Baron Haussmann, and the Creation of Paris. (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).
The re-creation of Paris from a medieval urban maze to the city of lights and boulevards comes to life in Mary McAuliffe’s historical exposé Paris, City of Dreams.




Sam Van Schaik, Buddhist Magic. Divination, Healing, and Enchantment through the Ages (Shambala Publications, 2020).
Sam Van Schaik’s historical investigation Buddhist Magic reveals the significance and historical roots of magic in modern Buddhism.





Lynn M. Hudson, West of Jim Crow. The Fight against California’s Color Line. (University of Illinois Press, 2020).
California’s history of racist legislation against Black Americans is brought to light in Lynn M. Hudson’s West of Jim Crow.



In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.