(For a Norwegian version of this article, please see here.)
The Norwegian professor of sociology Stein Rokkan (1921-1979) is internationally recognized as a pioneer of the discipline of comparative politics. Rokkan analyzed the interplay of politics, economy, culture, and territory in the emergence of modern Europe. His original interest in the development of political participation expanded to encompass the evolution of Western European party systems and nation-states in general.
Rokkan’s «great paradox»
Rokkan found a “great paradox” in the history of European nation-building. He was puzzled that the modern nation-state did not emerge in the middle of Europe, where it could have followed in the footpath of the ancient Roman Empire, as it were, but rather in its immediate periphery. According to Rokkan, the Italian and German territories in the centre remained fragmented and dispersed until the nineteenth century, whereas the modern, centralized state was forged centuries earlier in France, England and Scandinavia (Rokkan 1999: 128, 145, 159).
The explanation, Rokkan argued, was the existence of a large number of strong and autonomous cities in the middle area stretching from central Italy to the North and Baltic Seas. He called this territory the “city-belt” (or sometimes “trade belt”, “middle belt”, “city-studded centre”, “city-state Europe”, “heartland” or “dorsal spine”). Rokkan thought there were simply too many and too strong cities in the middle of Europe for any centralizing prince to succeed in establishing a territorial state there.
According to Rokkan, the main source of the city-belt’s strength and autonomy was the increase in trade between northern and southern Europe in the High Middle Ages. Trade and communications within the city-belt was facilitated by roads built by the ancient Romans, by Roman law, by the network of the supranational Roman Church, and by the common script of Latin. Later the city-belt deteriorated as a result of the growth of regional Northern European and Atlantic trade.
The situation in the “periphery” (the areas north and west of the city-belt) was different. Here the territory was less urbanized, the economy more agricultural and the church and script more national, especially after the Reformation. This eased the kings’ promotion of one predominant city, the future capital, from which they could conquer the countryside and establish a centralized, territorial state, the future nation-state. The notion of the city-belt is central to Rokkan’s thinking about European state- and nation-building, and is probably also the single idea with which his name is most often associated.
There is less awareness that Rokkan also argued that the city-belt was the nucleus of what is today the European Union:
It is no accident of history that the Roman Law countries were the ones to take the lead [….] in the struggle for a supranational Europe. The conflict over extension of the Common Market is very much a conflict between the economically cross-cut city-belt at the centre and the culturally distinctive territorial systems in the peripheries of this Roman Europe (Rokkan 1999: 167-168).
However, it seems that Rokkan’s idea of the city-belt has not yet been thoroughly scrutinized (see note 2 below). In this article I will first evaluate Rokkan’s notion of the city-belt against historians» views of medieval European cities. Concluding that its empirical basis is weak, I propose an alternative explanation of “the great paradox” and thus also of the historical roots of the European Union. Here I emphasize the intertwined development of European international relations and of the Holy Roman Empire. A federal empire sustained by the European balance of power in my opinion accounts for the late emergence of the nation-state – and early emergence of the European Union – in what should be called “Imperial Europe” rather than “City-Belt Europe”. Not by coincidence was the EU founded mainly by Catholic politicians from the regions of the old Empire.
City-belt Europe reconsidered
As the Norwegian historian Jens Arup Seip pointed out in 1975, Rokkan operates at a high level of generalization and with considerable conceptual fluidity (Seip 1975). Also he was constantly revising his theories. This inevitably raises questions about historical accuracy as well as theoretical consistency. Rokkan’s notion of the city-belt, so central to his whole theoretical edifice, is particularly vulnerable to such questioning.
Rokkan was not too specific about either the timing or the territory of the city-belt. He does not define it exactly, only describes it variously as “city-state Europe”, “a closely knit string of cities, first within the Roman, later within the German-Roman Empire [along] the decisive trade routes northwards, from Italy across the Alps to the North Sea and the Baltic” (Rokkan 1999: 156), “cities of the trade route belt from the Mediterranean to the North Sea and the Baltic”, a “south-north […] city-studded centre”, “a network of strong and independent cities” (Rokkan 1999:159).
It is unclear what Rokkan meant by “city” in this context. What should be the size of an urban concentration in order to qualify as a city? How autonomous did the cities have to be to qualify for the role he assigns to them? When and to what extent was trade between cities, and notably long-distance trade between Italy and the North Sea and Baltic cities, extensive enough to ensure the autonomy of the city-belt? If we explore these questions, it emerges that there were several south-north trade routes in Europe, but they can hardly be said to have sustained a “belt” pattern of trading cities along their different paths (Kinder og Hilgemann, 1977; McEvedy, 1992: 103; Mackay og Ditchburn, 1997: 130, 133; Bagge, 2004: 230).
Moreover, overland trade between north and south was probably significantly smaller than Rokkan seems to have thought, and the extent of maritime trade proportionally greater. From the end of the twelfth century an increasingly lively trade in textiles, skins, furs and spices gradually emerged between Northern Italy, Spain, Sicily and North Africa in the south and The Low Countries in the north. Goods were shipped partly along rivers and partly carried by mules across the Alps. At first, exchanges took place mainly at six annual fairs in the autonomous county of Champagne (Mackay og Ditchburn, 1997: 129–131; Le Goff, 2005: 113–114).
For various reasons the Champagne fairs declined at the end of the thirteenth century. A growing share of commodities was then transferred to ocean-going ships that were able to round the Iberian Peninsula. This led to the golden age of Bruges. The river cities of Cologne, Frankfurt, Geneva and to some extent Lyons turned into new centers of overland trade between south and north. Still, the main reason for the growth of cities in the north was regional economic and political development, in addition to overseas trade in and around the North and Baltic Seas. The size and characteristics of urban centers along the north-south axis varied considerably.
Towards the end of the thirteenth century most major cities had between 10 000 and 20 000 inhabitants. Northern Italy had the greatest number of cities, but urbanization was well advanced also in Flanders and Sicily. Estimates are uncertain and variable, but the greatest cities in Europe, with populations between 50 000 and 100 0000, were probably Palermo, Florence, Venice, Genoa, Bologna, Milan, Barcelona, Cordoba, Ghent, Bruges, Cologne and London. Paris was in a class of its own, with up to 200 000 inhabitants (Mackay og Ditchburn, 1997: 132; Bagge, 2004: 229; Le Goff, 2005: 102). Except for Cologne, the German inland cities had fewer than 10 000 inhabitants by 1300. Most of them were not primarily hubs of long-distance trade, but for ecclesiastical or secular administration and local trade. It is difficult to see any “belt” pattern of cities or trade in this picture.
Rokkan saw Roman law as an important precondition for the «city-belt» because it facilitated the trade that was so important for its existence (Rokkan 1999: 129, 167-168). However, in reality Roman law seems to have played a minor role as a basis for mercantile law. Mercantile law was rather based on commercial custom. According to the legal historian Peter Stein (1999), merchants preferred to have their disputes settled not by local courts but by informal panels of their fellow merchants, which were set up at the periodical fairs held in various towns, including seaport towns where merchants congregated. Thus the mercantile community developed a body of commercial custom that transcended national frontiers. These customs were codified in two French commercial ordinances, one for land trade and one for maritime trade, at the end of the seventeenth century. These codes came to be accepted as an authoritative statement of commercial practice not only in France but also elsewhere in Europe, including England (Stein 1999: 106).
The Empire strikes back
If the empirical basis for Rokkan’s notion of the city-belt is weak, what can explain his “great paradox”? Why did the nation-state emerge comparatively late in Germany and Italy? This is when we should examine the interrelationship of European international relations and the Holy Roman Empire. Rokkan paid little attention to either. True, he does refer to the “geopolitical structure of Europe”, but only to highlight the strength or weakness of the cities in various parts. There is mention of “international system”, but only in passing, without any substantial discussion. Rokkan never uses concepts like international relations, great powers, the European states system, the balance of power, or other terminology related to the study of international relations.
Rokkan’s comparative, sociological approach probably accounts for his neglect of international political dynamics. He emphasized economic, religious and domestic political structures, not international relations. As far as agency is concerned, Rokkan focused on classes, cities, churches and kings. Apparently, he hardly considered the Holy Roman Empire an agency at all. His most explicit discussion of the Empire is the following sweeping statement:
The resurrection of the Holy Roman Empire under the leadership of the four German tribes did not help to unify the territory; the Emperors were prey to shifting alliances; many of them were mere figureheads, and the best and the strongest of them expended their energies in quarrels with the pope and with the Italian cities. […] The fragmented middle belt of cities and petty states was the scene of endless onslaughts, counter-moves, and efforts of reorganization during the long centuries from Charlemagne to Bismarck. (Rokkan 1999: 146)
Thus to Rokkan, the defining feature of the Empire was fragmentation and absence of central political authority. He saw cities, but nothing like a state. For good measure, when Rokkan does make a point of the significance of the “imperial heritage” (Roman, Carolingian, or Habsburg) for late modern Europe, it is presented negatively. He interprets the legacy of the Empire as a “crucial” cause of the breakdown of democratization and growth of fascism in Germany, Italy, Austria, Spain, and Portugal in the twentieth century (Rokkan 1999: 237-242).
In Rokkan’s mind, “empire” seems to have been the equivalent of reactionary repression of small nations; indeed the anti-thesis of the democratic, liberal nation-state as it emerged in France, England, and Scandinavia. This image of empire reflects the influence of what may be called national-liberal thinking (Bakka 1998; Nedrebø 2010). This is the tendency to assume that the nation-state is the natural end-point of history; to suppose that democracy can only be legitimate and workable within the sovereign nation-state; indeed to identify the nation-state with the progress of modern (Western) egalitarian civilization in general.
The national-liberal paradigm can be traced back to what some historians call the “Borussian” interpretation of history (Wilson 1999: 4). Borussian historiography was established by mid-nineteenth century Prussian historians with a nationalist agenda. They regretted that Germany had been unable to establish a nation-state in the early modern period, when the great rivals France and England first did so. Lutheran Borussian historians presented fragmented sovereignty, decentralized political power and supranational Catholicism as fundamental weaknesses of the Holy Roman Empire.
However, recent historiography has done much to dispel such misconceptions. Historians now tend to accept the Holy Roman Empire as a viable polity in its own right, not as a failed attempt to create a centralized nation-state (Wilson 1999; Axtmann 2003). If we take the Holy Roman Empire seriously, a resilient empire rather than Rokkan’s city-belt appears as the main reason for the late arrival of the nation-state in Germany. The Empire survived for so long because the emperor, his estates (including the cities) and the neighboring states had a common interest in maintaining a functional, if decentralized, Empire in the middle of Europe. A common imperial ideology and identity also played a role.
From Christian universalism to Central European federalism
The notion of “Holy Roman Empire” goes back to Emperor Constantine’s adoption of Christianity in the fourth century. The Christianity of the Roman Empire was confirmed in 380 when co-emperors Theodosius I and Valentinian II made Christianity the “catholic” (from Gr. katholikos: universal) and thus official, imperial religion. In 391 all pagan cults were proscribed. Henceforward, Christianity was integrated into the structure of the Roman Empire and progressively Romanized. The orbis terrarum (temporal world) became the orbis christianus (Christian world), which, in turn, soon developed into the Imperium Christianum (Christian Empire) (Pagden 1995: 24).
The last western Roman emperor was deposed in 476. But the remaining, eastern part of the Empire, ruled from Constantinople and posthumously known as the Byzantine Empire, survived until 1453. Charles the Great, king of the Franks, and Pope Leo III jointly established a new Western Roman Empire on Christmas Day of the year 800. Europe north and south of the Alps was again united under one ruler, Charlemagne, with Aachen as the temporal capital and Rome the spiritual centre. To Leo, this was probably a declaration of independence from Constantinople and a move in a strategy to build a new, loyal congregation in the West.
After Charles’s death the empire was divided into Western, Middle and Eastern Francia, and the imperial title eventually fell vacant. But Charlemagne’s successors, helped by the popes, continued to nurture the idea of a new western, Roman and Christian empire. The Saxon king Otto resurrected the Empire when Pope John XII crowned him emperor in 962. Otto I’s Empire united the German and Italian kingdoms as well as considerable parts of Middle Francia (Burgundy and Lotharingia).
The medieval universalist notion of Christendom emerged successively from this background. Both popes and emperors propagated the idea of the Christian empire, or Christendom. Due to the conversion of eventually all European pagans and the expansion of Islam in Asia and Africa, Christendom in the later Middle Ages became confined to, and thus equated with, the territory of Europe. The signatories of the peace treaties of Westphalia in 1648 still conceived of themselves as members of Christendom. In international legal discourse the idea that Christendom constituted a single polity survived well into the eighteenth century (Hinsley 1986: 182).
However, already in the tenth century a divisive struggle for ultimate authority within the Christian empire emerged. At first the emperor and the pope were the main contenders and Italy the main battlefield. Control of Italy, and especially the ancient capital and See of St Peter, Rome, would mean political, economic and ideological preeminence in Christendom.
The emperor lost this battle, known as the Investiture Contest. But the Capetian kings of West Francia also came to claim the Carolingian legacy. By the thirteenth century the king of France was strong enough to challenge both the Empire and the papacy. Like his English counterpart, but unlike the German Emperor, he was able to amass a contiguous territory of hereditary possessions from which to build a territorial state. From now on, Germany became the main prize – or balancer – in the struggle for universal monarchy in Christendom, or for hegemony in Europe, if you prefer the international relations jargon. The cities of Northern Italy (the Lombard League) gained autonomy through the 1183 treaty of Constance, although the Empire continued to claim suzerainty over territories south of the Alps until its demise in 1806.
Even north of the Alps it was now clear that the emperor was not going to be able to establish a centralized, proto-national state. Instead, a Central European federation was emerging. The Golden Bull, a constitution promulgated in 1356 by Emperor Charles IV of Luxembourg, impressed on the Empire a federal structure it retained to the end. It confirmed that emperors, unlike other princes in Europe, whose position had by now become hereditary, should continue to be elected. Most importantly, the Bull ended the subjects’ right to appeal to the Imperial Court against the territorial princes.
Still, the emperor retained authority to call out the imperial forces as well as to control common facilities such as fortresses, roads, and rivers. Moreover, about 300 secular and ecclesiastical lords, some 2000 knights, and 85 “free” or imperial cities scattered from the Baltic to Switzerland remained directly subject to the emperor’s jurisdiction (van Creveld 1999: 78-79).
In further reforms from 1495 to 1512, the Reichstag was consolidated as the forum for national debate; more manageable regional subdivisions were created within the Empire by grouping the territories into ten Kreise (circles); and two imperial courts of law, the Reichskammergericht and the Reichshofrat, were established. At the same time Roman law was introduced as the jus publicum (common law, or gemeines Recht) of the whole Empire. Especially lesser territorial princes and the free imperial cities continued to rely on the institutions and laws of the Empire for their legitimacy and security.
The Reformation and the subsequent religious upheavals encouraged further fragmentation. Still, the 1555 religious peace of Augsburg demonstrated that emperors were able to deal with structural stress through consensus politics, facilitation and power brokering (Wilson 1999: 26). The settlement, which legalized Protestantism along with Catholicism and became one of the fundamental laws of the Empire, was largely the work of archduke Ferdinand of Habsburg (emperor 1558-64). Catholic as well as Protestant princes backed imperial institutions and the Emperor. The common view was still that the Holy Roman Empire was the most eminent of the European monarchies as successor of the Roman Empire and the last of the four universal monarchies prophesied by Daniel in the Old Testament (Asch 1997: 18-19).
«Important to all, but dangerous to none»
The Bohemian revolt of 1618 and a subsequent constitutional crisis triggered the Thirty Years War. Contrary to conventional Borussian wisdom, the outcome of the war, the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, did not spell the functional end of the Empire. Rather, it marked its Europeanization and further federalization. On the one hand, while it stayed together, the Empire became more decentralized. On the other, it became part of the emerging, modern system of European governance.
The rights of the estates vis-a-vis those of the emperor were reinforced, and the independence of Switzerland and the northern Low Countries was confirmed. But the estates and the foreign powers knew it was not in their interest to weaken the emperor and imperial institutions too much. The estates had learnt from the war that none of them was strong enough to survive on their own in the brutal reality of modern European power politics. Moreover, the war had advanced an emerging imperial patriotism. At the meetings in Münster and Osnabrück, the German estates demonstrated “a deeply felt sense of loyalty to the Emperor, and a patriotic pride in the Empire’s institutions” (Osiander 1994: 32).
To the emerging European great powers, the Thirty Years’ War confirmed that if they had one interest in common, it was to prevent «universal monarchy», or hegemony by one power. This meant that the emperor must not be allowed to become too powerful relative to the princes; but neither should any other ruler be allowed to control Germany. As guarantors of the Peace of Westphalia and thereby the imperial constitution, the French and Swedish king made sure of this. So did the three foreign powers that because of their imperial estates were represented in the Imperial Diet: Sweden, Denmark and, after the Hanoverian succession in 1714, England (Axtmann 2003: 132; Osiander 1994: 42, 78-79).
By contrast to the territorial sovereignty that was emerging elsewhere, in the Empire sovereignty thus became shared, internationally as well internally. At the same time, because of the foreign influence and because the Treaty of Westphalia gave the estates separate foreign policy rights, the Empire as such was effectively neutralized in European politics. Similar to Switzerland, the Empire survived as an inherently non-aggressive entity because this was in the interest of its constituent parts as well as of its neighbors. The Göttingen historian Arnold H.L. Heeren was therefore right when he explained why the Holy Roman Empire survived the Thirty Years’ War as follows:
[…] this wonderful state maintained itself partly through its own power, partly through certain fortunate circumstances, but above all through a conviction soon shared by all that the survival and freedom of the Empire was a precondition for the same for the whole European states system. How could this system have emerged without such a central state, important to all but dangerous to none? Did not even German and thus also a considerable part of European culture depend on this polity? (Heeren 1809: 18. My translation).
Heeren wrote this three years after the disappearance of the Holy Roman Empire. However, the consensual, cosmopolitan-federal and non-aggressive imperial tradition survived, represented mainly by Austria (but also by the “Third Germany”, German lands outside Prussia and Austria). The German Confederation of 1815 re-established Austrian pre-eminence within a framework exhibiting many similarities with the old Empire, including a federal diet and a system of collective security.
These and other features reappeared in modified form in both the Prussian-led successors to the Confederation; the North German Confederation (Norddeutscher Bund) of 1867 and the German Empire, or Second Reich of 1871. The constitutions of the inter-war Weimar republic as well as of the post-war Bonn republic incorporated a federal system of checks and balances, and devolved power to states (Länder) that were the direct successors of the old, consolidated territories. These later federal Germanys, like the old Empire, are associated with non-aggressive foreign policies, unlike the centralizing governments of nineteenth-century Prussia and the Nazi Third Reich (Wilson 1999: 72).
Also the Habsburg empire, which survived until 1918, depended on the politics of accommodation. The Habsburg dominion in multinational eastern Central Europe had indeed been established not mainly through war, but by dynastic policy and diplomacy. A sense of Habsburg, Catholic community emerged in the joint defense against the Ottoman Moslem attacks on Christendom. After some three hundred years this imperial expansion from the east was finally halted at the gates of Vienna in 1683. Catholicism remained a critical source of legitimacy for the emperor until the very end (Rémond 1999: 87).
The cosmopolitan Habsburg “corporate identity” was further developed through enlightened policies in the eighteenth century. For instance, the Habsburg systems of education and justice became models for the rest of the continent. It was arguably the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars that forced the Habsburg emperor and his government to suspend controversial domestic reforms and generally to repudiate progressive Enlightenment ideas (Ingrao 2000: 218-231).
Still, the Austro-Hungarian empire of Francis I and Metternich remained progressive by contemporary standards. Local nationalisms indeed challenged the integrity of the monarchy, but arguably did not pose a vital threat even as late as 1914 (Sked 2001). Austria and Metternich were the chief props of the nineteenth century Congress system of European governance. Metternich originated in the Rhineland (in the “Third Germany”) and spoke of Europe as his fatherland (Kissinger 1994: 86).
Not by coincidence, between 1848 and 1918, Habsburg lands proved fertile ground for authors of projects for multinational federation (Bugge 1995). The founder of the Pan-Europa Movement in 1923, the Austrian Count Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi, descended on his father’s side from a noble family with roots in the Netherlands, Belgium, Bohemia and Poland. Like the two other European “empires”, Germany and Russia, the Habsburg monarchy arguably succumbed mainly because it lost the First World War.
In short it seems that Imperial Europe, including Germany, the Low Countries, Switzerland and the Habsburg possessions in the east, was structurally disposed towards the politics of consensus, compromise and accommodation both internally and at the European level. These parts tended to become federally organized, consociational (cf. Lijphart 1968), multiconfessional and, notably in the Swiss and Habsburg cases, multinational. Rokkan (1999: 210) to some extent recognizes this.
The parts of Imperial Europe that did not become neutral or part of the Soviet sphere during the Cold War also became pioneers of European unification. The European Coal and Steel Community was established in 1951 mainly by Catholic politicians from the regions of Imperial Europe, notably Konrad Adenauer from the Rhineland; Robert Schuman from Luxembourg and Lorraine; and Alcide de Gasperi from Trentino. Transnationally organized Christian (mainly Catholic) democracy, today with the European Peoples’ Party as European superstructure, has remained the chief party political driving force of European integration (Kaiser 2007).
The fate of Italy
What about Italy? The main difference between Italy and Germany was that in Italy there was no state formation at all before the unification 1859-1870. Partly as a result, national identity was far less developed in Italy than in Germany. Italian only became the national language after the unification, at which time it was still spoken by very few. Until the Risorgimento, the sovereignty of what is now Italy was split between the pope, the French, Spanish and Austrian crowns and independent kingdoms, duchies, city-states and republics. National unification was brought about mainly by the conquest of the rest by the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia. It was backed by various European great powers, but had little popular support.
Political unity on the Piedmontese model was foisted on a country practically without national traditions. “We have created Italy; now it remains to create Italians”, the nation-building statesman Massimo d’Azeglio famously quipped in 1867. Like in Germany, centralizing nationalism in the long run facilitated an authoritarian and imperialist development. As David Gilmour indicates in his recent history of Italy, fascism was «a logical consequence of unification’s failure to be a moral revolution supported by the mass of the people» (Gilmour, 2011: 332). [Gilmour has an interesting analysis of present developments in Italy here].
Thus in Italy, city-states did to some extent retard national unification. But even here the universalist agencies, the papacy and the empire, as well as other European powers had a decisive influence too. Historically, an Italian nation-state was not a necessary or even natural outcome. Today, the regionalist tradition remains strong in Italy, and Italians are still aware of their dependence on – and contribution to – Europe. These are probably important reasons why Italy became a driving force for European integration after the Second World War.
My conclusion is that there is little empirical basis for Rokkan’s notion of city-belt Europe. There was no city “belt” and the cities were not nearly as politically important as he thought. On the other hand, the Holy Roman Empire and European international relations have been far more important for the history of European nation-building than he recognized. Indeed, Rokkan’s bias in favor of the nation-state is a reminder that history is always written in the light of present-day concerns.
Today, when the European Union is again demonstrating the significance of universalist and cosmopolitan traditions, European history again needs to be reconsidered. In the new narrative, what I prefer to call Imperial Europe rather than City-Belt Europe must have its proper place and the role of the nation-state be toned down. In the discipline of comparative politics, the interrelationship of regional, national, international and supranational political development should be emphasized more. Stein Rokkan’s work will still remain relevant and a great source of inspiration.
- This post is a translation and slightly revised version of an article I published in the peer-reviewed Nytt Norsk Tidsskrift no 3, 2011 (published on this blog here). That article in turn was based on a lecture I held on the occasion of my doctoral disputation at the University of Bergen on 10 June 2010.
- Neither Flora (i Rokkan 1999) nor Bakka (1998 ) scrutinize the idea of the city-belt as such. Nor did Tilly (1990), Therborn (1995), Bartolini (2005) or Seip (1975), who criticized Rokkan’s interpretation of Norwegian political history, discuss the concept critically. Searches in JStor and Google indicate that no critical and empirical discussion of the idea exists. A long-time collaborator of Rokkan, Professor Stein Kuhnle, Department of Comparative Politics at the University of Bergen, confirms this impression in an email to the author dated January 5, 2011. On the other hand, a research group headed by the French geographer Roger Brunet has recently emphasized the role of the urbanized region Rokkan calls city-belt Europe as an economic, scientific and technological center of gravity in European history. This region is described as “the blue banana” or “the European backbone”, but without reference to Rokkan. I thank Jan Petter Myklebust at the University of Bergen for this information.
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