Notes on German Culture

When the ravens cease to fly around the mountain he will awake and restore Germany to its ancient greatness

Kaiser Friedrich Barbarossa is the subject of many legends, including that of a sleeping hero. Legend says he is not dead, but asleep with his knights in a cave in the Kyffhäuser Mountain in Thuringia, and that when the ravens cease to fly around the mountain he will awake and restore Germany to its ancient greatness. According to the story, his red beard has grown through the table at which he sits. His eyes are half closed in sleep, but now and then he raises his hand and sends a boy out to see if the ravens have stopped flying.

The Kyffhäuser Monument, also known as Barbarossa Monument in Thuringia

Frederick Barbarossa, or Frederick I, was the Holy Roman Emperor from 1155 until his death 35 years later. Frederick was also King of the Germans, King of Italy and King of Burgundy. His nickname Barbarossa…which means “red beard” in Italian…was coined by the northern Italian cities. The name stuck. In his German homeland, he became known as Kaiser Rotbart or Kaiser Barbarossa which both have the same meaning.

Frederick tried to unite the patchwork of more than 1600 individual German states, each with its own prince. A few of these, such as Bavaria and Saxony, were large but most were small. The titles afforded to the German king were “Caesar”, “Augustus”, and “Emperor of the Romans”. By the time Frederick would assume these, they were little more than propaganda slogans with little other meaning. Eager to restore the Empire to the position it had occupied under Charlemagne and Otto I the Great, the new king saw clearly that the restoration of order in Germany was a necessary preliminary to the enforcement of the imperial rights in Italy. Issuing a general order for peace, he made lavish concessions to the nobles.

Historians have considered Frederick Barbarossa one of the greatest and most charismatic leaders of his age. He possessed a rare combination of qualities that made him appear superhuman to his contemporaries: longevity, boundless ambition, extraordinary organizing skill, and greatness on the battlefield. He was handsome and proficient in courtly skills and came to the throne in the prime of manhood. Frederick was educated but not an impractical intellectual. In making final decisions, he relied solely upon his own judgment and was interested in gathering as much power as he could.

Frederick’s charisma led to a fantastic juggling act that, over a quarter of a century, restored the imperial authority in the German states. He also pursued economic policies to encourage growth and trade. There is no question that his reign was a period of major economic growth in Germany. His contributions to Central European society and culture include the reestablishment of the Corpus Juris Civilis, or the Roman rule of law, which counterbalanced the papal power that dominated the German states since the conclusion of the Investiture Controversy.

At age 68 the elderly Kaiser…especially old for this era in medieval Europe… responded to the call to arms for a Third Crusade. In 1190 he led a massive army across the Balkans and Anatolia on his way to the Holy Land. He achieved some victories on route, but these battles and the high temperatures exhausted Frederick and led to his accidental drowning in a river before reaching his destination. A churchman who accompanied the crusader forces reported that “after the many and terrible exertions that Frederick had undergone in the previous month and more, he decided to bathe in that same river, for he wanted to cool down with a swim. But by the secret judgment of God there was an unexpected and lamentable death and he drowned.” 

His death caused tremendous grief among the German Crusaders, and most of his troops returned home. Barbarossa’s son, Frederick VI of Swabia, carried on with the remnants of the German army, along with the Hungarian army under the command of Prince Géza, with the aim of burying the emperor in Jerusalem. Efforts to preserve his body in vinegar failed and so his flesh was interred in the Church of St Peter in Antioch, his bones in the cathedral of Tyre, and his heart and inner organs in Saint Paul’s Church in Tarsus.

The Kyffhäuser Monument, also known as Barbarossa Monument (Barbarossadenkmal), was built in 1890-96 after the death of Kaiser Wilhelm I in 1888.  The Monument features a statue of Kaiser Barbarossa awaking and above him a statue of Kaiser Wilhelm on horseback. The theme was: Kaiser Wilhelm I brought to fruition the unification of the German nation that had been so long desired since Barbarossa’s time. Stylistically, it recalls the castles and fortresses of the Hohenstaufen era in Germany in the 12th and 13th centuries. It was intended to suggest that the Prussian dominated German Empire founded in 1871 was the legitimate successor to the medieval Holy Roman Empire of Barbarossa. It also signifies the national theme of decline and rebirth.

Kaiser Wilhelm I statue at the Kyffhäuser Monument

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