April 2nd 742: Charlemagne born
On this day in 742, the Frankish King Charlemagne was born in Liège. Charlemagne, also known as Charles the Great, became King in 768 upon the death of his father Pepin. Charlemagne initially co-ruled with his brother Carloman I until his death in 771, which left Charles as sole King. Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day 800. His military conquests created an empire which united a lot of modern Europe and he is thus known as the ‘father of Europe’. He died in 814.
December 4th 771: Carloman dies
On this day in 771, Carloman I died and thus left his brother Charlemagne (see picture) sole king of the Franks. Carloman and Charlemagne were the sons of King Pippin III and they split his Frankish kingdom upon their father’s death; this led to a high level of animosity between the brothers. Upon Carloman’s death, Charlemagne became the sole Frankish king. As King, and from 800 as Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne greatly expanded the Frankish Empire through military conquests, and his empire set the foundations for modern Europe; he has thus been called ‘father of Europe’.
200 years ago - June 24th 1812: Napoleon’s invasion of Russia begins
On this day in 1812, 200 years ago, Napoleon’s Grand Armee crossed the Neman River, thus beginning his invasion of Russia. This ill-planned invasion was a major turning point in the Napoleonic Wars as France’s failure weakened Napoleon’s army and his reputation. Napoleon had failed to supply his army well, and the Russian scorched earth policy didn’t allow the French to ‘live off the land’ as they previously had. Thus, the Grand Armee was poorly supplied and this was exacerbated by the onset of Russian Winter; almost 400,000 French soldiers died. Napoleon abandoned the invasion and it ended in December 1812. This very significant event in European and world history occurred 200 years ago.
March 5th 1946: Churchill makes his ‘Iron Curtain’ speech
On this day in 1946, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill made his famous ‘Iron Curtain’ speech at Westminster College, Missouri. Churchill had previously used the term, but this was the most public use of it. In the ‘Sinews of Peace’ address, Churchill used the term ‘iron curtain’ to reference a Soviet dominated Eastern Europe. At the time, the West still saw the Soviet Union as an ally after the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War Two, but Churchill’s speech heralded the onset of the Cold War tensions between the capitalist West and communist Russia. As the Cold War took hold, the phrase became popular as a reference to repressive Communist domination of Europe which hid Soviet actions and set a clear divide in Europe.
“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the continent”
On this day in 771, Charlemagne became the King of the Franks following the death of his brother Carloman. The son of King Pepin the Short and Bertrada of Laon (a Frankish queen) he succeeded his father in 768 and was initially co-ruler with his brother Carloman I. It has often been suggested that the relationship between Charlemagne and Carloman was not good, but further conflict was prevented by the sudden death of Carloman in 771. Charlemagne was the founder of what became the Holy Roman Empire and was Emperor of the Romans from 800 to his death in 814.
Charlemagne spent the early part of his reign on several military campaigns to expand his kingdom. He invaded Saxony in 772 and eventually achieved its total conquest and conversion to Christianity. He also extended his dominance to the south, conquering the kingdom of the Lombards in northern Italy. In 778, he invaded northern Spain, then controlled by the Moors. Between 780 and 800, Charlemagne added Bohemia to his empire and subdued the Avars in the middle Danube basin to form a buffer state for the eastern border of his empire.
In 800 a rebellion against Pope Leo III began. Charlemagne went to his aid in Rome and defeated the rebellion. As a token of thanks, Leo crowned Charlemagne on Christmas Day that year, declaring him emperor of the Romans.
The immense territories which Charlemagne controlled became known as the Carolingian empire. Charlemagne introduced administrative reforms throughout the lands he controlled, establishing key representatives in each region and holding a general assembly each year at his court at Aachen. He standardised weights, measures and customs dues, which helped improve commerce and initiated important legal reforms. He also attempted to consolidate Christianity throughout his vast empire. He persuaded many eminent scholars to come to his court and established a new library of Christian and classical works. Through his foreign conquests and internal reforms, Charlemagne helped define both Western Europe and the European Middle Ages.
Pope John Paul II referred to him as the Pater Europae (“father of Europe”).
January 13th 888: Charles the Fat dies
On this day in 888 the Carolingian Emperor Charles III, known as Charles the Fat, died aged 48. He was Charlemagne’s great-grandson and ruled the Carolingian Empire from 881, when he was crowned Emperor, until 888. He was deposed by his nephew shortly before his death and the formerly large and united Carolingian Empire fell apart after his death.
October 31st 1517: Luther posts his 95 theses
On this day in 1517, the Augustinian monk Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of a Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This event is generally considered the start of the Protestant Reformation. The theses expressed Luther’s dissatisfaction with the corruption and materialism of the Catholic Church, especially the sale of indulgences (essentially selling a ticket to heaven). He instead believed that eternal salvation can only be guaranteed by God. On the same day as supposedly posting the 95 theses on the church door, he sent his writings to bishops. The writings were gradually translated and spread throughout Europe, accelerated by the use of the printing press, and his ideas transformed Europe. The Reformation led to the establishment of Protestantism.
March 21st 1871: Otto von Bismarck becomes the first Chancellor of Germany
On this day in 1871, Otto von Bismarck became the first Chancellor the newly united German Empire. He had previously served as Minister President of Prussia, and oversaw the Austro-Prussian War (1866) and Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) which together made up the German Unification Wars. The wars made Prussia dominant over Austria and France and allowed Bismarck to create the German Empire in 1871 out of the old Germanic states, thus essentially making him the father of Germany. Bismarck served as Chancellor until he was dismissed by the Kaiser in 1890 and during that time he had almost complete control over domestic and foreign policy and was known for his ‘revolutionary conservatism’. Bismarck has been called the greatest politician in history and has become known as the ‘Iron Chancellor’ due to his focus on military power.
“The great questions of the time will not be resolved by speeches and majority decisions…but by iron and blood.”
February 25th 1947: The State of Prussia ceases to exist
On this day in 1947 the state of Prussia, which had existed since 1525, ceased to exist. Prussia was a German kingdom, and in the 19th century became the most powerful state, rising in strength to challenge other established European powers. Bismarck aimed to unite all German states under the domination of Prussia, which was achieved through the German Unification Wars (Austro-Prussian War 1866 & Franco-Prussian War 1870-1871). As Prussia merged with Germany it lost its distinctive identity and in 1918 the royalty abdicated and nobility lost most of its political power. Under Nazi rule, Prussia lost its identity even more, with centralisation policies removing its autonomy. Prussia lost some territory in the post-war division of Germany into zones and the Western allies sought its full abolition. This was secured in Law 46 by the Allied Control Council, citing Prussia’s association with past militarism as the reason. Former Prussian territory was then re-organised. Prussia has since been vilified by Germans as a symbol of the militarism and obedience that led to the Nazi rise to power.