This past Saturday, a 77 year old man died in a Munich hospital. His name was Albert Joseph Maria Franz-Xavier, a name which will not only fail to resonate with the vast majority of the people reading this, but with the vast majority of people worldwide. The truth is that Albert was an irrelevant figure, whose death will be unheralded outside of his friends, family, and a select group of academics and colleagues. In that sense, there is little to separate Albert from any one of us: not to get too dark on you all, but (generally speaking) what real impact do we have on the world outside of those personal and social connections? But there is something that makes Albert’s death special. Although his death is unlikely to warrant even a foot-note in a history book, it is representative of a wider cultural and historical trend.
Albert, you see, was His Royal Highness, the Margrave of Meissen, and, as grand-son of King Frederick August III of Saxony, the heir to the throne of that ancient kingdom. Of course, the Kingdom of Saxony itself has not existed for a very long time. It was absorbed into the Weimar Republic at the end of World War I, along with the wider dismantling of the Habsburg and Hohenzollern empires. The Royal House, however, continued to exist, albeit without any authority or power. They existed mostly as members or leaders of various cultural clubs and organizations, such as the Central German Culture Council and the Central German Bund.
Still, you might ask, why is it so interesting to remark on the death of Albert? Some of you probably had no idea there ever was a Kingdom of Saxony, and could care less about the descendants of some long-dead minor monarch on the periphery of the European power structure.
The Royal House of Saxony is known as the House of Wettin (the naming conventions of the European monarchies are complicated and ancient; the current British monarchs, for example, are of the House of Windsor). The origins are a bit murky, but sometime around 1000 AD the family came into possession of Wettin Castle, on the Saale River.
Most likely, the founders of the Wettin dynasty were Swabians, from the west. That stretch of central and eastern Germany was historically a frontier inhabited by pagan Slavs (known as the Wends). However, the early part of the Middle Ages saw Christian factions from the south and west (primarily France) invade and resettle the region. Typically, the leader of a military expedition (a lesser noble or relative of some prince) that expelled the native Wends would become the de facto ruler of the newly created principality. In this way, the vast plains of northern Europe developed slowly into a patchwork of independent city-states with complicated networks of patronage and succession. However, absolute monarchies of the type that would come to define European politics did not exist, yet. Nominally, a prince (or some other royal) was in charge, but real economic and political power was vested in councils of landed elite (in that part of Germany they were known as “junkers,” a bastardization of “jung Herr” – German for “young Sir”).
Over time, the power of the royals increased and the influence of the junkers decreased. Ironically, the ascendancy of these monarchical hierarchies was often a result of their championship of peasant rights over the feudal patronage systems that preserved the authority of the junkers. As methods of transportation and communication improved, the widely distributed royal families began to coalesce, and project almost unified control over larger and larger territories. By 1423, the House of Wettin had assumed control over the entire region of Saxony, and had become prince-electors of the Holy Roman Empire.
The prince-electors were arguably the most powerful political figures in Europe during the Middle Ages. They usually controlled large and strategically important principalities, had the money to fund a standing army (at this point in history, most armies were still based on forced conscription and volunteers), and could vote on the future Holy Roman Emperor. An Emperor could only be crowned by appeasing the prince-electors, often by promising them territory (and thus increasing their power).
The next several centuries saw the rise of the first true European monarchies. Marriages had been the primary method of cementing alliances throughout the Middle Ages; needless to say, over time, the monarchies grew increasingly interconnected and incestuous (even today, the British royals are prone to certain genetic conditions as a result). Kingdoms were now immense, stretching for hundreds of miles across the continent. Better methods of agriculture, better roads, printing presses, and other technological and philosophical developments allowed for increased centralization and bureaucratization. The first true modern governments came into being.
It is pointless for me to try and trace the exact history of the House of Wettin. Dozens of books have been written on the subject (many, in fact, by the late Albert of Meissen, who was a dutiful historian). The events are just too complicated over too long a period of time to adequately summarize. A simplified genealogy can be found on Wikipedia. Even a quick glance will surprise you, without even including the various historical monarchs that were part of, or related to, the Wettins (such as the former kings of Poland, Bulgaria, and Portugal). Present-day royals that can trace their ancestry to the House of Wettin include Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, King Juan Carlos I of Spain, and King Albert II of Belgium.
The death of Albert is not the end of the House of Wettin (although the succession is disputed). Just as the eventual death of his distant cousin Queen Elizabeth will not be the end of the House of Windsor in England. That said, less than a century ago, the only regions in Europe not ruled by a monarch were Switzerland and San Marino. Nominally, a number of countries still have kings or queens (in addition to those monarchs mentioned above, the Netherlands, Norway, Luxembourg, Denmark, and Sweden). However, these royals are almost entirely powerless, existing solely for ceremonial functions. Nostalgia and an attached sense of national pride/history are essentially the only reasons they continue to exist at all. The inexorable march of the 20th Century, accelerated by the two World Wars, ended the geopolitical system that allowed them to flourish.
It is difficult to say what will become of the monarchies. There is no real impetus to do away with them (approval ratings in the Netherlands, for example, are around 85%, and around the same in the UK). Even if they have little to no real importance today, the historical significance is impossible to ignore. The coalescence of dispersed rules along family lines allowed for the creation of the first nation states, and the abolishment of serfdom (as I said, for institutions later demolished in the name of human rights and democracy, it is ironic that social progress was a major factor in their original mobilization). The large kingdoms that began to be established in the Middle Ages were rich and powerful enough to build roads, invest in science, exploration and technology, revolutionizing the world. Indeed, the philosophical underpinnings of the liberal social movements that would come to undermine (and in some cases obliterate) the authority of the European monarchies were a direct result of these same monarchs and their focus on education and modernization.
Of the hundreds of royal houses and dynasties that shaped the development of Europe (and, by proxy, with the ushering in of the colonial era, the world), only around 31 still remain. 21 of these are in limbo: no longer recognized even ceremonially by the nations from which they hail. The son of the former King of Italy is a hedge fund manager in Geneva. The Liechtenstein dynasty runs a bank. Michael I, the former King of Romania, worked as a commercial airline pilot after being deposed by a communist revolution in 1947. The rest have disappeared into the history books.
The same forces that built all the kingdoms and empires were the ones that would come back to sweep them away. They were organic: natural and logical solutions to the set of problems facing the human race at a particular point in time, and when they outlived their practical and philosophical utility they began to fade away. They should not be mourned, but nor should they be completely forgotten. For good and for ill (and, as history shows, there was more than enough of both), those ancient kings laid the foundations on which our current global civilization has developed.