Sachsen-Anhalt, Henry the Fowler and the ‘Founding’ of Germany

On one of my first days in Sachsen-Anhalt I was introduced to a German man whom had in his youth lived for a time in Kent. During our introduction he asked me if I was English—to which I answered that I was—and told me about his love for Leeds Castle and English history in general. He then asked if I knew anything of the history of Sachsen-Anhalt. After telling him that I did not, he told me at length the history of the State and Germany in general.

At least, I think he did. The entire conversation was in German and I had no idea what he was saying beyond asking if I was English and the words ‘Leeds Castle,’ ‘Quedlinburg,’ ‘König,’ and ‘Sachsen-Anhalt’. If I were fluent in German at that time—or if we had spoken in English—, I am sure that this is what he was saying:

“Sachsen-Anhalt can—and does—claim that it is the origin of what is now known as Germany, for it was the demesne over which Henry the Fowler, the first ethnic German to reign as King of East Francia, ruled. Prior to 918 the area we now call Germany was ruled by the Franks, first under Charlemagne‘s Frankish Empire and then as part of East Francia following the dissolution and devolvement of the Empire by his descendants. The Kingdom of East Francia was composed of the Duchies of Franconia, Bavaria, Swabia, and Saxony, of which modern-day Sachsen-Anhalt was a part.”

“But,” I would have said, breaking him up from his speech, “there are other states in Germany that also bear the name of Saxony: Saxony itself and Lower Saxony, too. If what you say about Saxony is true, would those not have the better claim of being the origin of Germany?”

“No,” he would reply, furrowing his brow in frustration. “Those are false states, named years after and have no legitimate ownership to that claim. The majority of land within that medieval Saxony is found within the modern Sachsen-Anhalt. Now, do not interrupt me again.”

I would apologise and ask him to continue.

Conrad I, the then king, was mortally wounded in a battle with Arnulf, his rebellious Duke of Bavaria, and on his deathbed decreed that the aforementioned Henry, Duke of Saxony, should succeed him, for this Henry was considered by Conrad as not only the most powerful of his vassals but also the most capable of handling the internal and external wars ravaging East Francia. (At that time, East Francia was in a mess: internally, Henry himself had rebelled several times and, as I alluded to, Arnulf, was in the midst of his own rebellion, which would not end until some years after Henry took the throne. Externally, conflicts with the Magyars to the east and the West Franks were also impacting upon Conrad’s realm.) Conrad’s other vassals, those being the other Dukes of East Francia, aside from Arnulf, who felt it was he who should succeed to the crown, agreed at the Reichstag (in English words, a Council) of Fritzlar to nominate Henry as Conrad’s successor. As Henry was not a Frank but a Saxon, this is seen as the breaking away of Germany from that East Frankish kingdom into a Kingdom of the Germans.”

I would then respond: “Right—but I still don’t get how this makes Sachsen-Anhalt the origin of Germany.”

“That point is coming, if you will again stop interrupting me. Henry was at his estate in Quedlinburg, a small, beautiful town some kilometres north of here, when he was informed by the nobility that he was elected King. It is this that makes Sachsen-Anhalt the birthplace of Germany.”

“I have a question,” I would say, yet again interrupting him.

“Go on…”

“Where is Fritzlar?”

“It’s in Hesse, the State to the south-west of here.” 

“Surely Hesse and Fritzlar is the birthplace of Germany then?”

“What?”

“You said he was elected at Fritzlar, which would therefore make more sense in my eyes as being the birthplace of Germany. It is there where the decision was made. Just because Henry was sitting in another town when that decision was made doesn’t give that other town the accolade.”

“Well, I disagree.”

“Okay. Is there any more to this story or is that it?”

“No, that’s it… Oh, Henry later conquered Lotharingia and Bohemia, lands which were also home to German people and brought them under the control of East Francia.”

“Not Germany?”

“No: the kingdom was still referred to East Francia during his reign, and he reigned as King of East Francia. It was under the reign of his son Otto that the territories under Henry’s control were referred to as Germany.”

“So not only does Quedlinburg have a very tenuous link to being the birthplace of Germany, Henry the Fowler didn’t even consider himself to be king of Germany. Your story makes no sense, your history takes a lot of liberties to connect this region to an anachronistic ideal of a modern country and you have wasted my time.”

And then I would have walked off.

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