Welcome back to the third and last part of the Barbarossa miniseries! Now that we’ve looked at Barbarossa’s earlier and later life until his death, one would think we’re done with him. Far from it! Barbarossa had an active afterlife in the memory and myth of those who lived after him.
From the late Middle Ages on, there were folk tales of Frederick Barbarossa (or his grandson, emperor Frederick II) returning at some time to punish a corrupt church (referencing both Fredericks’ struggles with the papacy) and liberate Jerusalem (referencing their crusades, particularly Frederick II’s). Until that time would come, Frederick would sleep. His resting place would soon be identified as the Kyffhäuser Mountain in Thuringia. At various times, persons claiming to be the returning emperor showed up and managed to gather smaller or larger followings (before dispersing or being dispersed by the authorities). During the Reformation period, Martin Luther thought the prophecy had come to be fulfilled as his princely sponsor Frederick the Wise (a direct descendant of Barbarossa’s) had liberated the scriptures (“Jerusalem”) from the papacy by giving Luther the time and space to translate them.
After the 1500s, the legend of the returning emperor faded from public conscience. It was re-discovered around 1800 (this time purely referencing Frederick Barbarossa, not Frederick II) by the German romantics, like the Brothers Grimm (of folk and fairy tale fame). For the budding nationalism of romanticism, the strong medieval emperor functioned as a projection area for their dreams of national unity. In the public imagination, the medieval empire became ever more identified with the Hohenzollern rulers of Prussia (on whom the hopes for German unification rested) than with the Hapsburg rulers of Austria (who had actually been emperors in the Middle Ages in the centuries following the Hohenstaufen dynasty). Of course, there were also dissenting voices: (Prussian) historian Heinrich von Sybel argued that Barbarossa had failed the German national interest with his fixation on Italy (instead on colonizing the east, as Henry the Lion had done, and as the Prussian kings were doing in Sybel’s time). (Austrian) historian Julius Ficker countered that Barbarossa’s rule could not be measured by the modern yardstick of nationhood (as Austria-Hungary was both a power in Germany and beyond it).
In the public eye, Ficker’s interpretation never had a chance. German unity, achieved in 1871 under Prussian leadership, cemented the common identification of the Hohenzollern emperors of the new German Empire with the emperors of the old Holy Roman Empire. The newly minted emperor William I in particular was paralleled with Barbarossa – just that, as he was well over 70 when proclaimed emperor, his beard was white. Thus, “Barbarossa” was believed to have finally returned to bring Germany national salvation as “Barbablanca”. After William I had died, German nationalists crowned the Kyffhäuser mountain with a massive monument honoring both Barbarossa and “Barbablanca”.
Following Germany’s defeat in World War I and the German Revolution of 1918/1919, the legend of the sleeping emperor in the mountain gained traction again. Nationalists and monarchists invoked the “Kyffhäuser spirit” to express their hope that Germany’s lost national honor and its monarchy could be restored. Some nationalists thought this restoration of national honor had come to happen once the Nazis overthrew the Weimar Republic they abhorred. The Nazis themselves liked to see their rule as the continuation of former German glory and thus also claimed the medieval emperors as their forerunners: The plan to invade the Soviet Union in 1940 was codenamed Operation Otto (after Otto I, the great emperor of the 10th century), but when the invasion was postponed to 1941, it was also re-christened Operation Barbarossa. All in all, that was an odd choice for a name – as outlined above, Barbarossa had been attacked by 19th-century historians for not expanding to the east. The descendants of the Italians with whom he’d struggled during most of his reign were now Nazi Germany’s major ally.
After World War II, both strands of Barbarossa memory remained alive in Germany: The folk tale of the sleeping emperor, stressing the mystical elements (the fog and the ravens around the mountain, his beard which keeps growing and growing), was still popular enough to serve as the backdrop for Barbarossa (Klaus Teuber, ASS) in 1988. The rules explain that the emperor is in fact not sleeping and keeps himself and his companions entertained by playing riddle games (thus inviting the players to have a go themselves). On the other hand, Barbarossa is still used as a cipher for the restoration of national greatness: The most extreme parts of the far-right AfD party have gathered several times at the Kyffhäuser to clamor for a “national awakening”. The battles of the past are not over yet.
An analytical biography of Barbarossa that I enjoyed was Laudage, Johannes: Friedrich Barbarossa. Eine Biografie [Frederick Barbarossa. A Biography], Friedrich Pustet, Regensburg 2009 [in German]. Sadly, the author’s untimely death resulted in a gap of the narrative in the 1160s and 1170s.
The only recent English-language biography (which sadly does not draw much on either the Italian sources nor recent Italian scholarship) is Freed, John B.: Frederick Barbarossa. The Prince and the Myth, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT 2016. Its epilogue is dedicated to the questions of public memory discussed in this post.