Frederick I, Holy Roman Emperor

On December 18, 1940, Adolf Hitler issued “Directive 21,” authorizing what would become the largest military campaign in human history. The Führer’s attention to detail regarding the German invasion of the Soviet Union even extended to the plan’s code name, which he chose personally: Operation Barbarossa. It is with that decision that John Freed’s weighty new book Frederick Barbarossa: The Prince and the Myth both begins and ends.1 It is not a story of Nazis, however, but of one medieval ruler, Frederick I Barbarossa, whose life and reign would cast a long shadow across centuries of German history.

Born in 1122, the young Frederick became Duke of Swabia (in southern Germany) in 1147 and shortly thereafter participated in the ill-fated Second Crusade. Upon the death of Conrad III, in what remain mysterious circumstances, Frederick was elected king by the German princes, and was anointed at Aachen in 1152. Three years later Pope Hadrian IV crowned Frederick Holy Roman Emperor, the most exalted secular position in Europe.

The imperial title itself was the invention of the papacy and the German kings, first bestowed on Charlemagne in 800 and resurrected by Otto I in 962. Like those men, Frederick believed that his authority extended not just across Germany, but also over Italy and the Catholic Church. Wealthy Italian city-states like Milan, Genoa, and Verona were accustomed to give lip service to the faraway German emperors, but were in reality fiercely independent sovereign states. Frederick was determined to tame them. In five major campaigns stretching across two decades, he waged highly destructive wars in Italy against rebels and the papacy itself. Milan was largely destroyed, thousands were executed or mutilated, and many lands were laid waste. By 1161 Frederick had earned an excommunication from Pope Alexander III, although the emperor recognized neither the pope nor his decrees. Frederick had his own subservient anti-pope, although few in Christendom accepted him. Still, Frederick’s victories made a powerful case for divine approval—that is, until the events of 1167. Having sent the pope scurrying to his Norman and Italian defenders, Frederick crushed all resistance around Rome and prepared to have his wife crowned empress by his anti-pope. Just then, a fearful epidemic descended on his armies, killing thousands, and forcing the survivors to return to Germany. With God having apparently switched sides, a new alliance of the papacy, the Lombard League, and the Normans formed to resist the German emperor should he ever return to Italy.

Frederick did return in 1175, but he was a changed man. He too suspected that God frowned on his claims, and his suspicions were quickly confirmed. His armies suffered a humiliating defeat at Alessandria, a new city named, in defiance of the emperor, after the pope. On May 29, 1176, at the Battle of Legnano, the Lombard League crushed the German advance and wounded Frederick in the process. With a battered army and few remaining allies in Italy, Frederick had no choice but to open negotiations with his enemies. Those negotiations culminated in one of the most lavish and iconic ceremonies of the Middle Ages. In 1177 Frederick processed through the richly decorated Piazzetta San Marco in Venice, striding up to the famous church itself. Just outside the main doors sat Pope Alexander III, sumptuously enthroned and surrounded by prelates. With thousands of Europe’s most powerful men looking on, Frederick removed his crown, knelt before the pope, and kissed his feet. The pope stood immediately, tears streaming from his eyes, lifted up Frederick and hugged him in the embrace of the prodigal son. The multitudes sang out the Te Deum, rejoicing that peace had at last been restored. Frederick returned to Germany, refreshed spiritually, but with his dreams of empire forever shattered.

In Frederick’s sixty-fifth year the city of Jerusalem fell to the Muslim armies of Saladin. Like everyone else in Europe, Frederick was thunderstruck by the news. Following the example of the kings of England and France, Frederick took the Cross of Christ, promising to lead a Crusade to defeat the Muslims and rescue the Holy Land. The aged emperor led his German armies east in 1189, planning to rendezvous with the other Crusaders in Syria. They marched through Hungary, Bulgaria, the Byzantine Empire, and crossed the Turkish lands of Anatolia. Then, in one of the Middle Ages’ most anticlimactic events, Frederick died while crossing the River Saleph on June 10, 1190. It is still not clear whether he drowned or simply had a heart attack. In any case, most of his Crusaders returned home.

These are but the highlights of Frederick’s eventful life. One can gauge how eventful by the sheer weight of this more than 700-page tome. It is the work of a scholar who had devoted his life to the study of medieval Germany, and that erudition is displayed on every page. It is difficult to imagine a more thorough treatment than Freed has delivered. It is a chronological tale that never strays far from the man or the medieval sources. Freed brings his reader along with a king who ruled from the saddle and governed from the battlefield. He breaks open the chronicles and interrogates each of the witnesses, never moving beyond the evidence. He opens wide the doors of the many royal assemblies—sometimes four or more per year—and outlines their deliberations, even down to arguments over seating. He unearths fascinating, even bizarre stories, such as Frederick’s condemnation of Arnold of Mainz and Hermann of Stahleck, who, according to an obscure Swabian custom, had to carry a dog for a mile.

Freed’s Frederick is an illiterate warrior who could be stunningly brutal, yet who was also a gifted leader who inspired deep loyalty. He was a pragmatist, eager to seize victory, yet willing to accept and make the best of defeat when it came his way. He was a medieval nobleman, pious in his way, but seeking above all to preserve his honor and enrich his family. He was, in short, a man of the Middle Ages, and not our own.

Why then did Hitler attach Frederick’s nickname, “Barbarossa” (red beard), to his grand plan to conquer Russia? The answer to that question rests in the myth referred to in this book’s title and explored in its Epilogue. By the late Middle Ages it was common in Germany to believe that a ruler named Frederick had not died, but was merely sleeping, and would one day return to right wrongs, crush Germany’s enemies, and perhaps also bring about the end of the age. That sleeping emperor, though, was not Frederick I Barbarossa, but instead his larger-than-life grandson, Frederick II. The latter, who died in 1250, fought bitterly against popes, restored Jerusalem while an excommunicate, and figured prominently in various eschatological computations. Medieval authors later conflated Frederick Barbarossa with Frederick II, jumbling the two into an odd mixture of folk tales and wistful German hopes. By the sixteenth century, Germans had developed a gripping tale of the towering Barbarossa, who did not drown in a river, but was borne by angels to a room hidden away in a hollow mountain, dozing until the day of his triumphant return. Barbarossa therefore joined King Arthur and Emperor Constantine XI in the small group of sleeping medieval rulers who would one day usher in a golden age.

The medieval tale of Barbarossa was pressed into service by German nationalists of the nineteenth century. By then most agreed that the hollow mountain holding the secret chamber was Kyffhäuser in Thuringia. Freed carefully unearths the various books, plays, and operas that celebrated the national hero. Barbarossa’s modern image was fixed in the German imagination by Friedrich Rückert’s 1817 poem “Barbarossa.” In it, the emperor rests in an ivory chair, his red beard having grown through a marble table where he props his head. Above the mountain circle ravens, who will remain until the day of Barbarossa’s awakening. That awakening quickly became synonymous with the creation of a German state. In the Revolution of 1848, German nationalists even planted the German flag amid the castle ruins atop the mountain, hoping to waken the emperor. Freed describes in fascinating detail the ways in which Wilhelm I and Wilhelm II appropriated the image of Barbarossa. A monument commemorating Wilhelm I was built on the summit of Kyffhäuser with a large tower, an equestrian statue of Wilhelm, and a carving of Barbarossa, beard spilling down his lap, at the very moment of his wakening.

Perhaps it was that wakening of the German people that Hitler meant to evoke with the name of his bold plan—although Freed points out that no one knows why the Führer chose it. Nonetheless, the myth of Barbarossa was already firmly attached to German greatness. The Nazis had placed in a hall at the base of the Kyffhäuser tower a plaque commemorating the war dead from World War I and the Nazi dead, as well as urns containing soil from the lands that Germany had lost in the Treaty of Versailles. In those urns Germany’s claims also slept, waiting for the Führer’s call to awaken.

This book is a triumph in every way. It is the sort of biography that could only come from a lifetime of careful study. Erudition of that caliber, of course, comes with a price. A basic understanding of medieval history will go a long way in helping the reader make sense of the events and actors that rapidly appear as this fascinating story unfolds. But it is well worth the effort. Freed’s careful work has brought Frederick Barbarossa, the medieval man, into stark relief for a modern audience. Separating the prince from the myth, Freed illuminates both with precision and grace.


1 Frederick Barbarossa: The Prince and the Myth, by John Freed; Yale University Press, 712 pages, $45.