An Europe you can’t get past the Habsburgs to this day. In Antwerp, Belgium, part of the former Habsburg Netherlands, you walk from the city park onto Maria-Theresialei Street; In godforsaken Spanish towns in Navarre, where there was last life in the 1970s because spaghetti westerns were filmed there, the Habsburg coat of arms of Emperor Charles V, ruler of Spain and Spain, can be found above the town hall portal plus ultra, far beyond. The small family of counts, so closely associated with Austria and other countries, originally came from Switzerland. But why is the first major exhibition in Germany on this dynasty (after those on the Carolingians, Ottonians, Salians and Staufers) taking place in the Historical Museum of Speyer, which one would most likely associate with the Habsburgs?
The decision for Speyer is well justified. In the church-like crypt of the Speyer Imperial Cathedral – still the largest Romanesque church in the world and next to Vienna the most important Habsburg burial place – lie Rudolf I, the founder of this dynasty of German kings and emperors, and his successor Albrecht I, important representatives of the ruling line. In the face of imminent death, Rudolf quite consciously rode to Speyer in order to join the line of success of the predecessor families of the Salians (who had the Speyer Cathedral built) and the mighty Staufer family. To a certain extent, Rudolf had himself symbolically buried in the empty Speyer tomb of Friedrich II von Hohenstaufen, who instead found his resting place in Palermo.
Speyer is just as important in its symbolic politics as this German King Rudolf I of Habsburg was to become significant for the city. And not just for Speyer. Many other cities in Rhineland-Palatinate today, such as Landau, Neustadt an der Weinstrasse, Kaiserslautern, Alzey, Bergzabern or Kreuznach, owe their city rights to Rudolf. These city foundations are not to be underestimated, rather they express the far-sighted, consistent reliance on the cities that grew stronger in the thirteenth century, whose air was free and whose citizens made the German kingdom rich.
City air makes the king rich
This is where the exhibition comes in and shows how a Swiss family from a ancestral castle in Aargau, which was small even by local standards, was able to rise to such an extent and provide numerous German kings and emperors until the dissolution of the empire in 1806. First appearing by name in the eleventh century with “Werner von Habsburg” in the castle on the Aare, their counts were by no means territorial rulers – even the competing neighboring dynasties of Kyburg and Zähringer owned far more territory. You have to imagine it like an autumn orchard: Spatially separated from the ancestral castle on a summit ridge, the golden apples lay scattered throughout today’s Confederation, in green and wine-rich Alsace (the Habsburgs were happy and wealthy bailiffs of Murbach, one of only four imperial monasteries, as well as in Ottmarsheim in Alsace), in the south-west of the empire and soon also in present-day Austria.
Thanks to skilful marriage and expansion policies – trademarks of the family, which lasted until its “end” in 1918 and almost became a marriage commandment instead of war (“Tu felix Austria nube”) – the Habsburgs succeeded over the next two hundred years, always to acquire further solvent areas. On October 1, 1273 (the Speyer exhibition runs consistently until mid-April of the anniversary year), the wealthy but powerless count – not a duke! – Rudolf surprisingly elected German king.