Mr. Hugo Weiland Thesis Prize
The history of the early modern Holy Roman Empire has fascinated me since my years as a bachelor student. For my master thesis I wanted to take the next step and dive into the ‘imperial archives’.
During my Erasmus semester at Munster University, Prof. Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger brought me into contact with the members of an ongoing archival project in the Haus-, Hof- und Staatsarchiv in Vienna, which is aimed at making the files of the Reichshofrat (Imperial Aulic Council) better accessible for researchers. The Reichshofrat was the emperor’s supreme court and its archive is unique because it contains files from all corners of the Empire. For me, this was a huge opportunity. Conducting archival research abroad is a challenge, especially within the limited timeframe set for a master thesis. Luckily, Dr. Tobias Schenk, scientific member of the archival project in Vienna, was more than willing to help me find a suitable case for my thesis. I could now start organising my trip. Back in Leiden, I found out about the Austrian connection of Leiden’s history faculty in the shape of the Foundation for Austrian Studies. They helped me a great deal in realizing my trip to Vienna. I submitted my research plan to Hugo Weiland as president of the foundation and was granted a stipend in support of my travel and accommodation expenses. Leiden’s Austrian connections also enabled me to find a room in the University of Vienna’s housing complex, which was a wonderful starting point for my research.
I spend three hot summer weeks in the Haus-, Hof- und Staatsarchiv, which is located in the city centre right behind the Hofburg palace where the emperors used to reside. The archive is housed in a building with an imposing façade, which still has that late 19th century charm of squeaky parquet and an open window as the main source of fresh air. It was not my first, but certainly a formative archival experience. Tobias Schenk showed me the depot and the ostensibly endless shelves of the Reichshofrat’s archive, which should largely be considered unchartered territory. He helped me select a dynastic conflict that fitted my interest and showed me how the archive worked and how I could look for additional clues relating to my case. I had practised early modern German script beforehand, but I still had to get used to the legal language and the way the Reichshofrat functioned. It challenged me as an historian to work my way through the files and it was pleasant to have enough time to do that in the archive itself.
The case I worked on concerned an early 18th century family conflict of one of the Empire’s leading dynasties: the Hohenzollerns. Members of the dynasties’ separate branches bickered about the succession in the principality of Brandenburg-Bayreuth. The main Brandenburg-Prussian line of the dynasty claimed the principality based on a succession treaty, but members of a junior branch made objections and questioned the legitimacy of the treaty. The conflict was interesting because, like all imperial territories, Brandenburg-Bayreuth was in imperial fief. It fell under the nominal authority of the supreme feudal overlord: the Holy Roman Emperor. This meant that the junior branch of the dynasty could appeal to the Reichshofrat and challenge Prussia’s claim. It showed that despite Prussia’s considerable autonomy, its sizable army, and its international status, the rulers of Brandenburg-Prussia were still accountable to imperial justice. Only with the emperor’s approval could they legitimately acquire Bayreuth. Prussia refrained from an aggressive military approach because it could lose its imperial privileges and harm its position within the Empire. Instead, Prussia duly defended the legal basis of its claim, submitting the succession treaty and its dynastic house rules to the legal scrutiny of the emperor’s judges. The dynastic conflict had important political implications and an opposition of small Franconian princes did everything to prevent Prussia’s succession in Bayreuth. The opposition feared Prussian interference in their regional affairs and used the family conflict to frustrate Prussia’s ambitions. The conflict pended before court for more than twenty years and Prussia, eventually, had to withdraw its claim and grudgingly accepted the junior line to assume power in Bayreuth. Hence, Prussia’s aggrandisement depended on the legal judgement of the emperor’s Reichshofrat. The Holy Roman Empire, in the end, functioned as a legal framework that guaranteed the rights of weaker princes against the ambitions of the strong.
A while after finishing my master thesis, I was invited for a lunch with the Austrian Studies Foundation to celebrate Hugo Weiland’s long presidency and welcome his successor Steven Engelsman. I had met Hugo during several of the Foundation’s activities in Leiden, The Hague, and Vienna. He and his wife, Heidi Weiland, literally embodied Leiden’s Austrian connection. I had presented my master thesis to them as a sign of gratitude for their support of my research. Yet, it was a surprise for both Hugo and me that the Foundation initiated a thesis prize in honour of his long time effort and incentive for the Austrian Studies Foundation. The Mr. Hugo Weiland Thesis Prize is to be awarded to successful theses dedicated to topics that relate to the history, culture, and politics of Austria and Central Europe. It was even more of a surprise, and a great honour, that I was invited to come forward as the first winner of the Mr. Hugo Weiland Thesis Prize.
I am very grateful to the Foundation for Austrian Studies since their support was highly valuable for my development as a researcher. The prize, moreover, is a welcome addition to the existing thesis prizes in the Netherlands because a lot of them are exclusively for topics that relate to Dutch history and culture. I hope that the stipend and prize will encourage and support future students to pursue their interest in Austria and Central Europe.
- For the archival project in Vienna and the Reichshofrat, see: http://reichshofratsakten.de/
- For more information on the Hohenzollern’s intradynastic conflict: https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/handle/1887/70170