Henry the Fowler is yet another important figure in history whose name has largely been forgotten. His efforts strengthened the Kingdom of Germany and helped to create a German identity. He defeated foreign incursions and fortified Germany against her enemies. While not as famous as Charlemagne, Charles V, or Bismarck, Henry the Fowler is still an important historical figure who should be remembered.
Henry was born in modern-day Saxony Anhalt and was the son of the Duke of Saxony. His first marriage was annulled because his wife had previously been a nun. His second marriage was successful and his wife Matilda would later be canonized. Henry became Duke of Saxony in 912. Henry fought conflicts with his neighbors and rebelled against King Conrad of East Francia. However, when Conrad died in 918 he recommended that Henry be his successor, the first Saxon on a throne previously held only by Franks. Henry became King of East Francia on May 24th, 919. However, only the Franconian and Saxon Nobles elected him and so he had to spend several years subduing various regions including Swabia and Bavaria. Henry was not an abolitionist king, rather he ruled his kingdom as a confederation in which each local ruler had a great deal of autonomy. Henry founded the Ottonian dynasty. Henry spent his reign expanding his control over neighboring regions and fending off incursions from the Danes and the Magyars. He first preempted an invasion by West Francian King Charles the Simple in 920 and later took much of Lothringia, modern day Rhineland, from West Frisia during a succession crisis in that country. Henry was initially defeated by the Maygars in 919 but was able to secure a truce in 924 which allowed him time to defend. The dukes rallied around him, recognizing the need for a strong state, and built a system of fortifications and a force of elite cavalry. In 33 Henry declined to pay the annual tribute he had agreed on as a condition of the truce and at the Battle of Riade defeated the resulting Magyar invasion. From 928 to 929 Henry defeated various Slavic tribes, taking Brandenburg and securing dominance over Bohemia and the Lower Oder River region. Finally, Henry defeated the Danes and conquered Schleswig in 934. He established his hegemony over West Francia and Upper Burgundy in 935, making Germany dominant in Europe. Henry planned to have the Pope make him Emperor, but he died in 936 before this could be accomplished. He was buried in Quedlinburg Abbey which had been established by Matilda.
Henry the Fowler has long occupied a place in the German national consciousness. He first gained a place in the public eye as a character in Lohengrin, one of Wagner’s operas. He was a symbol of German unity in the revolutions of 1848 and in the aftermath of their failure. He fell out of focus, but regained some notoriety as an object of obsession for Heinrich Himmler, who I discussed yesterday. Himmler may have believed himself a reincarnation of Henry. Himmler held several ceremonies at Henry’s grave and in 1937 declared it a pilgrimage site. Henry the Fowler should not be remembered only by the vile. He is an important figure for those interested in German history to know about and should be remembered for the many accomplishments of his successful reign.