Absolute Monarchs: Germany
Germany did not take its modern form until the 19th century; in the premodern era the area that includes Germany was part of the Holy Roman Empire. The empire was as durable as it was complicated. You may have heard the famous quip by Voltaire: “The Holy Roman Empire is neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.” Let’s take a moment to better understand the origins of the empire and its rather misleading title.
The empire was formed with the coronation of the Frankish king Charlemagne as the Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III in 800 AD. This grand title was considered a translatio imperii or transfer of power from the ancient Romans to the Franks. This was a largely symbolic but powerful idea which implied authority over all of Christendom. The “holy” portion of the empire’s title came in the 12th century during the reign of Barbarossa as a means of distancing the emperor from papal authority. Though recognized as the supreme feudal lord of a vast array of estates across Europe, the authority of the emperor was quite limited. Lacking a centralized bureaucracy, the emperor had to rule with the cooperation and consent of the Imperial estates.
By the dawn of the 16th century, the title of emperor was firmly in the grasp of the Habsburg dynasty. Though it was an elective rather than hereditary position, the Habsburgs held the title for 300 years. The task of choosing the emperor fell to a small group of electors who held enormous influence within the empire. Because the emperor owed his position to the electors, they were able to extract significant concessions from prospective emperors. When the French king Francis I made an audacious bid to become emperor upon the death of Maximilian I, the deceased emperor’s nephew Charles had to bestow bribes and privileges upon the electors to secure his throne in 1519.
During the reign of Maximillian I, a series of reforms were passed as the emperor tried to consolidate his position. The Imperial Circles organized the empire into 6 administrative regions in 1500; this number increased to 10 in 1512. An Imperial post office was set up and a legal framework for settling disputes was created. Less successful was the Common Penny, a universal tax imposed upon all residents of the empire over the age of 15. Difficulties of collection and the fact that the lords didn’t want a direct tax to the emperor to succeed meant it was soon scrapped. However, the estates recognized the threat of Ottoman expansion and usually consented to raise taxes in support of the military.
Imperial decision-making in the Holy Roman Empire was an involved ordeal, which meant that passing reforms was often a challenge. Every few years the emperor called the Imperial diet, a gathering of elites, to convene at a chosen location, typically a free Imperial city. Those who held the status of sitz und Stimme, a seat and a vote, gathered to hear the emperor’s proposals. Once heard, the dignitaries retired to three separate chambers to discuss the propositions. The seven electors made up the first chamber and their words carried by far the most weight. The second chamber was for the landowners: the princes, both secular and ecclesiastical, down to the counts and barons. The latter group were individually insignificant but formed voting blocks called benches to make their case. These two chambers attempted to reach a consensus among themselves rather than a simple majority. Once a consensus was reached, the two chambers met to reach a common position to present to the emperor for his approval. This would lead to the Imperial Recess, a publication of the decisions made.
The third chamber was largely advisory until the latter part of the 17th century. They were the representatives of the free Imperial cities, a collection of urban centers who did not answer to local lords but swore loyalty directly to the emperor. Among the most significant were Frankfurt, Nuremberg, and Ulm. The cities enjoyed a great deal of autonomy but did not gain participatory rights in the Imperial diet until 1582.
As we can see from this summary, a great deal of compromise and debate was necessary to pass any reforms in the Imperial diet. Even if passed, enforcement proved to be extremely difficult as the emperor simply did not possess the means to force the more powerful states to comply. No issue was more contentious at the time than the Reformation.
Shortly into his reign, Charles V issued the Edict of Worms in 1521. The edict declared Martin Luther an outlaw and forbade any spread of Luther’s ideas or works within the empire. Charles had little time to see to the edict as he was soon on the move to secure his position as King of Spain, to wage war with France, and to see off an Ottoman invasion. From 1521-1530 Charles was absent from the Imperial court and entrusted much of the responsibility to his younger brother Ferdinand. During the emperor’s prolonged absence, the religious divide between the Imperial estates grew. A massive peasant uprising was defeated in 1525, with as many as 300,000 deaths.
Opposition to the Edict of Worms drew official protests from the estates who backed reforming the church at the Imperial diet of 1529. As you’ve probably guessed, that’s where the term ‘protestant’ originates. Upon his 1530 return, Charles unsuccessfully tried to find a common ground between the Protestant and Catholic estates. Some of the protestant Princes banded together to form the Schmalkaldic League in 1531. Further attempts to mediate the divide failed as Charles was so often on the move to manage his many domains.
In 1546, Charles was compelled to personally lead an expedition against the Schmalkaldic League. After defeating the league, Charles attempted to strengthen his authority over the empire. He wanted to establish a standing army and to unify the Imperial chambers into one assembly. Because he needed the support of precisely those who stood to lose the most with the passage of the reforms, the proposals went nowhere.
It wasn’t long before another war broke out with the protestant princes. A revolt broke out in 1552 with French support. This time the forces loyal to Charles struggled and the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 granted significant concessions to the protestant estates including the recognition that they were no longer bound by canon law. Greater autonomy was also granted to the Imperial Circles at the expense of the emperor.
The key tenet of Augsburg was ‘whose realm, his religion’ which allowed the princes to adopt either Catholicism or Lutheranism/Calvinism within their own domains. The external threat of the Ottomans loomed large and had a unifying effect on the empire until a treaty signed in 1606 ushered in an unusually long period of peace between the Habsburgs and the Ottomans. This peace allowed the religious tensions bubbling under the surface to boil over.
The Imperial diet of 1606 broke down without passing any resolutions; the protestant princes refused to finance any further campaigns against the Ottomans without gaining any religious concessions. As a result, the Protestant Union was formed as a mutual defensive pact in 1608. The Catholic League was established the following year which prompted unaligned estates to pick sides, increasing the tensions and likelihood of war. The Imperial diet of 1613 failed to pass any resolutions and would not meet again until 1640.
The Thirty Years War began in 1618 when a revolt in Bohemia escalated into a continental war which would eventually involve just about every major power in Europe. The war was marked by the interventions by foreign powers. Christian IV of Denmark entered the war with limited English and Scottish support in 1625. In 1630, the formidable military talents of the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus entered the fray. Adolphus won a string of victories in northern Germany thanks to his revolutionary tactical innovations. Unfortunately for the Protestant League, the Swedish King fell in battle in 1632, swinging the momentum back to the Habsburgs.
The French initially restricted involvement to providing financial support to the Swedes, but when the defeat of Saxony came in 1635 the French intervened. What began as an internal religious conflict became a war to determine the fate of Europe. Catholic France was primarily motivated by a desire to weaken the Habsburgs rather than to support German protestants.
The Habsburgs got the better of the French in the early exchanges, but the war soon settled into a stalemate. In 1640, the first Imperial diet for 27 years convened under the new emperor Ferdinand III to consider peace. A revolt in Portugal orchestrated by the French drew the Spanish forces away from northern Europe and helped swing the war in favor of the anti- Habsburg faction. In 1648, the Peace of Westphalia brought the Thirty Years War to an end.
The empire ceded territory to the kingdoms of France and Sweden and definitively affirmed the tenets of the earlier Peace of Augsburg by allowing German states to determine their own religion. Westphalia was an important turning point in European history; it shifted the balance of power in Europe towards France at the expense of the Holy Roman Empire and set the precedent for modern diplomacy. The empire endured in its weakened state until it was dissolved by Napoleon in 1806. The creation of a centralized German state was eventually achieved by the Kingdom of Prussia.
Okay, before we go, let’s go over a couple of quick review questions:
1. The third chamber of the Imperial diet represented which Imperial estate?
A. The Electors
B. Counts and barons
C. Imperial Knights
D. Imperial cities
The correct answer is D, the Imperial cities. The seven electors made up the first chamber, and the second chamber was for landowners, such as the knights and the counts and barons.
2. What motivated the French intervention in the Thirty Years War?
A. Religious unity
B. The defeat of Saxony
C. A treaty with Sweden
D. A claim on the Spanish crown
The correct answer is B! The French initially restricted involvement to providing financial support to the Swedes, but when the defeat of Saxony came in 1635 the French intervened.
That’s all for this review! Thanks for watching, and happy studying!