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Holy Roman Empire - 1500 - The German Empire

By the year 1500 the words Empire and Germany had become virtually interchangeable terms. The papacy and the Italian cities had been freed from imperial control, and both the Netherlands - that is, Holland and Belgium - and the Swiss cantons were only nominally connected. Over the Slavic people to the east - Russians, Poles, etc. - or the Scandinavians to the north, the empire had secured comparatively small influence.

Despite the lack of a strong central authority, Germany prospered during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Its population increased from about 14 million in 1300 to about 16 million in 1500, even though the Black Death killed as much as one-third of the population in the mid-fourteenth century.

Located in the center of Europe, Germany was active in international trade. Rivers flowing to the north and the east and the Alpine passes made Germany a natural conduit conveying goods from the Mediterranean to northern Europe. Germany became a noted manufacturing center. Trade and manufacturing led to the growth of towns, and in 1500 an estimated 10 percent of the population lived in urban areas. Many towns became wealthy and were governed by a sophisticated and self-confident merchant oligarchy. Dozens of towns in northern Germany joined together to form the Hanseatic League, a trading federation that managed shipping and trade on the Baltic and in many inland areas, even into Bohemia and Hungary. The Hanseatic League had commercial offices in such widely dispersed towns as London, Bergen (in present-day Norway), and Novgorod (in present-day Russia). The league was at one time so powerful that it successfully waged war against the king of Denmark. In southern Germany, towns banded together on occasion to protect their interests against encroachments by either imperial or local powers. Although these urban confederations were not always strong enough to defeat their opponents, they sometimes succeeded in helping their members to avoid complete subjugation. In what was eventually to become Switzerland, one confederation of towns had sufficient military might to win virtual independence from the Holy Roman Empire in 1499.

The Knights of the Teutonic Order continued their settlement of the east until their dissolution early in the sixteenth century, in spite of a serious defeat at the hands of the Poles at the Battle of Tannenberg in 1410. The lands that came under the control of this monastic military, whose members were pledged to chastity and to the conquest and conversion of heathens, included territory that one day would become eastern Prussia and would be inhabited by Germans until 1945. German settlement in areas south of the territories controlled by the Knights of the Teutonic Order also continued, but generally at the behest of eastern rulers who valued the skills of German peasant-farmers. These new settlers were part of a long process of peaceful German immigration to the east that lasted for centuries, with Germans moving into all of eastern Europe and even deep into Russia.

Intellectual growth accompanied German expansion. Several universities were founded, and Germany came into increased contact with the humanists active elsewhere in Europe. The invention of movable type in the middle of the fifteenth century in Germany also contributed to a more lively intellectual climate. Religious ferment was common, most notably the heretical movement engendered by the teachings of Jan Hus (ca. 1372-1415) in Bohemia. Hus eventually was executed, but the dissatisfaction he felt toward the established church was shared by many others throughout German-speaking lands, as could be seen in the frequent occurrences of popular, mystical religious revivalism after his death.

Beginning in 1517 with Martin Luther's posting of his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle church, the German-speaking territories bore the brunt of the pan-European struggles unleashed by the Reformation. The leaders of the German kingdoms and principalities chose sides, leading to a split of the Empire into Protestant and Catholic regions, with the Protestant strongholds mostly in the North and East, the Catholic in the South and West. The split along confessional lines also laid the groundwork for the later development of the most powerful German states -- Prussia and Austria -- as the Prussian Hohenzollern line adopted Protestantism and the Hapsburgs remained Catholic.

The tension culminated in the 30 Years War (1618-1648), a combination of wars within the Empire and between outside European states that were fought on German land. These wars, which ended in a rough stalemate, devastated the German people and economy, definitively strengthened the rule of the various German rulers at the cost of the (Habsburg) Emperor, though Habsburg Austria remained the dominant single German entity within the Empire, and established the continued presence of both Catholics and Protestants in German territories.

The reconstitution of Germany was finally accepted by the Diet at Ratisbon on 25 February 1803. The Holy Roman Empire which had lasted so many centuries ceased to exist. The ancient division of the Empire into circles was abolished, and the three colleges which formed the Diet were profoundly affected. Instead of the eight electors, three ecclesiastical and five lay, that formerly existed, ten electors, one ecclesiastical and nine lay, were created. The Archbishops of Cologne and Treves, whose states being on the left bank of the Rhine were absorbed into France, lost their electoral dignity. These changes remodelled Germany, and in the result were most prejudicial to France; for instead of there existing a series of buffers in the shape of small and weak states, France was brought almost directly into contact with Prussia and Austria.




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