Holy Roman Empire: The First Reich

Figure 1.--This painting of the Court of Emperor Frederick II in Palermo was painted by Arthur Georg von Ramberg (1819-75). It was during Frederik's reign that the Empire achieved in greatest teritorial size, including all of Italy.

The Holy Roman Empire (sacrum romanum imperium) was the political entity that ruled over a large area of central Europe centering on Germany for almost a milenium (962-1806). Germany was potentially the most powerful country in Europe, but as a result of conflicts with the papacy and the particular interests of German princes/nobels, Germany did not emerge as a unified monarchy. Rather the Holy Roman Empire was a loose collection of several states under an Emperor with only limited authority. The Holy Roman Empire originated with the coronation of German King Otto as emperor (962). It survived until Francis II under pressure from Napoleon renounced the imperial title (1806). It was the medieval German state it was ruled by several dynasties before the Emperor becoming dominated by the Hapsburgs. The Holy Roman Empire of the German nation became the effective organization of Germany after the Investiture Controversy. It was not, however, an exclusively German political unit. The Empire included over time the Burgundian inheritance (the Carolingian "middle kingdom") and parts of Italy and the Netherlands, which were not German in any ethnic or linguistic sense. Nor were national loyalties and sensibilities nearly as important in Medieval Europe as would be the case in the 19th century after the French Revolution. Certainly Germany was the nucleus of the Empire. The emperors were Germans and might hve built a powerful empire in central Europe that could have dominated Europe. This did not occur although the Hapsburgs came close to it. Instead the possession of non-German possessions served to involve the Empire in foreign quarrels which drained its resources and exacerbated domestic differences. These problems would come to fruition in the Reformation.

Political Entity

The Holy Roman Empire (official name: sacrum romanum imperium, 1254; more details below) designates a political entity that covered a large portion of Europe, centered on Germany (962-1806). The Empire is difficult to describe because it was so different than than a modern nation state. The 18th century French author, Voltaire, famously quipped that the "Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, Roman, nor an empire." He was exactly right. It was an amorphous grouping of mostly German states and principalities overseen by an elected figure called an emperor, but whose authority steadily deteriorated from that of Charmemagne who founded the Empire. The Empire became a loose federation of states.


Germany was potentially the most powerful country in Europe. The Holy Roman Empire of the German nation became the effective organization of Germany after the Investiture Controversy. The emperors were Germans and might have built a powerful empire in central Europe that could have dominated Europe. This did not occur although the Hapsburgs came close to it. Instead the possession of non-German possessions served to involve the Empire in foreign quarrels which drained its resources and exacerbated domestic differences. These problems would come to fruition in the Reformation.

Founding (800/962)

The last emperor abdigated (476) as the German tribes over ran the Western Empire. Many authors date the founding of the Empire with the pope's coronation of Charlemagne as Roman emperor (800 AD). Charlemagne received from the pope the title of Emperor (Imperator Augustus), reminiscent of the title held by Roman emperors, both in the Roman Empire it split and in the Byzantium (Eastern) Empire that still existed at the time. The Carolingians claimed that the Roman Empire had not ended with the empperor's abdication, but only temporarily suspended. Arnulf ( -899) was the last Carolingian to hold the imperial title. Other individuals claimed to be the emperor following Arnulf's death, but they were individuals of limited power and exerted no real authority in Germany. Some of these individuals were King Louis III of Provence and King Berengar I of Italy. Other historians date the Empire from the pope's coronation of Otto the Great, king of Germany (962). Otto I the Great claimed the title of empperor which with the division of Charlamagne's Empire had its prestige and was conferred by popes on minor individuals involced in Italian politics. Thus many historians see Otto's coronation as the founding date of the Holy Roman Empire. Otto as kig of Germany had the power to make the title meaningful. The Empire was seen as the theoretical continuation of the Western Roman Empire and as the temporal state of a universal Christian dominion whose spiritual head was the pope.


The extent of the Holy Roman Empire varied over time. Charlenagne's Empire consisted of much of Western Europe. It included great amounts of territory in the central and western parts of Europe. Charlemage was a Frank. His domains were thus essentially the kingdom of the Franks and the people they conquered. Giving rise to the term Franconia. It broke up after Charlemagne's death. The Holy Roman Empire originated in the eastern half of Charlemagne's empire. Eastern and western Franconia completely sepsarated. Western Franconia continued to be known as the kingdom of the Franks, eventually becpming France. Otto I The Great's domains centered on the German lands and Eastern Franconia became the kingdom of Germany (10th century). The extent of the Empire was primarily Germany, but other countries (Bohemia, the Lowlands, Hungary, Italy Poland, became associated with the Empire because various emperors controlled those states. Another complication was the favt that Charlemagn's Empire had included areas of these states. Over time the Hapsburgs came to dominate the Empire and they controlled states both within and outside the Empire. Charlves V used the vast wealth and power from his dominions outside the Empire to consolidate his control of the Empire, but failed. As a result, the Hapsburgs divided their domains between the Austrian and Spanish domains. Certainly Germany was the nucleus of the Empire, both Germany and Austria. It was not, however, an exclusively German political entity. The Empire included over time Bohemia and Moravia, the Burgundian inheritance (the Carolingian "middle kingdom"). northern Italy (early emperors were also crowned king of Italy), , the Netherlands (until 1648), and Switzerland. These areas were not German in any ethnic or linguistic sense. Nor were national loyalties and sensibilities nearly as important in Medieval Europe as would be the case in the 19th century after the French Revolution. There were two mjor complications. Some countries, epecially Hungary) were ruled by the Hapsburg emperors, but were outside the Empire as it came to be established. Other provinces (Flanders, Pomerania, Schleswig, and Holstein) were within the Empire but were ruled by foreign non-German princes. These princes legally held their territory in fief from the emperor and took part in the imperial diet as electors. This is of more than historical importance. German nationalists in the 19th century, especially after unification saw the lands that had been within the Empire (referred to as the First Reich) as areas which should be included within a united German state. This brought conflict with France after Germany seized Alsace-Loraine in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). Some German nationalists wanted Germany to acquire territory of the old Holy Roman Empire that were independent states (the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Switzerland). Other wanted areas that were occupied by non-Germans (including areas of Poland and Czechoslovakia). The NAZIs which occupied these areas were to persue genocidal policies toward the non-Germans.

Political Organization

Otto established the Empire as the domains of the German crown. The political theory that evolved was that the emperor was the secular counterpart of the pope. The pope claimed to be the vicar of God on earth to oversee spiritual matters for Christendom. The Holy Roman emperors claimed to be the temporal ruler of all Christendom which is why it is not the Holy German Empire. Germany if united would have dominated Europe. This would have allowed the Emperors to make good their pretentions. Some emperors were very powerful, but election to the office and the pope's interference prevented the emperors from creating a unified German state that could dominate Europe. The emperors were accorded diplomatic precedence in Europe. They were from an early period unable to exert control over France, southern Italy, Denmark, Poland, and Hungary. They never had any real control over England, Potugal, Spain (although the Hapsburgs aquired the Spanish crown), and Sweden. And even within Germany the emperors had difficulty exerting their authority, chalenged by both the papacy and the efforts of the Germn princes to develop soverign states. eharles IV issued the Golden Bull which reaffirmed the Diets decession to exclude the papacy from the decession process. Charles also established a more standard election process. While the papacy no longer intefered in the selectin process, the emperors continued to be crowned by the pope. The last emperor to be crowned by the pope was Charles V (1530). By this time, Germany was rent by the Reformation and with both Protestant and Catholic electors, a papal coronaton was no longer acceptable. Maximilian I was crowned at Frankfurt (1508) which established a precedent.

Imperial Elections

The Emperor was usually an hereditary ruler of one or more of the German states within the Empire. Hereditary sucession did not become established as was the case of most European states. The electors or electoral princes (Kurfürst/"Kurfürsten") electing the king of Germany prior to his accession as the next emperor, At first they usually only formalized what was esentially a dynastic succession. To ascend to imperial status Charlemagne and Otto establish the precedence of papal coronation. A German king yet uncrowned by the pope became known as king of the Romans, a kind of emperor-designate (1045). Most German kings became emperor, but not all of them. Some elections were disputed. The papacy with its rising influence began to claim the authority to select the emperor. The conflict with the papacy played a major role in Germany's failure to develop a centalized state dyring the medieval era. The number of electors varied over time between six and ten. The electors were drawn from the most important rulers of lands within the Empire. The origins of the collegiate of the electors are not clearly understood. The suffrage appears to have developed as an exclusive circle of dukes, rather than all the "leading men" of the realm. This is essentialy how parliaments developed in other European countries, although in most the ling-ship became hereditary. Details on the development are not well recorded in official documents. The emperor became an elected office. Even so, several dynasties managed which attempted to perpetuate their grip upon the Imperial dignity. This was best accomplished by insuring that his heir became the inevitable choice of the "Electors". Emperors had their heir nominated King of the Romans. The system became nore formalized after the last Staufer emperor was killed fighting in Italy. During the Interregnum there was difficulty deciding which of the German princes would be selected emperor. The situation enabled the princes to expand their authotity. The archbishops of Mainz, Cologne, and Trier as well as the Count Palatine of the Rhine had great prestige, in part because their realms were part of the historic Frankish lands. It less clear precisely why the other three electors (the king of Bohemia, the duke of Saxony, and the margrave of Brandenburg) established their authority. Notably the King of Bohenia was not even German. They were important official's in the king's couty (Archcupbearer, Archmarshal, and Archchamberlain). They also belonged to dynasties of earlier kings. These secen electors first appeared as such after the death of William of Holland (1257). The first election was a draw. Both Richard of Cornwall and Alfonso X of Castile each received three votes and the Bohemian king agreed to both. There were other such disputed elections. The German princes at the diets of Rhense and Frankfurt exerted the authority to choose the emperor without papal interference (1338). The Electors also regularized the electoral process. Each elector could only vote once and election required a majority of the electors. The number of electors was formerly codified in an Imperial Bull of 1356 issued by the the Emperor Karl IV (of Luxembourg, King of Bohemia). The Bull recognised their status as semi-independent rulers within their own domains. The Emperor also designated each of the rulers a special office with assigned duties. Emperor Karl issued the Bull without Papal authority which indicates how papal authority had declined after the Avignon schism. The Second Estate was the non-Electoral princes. The Third Estate contained the leaders of the 80 Imperial Free cities.

Devisive Forces

As a result of conflicts with the papacy and the particular interests of German princes/bobels, Germany did not emerge as a unified monarchy. The papacy played a major role in preventing Germany from coalessing into a strong nation state. The Empire was troubled in its early years by disputes with the pope over the cHurch's independence and the pope's authority. Subdwquently the friction within the Empire came from the rising ambitions of the German princes who began to mosve toward the vreation of independent German states. -


Both Charlemage and Otto were monarchs with few restictions on their rule. The nature of the Holy Roman Empire varied over time. The Holy Roman Empire evolved into was a loose collection of several states under an Emperor with only limited authority. The Empire became a limited elective monarchy and a regime composed of many states. It was overseen by an elected emperor (Kaiser), who was in name the sole sovereign and monarch of Germany. The exercise of his power was considerably limited by a body representing the member states--the Imperial Diet (Reichstag). The Empire was a feudal institution. The various princes and lords of the Empire were all the vassals and subjects of the emperor. They in turn possessed a number of privileges that brought the larger staztes close to de facto sovereignty. The emperor in theory could not intervene in their internal affairs as long as they ruled according to the law.


The dynastic history of Medieval Europe in many ways begins with Clovis and the Merovingian dynasty, but even more with Charlemagne and his successors. Charlemagne founded the first empire after Rome. His grandson Louis II became the first King of Germany. The Saxon King Otto I founded the Holy Roman Empire. The Holy Roman Empire is a misnomer. It was not Holy, although the pope crowned the emperor, nor was it Roman. It was essentially a Germanic empire encompassing much of Western Europe and later was named by historians the First German Reich. he Salian Dynasty under Henry II became involved in thre The Empire was rocked by the Investiture Controversy in the 10th century and the struggle between Emperor Henry II and Pope Gregory VII. Although the Emperor established the principle of civil power, regional leaders used the controversy to significantly weaken the authority of the emperor within Germany and was a major reason that no centralized German state emerged as was the case in many other countries (England, France, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden) during the Medieval era. Several different dynasties ruled Germany during the Medieval Era. The first was the Merovingian dynasty founded by Clovis. It was the Hapsburgs that would lead Germany out of the Medieval Era and dominate Germany until after the Napoleonic Wars in the 19th century.

Charles V

With the declining influence of the papacy and the rise of the Hapsburgs conditions changed. Emperor Charles V with both the Imperial and Spanish crowns and with vast quantities of gold and silver flowing from the Americas looked like he might be able to unify Germany.

The Protestant Reformation

The reformtion began in Germany. This was no accident. The Reformation was only partially a religious movement. It was also a German nationalist movement, alienated from a foreign-dominated church. The Reformation would have had difficulty arising in other countries with more centralized regimes. Some German princes, desiring to establish their independemce and soverignity, used the Reformation to weaken the authority of the emperor. The Holy Roman Empire was not a centralized state before the Reformation. After the Reformation it was weakened even further. The irony is that it was the Papacy that played a major role in weaking the imperial regime and preventing the Holy Roman Empire from coalesing into a powerful, centralized state. Charles V had hoped to continue the efforts of his predecessor to increase the authority of thev emperor and to moce toward a centralized state. Just as he became emperor, Charles was confronted with a new force arose in the Empire --Protestantism. This proved not only to be a religious, but a mmovement with tremendous political consequences. Charles failed to unite Germany or to destroy the new Protestant faith and retired to a monestary a broken man. The Empire, as a result, declined greatly in power after the 16th century. It was the relatively weak imperial system that was unable to prevent the Reformation and the split in Western Christendom.


With the Spanish crown split off, subsequent emperors lacked both the resources and the inclination to forcefully confront either the religious or connstitutional isues of the Empire. Ferdinand I (1556-1564) and Maximilian II (1564-1576) were forced to face the challenge posed by the expanding Ottomon Turks. Rudolf II (1576-1612) absorbed himself in other matters such as astrology and the philosopher's stone to turn base metals into gold.

Trearty of Westphalia (1648)

The last major attempt to convert the Empire into a centalized nation state was begun by Maximilian I (1493-1519). The task was then taken up by Charles V. The effort ran straight into the Reformation and the resulting wars. This eventually culminating in the Thirty Years War (1618-48) and the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). The Treaty formalized the relationship between the Emperor and his theoretic vassals--the German Princes. Under the treaty they achieved their long-term goal--sovereignty as nation states. The Empire was still composed of about 360 distinct entities, differing greatly in size, rank and power. Some of the imgerial magnates were kings and princes, other were counts; some were clerics, other were a variety of secular rulers. The Emperor who by this time was a Hapsburg was left a figurehead whose power derived from the Hapsburgs holdings.

Disolution (1806)

The Holy Roman Empire survived until the 19th century Napoleonic Wars. With the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, Prussia and Austria were defeated by French armies. Some of Napoleon's great victories were fought and won in Germany. This gave Napoleon the ability to reorganize the Empire with the Treaty of Lunéville (1801). The diet took further action (1803). The reorganization reduced the number of states and principlities. The major states were enlrged by asorbing many medieval principlities and ecclesiastical estates. Holy Roman Emperor Francis II had led the coalitions against Napoleon and was about to become his father in law. He assumed a new title, Francis I, emperor of Austria (1804). Napoleon created the Confederation of the Rhine which include large areas of the Empire. Francis renounced his title as Holy Roman Emperor at the instigation of Emperor Napoleon (1806).

German Confederation (1815-66)

After the defeat of Napoleon. the Congress of Vienna reinstitued consevative monarchial rule in Europe. The Empire was not restored. Instead a new German Confederation was created. The Confederation included two powerful German states (Austria and Prussia) and a number of smaller states. The qestion became who would unify Germany. The Revolutions of 1848 almost resulted in the creation of a liberal unifid Germany. When ths failed the question became whether Prussia or Austria would unify Germany. This was settled by the Austro-Prussian or German Civil War (1866). The War also ended the German Confederation. A few years later, the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) resulted in the unification of German under the Prussian crown.


Well, H.G. The Outline of History: The Whole Story of Man (Doubleday & Company: New York, 1971), 1103p.


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Created: 8:56 PM 2/8/2010
Last updated: 8:56 PM 2/8/2010