So, was the Holy Roman Empire a burden, an anachronism, a mess that kept Germans from unifying sooner and in the end diverted them away from real democracy into autocracy, or was it a functional administrative and cultural organization that served a useful purpose until it was dissolved in 1806 before Napoleon could claim the title? It depends. Are you looking south from Berlin or northwest from Vienna? or are you sneering from Enlightenment France at the “neither holy, or Roman, nor an empire?”
If you learned history in the US, and studied the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation at all, you probably got the Berlin-Paris view. That being that the H.R.E. was an outdated, unnecessary, and awkward institution that really served no purpose after the Middle Ages, and that lingered on like that crazy relative who won’t get the hint to go home. When it disappeared in 1806 it was a mercy stroke. And the H.R.E., because it lasted so long and blocked the proper path of nation-state development of such a large swath of Europe, especially the German-speaking lands, it contributed to the rise of autocracy in Prussia and to Germany taking the Sonderweg, the other path, that led to the disasters of the 20th Century. Without the H.R.E. and its dead hand weighting down progress, the German-speaking lands would have unified far sooner and developed into a liberal (19th century sense) democracy. Some historians in the 1950s and 60s argued that Germany would not have “gone Nazi” if the H.R.E. had disappeared with the Renaissance, and certainly by the end of the Reformation.
That’s what I grew up with and that’s what I accepted as a given. And then I started looking at it from the other direction, literally in this case. If you look northwest at the H.R.E., from Vienna, the institution takes on a rather different place in history.
Question: Why would something like the H.R.E. continue to exist after it had ceased to be useful? Why would people other than the Habsburgs (semi-hereditary emperors after 1450-1806) support, protect, and defend the institution, especially after the Reformation divided the German lands into Protestant and Catholic?
Answer: Because it worked. The institution served a vital function, especially after the Reformation. The Emperor, although not directly powerful in the military sense, commanded a great deal of respect and moral authority, and served as a neutral party. The courts of the H.R.E. provided a place where, for example, an archbishop, a city-state, or a lord could go to settle disputes with each other. Between 1555-1615, a special court existed for the nobility that was evenly divided between Protestants and Catholics, where everyone knew they could have their problem decided on the merits of the case instead of denominational loyalty. Now, it wasn’t perfect, and there was chicanery from time to time, but it served a real purpose, and it took the deliberate actions of a radical Calvinist noble to start the chain of events that led to the collapse of the system in 1618. Even after the Thirty Years War, the H.R.E. remained a valuable ideal and a place where smaller principalities and free-cities could work together against more predatory states.
The idea of the H.R.E. remained so loaded with meaning and resonance that Emperor Francis chose to dissolve the institution and hide the regalia rather than allow Napoleon to have access to it. And think about the Nazi demands for the crown, scepter, orb, and spear. It wasn’t just for the mystical, SS-cooky meaning, but for the very real resonance of the Nazi government claiming to be the next iteration of the H.R.E.
Over the past 20 years or so there’s been a surge in academic studies of the H.R.E. coming from Europe as well as the US and Great Britain. The proponents of the European Union like to argue that the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nations can serve as a model for the EU, and that it is the natural development and progress of Europe from monarchies to democracies to social democracies to a borderless super-democracy, the European Union. After all, it existed before, so why not again?
Except . . . Emperor Charles V, or Matias, or Leopold, or Maria Theresa (not officially H.R. Emperor but she did the work in large part) did not command the way the EU proponents envision. They had to be elected by 7 very rich and powerful nobles, three of whom where upper clergy. This often involved “gifts” to the electors. Then the emperor had limits on what he could do and who he could order around, and had to pay his respects to the city-states and regions of his empire. The Habsburgs were fortunate in that they had their hereditary lands (family property) to fall back on for income, because lots of H.R. Emperors ended up deeply in debt. Tax collection within the H.R.E. never quite worked as hoped.
And one of the great strengths of the H.R.E. was its ability to be flexible. No, it never turned into a unified central power, never brought all the German-speaking peoples under a central government as a nation-state. That wasn’t the point. It worked because there was lots of room for manoeuvre and compromise. “Flexibility” and “European Union” are not words commonly associated with each other.
From the view of historians who saw the purpose of history as the formation of nation-states, the Kleindeutsch* school of politics and history, the Holy Roman Empire was a disaster and a flop, a drag on progress. But from the view of practical use and the desires of the people who made it mostly work, it stayed useful and valuable almost until the bitter end. When you look northwest from Vienna, through the Grossdeutsch* lens, it’s a different story indeed.
*In the 19th Century, Kleindeutsch meant the union of Protestant, German-speaking areas into a whole (the Prussian goal). Grossdeutsch were those who looked at all the German-speaking lands, including the Catholics, and inclined toward Vienna.