A loose agglomeration of cities, territories, church lands, and imperial personal possessions, all held together by . . . Well, by a shared faith, a shared understanding of what an emperor’s role generally should be, and the need to defend against outsiders. Yet it lasted from the late 800s to 1806, surviving the Black Death, Thirty Years War, other wars, and was dissolved by mutual consent, to protect it from Napoleon. Critics claimed that it was “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire,” to use Rousseau’s sneer, and that it held back the development of a proper Berlin-centered sense of Germanitas and of empire. Except . . . people kept it around, and must have found something of value in it.
In some cases, the title of Holy Roman Emperor was preserved just because someone else wanted to hold the title. That seems to have been the case in the mid 800s, in the semi-gap between the more powerful Carolingians and the first Ottonians. However, by the 1100s the Emperor had come to have the role of mediator and first-among-equals, someone who was (often) above the fray and could hear all sides, then provide possible solutions. Or he could answer calls for help from inside (and sometimes outside) the empire. The emperor was the secular balance to the pope, the sword of the state and of the western Church. He had to balance a lot of things, and much rested on the personality of the individual. Otto I managed it, Frederick II preferred to focus on Sicily and Italian/Roman politics, the Habsburgs kept their eyes fixed in the north . . .
One very important role of the emperor, and of the imperial courts and counsels, was to set standards for city creation and independence. Many cities ended up using the law code developed for Magdeburg, which made a lot of business easier. The free cities had to have walls and had to be able to defend themselves if attacked. No walls – no freedom. The emperor was their final gurantor, in some cases. In others he and his counsel served as mediators and neutral parties when a city or group of cities and a prince-archbishop or noble collided. Cities could buy their freedom, and that was a source of revenue for the emperor. Freiburg in Breisgau (southwest Germany) is one example. They forced out the local bishop from political power and built walls, defended them, then petitioned for independence. It was granted after some wrangling and fee paying.
After the wars of the Reformation (which were as much about Charles V having too much power as they were about theological differences), the Holy Roman Empire turned into a critical place for nobles of both denominations to solve disputes. The counsels were carefully balanced, half Lutheran and half Catholic, to ensure that theological differences were minimized. It worked well until Frederick of Rhineland-Palatine, a staunch Calvinist who came to believe that G-d was calling him to dethrone the Antichrist (Holy Roman Emperor and Pope) and bring about the Second Coming, upset the balance and contributed to the start of the Thirty-Years War.
The Westphalian System of states that developed out of the 1618-1648 period might have been the end of the empire, except that it remained very, very important as a symbol of unity and as a place for mediation and dispute resolution. The threat from the Ottomans was real, and tangible, and wasn’t just a Habsburg or Polish problem. France’s ambitions also contributed to the desire to keep the empire in place as a bloc, even if the emperor couldn’t always muster everyone to work against France as a group (he did at times, as the adventures of John Churchill the Duke of Marlborough and Eugene von Savoy showed.)
When the members of the empire voted to dissolve it rather than allow Napoleon to claim the title, it truly was the end of an era. Later historians tended to dismiss the H.R.E. as a dead weight that kept Prussia from taking over as the rightful leader of the northern Protestant (and Catholic) German speakers, and as a useless relic that should have disappeared even before 1648. The last 30 years have seen a reappraisal, as a new generation ask, “Why keep it? What did people see of value in the empire that led them to preserve it, even symbolically?” It was a link to the past, to the legacy of civilization and Christendom, it served as a place to talk and sort things out before the became war (sometimes), and held deep meaning in the identity of various parts of the empire during fast-changing and scary times.
Relic? Yes. Dead? Not really. Useless? The people of the time felt it served a vital purpose, no matter what later historians declared.
NOTE: I am on the road, and clearing comments or answering questions will be slow, or after Sunday afternoon. Thanks for your understanding.