Holy Roman Empire

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Overview of 500 Years of German History
The German people, a language and ethnic group who have lived in Central Europe for at least 2,000 years, underwent several political changes in the last 500 years. They have been known as the Holy Roman Empire, the Confederation of the Rhine, the North German Confederation, the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, East and West Germany, and today, the Federal Republic of Germany. Germany began to have the greatest impact on European affairs after its unification in 1871. Today it has the largest population of any country in the European Union and plays a key leadership role in the European community.

Holy Roman Empire

  • A loose confederation of over 300 German states, headed by an emperor who had varying degrees of authority

  • Golden Bull (1356) established a seven member electoral college that functioned as an administrative body and elected the emperor

  • Conditions of the emperor’s power were renegotiated with each election

  • In 1400s constant feuding between member states led to the creation of the Reichstag, a national assembly

  • Cities and territories were feudal and fractionalized


  • Unlike France and England, late medieval Germany (HRE) lacked the political unity to limit influence and taxation by the Catholic church  resentment by German princes and nobles

  • Luther’s attack on indulgences led to 95 Theses (1517)

  • Before Luther could be tried HRE emperor died (need for election)

  • Charles of Spain chosen by electors (1519 over Francis or France and Henry VIII of England  had to grant concessions to electors weakening his authority and preventing action against Luther

  • Charles V was also distracted by wars with France and Ottoman Turks

  • Lutheran movement became increasingly political and spread throughout 1520s and 1530s

  • Peasant Revolt inspired by Protestant Reformation was condemned by Luther  resulted in 70,000-100,000 peasant killed by German princes (1524-1525)

  • Peace of Augsburg (1555) – Cuius region, eius religio – ruler of the land determines religion of the land (Catholic or Lutheran – Calvinists left out)

Thirty Years War (1618-1648)

  • Last and most destructive of the religious wars

  • Germany divided religiously (Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist) and politically

  • Separate tolls, tariffs, money, and trade regulations made travel and trade difficult

  • Germany’s central location meant their European neighbors pressed in on Germany for trade and land

  • Strife not only between Catholics and Lutherans, but also Lutherans and Calvinists (not recognized by Peace of Augsburg)

  • Catholic HRE emperor tried to assert control over Calvinist Bohemia (today Czech Republic)

  • The resulting war saw Spain, Denmark, Sweden, and France all send armies into Germany (war of politiques)

  • 1/3 of German population killed, destruction of German countryside and cities (worst European catastrophe since Black Death)

  • Treaty of Westphalia

    • Reasserted the treaty of Augsburg, but included Calvinists

    • German princes given authority over their states

    • Perpetuated German Division and political weakness

  • Brandenburg-Prussia most powerful of the northern German states

  • France became Europe’s dominant power (Alsace-Lorraine went to France)

Prussia and the Hohenzollerns

  • Hohenzollern family ruled Brandenburg since 1417

  • Gradually the family added to their lands through marriage and inheritance so that by late 17th c. (1600s) they ruled the 2nd largest territory in HRE (Habsburgs the largest)

  • Prussia’s leader (Frederick William, the Great Elector) gave Junkers (nobles) power over their serfs in exchange for their obedience to Hohenzollerns

  • Eventually leader of Prussia given the title “King in Prussia”

  • Prussia’s army the 3rd or 4th largest in Europe (Prussia’s population only 13th) – dominated Prussian society

  • Frederick II (the Great), 1740-1786, Enlightened Absolutism

    • Protected religious freedom of Catholics and Jews in Protestant Prussia

    • Instituted new legal system

    • Agricultural reforms

    • King was “the first servant of the state”

  • Prussia divided Poland with Russia and Austria (1772-1795)

Napoleon and the End of the HRE

  • Napoleon conquered western Germany (1806) and organized it into the Confederation of the Rhine (dissolved the HRE)

  • Prussia responded by attacking France and was defeated

  • Prussia reduced to half it size

  • Beginning of German nationalism in resistance to Napoleon

  • German nationalists rallied to Prussia

  • Serfdom abolished, military reforms

  • Prussia joined with Austria, Russia, and Britain (Quadruple Alliance) in defeating Napoleon’s France (1815)

Romantic Movement and Liberal Nationalism

  • Romantic movement began in late 18th c., rejected many ideas of the Enlightenment (associated with France), reaction against the scientific rationalization of nature, and was embodied most strongly in the visual arts, music, and literature; often looked back to Medieval period

  • Often linked with Romanticism, nationalist movement developed in 19th c. Germany; opposed by Austria’s Metternich

  • Many German novelists focused on Medieval romances

  • Goeth  greatest German writer, romantic who condemned Romanticism; wrote Faust

  • Herder  rejected French Enlightenment influence, revived German folk culture

  • Brothers Grimm  collected German fairy tales

  • Kant  Prussian philosopher (not Romantic)

    • considered one of the most influential thinkers of modern Europe and the late Enlightenment

    • “Dare to think”

    • Believed people should act as if their decisions and choices would become the universal law for everyone (Categorical Imperative)

  • Hegel  German historian

    • ideas develop in an evolutionary fashion (thesisantithesis = synthesis)

    • all period of history and all cultures important

  • Beethoven  link between classical and romantic eras

  • Student nationalist movements (favored German unity; often anti-Semitic) suppressed by Carlsbad Decrees

  • 1848 Revolutions

    • Began in France, liberal revolutions spread throughout Europe

    • Prussian revolution led to some reforms that were quickly lost

    • Frankfurt Parliament  representatives from German states offered crown of united Germany to king of Prussia, who rejected it

    • Revolutions failed (many liberal Germans left for America)

  • Karl Marx, wrote Communist Manifesto, proletariat vs. bourgeoisie in inevitably violent revolutionary class struggle  utopian state

Bismarck and a United Germany

  • Liberalism failed to unite Germany, some Germans turned to Conservatism

  • Volkish movement

  • Otto von Bismarck  Prime minister of Kaiser William I of Prussia; Conservative, Junker, nationalist

  • Unified Germany by engineering wars w/Denmark (1864), Austria (1866), and France (1870-71)

  • After war with Austria he created the North German Confederation

  • Franco-Prussia war (Bismarck manipulated France by altering telegrams) resulted in southern German states joining w/Prussia (North German Confederation)

  • France defeated; German Empire declared at Palace of Versailles (Germany annexed Alsace-Lorraine)

  • Bismarck’s Alliance System

    • After German unification goal was to avoid war, isolate France, keep Germany from being surrounded

    • Alliance system used by Bismarck to maintain goals

    • At home Bismarck suppressed Social Democrats (socialists), undertook his own social welfare program (health insurance, accident insurance, old age/disability pensions)

    • Kaiser William II forced Bismarck to resign (1890)

Germany and Two World Wars

  • After Bismarck the alliance system fell apart

  • Kaiser William II more belligerent

  • Navel (Dreadnought) race with Britain

  • France and Russia signed alliance (Germany surrounded – two front war)

  • Crisis in Morocco pushed France and Britain together

  • German alliance with Austria

  • Assassination of Austrian Archduke, war in Balkans, and German “blank check” led to World War I (1914-1918)

  • War in the West a stalemate (trench warfare)

  • War in East  victories over Russia

  • War ends before German army defeated and with population near revolt (there were several Communist revolutions in parts of Germany)

  • Kaiser abdicated, creation of Weimar Republic

  • Treaty of Versailles

    • Reparations

    • War Guilt Clause

    • (France gets Alsace-Lorraine)

  • Weimar Republic

    • Democratic, socialist government

    • Lack of popular support

    • France invades Ruhr

    • Inflation of 1920s, depression of 1930s

    • Threat to Weimar from Communists (left) and Hitler and Nazis (right)

    • Using propaganda and techniques of mass politics Hitler elected chancellor

  • Third Reich

    • Nazis fascists  anti-parliament, any democratic, anti-Semitic, ultra nationalist, Cult of Personality

    • Nazi purges, police state (S.S.)

    • Public works programs resulted in full employment and turned economy around

    • Rebuilt German military

    • Withdrew from League of Nations (1933)

    • Hitler militarized the Rhineland (1936)

    • Germany aided fascist Franco in Spanish civil War

    • Anschluss – Austria annexed (1938)

    • Munich Agreement  Sudetenland, then Czechoslovakia taken over (1938)

    • Nazi-Soviet Pact (1939)

    • Invasion of Poland, start of World War II (1939-1945)

    • Use of blitzkrieg to conquer Poland, Netherlands, France (1940) (German takes back Alsace-Lorraine)

    • Holocaust

    • Battle of Britain  Luftwaffe

    • Attack on Russia (1941)

    • Battle of Stalingrad the turning point of the war

    • Russian capture Berlin (1945)

Germany Divided and Reunited

  • After war Germany divided into communist East Germany (German Democratic Republic) and democratic West Germany (Federal Republic of Germany) (France takes back Alsace-Lorraine)

  • Berlin also divided, Russian attempt to blockade (1948)

  • German economic miracle (Marshall Plan)

  • Berlin Wall (1961) “Ich bin ein Berliner”

  • West Germany part of NATO; East Germany part of Warsaw pact

  • Germany joins European Coal and Steel Community (1951)

  • Berlin Wall falls (1989); Germany reunited (1990)

  • Germany signs the Maastricht Treaty creating European Union with common currency (1993)

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