There was no “Germany” – not until 1870 AD when Bismarck convinced the various bits that the good of the one outweighed the good of the many. Julius Caesar is the first known to have used the term Germania to refer to those barbaric lands across the Rhine from “peaceful” Gaul. Geographically, Germany stretched from the Rhine to the Vistula, from the Baltic to the Danube. As Caesar noted, the Gauls were warlike but could be civilized; the Teutoni, on the other hand, were just too savage and uncouth for anything but conquest. Perhaps he was right; with the collapse of the Roman Empire, all those uncouth tribes became “separate and independent gentes [peoples] and regna [kingdoms].” Nothing unified these save a common language (even though, given the dialects, some were virtually unintelligible to other Germans), common customs, and a common heritage of killing each other.
It was left to Charlemagne, who had been crowned Emperor in the West by Pope Leo III in December 800, to (briefly) unite them. But it was the coronation of Duke Otto I in 936 as Rex Teutonicorum (“King of the Germans”) and later, under the principle of translatio imperii, proclaimed by Pope John XII as Holy Roman Emperor that sealed the deal. This after the two, following much haggling, signed the Diploma Ottonianum, whereby the pope was acknowledged as the spiritual head of the Catholic Church – so prelates couldn’t just interpret the Scriptures as they pleased – with the German King-Emperor as its secular protector. Otto spent the rest of his life trying to placate the “stamm duchies” (the five powerful, autonomous, constituent duchies of Germany: Franconia, Bavaria, Lotharingia, Saxony and Swabia), fighting the French and the Magyars and the Italians and the Slavs, putting down various rebellions, and generally not enjoying life much.
The succession of emperors after Otto was a royal mess, a complicated stew of ever-changing factors. The kings of Germany were elected by “seven princely electors” (three archbishops and four secular German princes) as established by the Golden Bull of 1356; indeed, it took 400 years just to get the Germans to agree to this. Before that, the elections for Rex Teutonicorum resembled polite anarchy. Thanks to the Thirty Years War, another elector was added to maintain a balance between Protestants and Catholics; in 1692 another was added so those unfortunate deadlocks wouldn’t occur. Then, just before Napoleon put paid to the whole thing, the constitutional structure of the electorate was revised in 1803. Once elected Rex, coronation as Holy Roman Emperor was just a formality conducted by whoever happened to be sitting on the Chair of Peter at the time.
A long line of king-emperors followed Otto the Great: Saxon, Salian, Hohenstaufen, Welf, Luxembourg, Wittelsbach and many Hapsburgs, who just didn’t want to give it up. Some were great and glorious, such as Henry IV and Frederick Barbarossa; some were venal and vainglorious, such as Otto IV and Louis IV. Whatever their abilities and policies, each had to deal with all those hundreds of little kingdoms, each jealous of its own “power” and privilege.
And it wasn’t as if the mix was stable. Around 1040, Franconia fragmented into smaller entities: the city-state of Frankfurt, the prince-bishoprics of Mainz, Speyer and Worms, and the landgraviate of Hesse as well as other bits. In the 1200s, the Teutonic Knights carved out Prussia in the east to add to the lot; Bohemia, Silesia and Pomerania were grabbed from the Slavs by ambitious German nobles. And so forth.
Nevertheless, Germany was relatively peaceful and, more importantly, prosperous. This due, in part, to the rise of the Hanseatic League, a “business alliance” of ports and banking guilds that dominated trade in the Baltic and along the North Sea coast. Timber, fur, grain, ore and fish flowed west and finished goods flowed east. Centered in the “Imperial Free City” (as decreed by Emperor Frederick II in 1226) of Lubeck, the League, firmly established in cities such as Cologne, Bremen and Hamburg, had warehouses and offices in ports as far apart as London and Novgorod. It flourished from the 1200s into the 1500s. Throughout the Germanys, common folk had the highest standard of living in Europe during this period. And there were a growing number of them; despite wars and plagues, by 1500 some five to six million lived there, many of them become craftsmen and tradesmen, now organized into guilds (a few of these allowed women to join).
Meanwhile, with the growth of the cities and ready money at hand, the arts flourished. In the 12th Century, the abbess Hildegard von Bingen penned influential theological and medical texts, as well as liturgical poems, songs and the oldest European morality play. A century later, von der Vogelweide set the gold standard for European lyric poetry of the age. Then a tinkerer named Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz developed moveable metal type, and thus the printing press. Once those common folk could read, and ponder what their betters were declaring, everything changed. (It did take a couple centuries for universal literacy to catch on in Germany, but it led to such things as the Reformation, the Northern Renaissance, and the Scientific Revolution.)
Everything was progressing nicely in Germany, until Martin Luther translated the Bible into the vernacular (now anyone could buy one thanks to the printing press) and then nailed his “Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” to the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg in October 1517. His “Protestant” theology soon enough set off the Peasant’s War (Europe’s largest popular uprising until the French Revolution) and then the even bloodier Thirty Years War after the Peace of Augsburg of 1555 – whereby the Lutheran faith was recognized as legitimate, and that the faith of a region would be that of its ruler – collapsed. From 1618 to 1648, the armies and mercenaries of the Catholic League and the Protestant Union slaughtered “non-believers” with wild abandon. It has been estimated that the population of Germany dropped between 20% and 38% before the religious fever burned itself out.
The towering figure of Martin Luther is, ironically, numbered in the annals of the German Renaissance, along with artists such as Albrecht Durer and scholars such as Johann Reuchlin and musicians such as Pachelbel. This includes lots of famous architects, like Elias Holl and Hans Krumpper. But even more influential on civilization were the German scientists of the 1600s and 1700s, who laid a foundation of discovery, understanding and misuse of the sciences unmatched elsewhere (there’s a reason one of the most famous, albeit fictional, scientists known is Dr. Frankenstein who studies at the University of Ingolstadt). Johannes Kepler of Stuttgart revolutionized cosmology; the polymath von Liebniz developed calculus and founded the Prussian Academy of Sciences in 1700; the philosopher Immanuel Kant sought a scientific basis for ethics. The work of astronomer Maria Winkelmann of Saxony and naturalist Maria Merian of Frankfurt opened the door for other German women to also make a name for themselves as mad scientists. And with the growth of printing, there were plenty of opportunities to confuse impressionable minds.
Even as German artists and scientists enlightened civilization, the Holy Roman Empire stumbled on. By this point in history, European feudalism was being legislated out of existence and a rising bourgeoisie was finding its voice. New, more energetic dynasties were emerging in a number of the German kingdoms: the House of Hohenzollern in Brandenburg-Prussia, the House of Wittelsbach in Bavaria, the House of Welf in Saxony, the House of Hesse-Kassel in (where else) Hesse, and so forth. All these began to chafe under the rule of the Hapsburgs, who since around 1500 had been the kings of Germany and hence Holy Roman Emperors, despite being Austrian. Even when the main line died out and Charles VII of Bavaria was briefly Emperor (1742-1745), soon enough the House of Hapsburg-Lorraine fastened on the throne. The notion of reform was in the air, however, and the Emperor responded, if tardily.
When Frederick III needed the support of the German dukes to finance his wars and to elect his son, Maximilian I, as King of Germany, he was faced with a united front demanding to participate in decision-making. They “requested” an assembly of the electors and other dukes to advise and oversee the king in an imperial diet (the Reichstag) be established. Although Frederick avoided convening the first Reichstag, his son – more conciliatory or less intelligent – finally convened the Diet of Worms. There the king and the dukes agreed upon the first four bills, together referred to as the Reichsreform, a set of acts that gave the disintegrating empire some much needed structure, including the “Eternal Peace” (a ban on feuding among the German nobility) and the “Common Penny” (an imperial tax to support the new infrastructure). Later diets added more laws and reforms … and taxes.
But by the mid-1700s, events had outpaced any belated effort to hold the Kingdom of Germany or the Holy Roman Empire together. The various rulers maintained their own armies and diplomatic corps as always, and now they used these independent of whatever the “king” wished or did. In the Silesian Wars and the Seven-Years War, Prussia won recognition across Europe as a “great power” under the guidance of “enlightened absolutism.” In Bavaria and Wurttemberg, the rulers lavished funds on palaces, mistresses, and the arts. The landgraves of Hesse-Kassel and Hanover made money by renting their elite soldiers out as mercenaries. And, eventually the dukes of Hanover became kings of England, and lost interest in doings back home (George III, born in London and king of England during the American Revolution, never once visited Hanover.)
The end of any pretense of unity and a German kingdom finally came with the French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic Wars. German mediatization and secularization was accelerated by the specter of the bloody French Revolution. Mediatization was the process of annexing the lands of one monarchy to those of an adjacent neighbor, leaving the annexed with negotiated rights. Secularization was the process of absorbing all those remaining tidbits of ecclesiastical land lying about by the nearby nobles. And from 1792 onward, revolutionary France was at war with most of the German states, but never all together. The Kingdom of Germany and the Holy Roman Empire was formally dissolved by Napoleon when Francis II (of Austria) abdicated in early 1806 following the French victory at Austerlitz. Napoleon reorganized much of what had been the Kingdom of Germany into the Confederation of the Rhine, eventually replaced by the German Confederation in 1815.