The Holy Roman Empire could not develop into a modern state. It was rather a multi-polar, decentralized national confederation, housing within itself at first embryonic, but then increasingly authentic German states alongside a mass of ever more militarily defenseless lordships and authority-structures (chiefly the imperial cities and knights, and the Catholic ecclesiastical lands). These coexisted symbiotically, so to speak, with the Empire, and in the years 1803-1806 fell forever, together with it, under Napoleon’s hammer blows. The Empire lived out its thousand-year history thanks to the post-1648 consensus of the European Great Powers that fragmentation of rule in German central Europe served their interests. But the European empire of Napoleon to which the French Revolution gave birth, short-lived though it was, rendered this perspective antiquated (without solving the resultant “German question”).
Many modern German nationalists condemned the Empire for failing to centralize power and advance on the path toward national unity. Post-1945 historiography has taken a more indulgent view, highlighting the benignity of life under the myriad princelings, and sometimes imagining the Empire as a precursor to the present-day European Union, which is also an assemblage of independent though confederated states. In the Holy Roman Empire, over three hundred rulers’ courts gave rise to an equal number of princely residences, with orchestras, theaters, libraries, museums, aristocratic colleges and learned academies. Such conditions paid a cultural dividend – evident still today in Germany’s rich musical and theatrical life – and also gratifyingly employed the intelligentsia. In the late eighteenth century, an unaccustomed imperial patriotism [Reichspatriotismus] flowed from some influential publicists’ pens. They extolled a suddenly improved administration of imperial justice and the Empire’s role in preserving German “liberties” against the rise, in one or another territorial principality, of “tyrannical” state power. Yet, simultaneously, absolutist Prussia’s powerful king Frederick II (“the Great”) basked in popularity among other (or even the same) Enlightenment literati.
Oppression of subjects, where it occurred, was no more tolerable under an urban republic, an archbishop, or a quasi-sovereign nobleman than under one of the handful of strong German states. Charges of “despotism” were typically rhetorical blows, even if class and political injustice was as familiar in Germany as in France or Britain. Yet appeal to courts of law was open to all Germans everywhere, including peasant serfs. The Empire afforded room to multi-confessional life in a Europe that otherwise mostly upheld single Christian religious establishments. It lived by a conservatism that benefited those with a stake in the status quo. It did not favor military aggression. It sustained in the German imagination a certain sense of national identity and dignity, though exceedingly far removed from most ordinary people’s lives.