IN the opinion of the Prussian patriot but great historian Heinrich von Treitschke, “Never since the time of Luther had Germany occupied so shining a position in the European world as now , when the greatest heroes and poets of their age belonged to our nation.”1 We might rank Frederick victorious below Napoleon shattered, but beyond doubt the light of Goethe and Schiller shone unrivaled in poetry and prose from Edinburgh to Rome; and the German philosophers, from Kant through Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel to Schopenhauer, overawed the European mind from London to St. Petersburg. It was Germany’s second Renaissance.
Like Italy in the sixteenth century, Germany was not a nation, if that means a people living under the same government and laws. Germany in 1800 was a loose concatenation of some 250 “states,” each with its own laws and taxes, many with their own army, coinage, religion, customs, and dress, and some speaking a dialect unintelligible to half the German world. However, their written language was the same, and gave their writers a third of the Continent for their potential audience.
We should note, in passing, that the relative independence of the individual states, as in Renaissance Italy, allowed an unstereotyped diversity, a stimulating rivalry, a freedom of character, experiment, and thought, which might have been overwhelmed, in the centralizing capital of a large state, by the weight of the compact mass. Would not the old cities of Germany, still so attractively unique, have lost vitality and character if they had been subject to Berlin, politically and culturally, as the cities of France were or are to Paris? And if all these parts of Germany had formed a united nation, would not this heartland of Europe, rich in materials and men, have overrun Europe irresistibly?
In only one way were the German states limited in their independence: they accepted membership in that “Holy Roman Empire” which had begun in 800 with the papal crowning of Charlemagne—known to the Germans as their own Frankish Karl der Grosse. In 1800 this Empire included a dazzling variety of German states. Outstanding were nine “electoral states” that elected the emperor: Austria, Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony, Brunswick-Lüneburg, Cologne, Mainz, Hanover, and Trier (Treves). Next were twenty-seven “spiritual lands,” ruled by Catholic prelates, as if recalling the episcopal rule of cities in the dying Roman Empire of the West a millennium before: the archbishopric of Salzburg (where Mozart fretted), and the bishoprics of Münster, Liège, Würzburg, Bamberg, Osnabrück, Paderborn, Augsburg, Hildesheim, Fulda, Speyer, Regensburg (Ratisbon), Constance, Worms, Lübeck… Lay princes ruled thirty-seven states, including Hesse-Cassel, Hesse-Darmstadt, Holstein, Württemberg (with Stuttgart), Sachsen-(Saxe-) Weimar (with Goethe), Sachsen-Gotha (with its “enlightened despot” Duke Ernest II), Braunschweig-(Brunswick-) Wolfenbüttel, Baden (with Baden-Baden, Karlsruhe)… Fifty cities were Reichstädte, self-governed free “towns of the Empire”: Hamburg, Cologne, Frankfurt-am-Main, Bremen, Worms, Speyer, Nuremberg (Nürnberg), Ulm… From these and other parcels of Germany came electors, “Imperial Knights,” and other representatives to the Reichstag, or Imperial Diet, which met at Regensburg as summoned by their emperor. In 1792 the electors chose Francis II of Austria to head the Holy Roman Empire, and crowned him in a sumptuous ceremony that drew notables from all parts of Germany to Frankfurt-am-Main. He proved to be the last of the long line.
By 1800 this once impressive and generally beneficent institution had lost nearly all its efficiency and usefulness. It was a relic of feudalism; each segment had been ruled by a manorial lord, subject to a central power; that central power had been weakened by the growth of the member states in population, wealth, secularism, and military force. The religious unity of the “holy” Empire had been ended by the Reformation, the Thirty Years’ War, and the Seven Years’ War of 1756–63; north Germany, in 1800, was Protestant, south Germany was Catholic; and west Germany had lost some piety to the French Enlightenment and the Aufklärung of Lessing’s days. Nationalism, large or small, grew as religion declined, for some creed-political or social—must hold a society together against the centrifugal egoism of its constituent souls.
The polarization of Germany between the Protestant north, led by Prussia, and the Catholic south led by Austria had dire results in the failure of the two foci to unite against Napoleon at Austerlitz in 1805 or at Jena in 1806. Long before these blows, Austria itself had come to ignore the Imperial Diet, and other states followed Austria’s lead.2 In 1788 only fourteen princes out of an eligible hundred, only eight out of fifty eligible town chieftains, obeyed the summons to an Imperial Diet;3 decisions were impossible. In the Treaties of Campoformio (1797) and Lunéville (1801) Napoleon compelled Austria to recognize French rule of the left, or west, bank of the Rhine; so a rich section of the Holy Roman Empire—including the cities of Speyer, Mannheim, Worms, Mainz, Bingen, Trier, Coblenz, Aachen, Bonn, and Cologne—passed under French rule. By 1801 it was generally agreed that the Holy Roman Empire, as Voltaire had said, was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire; that no important state recognized its authority, or the authority of the pope; that some new form of order and cooperation amid the chaos would have to be devised, accepted, or imposed. Napoleon accepted the challenge.