The great river was a gallery of scenic wonders and historic memories sometimes architecturally enshrined. But it was also a living blessing to the economy, watering a responsive soil, binding each town with a dozen others rivaling its culture and trading for its goods. Feudalism here had lost its uses and its fangs as commerce and industry peopled the riverside. But within this fluent prosperity four problems festered: epicurean lassitude among the rulers, corruption in the bureaucracy, a disruptive concentration of wealth, and a military fragmentation inviting conquerors.
The road to a new organization of the Rhineland states was opened by the promise of both France and Austria to recompense with new properties those German notables who had lost their lands through Austria’s recognition of French sovereignty over the left bank of the Rhine. The clamor of the dispossessed for rehabilitation led to the summoning, by France and Austria, of the Congress of Rastatt (December 16, 1797). There some irreverent princes proposed that the ecclesiastic principalities should be “secularized”—i.e., in plain terms, transferred from the ruling bishops to the clamoring laity. Unable to agree, the Congress submitted the matter to the next Diet of the Holy Roman Empire. It remained in abeyance until Napoleon returned from Egypt, seized power in France, defeated Austria at Marengo, and came to an agreement with Austria, Prussia, and Russia, by which a deputation of the Imperial Diet issued, on February 25, 1803, a decree overwhelmingly entitled Reichsdeputationshauptschluss, summarily remaking the map and governance of western Germany. Nearly all the ruling bishops were dispossessed. Prussia accepted with equanimity the reduction of episcopal rule; Austria might have mourned, but she was powerless.
The new governors realized that Austria would be unwilling, as well as unable, to give them military protection; nor could they (mostly Catholic) expect protection from Protestant Prussia. One after another the remade states turned to Napoleon, who was militarily supreme and officially Catholic. At Munich, on December 30, 1805, Karl Theodor von Dalberg, archbishop-elector of Mainz, meeting a Napoleon fresh from victory at Austerlitz, invited him to accept the leadership of the reorganized principalities. The busy Emperor took half a year to make up his mind. He realized that for a French nation to assume protectorate over a third of Germany was to invite the enmity of the rest, as well as resharpened hostility from England and Russia. On July 12, 1806, Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden, Hesse-Darmstadt, Nassau, Berg, and many other states united in a “Rheinbund,” or Confederation of the Rhine; on August 1 Napoleon agreed to assume its protectorate. While the major constituents retained independence in internal affairs, they agreed to submit their foreign policy to his judgment, and to place substantial military forces at his command.4 They notified Francis II and the Imperial Diet that they were no longer members of the Reich. On August 6 Francis officially declared the Holy Roman Empire dissolved, and renounced the Imperial title, remaining emperor of Austria. The glory of the Hapsburgs faded, and a new Charlemagne, ruling from France, assumed authority over western Germany.
The Confederation conferred vital benefits and exacted fatal returns. It brought the Code Napoléon (with abolition of feudal dues and ecclesiastical tithes), freedom of religious worship, equality before the law, the French system of prefectural administration, centralized but competent, and a trained judiciary more than formerly difficult to bribe. The basic flaw in the structure was that it rested on foreign power, and could last only as long as this alien protection outweighed its domestic costs. When Napoleon took German sons to fight Austrians in 1809, the protectorate was strained; when he took thousands of German sons to fight Russia in 1812, and required heavy financial support for his campaign, the protectorate seemed a burden in gross topping its benefits in retail; when Confederation Germans were conscripted to fight Prussian Germans in 1813, the Confederation only awaited a substantial French reverse to bring the whole frail structure down upon the exhausted Corsican’s head.
Meanwhile it was a triumph for Napoleon that he had arranged a double security for France’s new frontier. The terrain west of the Rhine had been incorporated into France, and the rich lands on the east side, reaching even to the Elbe, were now allied with, and dependent upon, France. And though the Confederation disintegrated after Napoleon’s defeat at Leipzig in 1813, it left a memory for Bismarck, even as Napoleon’s unification of Italy left an inspiration for Mazzini, Garibaldi, and Cavour.