Germany, a Companion to German Studies

By Jethro Bithell | Go to book overview

CHAPTER II

GERMAN HISTORY TO 1618

GERMAN medieval history is dominated by an ideal: Omnium Christianorum una respublica est. From the time of Charlemagne the destiny of the German people was inextricably interwoven with the conception of a united Christendom under the dual headship of Pope and Emperor. To the end of the Hohenstaufen period the attempt to create a political reality approximating to this ideal is the guiding thread through the maze of German history: even when the logic of events taught the more prosaic Luxemburg and Habsburg rulers that it was not practical politics, its influence was still strong enough to make Germany's development markedly different from that of her neighbours. The imperial ideal gave to Germany intellectual and spiritual inspiration, but it was her political damnation. The German kings hitched their waggon to a star while other rulers elected to progress by less exalted methods; these achieved unity, nationhood, and power for their people, while Germany remained divided and leaderless, a prey to the ambition of her neighbours and the turbulence of her princes. Medieval history closes, broadly speaking, with the advent of the despotically ruled, sovereign nation-state, of which France in the seventeenth century is the supreme example. At the opening of the Thirty Years' War, Germany presented a very different spectacle. She had not pressed forward along the path of political development as her neighbour had done. Dissipation rather than concentration of effort had marked the policy of her rulers; preoccupation with grandiose schemes of empire had distracted them from their immediate task of strengthening their authority within their own dominions; the constantly recurring struggles with the Papacy, which arose in consequence of their intervention in Italy, had exhausted their resources and lessened their prestige. Inspiring as German medieval history is, it is yet disappointing: it is a record of political frustration, misfortune, and ultimate failure. The greatness of Germany was to come in a later age.

German medieval history may well begin after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. Space does not permit of a discussion of the tribal communities which occupied the plains of Central Europe beyond the

-27-

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