A Short History of Germany

By S. H. Steinberg | Go to book overview

CHAPTER IV
THE CONTEST BETWEEN EMPIRE AND TERRITORIES (1493-1648)

WHEN Frederick III died in 1493, two generations of men had become used to seeing an Austrian archduke on the throne of Charlemagne. The connection between the imperial crown and the house of Hapsburg was so firmly established that henceforth no serious attempt was ever made to transfer the imperial dignity to another dynasty. With the exception of the hapless Bavarian, Charles VII ( 1742-45), all the subsequent emperors were chosen from the house of Hapsburg. In fact, after 1519 the election became a mere matter of form, and the succession to the Empire of the Hapsburg heir apparent was always taken for granted.

On the other hand, the territorial states had definitely asserted their virtual independence from the central administration. The 'Emperor' and the 'Empire' were no longer identical, but had become conflicting, political forces. The history of the Empire became more and more the history of its member states; and the title of Emperor was little more than a cloak to the territorial interests and ambitions of the rulers of Austria, itself the most powerful of the member states.

Three Hapsburg emperors tried to overthrow this balance of power in favour of the imperial side.

Maximilian I ( 1493-1519) was too weak and too cunning to subdue the Estates by force, while the federal party was in his time farther-sighted, more reasonable, and better led than ever before or after. So he resorted to evasion and obstruction, in which practices he was a past master. Although he failed to extend the imperial power, the opposition failed likewise to reorganize the administration on federal lines.

His grandson, Charles V ( 1519-56), had to tread very cautiously for about twenty-five years, but he bided his time and at last felt powerful enough to make short work of his opponents. He skilfully exploited the religious cleavage between the Protestant and Catholic Estates, and the dynastic rivalries within the Wettin and Guelph houses, and thus overcame with comparative ease the armed resistance of princes and cities ( 1547). For five years he wielded a

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