Germany In 16th Century

December 3, 2009
By cvilledem BRONZE, Charlottesville, Virginia
cvilledem BRONZE, Charlottesville, Virginia
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Q: Analyze the factors that prevented the development of a truly unified German state in the center of Europe over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

During the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the holy Roman Empire decayed and was unable to unite because of a multitude of internal and external problem. The problem ranged from various power struggles to religious disconformities during the Protestant Reformation; from resistance to change, to resistance to foreign influence.

One such problem that became pertinent in the holy Roman Empire was the resistance of the Germanic nobles against the throne of Charles V. Charles was the King of Spain and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. This alone contributed to the downfall and the failure to unite the Empire. Another factor playing into the political unease felt by the many of the German nobility was the huge influence the Catholic Church had in the affairs of the empire. The nobility rejected the idea that the Empire should be controlled by the Vatican hundreds of miles away in Rome.

Although the conflict with the church was primarily political there was a prominent religious conflict as well. Early in the sixteenth century, in 1517, Martin Luther set off that Protestant Reformation in Wittenburg, Germany. This sparked internal conflict and turmoil within the decaying Empire. With Lutheranism growing and being embraced by a large part of the nobility, the conflict grew into civil chaos, destroying any hopes of German Unity.

This Protestant Reformation blazed the train, instigation the Wars of Religion. Perhaps the most important war in European history, the Thirty Years War contributed further to the detriment af the once strong Holy Roman Empire. Throughout the duration of the war (1618-48), Germany was, in essence, a large battlefield. The Empire had invaders from all frontiers. These invaders included Spain and France from the east and the protestant Dutch (Union of Utrecht, 1578) from the North. This multitude of invaders and attackers worsened the state of an already crumbling Empire. The Thirty Years War was ultimately the nail in the coffin of the aging nation. The outcome of the war, the Peace of Westphalia (1648), provided yet another set back to the mission of unity by adding Calvinism to the list of tolerated religions in addition to Lutheranism.

Another factor that prevented the unity of the Holy Roman Empire was the constant threat of invasion by the Turkish Ottoman Empire. This persistent, southerly threat was further encouraged by internal warring and disunity during the times of the Protestant Reformation and the Thirty Years War. The Kaiser of Germany was responsible not only for mending internal problems, but the security of the frontiers of the empire.

In addition to the constant warring that the Empire was involved with, another issue of decline was when two powerful families gave up hope of controlling Germany. This development contributed to the rise of a powerful Eastern Europe. The Holhenzollerns gave up hopes of German control when they shifted their attention to Brandenburg-Prussia. Another powerful family, the Austrian Hapsburgs also abandoned the empire, and instead cultivated an empire which would eventually grow to become one of five European Powers. The rise of Eastern Europe provided a shift in attention from the outdated, decaying Holy Roman Empire to the up-and-coming nation-states of Eastern Europe.

The Holy Roman Empire also failed to unite because it failed to learn the lessons of other nations that vanished due to embracing feudalism. In the world of international trade and commerce on a national scale, a feudalistic society, such as Germany could not be relevant or successful. Feudalism meant fragmentation, and fragmentation meant no hope of national wealth, commerce, or unification.

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