Holy Roman Empire/History

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The story of the Holy Roman Empire begins when the Franks, a Germanic tribe, settled in Gaul (France) and conquered the other tribes in Northwestern Europe, establishing the Merovingian Dynasty from 500 to 751. It is during this time that the Germans adopted Christianity. The Frankish Kingdom continued to expand gaining more power, reaching its zenith under the rule of Charlemagne (768-814). He established the Carolingian dynasty and formed what was called the Holy Roman Empire, spanning territory from the Spanish marches into central Germany and south into the Northern half of Italy.

After Charlemagne's death the Empire broke up into three parts: the West Franks, which became France; the East Franks, which became Germany; and the Middle Kingdom which was the territory between the two. However, pressures from invading Vikings and Magyars caused the Eastern Frankish Kingdom to break up into a number of small kingdoms and city-states. These polities were loosely affiliated and elected a King, Conrad I (911-918) from the Duchy of Saxony. He established the Saxon dynasty and his grandson Otto I the Great managed to halt the Magyars westward expansion and even absorbed the Middle Kingdom.

He then took the title Holy Roman Emperor. However this move also caused the German Kings, who were still elected by the nobility, to spend too much involved with Italian politics and to neglect the governing of Germany itself. The Saxon dynasty ended in 1024 and power passed to a Frankish tribe, who established the Salian dynasty (1024-1125) This period saw the various duchies grow in power and a breakdown in relationship between the King and the Church, which further weakened an already ineffectual monarchy.

The Hohenstaufens[edit]

It then fell to the Duchy of Swabia to reunite the Germans under the Hohenstaufen dynasty in 1138. One of its Kings, Frederick Redbeard (or in Italian, Barbarossa) attempted to reassert imperial power, but sparked a war against the Papacy and its allied states. Despite winning many battles, Barbarossa's efforts came to naught and in fact his years at war in Italy allowed other German princes to become even stronger and impinge on Slavic territory. The Order of the Teutonic Knights was also formed at this time, being the most notable in the effort to the eastward colonisation. The various German principalities eventually became more and more fragmented as inheritance split each polity into ever-smaller parts. This period was called the Great Interregnum (1256-1273).

The Habsburgs and the Rise of Austria[edit]

The anarchy of the Great Interregnum ended when Rudolf of Habsburg (in Austria) was elected King-Emperor. It was by no means a fast recovery, nor did it mean the Emperor had any real power. In fact the Habsburgs were more concerned with enriching their family holdings than governing Germany. Some principalities degenerated to no more than kleptocracies that would rob travellers in their territory in order to sustain their holdings.

However, by the 16th century, it was clear that Germany, due to its central location in Europe, became extremely active in international trade. Local alliances between various polities saw the rise of the Hanseatic League and Switzerland as virtually independent from the Empire in 1499.

The Reformation[edit]

Intellectual growth in Germany followed economic empowerment. Several universities were founded during this time, as well as the invention of movable type by Gutenberg in 1450. However, these developments would destroy what little unity remained of the Empire. The increased intellectualism in Europe soon resulted in dissension with Church practices, and soon enough, outright rebellion and war would break out again. The intellectual climate and the changing socio-economic conditions of Europe eventually led a disgruntled professor of theology at Wittenberg University in Saxony to publish a series of 95 damning theses, which denounced the inefficiency and corruption of the Roman see.

This professor was Martin Luther, who having translated the Bible into his particular dialect of German, contributed to creating a national language for all of Germany. His attempts to spearhead the Reformation, however, divided the German peoples into old-school Catholics and those who disagreed with them, who were called "Protestants". Various principalities clung to Catholicism, while others promoted the Protestant cause. This attempt to reform the church would soon result in war in Germany and soon would have violent repercussions for Europe and the rest of the world well to the present day. By the end of the 16th century, the Holy Roman Empire was a mere shadow of what it originally used to be, but its Habsburg masters would with only a few interruptions continue to retain hegemony over Catholic Central Europe until the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806.

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