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To 7th century AD
8th - 9th century
10th - 12th century
13th - 15th century
     Prussia and Teutonic knights
     After the Hohenstaufen
     Golden Bull and electors
     Imperial cities

16th century
17th century
18th century
19th century
The approach of war
Hitler in power
Steps towards war
World War II
To be completed

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Prussia and the Teutonic knights: 1225-1525

The Teutonic knights, short of work in the Holy Land, adopt a new form of crusade in about 1225. A prince of Poland, Conrad of Mazovia, asks them to control his unruly neighbours, the pagan Prussians - tribes who have lived for many centuries in the lands northeast of Germany, bordering the Baltic sea. The knights prepare their campaign carefully, establishing in advance their rights over any land they may conquer. In 1230 Conrad formally cedes to the order his territories on the west bank of the Vistula.

During the next thirty years the knights fight their way east along the coast as far as the Neman river, building castles to hold down the Prussians and sharing out the land as feudal fiefs for German families.


In 1261 an uprising by the Prussians almost succeeds in evicting the Teutonic knights. It takes the knights some twenty years to regain full control. They achieve their purpose by giving feudal rights to many more families and by importing large numbers of German peasants to till the land (their iron ploughs are more effective than the wooden implements of the Prussians in this heavily wooded region).

The knights improve their security when they seize Gdansk in 1308 and annexe the coast west to the Oder (the region known as Pomerania). This links Prussia with the German empire. But it has a very adverse effect on its southern neighbours, cutting Poland off from the sea.


The knights retain this territory for a century, until Poland and Lithuania win a crushing victory over the order at Grunwald in 1410. The disposal of Prussian territory between Poland and the knights is eventually agreed in a treaty at Torun in 1466. The western part of Prussia, around the Vistula, is incorporated in the Polish kingdom. Further west along the coast, Pomerania (annexed by the knights in 1308-9) is now restored to Poland.

But the eastern part of Prussia, more densely settled by Germans, is granted to the order as a feudal duchy owing allegiance to Poland.


This arrangement lasts until the Reformation. In 1525, under Lutheran influence, the high master dissolves the Teutonic Order in Prussia. However he retains his own position at the head of the duchy, owing allegiance just as before to the Polish crown. But he is now the secular duke of Prussia, a position capable of becoming hereditary.

The name of this last high master in the region is Albert. He is a member of the Hohenzollern family. Prussia becomes one of his family's most significant possessions.


After the Hohenstaufen: 1254-1438

The Hohenstaufen period has seen some notably forceful popes (Innocent III, Gregory IX, Innocent IV) and powerful emperors (Frederick I, Frederick II). It is followed, after the death of the last Hohenstaufen ruler in 1254, by a prolonged time of uncertainty in both papacy and empire.

The popes abandon Rome in 1309 and spend most of the 14th century in self-imposed exile in Avignon. From 1378 there are two rival popes (a number subsequently rising to three) in the split known as the Great Schism.


Meanwhile, for almost twenty years after the death of Conrad IV in 1254, the German princes fail to elect any effective king or emperor. This period is usually known (with a grandiloquence to match the Great Schism in the papacy) as the Great Interregnum.

The interregnum ends with the election of Rudolf I as German king in 1273. The choice subsequently seems of great significance, because he is the first Habsburg on the German throne. But the Habsburg grip on the succession remains far in the future. During the next century the electors choose kings from several families. Not till the coronation of Charles IV in 1346 is there the start of another dynasty - that of the house of Luxembourg.


Charles IV is crowned emperor in Rome in 1355. He makes his capital in Prague (he has inherited Bohemia as well as Luxembourg), bringing the city its first period of glory. The imperial dignity remains in Charles's family until 1438, when it is transferred to the Habsburgs.

At the beginning and end of those eighty years Charles and his son Sigismund take a strong line with the papacy. Within a year of his coronation, Charles issues the Golden Bull of 1356 which excludes the pope from any influence in the choice of emperor. And in 1414 Sigismund is instrumental in bringing together the Council of Constance which finally ends the Great Schism and restores a single pope to Rome.


The Golden Bull and the electors: 1356-1806

The Golden Bull, issued by Charles IV in 1356, clarifies the new identity which the Holy Roman empire has been gradually adopting. It ends papal involvement in the election of a German king, by the simple means of denying Rome's right to approve or reject the electors' choice. In return, by a separate agreement with the pope, Charles abandons imperial claims in Italy - apart from a title to the kingdom of Lombardy, inherited from Charlemagne.

The emphasis is clear. This is now to be essentially a German empire, as reflected in a new form of the title adopted in 1452 - sacrum Romanum imperium nationis Germanicae (Holy Roman empire of the German nation).


The Golden Bull also clarifies and formalizes the process of election of a German king. The choice has traditionally been in the hands of seven electors, but their identity has varied.

The group of seven is now established as three archbishops (of Mainz, Cologne and Trier) and four hereditary lay rulers (the count palatine of the Rhine, the duke of Saxony, the margrave of Brandenburg and the king of Bohemia).


Imperial cities: 12th - 15th century

The fragmented political structure of Germany has certain advantages for the larger German towns. An elected emperor often finds it difficult to control virtually independent territories, held by hereditary nobles or by dignitaries of the church. In such circumstances there may be a natural alliance between the emperor and the citizens of a prosperous borough - who frequently have their own grudge against their local feudal overlord.

The rich burghers can help the emperor with funds or troops for his armies. He can help them with privileges to protect their trade.


Gradually, over the centuries, a premier league of German cities begins to emerge. It consists of those which hold their rights directly from the emperor. These are the Reichstädte, or imperial cities. Since the emperor is often relatively powerless, this direct allegiance becomes tantamount to independence.

Such cities run their own affairs and make alliances among themselves for mutual benefit, even putting armies into the field to enforce their interests. Each of them is run by a Rat, or council, membership of which is often limited to the leading local families.


In many ways the imperial cities are similar to contemporary communes in Italy or Flanders. But they are more numerous and are more inclined to group together in large trading alliances - of which the Hanseatic League is the best known example.

A document of 1422 lists seventy-five free German cities. They include many of the most distinguished places in early German history - Aachen, Cologne, Lübeck, Hamburg, Bremen, Dortmund, Frankfurt am Main, Regensburg, Augsburg, Nuremberg, Ulm. From 1489 all the free cities are formally represented in the imperial diet or Reichstag.


Reichstag: 12th - 19th century

The Reichstag is in origin the royal council of the medieval German emperors, similar in kind to the curia regis of kings in western Europe at the same period. The term is usually translated into English as imperial diet - Reich meaning empire, and Tag (day) being reflected in diet (from dies, 'day' in Latin).

At first only the princes and bishops of the empire are summoned to a diet, but the representation gradually extends to lessser feudal nobles and then to the imperial cities. The larger cities become informally involved during the 13th century. From 1489 all the free cities are given a guaranteed role in the diet.


The reform of 1489 organizes the imperial diet in three separate colleges. The first consists of the seven electors who are responsible for choosing a new emperor when the throne is vacant (a group established by the Golden Bull of 1356). The second is the college of princes, of whom sixty-one are from the hereditary nobility and thirty-three are bishops.

The third is the college of the cities, identified as two groups. They consist of fourteen towns loosely identified with the Rhineland and thirty-seven with Swabia.


The three colleges of the diet meet separately and pass their own resolutions. These resolutions are combined in an agreed statement which is then presented to the emperor - who has the legal right to act upon it in whole, in part or not at all (the degree of compliance depends largely on his need at the time for the diet's financial support).

In the 16th century the Holy Roman empire begins a long decline into irrelevance. The emperors are Habsburgs, with their roots in Austria. The German princes are increasingly independent. The imperial diet lapses into disuse, meeting from 1663 in Regensburg but deciding little. Two centuries later, with the creation of a new German empire in 1871, the Reichstag is revived as Germany's parliament.


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