The German western frontier was fixed relatively early and remained fairly stable. But the eastern frontier moved to and fro for hundreds of years. Around 900 it ran approximately along the Elbe and Saale rivers. In subsequent centuries German settlement extended far to the east. This expansion stopped only in the middle of the 14th century. The ethnic boundary then made between Germans und Slavs remained until World War II.
High Middle Ages. The transition from the East Franconian to the German “Reich“ is usually dated from 911, when, after the Carolingian dynasty had died out, the Franconian duke Conrad I was elected king. He is regarded as the first German king. (The official title was “Frankish King“, later “Roman King“; from the 11th century the name of the realm was “Roman Empire“, from the 13th century “Holy Roman Empire“, and in the 15th century the words “of the German Nation“ were added.) It was an electoral monarchy; that is to say, the high nobility chose the king. In addition, “dynastic right“ applied: The new king had to be a blood relation of his predecessor.
This principle was broken several times. There were also a number of double elections. The medieval empire had no capital city; the king ruled roving about from place to place. There were no imperial taxes; the king drew his sustenance mainly from “imperial estates“ he administered in trust. His authority was not always recognized by the powerful tribal dukes unless he was militarily powerful and a skillful forger of alliances. Conrad’s successor, the Saxon duke Henry?I (919-936), was the first to succeed in this, and to an even greater extent his son, Otto (936-973). Otto made himself the real ruler of the realm. His great power found obvious expression when he was crowned Emperor in 962 in Rome.
From then on, the German king could claim the title “Emperor“. The emperorship was conceived as universal and gave its incumbent control over the entire Occident. However, this notion never became full political reality. In order to be crowned Emperor by the Pope, the king had to make his way to Rome. With that began the Italian policy of the German kings. For 300 years they were able to retain control of upper and central Italy, but because of this they were diverted from important tasks in Germany. And so Otto’s successors inevitably suffered big setbacks. However, under the succeeding Salian dynasty a new upswing occurred.
With Henry III (1039-1056), the German kingship and emperorship reached the zenith of its power, maintaining above all a supremacy over the Papacy. Henry IV (1056-1106) was not able to hold this position. In a quarrel with Pope Gregory VII over whether bishops and other influential church officials should be appointed by the Pope or by the temporal ruler, he was superficially successful. But Gregory retaliated by excommunicating Henry, who thereupon surrendered his authority over the church by doing penance to the Pope at Canossa (1077), an irretrievable loss of power by the emperorship. From that point onward, the Emperor and the Pope were equal-ranking powers.
In 1138 the century of rule by the Staufer, or Hohenstaufen, dynasty began. Frederick I Barbarossa (1152-1190), in wars with the Pope, the northern Italian cities and his main German rival, the Saxon duke Henry the Lion, led the empire into a new golden age. But under him began a territorial fragmentation which ultimately weakened the central power. This decline continued under Barbarossa’s successors, Henry VI (1190-1197) and Frederick II (1212-1250), despite the great power vested in the emperorship. The ecclesiastical and temporal princes became semi-sovereign territorial rulers. The end of Hohenstaufen rule (1268) also meant the end of the Emperor’s universal rule in the Occident. Internal disintegrative forces prevented Germany from becoming a national state, a process just beginning then in other western European countries. Here lies one of the reasons why the Germans became a “belated nation“.
Late Middle Ages to modern times. Rudolf I (1273-1291) was the first Habsburg to take the throne. Now the material foundation of the emperorship was no longer the lost imperial estates but the “house estates“ of the dynasties, and house power politics became every emperor’s main preoccupation.
The “Golden Bull“ (imperial constitution) issued by Charles IV in 1356 regulated the election of the German king by seven electors privileged with special rights. These sovereign electors and the towns, because of their economic power, gradually gained influence while that of the small counts, lords and knights declined. The towns’ power further increased when they linked up in leagues. The most important of these, the Hanseatic League, became the leading Baltic power in the 14th century.
From 1438 the crown – although the empire nominally was an electoral monarchy – practically became the property of the Habsburg dynasty, which had become the strongest territorial power. In the 15th century, demands for imperial reform increased. Maximilian I (1493-1519), the first to accept the imperial title without a papal coronation, tried to implement such a reform but without much success. The institutions newly created or reshaped by him – Reichstag (Imperial Diet), Reichskreise (Imperial Counties), Reichskammergericht (Imperial Court) – lasted until the end of the Reich (1806) but were not able to halt its continuing fragmentation. A dualism of “Emperor and Reich“ developed: The head of the Reich was offset by the estates of the Reich – electors, princes and towns. The power of the emperors was curtailed and increasingly eroded by “capitulations“, which they negotiated at their election with the electors. The princes, especially the powerful among them, greatly expanded their rights at the expense of imperial power. But the Reich continued to hold together, the glory of the imperial idea remained alive, and the small and medium-sized territories were protected in the Reich system from attack by powerful neighbors.
The towns became centers of economic power, profiting above all from growing trade. In the burgeoning textile and mining industries, forms of economic activity grew which went beyond the guilds system of the craftsmen and, like long-distance trading, were beginning to take on early capitalistic traits. At the same time an intellectual change was taking place, marked by the Renaissance and Humanism. The newly risen critical spirit turned above all on church abuses.