Page:Cambridge Modern History Volume 1.djvu/324

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CHAPTER IX.
GERMANY AND THE EMPIRE.


It is a commonplace to contrast the political condition of Germany on the eve of the Reformation with that of the great national States of Western Europe. In Germany the dangerous confusion of the national monarchy with the tradition of the Roman Empire had continued fatal to the German Kingdom, even after the imperial idea had ceased to exert any commanding influence over men's minds. The royal power in consequence became the merest shadow of its former self. Central organisation ceased to exist. Private war and general anarchy were chronic. The national life waxed cold, when uncherished by a strong national monarchy; and in the end salvation was to come from the development of the rude feudal nobility of the Middle Ages into an order of small independent rulers, so extraordinarily tenacious of their sovereign rank that more than a score of them have preserved it even amidst the changed conditions of the nineteenth century. While in France, Spain, and England national monarchies, both autocratic and popular, were establishing national unity, ordered progress, and strong administration, Germany was forced to content herself with the loosest and most impotent of federal governments.

Looking at the course of German history in the fifteenth century with knowledge of what happened later, it would be hard to deny the strength of this contrast. Yet there was no very great or essential dissimilarity between the condition of Germany under Frederick III and that of the France of the Armagnac and Burgundian feuds. The elements of political life were in each case the same. There was a monarchy whose great history was still remembered even in the days of its impotence and ruin. There was a real sense of national life, a consciousness so strong that it could bend even the selfish instincts of feudal nobles into cherishing an ambition wider and more patriotic than that of making themselves little kings over their own patrimony. The strongest of the German feudal houses was less well organised on a separatist basis than the Duchy of Britanny or the Duchy of Burgundy. And few indeed of them could base their power on any keenly felt local or