April 27th in German History: The Ratification of the Reichsdeputationshauptschluss

Page one of the printed edition of the Reichsdeputationshauptschluss. Image Credit: Wikipedia

The Holy Roman Empire was a confederation of states that was the major power in central Europe for nearly a thousand years. Created when Charlemagne was made the first Holy Roman Emperor, the Empire changed dramatically from a single state with a hereditary monarch to a coalition of states with one of the rulers elected as emperor, to a Hegemony controlled by Austria to, finally, after the Thirty Year’s War, an entity with little real significance as the states became more and more independent and the title of Emperor was increasingly just a title tacked on before the name of the Austrian Emperor. In the waning days of the Holy Roman Empire, as Protestant Prussia grew in power and Austria stagnated, there were attempts at reform and consolidation of the empire, but they failed to reduce its decline. The death blow came during the French Revolution, when Napoleon defeated several Austrian armies and annexed territories west of the Rhine river into France. This understandably angered many of the affected German States, and so Russia and France, the Emperor was shut out of the decision-making process, made a plan in June of 1802 to compensate the German Princes for lost land. Based on the Plan a law, the Reichsdeputationshauptschluss, or the Final Recess, was submitted to the Reichstag which secularized 70 ecclesiastical states and incorporated 45 Imperial Free Cities into nearby states. The ecclesiastical states, a category including bishoprics, abbeys, and priories, were given to various princes as compensation for lost land with the exception of the Archbishopric of Regensburg and the lands of the Knights of Saint John and also of the Teutonic Knights. The law was ratified by the Emperor on April 27th of 1803 after the Reichstag passed it unanimously.

The Final Recess weakened the Emperor as many of the bishoprics and abbeys were under Imperial control and so provided revenues to the Emperor. The abolition of all but six Imperial Free Cities also weakened the Emperor’s position as it strengthened the states that were nominally under his control and decreased his revenues. The consolidation of territories into larger states like Bavaria, Baden, and Prussia shifted the balance of power out of Austria’s favor. It also shifted the balance in favor of Protestant states, as they received the most land from it. Further, the resolution also established the precedent that France and her allies in Germany could gain territory and status, which they would do most notably in 1806-when 80 states were annexed into larger states of the confederation of the Rhine, a French satellite state. That same year, the Holy Roman Empire would cease to exist, finally ending one of the last vestiges of the Middle Ages. Austria would continue to be a major power, but it would lose more and more influence in the rest of Germany until, finally, the German Empire was formed under Prussia rather than under Austria. The dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire serves as yet another example of the dangers of unrestrained autonomy and separate levels of sovereignty. The German States all had competing interests and were often unable to unite against outside threats. The Holy Roman Empire fell victim to the same competing nationalism and self-interest that broke up Yugoslavia and accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union. When nations consider giving sub-regions autonomy or delegating authority to local governments, they should consider what long-term effects the creation of another governmental entity with its authority and its own objectives will have on the nation as a whole.

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