Part V:

Reformation Germany


Lord Aubrey de Baudricourt

"The cities of Germany enjoy unrestricted freedom, they control only limited territory, and obey the emperor only when they want to. They fear neither him nor any neighboring power, because they are so fortified that everyone knows it would be a protracted, difficult operation to reduce them."

--- Machiavelli, The Prince, 1514


Germany in the Middle Ages was a loose collection of principalities, duchies, counties and ecclesiastical states. Its political fragmentation was to curse Germany throughout the course of the Renaissance and Reformation and beyond. The failure of the Ottonian and Hohenstaufen emperors to erect a powerful and centralized state doomed "Germany" to be nothing more than a geographical term well into modern times. Germany in the time of the Renaissance was a patchwork quilt of some 2500 states of varying sizes. It represented the concept of feudalism gone mad. Literally thousands of castles dotted the land allowing, in many 'Locations, robber barons to control as much land as they could hold from their keeps. Unlike her neighbors, Germany could not speak with one voice.

At the dawn of the Renaissance the region of Germany lay between the mighty Kingdom of France to west and the Swiss cantons to the south. To the south and east lay the Hapsburg territories of Tyrol, Austria and Bohemia. These were vast lands in comparison to the vast majority of the German states. Beyond them lay the lands of the Turks. The Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania, united in 1360 and stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, stood to the east with the Kingdom of Sweden making up the northern border.

The government of the region rest in the hands of some 2500 local and regional rulers. About 2000 of these were Imperial Free Knights who, when taken altogether, ruled about 250 square miles. They owed fealty directly to the emperor. There were also a number of Imperial Free Cities, about 65 in total. Some 50 ecclesiastical princes, 30 secular princes, 100 counts and 70 prelates round out the list of German rulers. Theoretically they all owed allegiance to the emperor.

The free knights were declining in power and prestige at the beginning of the Renaissance. Their place was slowly being usurped by the rising merchant class spearheaded by the banking families of the Fuggers and Welsers. The Fuggers in particular were a dynamic force in the European banking industry and diplomatic scene. They loaned money to all of Europe's rulers and their gold was in no small part a deciding factor in many an Imperial election. The Fuggers became the merchant-princes par excellence, being ennobled by the Emperors themselves.

At this time the Imperial throne was still, in theory, elective. The chief contenders were the house of Luxemburg and the Hapsburgs., The elective system had been devised by the princes of Germany in the mid-14th century to ensure that, after the long struggle against the Hohenstaufen, another powerful dynasty would never gain control of the imperial throne. Despite these precaution the throne was to become the permanent property of a dynasty more mighty than the Hohenstaufen had ever been.

The seven electors were the most powerful princes in Germany. They determined the imperial succession. If they could never be emperors at least they could determine who would. Four were lord temporal: the King of Bohemia, the Count Palatine of the Rhein, the Duke of Saxony and the Margrave of Brandenburg. Three were lords spiritual: the prince-archbishops of Trier, Mainz and Koln. From the mid-13th century to mid-15th century they had successfully blocked any family from gaining control of the Imperial throne. The Hapsburgs were to gain control of the throne in 1493 and were not to relinquish it until forced to dissolve the Empire itself by Napoleon in 1806.

The Hapsburgs

It is impossible to understand the events in Renaissance and Reformation Germany (or, for that matter those of Europe at this time) without understanding the Hapsburgs. 'Phis family began as minor counts in the valleys of Switzerland. By the end of the era they were Emperor, King of Spain, King of Portugal, King of Bohemia, King of Naples and Sicily, Duke of Burgundy, Duke of Milan, Archduke of Austria, Duke of Tyrol, Duke of Carinthia, and overlord of vast lands in the New World. Through a policy of "matrimonial imperialism" the Hapsburgs rose from the minor nobility to the pinnacle of power in the Renaissance world.

The family fortune was secured by Maximilian I (r. 1493-1519) Maximilian was a soldier but he enjoyed far more success as a patron of the arts and in the realm of matrimony. His marriage to Mary of Burgundy added the Netherlands and Franche-Comte to the Hapsburg holdings and his election as emperor in the same year made him the premier ruler in Europe He married his son, Philip, to the eldest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella. Their son, Charles, would unite the central European lands of Maximilian I to those of Spain. Charles became King of Spain in 1517 and, through the mechanizations of his dying grandfather, emperor in 1519. Maximilian left to his grandson an Empire far stronger than the one that he had been given in 1493.

The greatest German artist of Maximilian's time was, without a doubt, Albrecht Durer (1471-1528). In Lime he, with Martin Luther, were to come to be regarded as the spirits of Renaissance Germany. The most famous of Durer's works is "The Knight, Death, and the Devil" which is believed to also be a depiction of Franz von Sickingen. Duper's portraits were more popular because of their simplicity, earthiness and sensual touch. Duper enjoyed support monetary support from Maximilian that enabled him to travel to Holland after the emperor's death. While there he contracted malaria and, in 1528, he died bequeathing to Germany artworks that showed the country at its peak, before the descent of the Reformation and religious wars that were, by the 17th century, to lay waste to the nation.

Charles V (r. 1519-1556) seemed graced by God with the destiny to dominate of Europe. He certainly believed that he wag. Charles combined all of the Hapsburg lands under one control. He was intelligent, diligent, hard working, wealthy (particularly as the wealth of the New World possessions of Spain entered into the Imperial coffers) and determined to govern Europe in the way that God would have wanted it ruled. He seemed to have a ready made ally in the King of England who was married to his aunt. The Pope seemed supportive as well.

He was, however, forced to divide his attention between a host of external and internal problems. Either, if they could have been dealt with alone, would not have prevented the Hapsburg domination of Europe. When taken together, they were to stop Charles and his successors short of their goal.

The first external problem was France. The Empire, Spain and France had claims on various pieces of land there and the previous rulers of those three states had fought a series of short but wide-ranging wars there. Now it was to become the battlefield between the Hapsburgs and Valois France. In the end the Hapsburgs were to emerge victorious, but vital troops and monies had to be wasted here instead of being used against a far greater enemy--the Turks.

The Ottoman Empire had been expanding into Europe since the mid-14th century. They advanced across the Balkans defeating Christian armies at Kossovo (1389), Nicopolis (1396), Varna (1444), Rhodes (1522) and Mohacs (1526). The last mentioned battle had completely destroyed the Kingdom of Hungary and its army, leaving the German Hapsburg lands exposed. Although Vienna was to withstand siege in 1529, warfare continued to be fought across the fluid HapsburgOttoman border for the duration of the period. The Turks were the Hapsburg's greatest external threat.

Martin Luther and the Reformation

The greatest internal threat was not an army or hostile nation. It was the ideas of a disgruntled German priest named Martin Luther. Shocked by the corruption of the Church, Luther began a call for reform. He nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the cathedral in Wittenburg on October 31, 1517. The Church, supported by the Empire, tried to put an end to Luther's ideas, forcing him to break with the Church. By 1520 Luther was in full opposition to the Roman Catholic Church. The Reformation had begun.


The Reformation is a key event in the history of Germany. It was to further divide an already thoroughly divided region. The Reformation polarized peoples and states within the Empire and culminate in an incredibly bloody and indecisive war in the early 17th century. It was to tear the fabric of German society asunder, spark revolt, ignite civil strife and, in the end, further retard the unification of Germany into a true nation state.

These future effects of the call for reform were, of course, undreamed of by Luther and his followers. The German states were ripe for such a movement and Luther found much support. Many were ready to use his rebellion against the Church in Rome as the framework around which to build an edifice of secular rebellion against governmental authority. Others used it as a patriotic call to arms. Both the Knight's War (1522-23) and the Peasant's War (1524-26) claimed to have some support in Lutheran doctrine. Franz von Sickingen, an Imperial Free Knight, became a power in the land and fought in support of the reformists.

The printing press was instrumental in the spreading of Luther's message throughout Germany and beyond. By 1525 several German rulers had converted to the new religion including the Duke of Saxony and the Landgrave of Hesse. In the years that followed more German princes were to become Lutheran or Calvinist. In northern Germany the Count of Mansfield and Duke of Brunzwick-Luneburg became Protestant and great areas of Schleswig, Holstein and Friesland were heavily influenced by Protestant doctrine. Many of the great cities (Goslar, Nurnburg, Heilbronn, Kempten, Memmingen, Reutlingen, Hamburg, Bremen and others) had converted or were leaning in that direction. The Protestant princes formed the Schmalkaldic League in February 1531 for protection from the Emperor and the Pope.

Open warfare broke out in 1546. Maneuvering across southern Germany, both armies seemed intent on avoiding pitched battle during the first year of the war. Finally, on April 24, 1547 Charles V defeated the forces of the Duke of Saxony at Muhlberg. With the international picture temporarily peaceful, the time seemed Pipe for the settlement of the religious struggle within the Empire by force of arms. But Charles's attempt to force the princes into submission caused them to rise up in revolt again in 1552. The princes chased the Emperor from Germany, defeated a subordinate commander (left by Charles when he left the Empire for the last time) and restored peace through their own efforts with the signing of the Treaty of Passau.

Finally, in 1555, the religious Peace of Augsburg was agreed upon. It allowed the prince to determine whether his state would be Catholic or Lutheran. The Calvinists, Zwinglians and Anabaptists were not protected by the peace. Nor did the peace allow the individual to determine his religion. This was, as mentioned before, done by his ruler As inadequate as it was, the Peace of Augsburg gave Germany a rest from religious strife that would last until the onset of the Thirty Years War in 1618. Exhausted by his efforts against the French, the Turks and the Protestant Princes, Charles V abdicated in 1556, passing governorship of the Empire to his brother, Ferdinand I (r. 1556-1564) and control of Spain and her dependencies to his son Philip. This arrangement was much wiser, leaving Philip free to struggle on against the French and the Turks while Ferdinand mustered his forces for the fight against the Protestants and the Turks.

The Counter-Reformation

The Protestant faith continued to expand after the Peace of Augsburg. It gained control of much of the Rheinland, to include the Palatinate. By 1560 most of eastern Germany was also Protestant as was Bohemia and the remnants of Hungary. But it was not a unified movement. With the threat of outside domination gone, the Protestants began to bicker amongst themselves and divided firmly along Lutheran, Calvinist, Zwinglian, etc., lines.

Ferdinand I, though no less firm in his religious convictions than was his brother, was forced to follow a conciliatory policy vis-a-vis the Protestant German princes. This was not by choice by was, instead, due to political considerations. Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church began to recover and gained a renewed vigor. It cleaned up its own house in Rome, eliminating many of the corrupt practices against which the now dead Luther had protested. The Council of Trent, which ended in 1563, reunified and invigorated the Catholic Church and created a desire to "retake" lands 'Lost to the heretics. The creation of the Society of Jesus gave the Church a militant arm with which to accomplish it.

While the Church gathered strength for the coming struggle the Emperor Maximilian II (r. 1564-1576) took his fathers policy of reconciliation to its fullest extent. His sympathies lay with the Protestants' During his reign he remained completely neutral in regards to both faiths, preferring to war fruitlessly against the Turks in Hungary. The old Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, invaded Austria in July of 1566 with an army of 100,000 men. His forces were delayed at the castle of Szigetvar by the Hungarian Count Miklos Zrinyi. Although the castle fell on September 8, the death of the Sultan two days before brought the campaign to a halt. The Ottoman-Hapsburg wars were brought to a temporary halt by the Treaty of Adrianople, signed in 1568. Although much maligned by historians, Maximilian 11 was a generous and good-natured man, tolerant and interested in the advancement of the sciences.

Rudolph II (r. 1576-1612) followed a more pro-Catholic course during his reign but he was generally an ineffective ruler. He had been raised in Spain and given the education appropriate for a possible heir of Philip II. Thus, he was in tune with the religious policies that Spain was following and in sympathy with any program for a counterstroke by the Catholic Church. The turning point of the Reformation in Germany came with the failure of the Protestant faith to win over the city of Koln in 1585. This failure signaled the beginning of an counteroffensive by the Church; it marked the beginning of the CounterReformation. The Church regained ground in Westphalia, Tyrol, Bohemia and southern Germany while the Imperial lands in Austria served as a springboard for these first offensives by the forces of the Counter-Reformation. The rapid spread of the Protestant faith had been brought to a halt.

Although the gains were made without resort to arms, the latent hostility between the faiths was never far beneath the surface. As the Counter-Reformation gathered steam there was a strong tendency towards open hostility. Neither side was willing to allow the other to gain ground and neither was truly happy with the status quo. The battle lines began to harden as the Catholics and Protestants battled for dominance within the framework of the Empire. The forces were finely balanced throughout the rest of the 16th century but any change in that balance would have surely set off a bloody civil war (as it was to do in 1618).

Architecture during the latter years of the Reformation became more secular in Germany. The Protestant princes, following the example of Henry VIII of England, appropriated much of the Church's lands and wealth within their realms and concentrated in the construction of palaces and castles or refurbishing those already in existence. These years saw much building in Affschaffenburg and Heidelberg. The city halls in Lubeck, Augsburg, Rothenburg, and Nurnburg became works of art. Engraving flourished and paintings done on glass became popular.


At the end of the 16th century Germany was a troubled land poised on the brink of a massive and bloody religious civil war like those that France had experienced in the latter part of the century. The Hapsburgs had solidified their power within the Empire and had protected Central Europe from the armies of the Ottoman Sultans, but Germany was even further from unity than she had been at the beginning of the Renaissance. At that time she had been merely politically fragmented. This political fragmentation had allowed the German princes to use the Reformation for their own purposes. The power of the princes increased dramatically during these years and, for the first time in centuries, many of them banded together against the emperor on the battlefield.

But the Reformation was to divide Germany further, in a way that she had never been divided before. During the Middle Ages each of the almost countless German states had at least shared a common religion. That was no longer so. This division in matters of religion was to be reflected geographically as well. When the guns of the Thirty Years War fell silent, Germany was to be further divided between a Protestant north and a Catholic south. This was, perhaps, one of the most enduring legacies of the German Reformation.


1493--Maximilian I becomes Emperor

1494--Revolt in the Netherlands suppressed by Maximilian I.

1499--Maximilian invades Switzerland. Maximilian is forced to formally recognize Swiss independence.

1517--Martin Luther begins the Reformation

1519--Charles V becomes Emperor

1521--Wars with Francis I in Italy begin.

1522--The Knight's War involving minor nobles favorable to the Reformation attempting to overthrow the power of the ecclesiastical princes in Germany.

1524--The Peasant War begins.

1525--Battle of Pavia. Charles V defeats Francis I and is now able to turn his attention to German affairs and to the defense of the Empire against the Turkish threat.

1529--Turks lay siege of Vienna.

1531--Schmalkaldic League formed.

1547--Battle of Muhlberg. Charles V victorious over the Protestant Princes.

1553--The Protestant princes triumph over Imperial forces and drive Charles V from Germany.

1555--Peace of Augsburg. Princes can decide whether their people will be Catholic or Protestant

1556--Charles V abdicates. Ferdinand I becomes Emperor.

1564--Maximilian II becomes Emperor. He continues his fathers policy of reconciliation.

1566--Turks invade Austria but are delayed at Szigetvar by Count Miklos Zrinyi. The castle eventually falls but the Turks are forced to halt their invasion due to the death of the Sultan (from old age).

1568--Treaty of Adrianople establishes peace between the Turks and the Hapsburgs.

1576--Rudolf II becomes Emperor.

1585--The Protestants are unsuccessful in gaining control of the archbishopric of Koln. The Counter-Reformation in Germany begins in earnest.

1590--Border disputes in Hungary terminate the Treaty of Adrianople and land war resumes between Turkey and the Empire.

1593--Hapsburg forces conduct raids into Turkish Hungary.

1594--Turks counterattack, bringing Austrian raids to an end.

1596--Turks invade Austria and badly defeat the Austrian army at the Battle of Kerestes.

1606--Treaty of Zsitva-Torok ends hostilities.

1612--Rudolf II dies insane and is replaced by Matthais.

1618--The Thirty Years War, that will kill off one-third of Germany, destroy Spain as a world power, mark the ascendancy of France and fatally weaken Sweden, begins. In the end, the German Princes decide that the situation in Germany should reflect the status of pre-1618.


Chanunu, Pierre (editor], The Reformation, St. Martin's Press, New York City, New York, 1990.

Durant, Will and Ariel, The Age of Reason Begins, Simon and Schuster, New York City, New York, 1961.

Durant, Will and Ariel, The Reformation, Simon and Schuster, New York City, New York, 1957.

Holborn, Hajo, A History of Modern Germany: The Reformation, Alfred A. Knopf, New York City, New York, 1967.