Andrew Andersen




(1480 - 1570)

Maps: Putzgers, F.W., Historischer Schul-Atlas, Bielefeld, 1929

The New Cambridge Modern History Atlas, 1970


The beginning of the 16th century in Germany was marked by the reforms of the Habsburg Emperors Frederick III (1440 - 1493) and Maximilian I (1493-1519) who desperately tried to strengthen the Empire at the expense of local rulers who in their turn, tried to get more independence.


One of the major results of Frederick’s rule was the reform of Reichstag (Imperial diet) allowing the representatives of the cities to have seats in it along with the representatives of the feudal and ecclesiastical states.


Neither Frederick, nor Maximilian had any success in bringing stable peace to the Empire. The states and parties were fighting for power sometimes turning to foreign countries for support. The major foreign power getting involved in the Imperial affairs was France interested in territorial expansion at the expense of West German lands.

Emperor Maximilian I


The election of Charles V (1519-56) resulted in strengthening imperial power and economic decline that led to sharp social conflicts.


Martin Luther

Social tensions of the 16th century combined with the crisis of Roman Catholic Church, led to the Reformation movement which in fact turned into a revolt against the Papacy.


The beginning of Reformation is considered to be the 31st of October of the year 1517 when German priest and theology professor Martin Luther posted ninety-five theses on the door of his church in Wittenberg (Saxony). Three years later, Luther published several writings in which he attacked catholic church and proclaimed the main principles of Protestantism that are often expressed as: “Christ alone, the Bible alone, faith Alone and Grace alone!”


In 1521 Luther was banned by the Imperial Edict of Worms and expelled from Saxony. However, that made him even more popular and led to the destruction of German religious unity. Many followers of Luther were attracted by the idea of direct relationship with God without such mediators as Roman Catholic clergy. The switch over from Latin to German as the language of Liturgy (Luther translated the Bible into vernacular German) attracted the lower classes of the society and led to the development of written German language. It was probably, also the first step towards the development of German nationalism in the future.

Finally, Martin Luther’s teachings developed into Lutheranism which became one of the major doctrines of Protestantism together with several other doctrines like for example, Calvinism that established itself in semi-independent Switzerland. Lutheranism was quickly accepted by large social groups including many princely rulers and civic patricians. Many local rulers adopted Lutheranism because it made them free of subordination to the Catholic Emperor thus destroying not only spiritual but also vague political unity of the Empire.


In fact, most of the free Imperial cities became Lutheran and so did several German states, especially in the north of the country, while quite a few other states remained Catholic and hostile towards their Lutheran neighbors.


John Calvin



The hostilities developed into the explosions of violence, such as The Knights' War of 1522-1523 which in fact, was a rebellion of the lower nobility in southwestern areas of the country and the Peasants' War of 1524-25 that ravaged southwestern and central Germany.



Supported by the cities, as well as by some knights, the Peasants’ War was the largest uprising in the history of Central Europe. Its suppression resulted at least in 100 000 deaths and massive destruction.





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Emperor Charles V



Although Reformation seemed to be triumphant in parts of the Empire, it had very strong opponents. Its main enemy was the Emperor Charles V who in addition to the Imperial throne was the King of Spain and Sicily, as well as the ruler of the Netherlands, Austria and some territories in Italy. His goal was to establish a strong, centralized state with no religious diversity (i.e. Roman Catholic as was the Emperor himself).


However, decisive action of Charles made him unpopular in many parts of the Empire. In Germany Charles had to face the Schmalkaden League created in 1531 by Protestant princes. The defeat of the League at Mühlberg on April 24/1547, still did not allow Charles to prevent spiritual victory of Protestantism in large parts of his country.


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The Empire also had to face external attacks from the west (France) and from the east (Ottoman empire) resulting in French-supported revolts of 1552 and the fall of Hungary to the Turks


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The Peace of Augsburg signed in 1555, marked the victory of the Princes, strengthened German particularism and confirmed the official status of both Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism providing local rulers the right to choose the dominant religion for their states.

The peace was followed by the escalation of the strife for the souls between Lutheranism, Kalvinism and Roman Catholicism, the latter managing to re-gain some of the lost positions and forming the Catholic League in 1609.


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At the same time, religious controversy that accompanied the rule of Ferdinand I (1558-1564) and his successors, added to the existing economic and political problems and drew attention of the rulers from securing internal consolidation and repelling external attacks. The Dutch Revolt of 1566-67 against Imperial rule under William of Orange led to de-facto loss of Imperial control over some of the Netherlands. Russian Invasion of the Baltic German state and the intervention of Sweden, Denmark and Poland, led to the   loss of East Baltic territories closely associated with the Empire to Sweden and Poland in 1561. The fight against Ottoman Turkey for Hungarian legacy resulted in the Treaty of Adrianople (1568) leaving the Empire with the acquisition of a narrow stripe of Hungarian and Croatian territory.


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