Germany History – The Constitutional Problem and Reform Drawings in the 15th Century Part I

It seemed for a moment that to the repercussions of the Western schism in Germany the damage of a political schism had to be added: the voters were divided between the brother and the cousin of Wenceslaus, Sigismund and Jost, Marquis of Moravia, the latter supported by Wenceslaus. Both were elected on 20 September and 1 October 1410; but the death of Jost and the reestablishment of the good agreement between the two brothers led to the throne Sigismondo (21 July 1411).

Germany was entering one of the most critical periods in its history. Threatened at the eastern border by the Slavic revolt, which, after having prostrated the power of the Teutonic Order to the north-east, was preparing to break out in the south-east in the terrible national, social and religious revolution of the Hussites of Bohemia; torn inside by the brigandage of the knights and the clash of local selfishness, which the absence of a central government worthy of the name abandoned to their disintegrating work; agitated by the religious crisis, her energies were paralyzed by the looming constitutional problem. The solution was urgent. Yet all the attempts made to find one were unsuccessful even when, spreading the Hussites in arms in the contiguous regions of Germany (1424, 1428-1431), also victorious over armies of the Empire, the upper classes saw themselves under the direct danger of a social upheaval on the part of the lower ones, due to the sinister echo of the claims of the Bohemian peasants among the German rural masses who, left defenseless at the mercy of aristocratic bullying, had fallen into painful enslavement. The cities did not follow Sigismondo in his primitive plan to lean on them, constituted in league with the sovereign as protector. The need for constitutional reform was so strong that the subject was also made the subject of political writings, such as the Concordantia catholica by Nicholas of Cues (1433), and the almost temporary Reformation Kaiser Sigmunds, by anonymous. But the princes made sure that all the proposals presented on the subject to the various diets (Nuremberg, July-September 1422; Frankfurt, November-December 1427; Basel, November 1433-May 1434; Regensburg, autumn 1434), as a division of the Empire into circumscriptions governed by officials nominated by the king; introduction of taxes to provide the necessary means for the reorganization of financial, judicial, military institutions, and for the creation and functioning of the corresponding administrative bodies, etc. Moreover, too many interests, now considered legitimate by those who enjoyed them, would have been injured, for the application of such proposals to be possible if it were not imposed by a superior force. But Sigismund did not have this strength; in the face of the spread of chivalric brigandage he was forced to the expedient of recognizing legal validity to the jurisdiction of Vemegerichte ; and he was, moreover, too involved in the crisis of his kingdom of Bohemia and in the contemporary conflict between the Council of Basel and Pope Eugene IV. When he died (December 9, 1437) the constitutional problem had not taken a step towards the solution. While the imperial authority counted for nothing in the face of the most vital questions, the Wettins, the Hohenzollerns, the Habsburgs rose in power. The Wettin, former Margravî of Thuringia and Misnia had been invested (1423) by Sigismondo of the electoral duchy of Saxony Wittenberg, also with the extinction of this other line of the Ascanî. The Hohenzollerns, already lords of conspicuous goods in Franconia and Burgravî of Nuremberg, received the electoral stamp of Brandenburg, granted by Sigismund to Frederick VI (1415-1417), in compensation for the essential part, which he had had in his election. But for the Hohenzollerns only a more distant future reserved a decisive task in the history of Germany. The Habsburgs instead found themselves called immediately to resume the eminent part already touched to their ancestors in the XIII-XIV centuries.

In fact, the electoral princes pre-elected (18 March 1438) Albert II of Habsburg to the Hohenzollern who became Margrave of Brandenburg. Albert II, in his capacity as son-in-law of Sigismondo, the last male of his family, took over from him in all his possessions, and therefore also in the kingdoms of Bohemia and Hungary. The reunion of the Luxembourg and Habsburg dominions, which had been the dream of Charles IV, was carried out according to the Brünn pact, but to the advantage of the Habsburgs and not the Luxembourgs. The need to rush to the defense of Hungary against the Turks immediately distracted the new sovereign from Germany. On 27 October 1439 he fell in battle on the Rahab. However, he had also had time to see his proposal failing in the Nuremberg Diet to resolve the disputes caused by private wars by court.

According to Collegetoppicks, the election of Albert II’s cousin (February 2, 1440) was of great importance. From then on, the choice of the electors will always fall on members of the House of Habsburg, in which the hereditary principle for the succession to the imperial throne was therefore in fact rooted; and on the other hand the center of gravity of the Empire remained definitively shifted towards the peripheral south-eastern regions. The eflective inheritance of the crown could be the beginning of the resolutive phase for the constitutional problem, and mark a great hour in the history of both Germany and the Habsburgs. But, leaving aside the negative qualities of Frederick III, the same eccentric position, with respect to Germany, of the domains on which the Habsburgs based their power, and to whose fate they were therefore particularly linked, it caused the emperors of this family to feel too often strangers to Germany, and as strangers they were felt in Germany. One more difficulty was therefore added to the many, which already hindered the solution of the constitutional problem, because the will of the princes to oppose the formation of a strong centralizing government was added to the reluctance in all social classes to accept the sacrifices connected with the implementation of a reform, to then see the benefits go to others. The negative concept that the emperor had of the relationship between his selfish interests as a territorial prince and the common ones of Germany became clear when he, due to the unfavorable turn taken by his own war (1442) against the Swiss, did not hesitate to resort to France for aid, which resulted in a double invasion of Alsace and Lorraine. The first one suffered more, because only in the autumn of 1445 was it cleared of the ferocious bands of Armagnac mercenaries, who had horribly devastated it. Lorraine was also cleared, but Toul and Verdun had to recognize the protectorate of the king of France, whose ambitions to bring the border to the Rhine received a dangerous incentive from the very sovereign who was supposed to oppose them. Nor did the German princes show themselves better than their emperor, letting the honor of the heroic defense against the invader be all of the cities and the rural population.

Germany History - The Constitutional Problem 1