So says the old joke, which Voltaire first told, regarding the Holy Roman Empire, whose contours are displayed above. The accompanying text from the Times Atlas of World History notes that Germany in 1648 was divided into 234 distinct territorial units, 51 free cities and innumerable estates of Imperial Knights." 1648 brings partly to a close, with the Treaty of Westphalia, not merely the Thirty Years' War but something like a century of nearly interminable warfare. In the preceding conflict in Germany, about a third of the population perished. Rousseau, writing in the mid 1750s, thought that the treaty of Westphalia would "always be the basis of our political system": "It is certain, that, notwithstanding the defects in the constitution of the Empire, the balance of power in Europe will never be destroyed so long as that constitution subsists."
In Anglo-American political thought, the empire was the butt of a hundred slighting references. The Germanic confederacy, said James Wilson in 1776, "is a burlesque on government, and their practice on any point is a sufficient authority and proof that it is wrong." In the German empire, said one Englishman in 1756 (arguing the need for a continental commitment by Britain), "they have what they call a constitution; but if there was a vis inertiae in any body whatsoever, it may justly be said to be by their constitution in the Germanic body, which renders it impossible for that body to defend itself, or any of its members."
James Madison gave a detailed explication of the Holy Roman Empire in his classic analysis of the defects of ancient and modern confederations in The Federalist. After showing the remarkable similarity between the terms of the American and Germanic confederations and allowing for the “parade of constitutional powers” that the Germanic confederation possessed, Madison insisted that it displayed the general character which belonged to all such confederations, rendering them deeply flawed.
The fundamental principle, on which it rests, that the empire is a community of sovereigns; that the diet is a representation of sovereigns; and that the laws are addressed to sovereigns; render the empire a nerveless body, incapable of regulating its own members, insecure against external dangers, and agitated with unceasing fermentations in its own bowels.
The history of Germany, is a history of wars between the emperor and the princes and states; of wars among the princes and states themselves; of the licentiousness of the strong, and the oppression of the weak; of foreign intrusions, and foreign intrigues; of requisitions of men and money disregarded, or partially complied with; of attempts to enforce them, altogether abortive, or attended with slaughter and desolation, involving the innocent with the guilty; of general imbecility, confusion, and misery.
. . .
If the nation happens, on any emergency, to be more united by the necessity of self-defence, its situation is still deplorable. Military preparations must be preceded by so many tedious discussions, arising from the jealousies, pride, separate views, and clashing pretensions, of sovereign bodies, that before the diet can settle the arrangements, the enemy are in the field; and before the federal troops are ready to take it, are retiring into winter quarters. (No. 19)
* * *
The Times Atlas of World History, Geoffrey Barraclough, ed., (Times Books and Hammond, 1979), from which the above map is taken (190-91), is one of the most useful reference guides a student can own and is undoubtedly the best single introduction to world history available. There is a shorter paperback version which is also quite good, but students should buy the used hardback version available at various online sites like amazon or abebooks. You can get those for about ten dollars, including shipping, which is a fantastic deal.