The Holy Roman Empire, the Schmalkald League, and the Idea of Confessional Nation-Building

The Holy Roman Empire, the Schmalkald League, and the Idea of Confessional Nation-Building

HAUG-MORITZ, GABRIELE  (Professor of Modern History, Graz University)



Historiographical consensus concerning the connection between the Reformation in general, the Schmalkald League in particular, and the question of “confessional nation-building,”which was secure and predominant until the middle of the twentieth century, has now disappeared. Until recently, historians, mostly Protestants of Prussian background, agreed: in the age of the Reformation, Germans missed the chance to build a “Protestant empire of the German nation.” The failure was attributed to Catholic powers, namely, the emperor and the pope, and it was believed to have severe consequences for German history. In the nineteenth-century view, a development had been interrupted, which for the cultural Protestants of the German Empire seemed to be a telos, namely, to build a powerful nation-state in the heart of Europe. This interpretation still influenced the widely discussed thesis of the “late nation” (verspätete Nation) after World War II and seemed to pave a “special German path” (deutscher Sonderweg) through the course of modern history.

Thanks to fundamentally new ways of approach, research on nationalism over the past twenty-five years has overthrown such inter- pretations. By historicizing these interpretations, i.e., by describing them as integral parts of the process of nation-building during the nine- teenth century, scholars have created a new field of research, the study of “nationalism before nationalism.” Before considering the Schmal- kald League and the Holy Roman Empire in the light of this new approach, I will summarize its most important conclusions for the first half of the sixteenth century (section 1). Then I will briefly introduce the Schmalkald League (section 2). Finally, I will comment on the “idea of confessional nation-building” using the example of the Schmalkald War (section 3).

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