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In the 1500's, the Holy Roman Empire was a relatively powerful country. By the mid 1800's, it seemed to be superseded by in importance by its states.

When did the unified "Holy Roman Empire" really collapse and why?

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5 Answers

up vote 16 down vote accepted

The Holy Roman Empire actually persisted into the early 19th century. At this time it was centralized in the loosely defined and allied Germanic states/kingdoms. Following the rise of Napoleon and the defeat of many different, unaligned German kingdoms' forces by Napoleon's forces, Napoleon was able to sweep across the nation we now know as Germany. One of the first things Napoleon did was to dismantle the once-proud Holy Roman Empire as well as install a number of administrative and economic reforms. Doing so actually laid the foundations of a (loose) sense of German nationalism that had not existed prior to this and led the way to many of the revolutionary happenings of the 19th century in central Europe (more specifically in Germany, Prussia, Hungary, Austria, Denmark, France, and many other tiny German principalities and duchies).

Sources used: David Blackbourn's History of Germany, 1780-1918: The Long Nineteenth Century

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Indeed, this was basically the case. It is interesting to analogise the collapse to that of the actual Roman Empire, which had been decaying and diminishing in power and control for a couple of centuries before its invasion and official destruction. –  Noldorin Oct 12 '11 at 16:13
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Officially it collapsed after falling to Napoleon with the 4th treaty of Pressburg, but had been fading for some time before that. The empire was pretty decentrized in nature, but various events such as the Peace of Westphalia after the thirty years war, which granted dominions effectively independence in all but name. Nations, especially the Hapsburgs in Austria, looking to consolidate their own domains over that of the empires, and the thwarting of policies that would have brought more centralization to the empire's rule.

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+1 for mentioning the thirty year war. Europe's tragedy is a very good scholarly reading on that war and the peace treaty that concluded that war. –  Monster Truck Jun 13 '12 at 0:22
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To build on GPierce's answer, the HRE functionally collapsed much before that time. The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) had really taken a toll on the HRE's central government. It left the country politically and religiously divided, which was a major issue to unification at that point in time. The country was ruled by princes who controlled city states that were loosely connected. This remained until Napoleon, as Gpirece stated, swept across modern day Germany.

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The Holy Roman Empire was never a real "country," but rather a motley confederation of mostly independent (mostly German-speaking) states. During the Middle Ages, it did, however, prove itself capable of rallying behind an elected Emperor for crusading or other religious purposes.

In contrast to other answerers above, I date the (de facto, not de jure) collapse of the Holy Roman Empire to the Thirty Years War, 1618-1648, between the Swedish-led (Protestant) north German states, and the Austrian-led (Catholic) south German states. By splitting the "empire" into Protestant and Catholic camps, the long war destroyed the common ethos that had hitherto bound the different states, and made the "confederation" a shell of disunited, often warring entities.

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When Frederick II came to the throne in 1215, he tried to extend the HRE even more towards Italy (his father married the heiress of the throne of Sicily). His main ambition to create such an empire was because of the constant clashes with the papacy. His vain efforts to gain strength in Italy only weakened him in Germany, leaving the German dukes and princes free to govern Germany.

After the death of Frederick II, the HRE rapidly declined. The German monarchs continued to be called HRE emperors, but they held little power.

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This is not true. Carolus V was the strongest monarch in the world for his own time and for centuries before and after. –  Anixx Jun 14 '12 at 18:34
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