Today it would be hard to even comprehend a country in which the entire society was based on Christianity, Papal authority and divine investiture, or even the Divine Rights of Kings. However, the Holy Roman Empire was no centralized autocracy, despite what the enemies of traditional monarchy may say. The princes were autonomous rulers, the Emperor had authority only in the areas of defense and foreign relations, in addition to having the Pope as a moral policeman and check against arbitrary tyranny. Most day to day authority was done on the local level and included a diverse group of leaders, military, noble and religious. The feudal system was at its height during the early period of the Empire. Today people are critical of feudalism because it forced the serfs to work for a lord indefinitely, yet without the protection of the lord the serf would probably not have survived at all. The Holy Roman Empire established by Charlemagne brought Western Europe out of the Dark Ages and into the great era of the High Middle Ages. All Christians were united by one Faith with one spiritual ruler (the Pope) and one temporal ruler (the Kaiser). Since the Pope had crowned Charlemagne and successive Holy Roman Emperors the people also knew that their own king was not the ultimate authority but that God and the Church with their moral truth, were at the heart of their civilization.
For a time, many in the east might have looked to the west and marveled at the (fairly) consistent level of unity maintained by the Pope and the Emperor. Though, if they did, they did not for very long as the Catholic west soon suffered a split that ran far deeper than the national divisions of Eastern Orthodoxy. Despite many attacks by foreign powers it was an internal problem that proved most damaging to the Holy Roman Empire: the birth of the Protestant movement. Luther was harbored by princes wishing to have more power and who did not take kindly to submitting themselves to the moral authority of an Italian cleric in Rome. Divisions arose and Catholics and Protestants became locked in ideological as well as physical combat. Of course, some Protestants had perfectly noble intentions and even at the time many Catholics admitted that the Church was in bad need of reform. Unfortunately, that was not the result and things might have turned out very differently had it not been for the great Hapsburg ruler Emperor Charles V. Despite having what seemed to be the entire world arrayed against him, and faced with self-serving rulers on every side, Charles V managed to fight the Protestants to a draw, make peace with them and defeat a Turkish invasion. Without his imperial leadership Christendom or at least Catholic Christendom would likely have died then and there.
The next great enemy to arise was the liberalism of the so-called "Age of Reason". Ideas such as “every man his own priest” and a focus on individual interpretation of the Bible quickly led to a myriad of contradictory “truths” which caused many people to shrug off religion entirely in favor of the uncontestable “truths” of science and reason. This led to an arrogant thirst for uniformity and regimentation that spelled doom for a body like the Empire, which was made up of many autonomous countries with diverse cultures. The world also found out that there were none so bloodthirsty as the advocates of enlightenment and reason. The French Revolution destroyed the traditional monarchy in France, the tragic Queen Marie Antoinette was in fact the sister of the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II. Christians were persecuted, royalists were murdered in the streets and even the Pope himself was arrested. As revolutionary armies marched across Europe they spread the liberal ideas of government by sacred, secular documents and one-size-fits-all political ideologies. It all meant a grim future for Christendom, east and west, and it also meant that the Holy Roman Emperor had to go. After his defeat at Austerlitz Kaiser Franz II felt he had no choice but to give up his crown and the Holy Roman Empire officially came to an end.
In the aftermath, the forces of the counter-revolution did make something of a come-back but the damage that had been done seemed impossible to undo. Without a central stronghold for Christendom, the west became increasingly skeptical, increasingly secular and increasingly republican -even before the monarchies began to fall. Only the east, in Imperial Russia, seemed immune. There the old legacy remained, there was an empire with no political formulas, no written constitution and no political parties; just the faith, the Tsar and the family. However, perhaps because of this, the Russian Empire seemed deliberately targeted and when that second great eastern empire fell, it fell not just to people of a different faith or no faith but to people intent on eradicating all faith entirely. It had all the horrors of the French Revolution, only worse. Such a vicious regime based on such artificial fancies could not and did not endure but in neither east nor west has that central empire been restored. It can hardly be considered a coincidence that the faith continues to struggle as well. All those who claim to be devout Christian people should take an honest look at history and the world around them and accept the fact that the “walls of separation” so many cherish have not been used to protect but to divide and conquer; destroying the empires and then destroying the faith.
Think about it. -MM