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This agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.
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The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (Latin: Imperium Romanum Sacrum Nationis Germanicæ; German: Heiliges Römisches Reich Deutscher Nation) started off as an attempt to revive the Western Roman Empire, turned into a German kingdom, and ended up an empire In Name Only that mostly clung to life because the ruler of Austria wanted to call himself an emperor and the rest of Europe was willing to humor him.

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Origins

The Holy Roman Empire was traditionally founded on Christmas Day of the year 800 A.D., when Pope Leo III placed the crown on the head of Charlemagne in St. Peter's, and the assembled multitudes shouted "Carolo Augusto, a Deo coronato magno et pacifico imperatori, vita et victoria!" — "To Charles the Magnificent, crowned the great and peace-giving emperor by God, life and victory!" Strictly speaking, however, Charles's empire was neither Roman nor German, but Frankish — or as we might say, a sort of French-German mix (for that matter, there was a perfectly valid Roman Emperor at the time in any casenote ). The Empire was not officially described as "Holy" until the twelfth century, nor officially "German" before the sixteenth. Charlemagne's empire quickly fell to pieces among his squabbling successors, and the Holy Roman Emperors themselves tended to ignore any discontinuity between pagan and Christian Rome — Frederick I Barbarossa (1123-1190) going so far as to assert that one of his reasons for going on Crusade was to avenge the defeat of Crassus by the Parthians (53 B.C.).note 

Germany as a realm separate from the Frankish empire emerged with the Treaties of Verdun (843) and Mersen (870). Modern historians tend to distinguish between Charlemagne's Empire (usually referred to as the Frankish Kingdoms or the Carolingian Empire), and the proper Holy Roman Empire, which itself is exclusively descended from the Eastern Frankish realm when the Carolingian Frankish Kingdom fractured. Thus, while Charlemagne was officially crowned "Roman Emperor" by the Pope, it is more common to refer to Otto I as the first Holy Roman Emperor. The title of "Roman Emperor" bounced around between various descendants of Louis the Pious, but the lands of the title holder varied, at first holding the entire Caroligian Empire (Charlemagne and Louis the Pious), then the Middle Frankish Kingdom (area of modern day Low Countries, Burgundy, and Northern Italy), then to just Northern Italy, and so on. The title fell out of use for 38 years, until Otto I was crowned Roman Emperor, where the title was once again in continuous use, and it became associated with the German lands. After the last of Charlemagne's line died in 911, the German nobles elected Henry the Fowler, Duke of Saxony, as King of the Germans. The coronation of his son Otto in 962 may be taken as the actual foundation of the Holy Roman Empire. The actual term "Holy Roman Empire" began to be used only during the reign of Friedrich Barbarossa two centuries and two dynasties later, reflecting Frederick Barbarossa's ambition to rule Italy and the Papacy. Prior to that, it had variously (and highly inconsistently) been referred to as "Imperium Romanum" ("Roman Empire"), "Imperium Teutonicorum" ("German Empire" or "Empire of the Germans"), and "Regnum Teutonicorum" ("Kingdom of Germany" or "Kingdom of the Germans"). Once again, readers should keep in mind that there was a still existing Roman Empire in the form of the Byzantine Empire, and the Byzantines were deeply insulted when the Pope crowned "Roman Emperors," which massively contributed to the East-West schism in Christianity. Keep in mind that at the time, the Byzantines were still calling themselves the Roman Empire and Romans (the term Byzantine didn't even appear until the 16th century, well after their empire had fallen in 1453) so the Pope was giving just about the biggest snub possible to their rulers.

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The mediæval period of the Empire was dominated by a series of internal struggles with the powerful German nobility, by struggles with the Italian communes, and (above all) by the great struggle with the Papacy. Notable figures in that contest include Henry IV, whose famous submission to Pope Gregory VII (Hildebrand) at Canossa was subsequently reversed by Gregory's exile, and the aforementioned Frederick I, whose defeat at Legnano led to his submission to Alexander III. The important point here is that the Empire and the Papacy, both competing for secular and religious power over all Christiandom without the means to enforce it, essentially destroyed each other's credibility. This was not helped by a fairly consistent policy of Emperors to neglect the basis of their power in Germany to grasp at its shadow in Italy - because in order for a German king to become an Emperor, he had to go to Italy and be crowned by the pope. This worked much to the advantage of the nationalistic monarchies of France (especially), England and Spain.

The climax was reached with the reign of Friedrich II (1215-1250), Barbarossa's grandson, who while being an individual of singular gifts nonetheless attempted to run an Italian-German Empire from Sicily, but had come to the throne against his rival Otto IV largely as a consequence of the victory of King Philip II of France against the armies of King John of England and Otto at Bouvines. His reign had some impressive successes (he managed to get excommunicated for leading a crusade which restored the "holy places" to Christian pilgrims without anyone getting killed), but failed to establish a secure power base and got his line targeted by both the French and the Papacy, insofar as the difference mattered at that point. After his death and those of his sons, the name of Holy Roman Emperor was an empty title sought and won by adventurers. After this period, the Interregnum, or in the words of a German poet, "die kaiserlose, die schreckliche Zeit" ("the emperor-less, terrible time"), the Empire recovered somewhat and for a time its greats allotted the crown to the Houses of Habsburg, Luxemburg and Wittelsbach by rota.

Structure

Despite its name, the empire had many traits of a confederation, with the German King (Emperor-elect) being elected by the most powerful regional lords, at least starting around the 12th century. However, while the electors were always some combination of secular rulers and prince-archbishops (i.e. archbishops who were also the secular rulers of some or all of their ecclesiastical province), which of the secular and clerical greats of the Empire would have the privilege was a frequent source of contention.
  • The original configuration of the electoral college is lost to history. The most likely configuration in the early period was that it was composed of some senior churchmen plus the secular rulers of the four "stem duchies" of Franconia, Saxony, Swabia, and Bavaria (the so-called "four tribes" of Germany). There's no direct documention of this, however, and a system based on the "stem duchies" can't have lasted long, as they were abolished in 1180 by Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa.
  • The first document laying out a list of imperial electors is a 1265 letter by Pope Urban IV. The Pope, commenting on the election of 1257, said that, following "immemorial custom", the college had been composed of seven princes of the Empire. Four were secular rulers: the King of Bohemia, the Margrave of Brandenburg, the Count Palantine of the Rhine (who at the time was also the Duke of Bavaria) and the Duke of Saxony. The remaining three were the Archbishop-Electors of Mainz, Cologne, and Trier. This also maintained balance among the most major noble houses of the empire, as it gave two (Brandenburg and Saxony) electorates to the relatively neutral and pliant House of Ascania, and one (Bohemia) to the House of Přemysl, which didn't really consider itself a player in imperial politics. It also gave only one electorate to a house in contention for the imperial throne (the House of Wittelsbach, as Count Palatine); the remaining three major houses (Hohenstaufen, Welf, and Habsburg) got no electorates at all (unless one of their junior members joined the clergy and became a prince-archbishop). As the Hohenstaufens, Welfs, and Habsburgs had been trading off being Emperor for the previous century, this arrangement forced them to rely more heavily on the lesser houses to win the crown (and made marrying into a house that did have an electorate a critical goal of High and Late Medieval strategy for these houses).
  • By the reign of Emperor Charles IV, the composition of the electoral college had become a point of contention, largely because of the rising ambitions and problems of three houses: the Wittelsbachs, the Luxembourgs, and the Habsburgs. Charles, a Luxembourg, had snagged Bohemia himself and was scheming more broadly to enhance his territory. Meanwhile, the Wittelsbachs had split the County Palatine from Bavaria under separate branches, and still a third Wittelsbach line had taken over in Brandenburg. On top of that, the Dukes of Austria under the House of Habsburg were gaining prominence, having been elected King but not crowned Emperor twice between the election of 1257 and Charles IV's day.

    Each of these developments caused issues. The Wittelsbach rulers of Bavaria complained that they should have gotten an elctorate on the grounds that Bavaria (a major part of the Empire) was now unrepresented in the college, when before it had been. They were also annoyed that Bohemia got to vote, even though Bohemia wasn't German. Also, neither of the last two members of the Brandenburg Wittelsbach line had any heirs, so there was a risk that one of the other two Wittelsbach lines might get it—and if it was inherited by the Palatinate branch or if Bavaria was granted an electorate in its own right, would that mean the Wittelsbach heir would now get two votes? Meanwhile, Austria was campaigning to be added to the college on what amounts to a straight-up Appeal to Force (or at least appeal to power), although they might've dressed it up a bit as a "need to reflect the realities of today" or something like that.

    Charles wasn't interested in having two Wittelsbach electors if he could help it, let alone three. He also saw Austria as a threat and kind of hated the Habsburgs' guts. Thus to silence the debate, he issued the Golden Bull of 1356, the first official, legal statement of who was an elector. The Bull legally confirmed the traditional configuration of Bohemia, Brandenburg, County Palatine, Saxony, Mainz, Cologne, and Trier. This would keep the Bavarian Wittelsbachs at the throats of their Palatinate cousins, while continuing to empower the Ascanias (whom Charles had in his pocket). It would also keep out the Austrian Habsburgs, based both on the lack of precedent for including Austria in the college and (again) because the Habsburgs were his main rivals. A few years later, Charles was also successful in putting his own son on the throne of Brandenburg after forcing the last, childless Wittelsbach out. The Golden Bull would remain in effect for the rest of the Empire's existence—albeit not without modification.
  • After the Golden Bull but before the Reformation, the electors generally gave the imperial title to the Luxembourgs, Wittelsbachs, and Habsburgs in alternation. During this period, Bavaria still sometimes stepped in anyway for the Palatinate (when the Bavarian Wittlesbachs' scheming against their Palatinate cousins was particularly successful) or for Bohemia (when the rival Wittelsbach branches took a break from messing with each other and instead conspired with each other to exclude Bohemia on the grounds that he wasn't German). The House of Ascania also died out in the 15th century, and was replaced in Saxony by the similarly neutral and pliant House of Wettin.note  After the Reformation, the Palatinate Wittelsbachs were Protestants and the Bavarian ones Catholics, so early in the Thirty Years' War the (Catholic Habsburg) Emperor (who held his electorate as King of Bohemia) ganged up with the bishops to give the Wittelsbach electorate to the Bavarian branch. (The Emperor needed to rely on the bishops for this because at this point Saxony and Brandenburg were the leaders of the Protestant coalition within the Empire.) At the end of the war, the Peace of Westphalia gave a new, eighth electorate to the Protestant Palatinate Wittelsbachs in the interest of religious peace.
  • At the end of the 17th century a ninth electorate was added for the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg (who became known as the Elector of Hanover). The Palatinate had passed to a Catholic junior branch of the territory's Wittelsbach line, and a new Protestant elector was needed to restore the religious balance. The House of Hanover was a junior branch of the Welfs, which had largely stopped being relevant in the 12th century and was thus seen as a safe choice for that role. Later, in the 1770s, the Bavarian Wittelsbachs died out, which in the end led to the Catholic Counts Palatine ruling Bavaria, as well; however, it was agreed that he would only have one vote (not that it ended up mattering). The Electors of Hanover, incidentally, became The House of Hanover in Great Britain, meaning that the British monarch had a nominal hand in choosing the Emperor for about 100 years.
  • The Imperial title became de facto hereditary within the House of Habsburg towards the end of the 15th century, when the Luxembourgs petered out—leaving much of their territory (most significantly Bohemia and its juicy electorate) to a Habsburg who had married a Luxembourg princess. (Meanwhile, Brandenburg went to the previously insignificant and Wettinesquely pliant House of Hohenzollern—though they wouldn't be insignificant or pliant for very long.) With the Wittelsbach branches at each other's throats about religion, the Imperial throne went to the Habsburgs time and time again basically by default. After this pattern settled in, the Electors generally did not keep the "obvious" heir from the throne until the War of the Austrian Succession (although even before then the "obvious" heir would usually make a point of doing favors for the electors to keep them from holding up the vote when the time came).
    • The War of the Austrian Succession is an instructive example of how this worked in practice. The war came about because the male-line Habsburgs were dying out, and the last two agnatic Habsburgs, Joseph I and his brother Charles VI, had expended a lot of political capital getting the other electors to secure a Habsburg succession through their daughters should both of them die without male issue. The problem was that the deals they secured were contradictory: Joseph's deal put his daughters ahead of any Charles might have, but in 1713 Charles (by that point Emperor) flipped that and got the electors to agree. This should have secured the succession for his daughter—well, her husband, since the Emperor had to be a man—but when Charles VI died, the Duke of Bavaria successfully nobbled all the other electorsnote  and they backed him on the grounds that Charles VI's deal was improper and preference should have been given to the claims of his wife—one of Joseph I's daughters.

At times, the empire consisted of over 300 sovereign kingdoms, duchies, free cities, and other entities. In the late 18th century, there were nearly 1800, ranging from the kingdom of Bohemia (=the current territory of the Czech Republic almost exactly) to the nominally autonomous territories of Reichsritter (Imperial knights, i. e. knights subject only to the emperor) and even a handful of Reichsdörfer (Imperial villages). Unsurprisingly, it often was a total chaos.

Thus throughout most of its history it is rather difficult to define the very borders of the Holy Roman Empire. Many of the princes owned large territories outside the Empire or would successfully bid for foreign crowns, such as the rulers of Austria (also kings of Hungary and, sometimes, of Spain), Hanover (who became kings of the United Kingdom), Saxony (two of whom became kings of Poland), and Brandenburg (kings in or of Prussia since 1701). On the other hand foreign sovereigns came to inherit territories belonging to the Holy Roman Empire, such as the king of Denmark in the duchy of Holstein, or conquered them (the kings of Sweden in the Thirty Years War). Territories that had become de facto independent powers would still technically considered part of the Empire (as e. g. the Swiss Confederation and the Republic of the United Netherlands were until the end of the Thirty Years War).

One of the effects of the fracturing of the Holy Roman Empire into dozens and then hundreds of sovereign states was that many princes and princesses from these states became eligible to marry into the ruling families of non-German nations, which in some cases led to branches of German dynasties to becoming the ruling houses elsewhere. One classic example is the House of Oldenburg, which split into several lines including the royal houses of Denmark (until today), Norway (until today), Sweden (1751-1818) and Greece (1863-1974), the ducal house of Oldenburg (until 1918), and the imperial house of Russia (from Peter III and Paul I to Nicholas II). Another is the House of Sachsen-Coburg and Gotha (a branch of the Ernestinian line of the House of Wettin), which since the 19th century supplied monarchs to Belgium (until today), the United Kingdom (until today, albeit under a different name, and technically about to be replaced by a junior branch of the Greek line of Oldenburgs after HM The Queen passes), Portugal (1853-1910) and Bulgaria (1887-1946note ).

In the early The Renaissance, the Empire flourished briefly under Charles V, the last ruler actually crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope, and the Emperor with the most extensive empire: not only did he have a firmer grasp on power within the Empire than any other Emperor for generations, he also ruled Spain and its vast New World empire directly (ruling the first "empire on which the Sun never sets"), and held substantial influence in the Italian states, Portugal, and the British Isles (all of which either consisted of Imperial client states or were so firmly opposed to France that they may as well have been client states). However, the Reformation and the subsequent Wars of Religion and Thirty Years' War effectively broke the Empire as a single political unit. Thereafter, the German states ruled themselves and were able to conclude international treaties as sovereign principalities, and the Habsburg emperors, though retaining the Imperial title, concentrated more and more to their Austrian dominions (which included Hungary, parts of Northern Italy and Southwest Germany, and, since the War of Spanish Succession, the Austrian Netherlands (most of what is now Belgium plus Luxembourg)). After the War of Austrian Succession, despite the flourishing of culture under rulers such as Maria Theresa of Austria, Frederick the Great of Prussia, and Augustus the Strong of Saxony, the empire was finished. When Emperor Francis II assumed the title of Emperor Francis I of Austria in 1804 and was forced by Napoleon to abdicate as Holy Roman Emperor in 1806, the changed reality was recognized and the Empire came to an end. Although some German nationalists dreamed of recreating it following Napoleon's defeat, all they got was the loose German Confederation (Deutscher Bund, 1815-1866).

Popular history

Though the actual Holy Roman Empire lasted about 844 years, its depiction in popular culture is largely a matter of three periods: the time of the Minnesingers, the time of Albrecht Dürer; and the petty German princedoms of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
  • The Minnesinger period features noble minstrels singing of love, stately castles on hilltops, and cruel overlords named Ulrich oppressing the local Lombard/Polish/Swiss peasants.
  • The Dürer period (which effectively lasts a hundred years after the artist's death) features woodcuts, fat burghers, half-timbered and high-gabled houses, and earnest Lutheran preachers denouncing Corrupt Churchmen. All writing is invariably done in Ye Olde Fraktur.
  • The Petty Princedom period features beautiful princesses stifled by the dull etiquette of a Decadent Court wondering which foreign prince they will be married off to, rebellious court musicians, and fountains running with wine at the conclusion of the Peace of Pumpernickel-Knoblauch.

Works set in, featuring, or otherwise relating to the Holy Roman Empire:

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     Anime and Manga  

  • Hetalia: Axis Powers
    • One character embodies the Holy Roman Empire: a young and serious boy who dreams of being as great as Rome and is in love with his maid, Italia aka Chibitalia (not knowing that "she" is a Wholesome Crossdresser). The story strongly hints that Germany is the grown-up version of him.
    • There is a dual embodiement of both Austria and the Habsburg family, one of its important ruling dynasties. Said character is the embodiment of Austria, and the Austrian Habsburgs are his bosses. Specifically, he's shown interacting with the recently crowned Empress Maria Theresa. It's further hinted that he's the real power behind the HRE. Which more or less mirrors what Austria's role was in real life.
  • RosenkreuzStilette plays with the setting by having magic, fairies and demons exist alongside bombs, early prosthetics, and robots. Other than that, it's straight up Holy Roman Empire.
  • Ancient Belka in Lyrical Nanoha is obviously an expy of Holy Roman Empire. With Magitek. In Space. Virtually everyone in the 'verse has Germanic name. Though by the time the series start, Ancient Belka is no more.
  • The Empire of Germania from The Familiar of Zero is implied to be a Fantasy Counterpart Culture of the HRE, though of its earlier more unified form.

     Film  

  • The Golem, How He Came Into The World (silent movie) — Dürer
  • Alexander Nevsky, though set in Russia, features Teutonic (i.e., "German") Knights with many of the features of Ulrich the Overlord
    • The events portrayed happen a long way away from the Holy Roman Empire, however, and the way the Teutonic Order organized its state was different and in many ways more modern than the contemporary HRE.
  • The Scarlet Empress, a 1934 historical drama (in part) — Petty Princedom. Catherine, on her way to becoming "The Great", is raised in a boring little German court.
  • A Sarabande for Dead Lovers, a 1948 historical drama — Petty Princedom
  • The Flame and the Arrow, a 1950 adventure move — Minnesinger
  • The Last Valley — A rare example set actually in the Thirty Years' War, after Dürer days but before the Petty Princedoms.
  • Amadeus — Petty Princedom
  • Luther (2003 movie) — Dürer

     Folklore (multiple media)  

  • All versions of the legend of Faust — Dürer
  • The legends of William Tell in all its various versions — Minnesinger

     Literature  

  • Liechtenauer's Bloßfechten, non-fiction. A highly influential treatise on fencing composed at some point between 14th and 15th Century.
  • In his Essay on General History and on the Manners and Spirit of the Nations (1756), French philosophe and Deadpan Snarker Voltaire famously remarked, "This body which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire." This has been considered very witty.
  • Washington Irving's "The Specter Bridegroom"
  • Edgar Allan Poe's Gothic short story "Metzengerstein"
  • Sir Walter Scott's Anne of Geierstein - A rare example from The Late Middle Ages.
  • Most of the works of Luise Mühlbach, Germany's answer to Dumas, père, and Harrison Ainsworth
  • Henryk Sienkiewicz's The Knights of the Cross (Krzyżacy) — Minnesinger; set outside of the Holy Roman Empire, though the villains are German knights backed up by the Empire.
  • Two of Umberto Eco's Historical Fiction novels (Minnesinger era both times):
    • The Name of the Rose (including the movie made from the novel) is set in 14th century Italy, a part of the HRE (at least formally).
      • And William of Baskerville, as his historical model William of Ockham, served as an advisor to Emperor Louis IV aka Ludwig the Bavarian.
    • Baudolino, set in 1204, where the eponymous protagonist is (or claims to be) a long-time confidant of Frederick Barbarossa.
  • The 1632 series dumps a small modern West Virginian town into the Thirty Years' War period, hovering indistinctly between Dürer and the Petty Princedom era.
  • Heinrich von Kleist's novella Michael Kohlhaas is set in 16th century Saxony, the time of Martin Luther.
  • Lion Feuchtwanger's novels Jew Suess (Petty Princedom, in this case the duchy of Württemberg) and The Ugly Duchess Margarete Maultasch (Dürer)
  • Otfried Preußler's Krabat, a Young Adult novel set in Saxony around 1700.

     Live Action TV  

  • On The Tudors, the Holy Roman Emperor is one of Henry VIII's two great political rivals (the other being the King of France), he plays a major role in stymieing Henry's attempts to divorce his first wife, and the Imperial Ambassador to Henry's court is a major character in all four seasons.
  • On Vikings, King Ecbert of Wessex mentions the time he spent in Emperor Charlemagne�s court.

     Music  

     Tabletop Games  

     Theatre & Opera  

     Video Games  

  • Age of Empires II has a campaign where you play as the Holy Roman Empire - Minnesinger. More generally, they also feature the Teuton civilization, which reflects both the Teutonic Knights military order and the various German-speaking states of the era.
  • Civilization 4 adds Charlemagne as a playable character in one of the expansions. The HRE completely dominates in the medieval military area.
    • Germany in VI is led by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and has the Hansa as a unique district, but represents the country as a whole by having U-boats as a unique unit.
  • Medieval II: Total War has HRE as playeable faction and addon Kingdoms has Teutonic Knights.
  • Atelier Series — The early ("Salburg" and "Gramnad") games were heavily Dürer-influenced; Salburg is even a likely expy of Salzburg. This fades in later games, though some influences remain throughout.
  • Europa Universalis features a HRE mechanic, allowing the player to control any of the states within it, take or defend territory for the Empire, become the emperor and eventually, through a series of difficult diplomatic actions, unite the HRE into a single nation, often the most powerful nation in the world. Alternatively, the empire usually just collapses in its own internal politics and power struggles.
    • Crusader Kings, another game in the Paradox lineup, includes the HRE as a feudal "Kingdom of Germany."
    • In the sequel, Crusader Kings 2, the HRE is a playable faction and one of the two full-fledged empires in existence when play begins; this can change during the course of the game, but generally the HRE tends to 'blob,' or accumulate vast quantities of territory all on its own. DLC eventually pushed the starting date back to Charlemagne, necessitating mechanics to form the Holy Roman Empire.
    • The Divergences mod for Victoria II has as part of its Alternate History that the equivalent of the French Revolutionary Wars didn't actually lead to the formal dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire, the claim to which is still maintained (and in parts of Germany recognized) by the Kings of Bohemia. It is possible to reform the Empire into a viable, unified form (which effectively makes it into something of a Germany by another name - very useful for Bohemia, since they can't form the usual Germany, being the wrong culture), although it is deliberately made very hard to keep the AI from pulling it off more than in extremely rare cases.
  • Siegfried Schtauffen, The Hero of the Soul Series, is from the Holy Roman Empire. Hilde, introduced in IV, is a princess from the fictional kingdom of Wolfkrone, which also lies within the Empire (apparently near Switzerland).
  • The old DOS roleplaying game Darklands was set in the Holy Roman Empire during the 1400s. While the game strives to be historically accurate, it also portrays medieval Europe as the inhabitants at the time believed it to be, meaning fantastic elements like demons, witches, and dragons are real.
  • Anthony's chapter of Eternal Darkness directly concerns Charlemagne and the circumstances around his death, at least as an Alternate History.

     Web Original  

  • In Look to the West, it looks as though the Empire might reverse its decline when the Prussians lose the Silesian Wars against the Austrians, but in the end it falls around the same time as in our timeline thanks to We ARE Struggling Together in the face of a French invasion. However, it remains something of an inspiration for German unificationists in years to come.


Alternative Title(s): Holy Roman Emperor

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