The individual principalities manifested their innate tendencies towards absolutism, relying on the army and bureaucracy and leaving behind nobility and representative institutes (Landtage) if they were recalcitrant. Each principality wanted to have its capital, its court, its university, its army; and in this he sometimes bordered on ridicule.
Foreign fashion dominates the life of the upper classes; the Germans never felt less German than now. The courts are crowded with foreigners: writers, philosophers, musicians, artists, pedagogues: the princes follow the French fashion, make long trips abroad, dedicate themselves to collections of works and objects of art, to the sumptuous buildings of palaces and of villas, or ridiculous manias. Passions and religious wars have been extinguished, in most of these principles the stimulus to appear on the world stage is also extinguished: they live in their stateliness, pay more than some honorific command in the imperial armies or the role of hoarders of soldiers among the subjects, on behalf of richer European powers: Hesse, for example, did not make a good name for itself in this kind of business. But Germany was poor, poorer following the wars: when the Hansa went down, trade with Italy and France decreased, the population decreased in number, livestock was very scarce. Only the dynasties of Brandenburg-Prussia, of Saxony and of Bavaria harbored territorial ambitions; but none managed to coordinate and orient them according to the aims of a national policy. Germanism was perceived as an essentially intellectual category (language, culture, etc.) and weakly also in this sense, in this age of so openly cosmopolitan spirits: nor could politics build on such a vague and inconsistent sentiment. That the Swedes were settled in Pomerania, and in Bremen and Verden, who as such had a voice in diets, was not surprising at all; just as it was not surprising that France had some strongholds on the Rhine. Indeed, the middle and small states did not mind at all, for they saw in this a safeguard against the greed of the general staff. Who are following the paths of the great European politics according to the dynastic interest: which is not here, as in France, England, Sweden, Spain, concomitant with the sentiment of the nation, but, on the contrary, the unique and essential moment of life of the state, as it necessarily had to be for the centuries-old evolution of German state fragmentarism. Therefore, no ambitions of Germanic unification, inconceivable and absurd, nor of dominance in Germany; the general states are not measured only with the other German states in that evanescent entity that is the Empire, but, directly, with the European states, Sweden, Poland, Holland, France. How could even a hegemonic state hope to revive that old device of the Empire? L’ Austria, with implicit renunciation, now preferred to turn elsewhere. Thus, with varying success, also Brandenburg-Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony; hence the difficulty, now even greater, of finding a common thread in the history of Germany, as the history of the German nation.
Helping hindsight, it could be the story of the Hohenzollerns of Prussia-Brandenburg; but they are still far from being the essential element in Germany. However, the problems that face them are such that they necessarily have a considerable share in the heart of Germany. The ambition, the tenacity, at times the talent of these principles, was equal to the difficulty of their task: to build bridges between the three nuclei of their lands and make a single bundle of them. Central and major nucleus: Brandenburg with eastern Pomerania; to the west Cleve and Mark with Ravensberg and Minden, to the east Prussia. At first not even Federico Guglielmo, the great elector, had any success: after twenty years of skilful moves between Swedes, Danes and Poles, it was a great deal if he obtained the dissolution of his feudal dependence on Poland, and full sovereignty over Prussia (Treaty of Oliva, 1660). But he did not get new lands: not even after the victory of Fehrbellin (1675) who also laid the foundations for the European fame of the Prussian army. Indeed, precisely in those years, as often in subsequent years, the distant Rhenish lands were exposed almost defenseless to the enemy’s coups and a good pledge in his hands in the peace negotiations. Yet, even without territorial acquisitions, Brandenburg-Prussia came to the fore in Germany in those years; while, in fact, not even the emperor dared to escape from a prudent reserve, the great elector, the only German prince, rushed to the aid of Holland against France (1672). What was also a way of defending national integrity: from 1670 Louis XIV had invaded Lorraine, land of the Empire, in complete peace; and no one objected. Yes, the Rhenish league, created by the diplomacy of Mazarin (1658), was dissolved, with the help of Mainz, Cologne, Palatinate-Neuburg, Hesse-Cassel, Brunswick-Lüneburg, Trier, Münster, Württemberg, Hesse-Darmstadt, multicolored conglomerate of Catholics and Protestants; but many of those states re-tied the ties with France, and the Bavarian house of the Wittelsbachs concocted, in agreement with Versailles, crazy plans for the hoped-for next event of the extinction of the male branch of the Habsburgs. By then nothing came of it: but for another century this was the dominant thought at the Munich court: or at least part of the Hapsburg lands of Austria and Bohemia, or the Spanish (and later Austrian) Netherlands. France nurtured hopes: and in the meantime it ensured support in client states, knowing them in any case, if not open allies, at least benevolent and helpful neutrals. From time to time there was no lack of some national resentment against the French: as in 1670 for the invasion of Lorraine, as in 1681 for the occupation of Strasbourg, a real challenge to the dignity of the Empire: but they were fires in the pan. France always had a following in Germany: now also in Brandenburg, which antagonized the court of Vienna. Meager compensation to oppose to it and to France the league of the minor princes of Franconia and the Rhine, worried about the French appetites (1682).
Only after 1684 the French influence on the German states begins to decline: Bavaria comes close, albeit for a short time, to Austria: the elector of Brandenburg is finally convinced that not even France will procure him the purchase of the Pomeranian; and on the archiepiscopal seat of Cologne, not wrongly considered the longa manus of French politics in Germany, the national party forces its candidate against the French one. The brigand incursion into the Palatinate, the devastation of Heidelberg alienated Louis XIV’s last sympathies. So that in the war of the great European coalition (1688-97) against him, almost all the German princes, more or less actively, were against him and the Ryswick peace corrected, at least in part, for the benefit of the Empire, the disastrous effects. of the French policy of “meetings”. Even the elector of Saxony, supported by Austria, won out in Poland over the French candidate prince of Conti, and ensured that throne too rich in blood than laurels for a seventy years for his house (1697-1763).
But soon this momentary concord between the German princes fades: the imminent succession to the throne of Spain was opposing rivals, Austria and Bavaria; and just as the latter found adherence and encouragement from the French Bourbons, the latter drew Brandenburg from hers: compensation for the conferral of royal dignity (1701). War (see succession, Wars of) saw Germans again against Germans on German soil: in Hochstädt (1704) the dream of the Dukes of Bavaria faded. In the same years, Augustus II of Saxony gathered sad fruits from his Polish throne. Then, there was the recovery: Prussia, Hanover, England, Saxony-Poland, Denmark, Russia, all united against the Swedish, tired of his raids from the Baltic to the Bosphorus. And again Northern Germany was the scene of severe war; which, at least, yielded Pomerania to Prussia, to Hanover – so it was customary to call the Guelph duchy of Brunswick-Lüneburg, united in the person of the sovereign with England from 1714 – Bremen and Verden (1720), to August II of Saxony restitution of the Polish throne. Doubtful gift, however.