The defeat and subsequent hobbling of the Austrian Habsburgs’ imperial powers caused responsibility for the fulfillment of state functions to devolve onto the shoulders, often frail, of Germany’s hundreds of territorial princes. It was they, not the emperors, who were obliged to oversee and maintain a system of local law courts and accompanying police institutions; to command militias and armies, whether miniature or great; and to cooperate with the Christian churches in supplying spiritual, charitable, and educational blessings.
These tasks they took in hand, not autocratically, but in cooperation with the communal, aristocratic, and ecclesiastical bodies which had evolved in the thousand years and more following the fifth-century fall of the Western Roman Empire: oligarchical, though often elected, councils and magistracies in villages and towns; regional assemblies seating landed nobility, high churchmen, prosperous burghers and, in a few regions, self-sufficient village farmers. These were the “estates of the realm” [Stände].
Social organization by estates was pervasive. The principalities and towns seated in the Imperial Diet were, in relation to the emperor’s power, Reich-level estates, while the thousand-plus imperial knights could boast of being “estates lords” [Standesherren]. Correspondingly, within the myriad territorial principalities, rulers co-governed in partnership with the estates of their own lands, whether, in such large polities as Austria and Prussia, on a provincial level or, in smaller territories, in a single central assembly [Landstände]. In Protestant principalities, the estates typically shrank to represent landed nobility and chief towns only. In Catholic ecclesiastical principalities, the worldly nobles seated in the power-sharing cathedral chapters offered a variation on the estates concept, while the church hierarchs recognized their subject towns’ corporate liberties. In Catholic ruled secular principalities, high churchmen survived as one of the three customary estates.
Historians often conceive the early modern territorial principality as an “estates polity” [Ständestaat], because rulers were bound to consult the estates in matters of new legislation. Tax levies usually gained passage on short terms requiring renewal, not always conceded. In many cases, estates proved stronger than princes, wresting control through their executive committees and their influence on princely officials of domestic and foreign policy, so that a few German principalities – the Baltic-coast duchy of Mecklenburg is a good example – displayed into the nineteenth and even the early twentieth century an oligarchical parliamentarism with a dependent or figurehead dynast. Yet, so long as no insubordinate or revolutionary movements arose from below seeking the abolition of estates-bound privilege and the common people’s enfranchisement, the German Ständestaat embodied a workable political constitution, comparable to many elsewhere in Europe (as in the French and Spanish provinces, Scandinavia, the Low Countries, Hungary, and Poland).