The tensions reached their boiling point in the early 16th Century when a German monk, Martin Luther, boldly challenged the theology and authority of the established Roman Catholic Church. Repeated attempts by Church authorities to silence Luther only emboldened him until his questioning of Church doctrines and Church power made further debate within the Church impossible. The result was the Protestant Reformation.
The Church powers now saw Luther as a dangerous heretic and made an attempt to seize him. However, he was protected by a local ruler, Philip of Hessen, an open challenge to the authority of both the Church in Rome and the German Emperor. Soon, more and more German rulers enlisted themselves on Luther´s side; their “conversions” were often as much politically as religiously motivated. The result: a further weakening of central authority in the German-speaking world and a split into increasingly hostile Catholic and Protestant camps.
Theological and political hostilities finally erupted into open, armed hostilities in 1618. The resulting conflict, the Thirty Years´ War, involved many European nations, but the main battlefields were on German soil. By the end of the conflict in 1648 (more from exhaustion and devastation rather than any clear victory for either side), many German towns lay devastated, with large areas almost totally de-populated. In fact, not until the Second World War did any other conflict claim as many German lives as this one . Although the German Empire continued to exist on paper until 1806, following this war, all real power was ceded to individual rulers of semi-independent states large and small – around 200 duchies, electorates or petty principalities by the turn of the 19th Century. Many of these mini-states were primarily characterized by zealous self-indulgence and incompetence of its rulers, whose exercise of statecraft involved little more than protecting their own stock of privileges.
The people of this future great power shared a common language; a brilliant literature, music and art tradition; a body of imposing mythology and perhaps even a general view of life – but no common state. At this time, “Germany” existed only in the hopes and dreams of its people, fed continuously by books, essays and, especially, songs and poems by Romantic writers. The predominately liberal-minded writers and thinkers who propounded the concept of one “Germany” saw a unified country as the only means of breaking the hold of the innumerable petty despots and unleashing the enormous creative powers of the German people.