HOLY and ROMAN and, yes, an EMPIRE
Voltaire got it wrong. Well, not entirely wrong, the Holy Roman Empire of the Germans was not the shining example of the state that France should become. His famous dictum, an unfortunate bit of the pablum that professional historians repeat uncritically, drew attention from the real state of the empire, its real strength and role in Central Europe. True, it was not the Roman Empire, but an entity that emerged through cooperation between German princes and the Papacy (hence Holy Roman), and few empires were as centralized and rationalized as Voltaire would have preferred. ([ETA] The notion of being 'Holy Roman' leads to a complicated, but necessary, exploration of the empire's relationship with the Papacy and its defense of Catholicism. The empire's empire-ness (if you would) is more solid: there are plenty of examples of loose systems based on variously constituted (including self-constituted), independent sub-entities, including early modern France.)
The Holy Roman Empire, nonetheless, survived the era of nation-states, becoming a metaphor empire that explained how Germany could transition from dictatorship to democracy and from threat to European order to its rock. There should be little surprise that Germans are nostalgic for the Holy Roman Empire, seeing it as strength from complexity. The Rheinische Merkur has several looks back at the legacy of the Empire and its current resuscitation. The most notably is Peter Claus Hartmann's (professor emeritus of history at Uni-Mainz--his German Wiki-entry is here) "Aus der Vielfalt kommt die Stärke", in which he describes the accomplishments of the empire, especially post-1648:
- The empire established the principles of federalism and subsidiarity (at least for Germans.) It provides an example of balances authority, both within Germany and in Europe, thus being the beginning of the larger continuity in German history (according to Fritz Fischer.) It also provided a model of cooperation, even if the Soldaritätsgemeinschaft did not always function well.
- Being that no one court held hegemony over all the others, the cosmopolitanism of the 17th and 18th centuries spread out throughout the empire to numerous court cities (unlike France.)
- The empire regulated the relationships between the member states, the Rechts- und Friedensordnung (ordinances of rights and peace) established the conditions for the consolidation of the German territories into a nation-state.
- Balancing the interests of the smaller states against those of the larger, militarization was kept at a lower level--small and medium-sized states persisted without armies.
- Perhaps most important, the post-Westphalian system necessitated a certain amount of religious tolerance (at least between the three major Christian confessions.) Small pockets of Catholics, for instance, could exist in a see of Protestants or Calvinists. The result was a Germany that was more religiously diverse than other early modern states (Denmark, England, France, Italy, Spain ... all being highly homogeneous.) Hartmann insists that this was the limit of tolerance possible in the Early Modern world.
- Finally, the complex confessional makeup helped to cultivate modern German culture: each confession dedicated itself to different areas of art and literature, allowing a diverse modern culture to emerge.