The Reich proudly considered itself an independent body politic and refused to serve merely as a passive tool in the hands of its formal head, the Habsburg Emperor. Despite these structural limitations and the paralysing effects of confessional strife during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Reich’s financial and military help against the Turkish threat was central to the Habsburgs’ survival and even to their counter-offensive after 1683.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there were two armies linked to the Reich in some way, but nonetheless distinct. The first was the Imperial army proper (kaiserliche Armee), the Emperor’s own standing army which had no direct connection to the Reich except its designation. The second force was the army of the Empire (Reichsarmee), the true army of the Reich, raised and paid for by the Imperial Estates and only partially under the Emperor’s control.
In no way reflecting the true potential of the territories and almost always unsuccessful in battle, the Reichsarmee embodied the political and military weakness and fragmentation of the Reich in the eyes of many nineteenth- and early twentieth-century historians. Even the most patriotic eighteenth-century Reich jurists would not deny that the Germany of the Ancien Régime was suited to anything but waging wars.
Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Reichsarmee remained a force only mobilized in times of need, to defend the Reich’s territory in the case of a formally proclaimed Reichskrieg (as declared against France in 1674, 1689, 1702, 1734 and 1793) or to secure peace against domestic trouble-makers formally denounced as such by the Imperial Diet (Reichsexekution, as for example against Prussia in 1757, but mostly police actions against lesser disturbers of the peace). The Reichsarmee was an auxiliary force, normally fighting side by side with the Emperor’s own troops, and rather unserviceable in case of offensive operations, for which it was never intended.
The basic troop quota for the Reichsarmee, the Simplum, was fixed at 24,000 horse and foot in 1521; its monthly pay or Römermonat soon became the standard unit of account in all financial matters of the Reich. Depending on the level of danger, the Simplum could be multiplied (Duplum, Triplum and so forth). With the Imperial Executive Ordinance of 1555, the executive and thus ultimately the military defence of the Reich was to a considerable extent devolved to the Imperial Circles.
Yet, for at least a century, civil war came before defence against external threats. Shortly after 1600, the previous century’s confessional strife finally produced two formal groupings, the Catholic League (1609) and the Protestant Union (1608), and both armed at the beginning of the Thirty Years War. The noble idea of a concerted defence of the Reich was abandoned in favour of petty actions in defence of the respective confessions. When the Emperor and the elector of Saxony, the leader of Germany’s Protestant rulers, concluded the Peace of Prague in 1635, their aim was the restoration of law and order throughout the Reich and the removal of all foreign armies from its soil. They agreed to raise a Reichsarmee, organizationally unified but confessionally mixed, with the Emperor nominally in supreme command. Funded by contributions from the Imperial Estates, it was to comprise some 80,000 men. There were problems from the outset, however, particularly regarding the high command, and many Protestant princes remained lukewarm.
In 1648, the Imperial Estates were granted not only the right freely to form alliances but also the ius armorum at once exploited by the more powerful rulers to create standing armies. In the end, the Emperor himself was to profit from the trained troops of these so-called ‘armed Estates’, the support of whom Vienna secured by means of subsidy treaties and political privileges. Such forces, moreover, were generally more effective than a hastily raised Reichsarmee, which had to be approved by the Imperial Diet and consisted of a mixed bag of contingents sent by medium-sized and smaller Estates. The Emperor’s Turkish War of 1663–64 is a good illustration of the potential kaleidoscope of troops making up the military aid from the Reich. The Rhenish League sent a 13,500-strong contingent to Hungary, while Saxony, Bavaria or Brandenburg fell back on units from their standing armies to supply auxiliary troops (4,500 men). The third element finally came from the Reich proper: the Diet, summoned to Regensburg for this very purpose in 1663, granted 20,900 soldiers – a sizeable contribution, even if only a small number ever got as far as Hungary.
During the revived struggle with France in the 1670s, Vienna tried again to institutionalize a Reichsarmee under the Emperor’s sole command. The prospects were favourable given the ‘patriotic enthusiasm’ provoked by an aggressive French policy of annexations along the Reich’s western border, yet the Emperor soon had to reduce his demands and accept the Reichsdefensionalordnung of 1681–82, which laid down the future fundamental principles of the Reich’s new military organization. The Simplum of the Reichsarmee was increased to 40,000 men (12,000 cavalry and 28,000 infantry), while the Triplum, i.e. 120,000 men, would usually be granted when a major war broke out. The Imperial Circles were given the responsibility of raising the contingents which together made up the Reichsarmee. The Austrian Circle, virtually identical with the Habsburg Hereditary Lands, alone accounted for 8,000 men of the 40,000 strong Simplum. The Habsburg contingent was a purely nominal part of the Reichsarmee, since it would be taken from the Emperor’s own standing army and operate as a separate force in its own right. The same was true of the forces to be provided by the ‘armed Estates’ whose territories often belonged to more than one Circle, but who fielded single contingents rather than divide their units up and amalgamate them into the Circle troops. Varying from Circle to Circle, the raising of troops was highly complicated, not least because of the political fragmentation of the Reich. In the particularly heterogeneous Swabian Circle, for instance, the fact that some 90 territories were responsible for raising 4,000 Circle troops resulted in a corresponding lack of cohesion among the latter. Hence Reiehstruppen were mostly deployed for defence purposes in order to relieve the actual fighting troops – the Emperor’s own units and the contingents sent by the ‘armed Estates’.
During the Nine Years War and the War of the Spanish Succession troops from the so-called ‘anterior Circles’ in fact bore the brunt of the defence against the French threat from across the Rhine. It was here, in southern Germany, that the Swabian and Franconian Circles, mustering some 24,000 men in the 1690s, mounted a concerted effort to ward off French aggression. Alliances between several Circles, so-called Circle Associations, could field considerable forces and thus play a role in high politics on a European scale. In 1697, an impressive league was created by the Franconian, Swabian, Electoral Rhenish, Upper Rhenish and Lower Rhenish-Westphalian Circles (‘Frankfurt Association’) with a view to raising a permanent army of 40,000 men in times of peace and 60,000 in times of war, but implementation of this scheme soon came to a standstill. In 1702, the Swabian, Franconian, Upper and Electoral Rhenish, Austrian and Westphalian Circles once more tried to set up an efficient association, which was to field more than 53,000 men (including 16,000 from the Austrian Circle alone) to defend southern Germany: via its individual members, this so-called ‘Nördlingen Association’ joined the Grand Alliance of 1701.
The disaster of Rossbach in November 1757, where Reich troops together with a French contingent were routed by the Prussians, was a serious blow for the ill-fated Reichsarmee, henceforth mocked as ‘Reißausarmee’ (run-away army). However, the scale of the Reich’s military effort should not be underestimated, and recent scholarship in this field has provided a more positive assessment.
The structure of the commanding generals (Reichsgeneralität) of the Reichsarmee, headed by the Imperial Field Marshal (Reichsgeneralfeldmarschall), was highly complex – particularly since, from the beginning of the eighteenth century, all positions had to be filled by both a Catholic and a Protestant. Among the outstanding Reich field marshals Ludwig Wilhelm von Baden (1655–1707) or Prince Eugene of Savoy (1663–1736) deserve particular mention. Prince Eugene, succeeding Baden as Catholic Imperial Field Marshal in 1707, was not only a field marshal in the Emperor’s own standing army, exactly like his predecessor, but also president of the Aulic War Council in Vienna. This was a typical overlap: Reich generals and Austrian generals rapidly came to be one and the same thing. In 1664, only a third of the Reichsgeneralität was staffed by Habsburg generals, compared to half in the 1670s. Eventually, around 1700, it was exclusively Austrian generals who acted as Reich generals, and most of them were German princes or members of the south German aristocracy.