The Reichstag (German for "Imperial Diet") was the general assembly of the Imperial Estates of the Holy Roman Empire, and subsequently the parliament of the North German Confederation, is currently the name of the general assembly of Germany to this day. The main chamber of the German parliament is still called the Reichstag, and the building in which it meets is still called "Reichstag" (see Reichstag (building)).
The term "Reichstag" (German pronunciation: [ˈʁaɪçstaːk] ( listen)) is a compound of German Reich ("Empire") and Tag ("assembly"; does not mean "day" here, but is derived from the verb tagen "to assemble" (which in turn does mean to gather on an appointed day). The Latin term, a direct translation, was curia imperialis. (Still today, the parliaments on the various federal levels in Germany are called Reichstag, Landtag etc., and the parliament in Sweden is called Riksdag.)
The Reichstag in the Holy Roman Empire
During the period of the Holy Roman Empire which lasted formally until 1806, the Reichstag was never a parliament in today's sense; instead, it was an assembly of the various estates of which the Empire was composed. More precisely, it was the convention of the Reichsstände ("imperial estates"), legal entities that, according to feudal law, had no authority above them besides the Emperor himself (see Holy Roman Empire for details).
The precise role and function of the Reichstag changed over the centuries, as did the Empire itself, in that the estates and separate territories gained more and more control of their own affairs at the expense of imperial power. Initially, there was neither a fixed time nor location for the Reichstag. It started as a convention of the dukes of the old Germanic tribes that formed the Frankish kingdom when important decisions had to be made, and was probably based on the old Germanic law whereby each leader relied on the support of his leading men. For example, already under Charlemagne, the Reichstag of Aachen in 802/803 officially determined the laws of the Saxons and other tribes. The Reichstag of 919 in Fritzlar elected the first king of the Germans who was a Saxon, Henry the Fowler, thus overcoming the longstanding rivalry between Franks and Saxons and laying the foundation for the German Empire. In 1158, the Diet of Roncaglia finalized four laws that would significantly alter the (never formally written) constitution of the Empire, marking the beginning of the steady decline of the central power in favour of the local dukes. In 1356, the Golden Bull cemented the concept of Landesherrschaft ("territorial rule"), the largely independent rule of the dukes over their respective territories, and also limited the number of electors to seven: the Duke of Saxony, the Margrave of Brandenburg, the King of Bohemia, the Elector Palatine (Palsgrave) and the Archbishops of Mainz, Trier and Cologne. The Pope was from this point officially excluded from the electoral process.
However, until the late 15th century, the Reichstag was not actually formalized as an institution. Instead, the dukes and other princes would irregularly convene at the court of the Emperor; these assemblies were usually referred to as Hoftage (from German Hof "court"). Only beginning in 1489 was the Reichstag called as such, and was formally divided into several collegia ("colleges"). Initially, the two colleges were that of the Kurfürsten ("prince-electors") and that of the other dukes and princes. Later, the imperial cities, that is, cities that were reichsunmittelbar and were oligarchic republics independent of a local ruler that were subject only to the Emperor himself, managed to be accepted as a third party.
Several attempts to reform the Empire and end its slow disintegration, notably starting with the Reichstag in 1495, did not have much effect. In contrast, this process was only hastened with the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, which formally bound the Emperor to accept all decisions made by the Reichstag, in effect depriving him of his few remaining powers. From then to its end in 1806, the Reich was not much more than a collection of largely independent states.
Probably the most famous Reichstage were those held in Worms 1495, where the Imperial Reform was enacted, and 1521, where Martin Luther was banned (see Edict of Worms), 1526 and 1529 in Speyer (see Protestation at Speyer), and several in Nuremberg (Diet of Nuremberg).
Only with the introduction of the Immerwährender Reichstag ("permanent Imperial Diet") in 1663 did the Reichstag permanently convene in a fixed location, the city of Regensburg.
For a list of members of the Reichstag from 1792, near the end of the Empire, refer to List of Reichstag participants (1792).
The Reichstag as the German Parliament
After the collapse of the Empire in 1806, the term was subsequently used for the Parliament of the 1849 Frankfurt constitution draft that never came into effect, the Parliament of the North German Confederation from 1867–1871 and finally that of the 1871 German Empire. In the latter two cases, it was a parliament elected by all males who had attained the age of 25. This made the Reichstag the most democratic parliament in Europe.
In the 1909 German Empire, the Reichskanzler (chancellor, head of government) was responsible to the Reichstag, which was directly elected by the people, and to the Emperor. During the Second World War, without a Kaiser, the Reichstag held the responsibility of running the government and coordinating the war effort with the Allied Forces until the conclusion of the war.
The Reichstag building in Berlin was constructed as the seat of the Reichstag in the German Empire in 1894 and, after a major reconstruction, has been the seat of today's German parliament, the Bundestag, since 1999. After the building was gutted in the Reichstag fire of 1943, the German Reichstag met in the Kroll Opera House until the building was rebuilt after the end of the war.
Collection of Reichstag records
After the 1871 formation of the German Empire the Historical Commission of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences started to collect imperial records (Reichsakten) and imperial diet records (Reichstagsakten). In 1893 the commission published the first volume. At present the years 1524 – 1527 and years up to 1544 are being collected and researched. A volume dealing with the 1532 Reichstag in Regensburg, including the peace negotiations with the Protestants in Schweinfurt and Nuremberg, by Rosemarie Aulinger of Vienna was published in 1992. A list of the records of several European countries can be found here.
- Note: this list is incomplete