Imperial Diet (Holy Roman Empire)

John Florens | Jan 21, 2023

Table of Content


The Reichstag or imperial diet was the highest legislative body of the Holy Roman Empire.

Its evolution over the centuries led to this sort of parliament of princelings being composed of the representatives of the German states that made up the empire, divided into three constituencies (grand electors, princes and counts, imperial cities).

From 1663 it was in fact permanently in operation (Immerwährender Reichstag), based in Regensburg, since the representatives who composed it also worked there year-round as plenipotentiaries of the respective delegating princes. However, it was an implied perpetuity as there was no official document sanctioning it.

It operated continuously until its unilateral abolition, of dubious constitutional legitimacy, by Emperor Franz II of Habsburg under pressure from Napoleon Bonaparte: thus, in August 1806, the end of the thousand-year empire was declared. Traditionally, with the termination of the Holy Roman Empire, the Austrian and German parliaments continued to be called the Reichstag in their successive imperial constitutions.

The term Reichstag is made up of the German words Reich (here the term means "day" in the sense of "date of assembly"; akin to dieta, derived from the Latin dies "day"). The corresponding Latin term was curia imperialis, and this wording was mainly used in official documentation before the 18th century.

The Diet of the Holy Roman Empire often exerted its influence on imperial policy. That is why some historians define Holy Roman Empire as an "oligarchic republic of German princes" of which the emperor was the president, at least formally elective (although on several occasions the incumbent emperors managed to assert dynastic succession).

As the supreme decision-making body of the imperial constitution, the Reichstag expressed the direct will of the princes who were represented there by their own deputies; it was thus not a true parliament but a representative body of the major German princes.

From 1663: the "perpetual Reichstag"

In 1663 the "Perpetual Diet" (immerwährender Reichstag) was established, based in Regensburg, a permanent assembly of representatives of the electoral orders or Colleges that had become three since 1648 (Grand Electors, Princes and Counts, Imperial Cities). It represented only the German princes and no longer their peoples.

Until 1663, the imperial diet was convened about forty times, and met for a period that could range from a few weeks to a few months. When it was not yet a permanent institution of the empire, the diet began with the reading of the "Imperial Proposition," or agenda, which was set by the emperor, and ended with the reading and promulgation of the diet's decisions (recessus imperii). The last diet before the establishment of the perpetual diet was convened in Regensburg to deal with matters that had not been considered by the Peace of Westphalia.

There is no formal decision that made that of 1663 the "perpetual" diet, but this was implicit in the provisions of the Peace of Westphalia. The diet-according to the opinion of modern historiography-never became a true parliament, nor a permanent body representing the people, but remained an institution representing states and electing princes. It soon became a meeting of representatives, in which imperial princes very rarely took part. That is not why its importance can be considered marginal: even the act that effectively ended the Holy Roman Empire (Reichsdeputationshauptschluss) was deliberated by the Diet.

After 1792

It consisted of the "states of the empire," that is, those sovereign entities (Reichsstände) that were entitled to seats and votes in the perpetual Diet held at the Reichstag in Regensburg since 1667. These states were distinguished and divided by constituencies, by religious faith, and distributed in the 10 circles or provinces of the empire for a total of 108 votes and seats. The number of its members always fluctuated until the end, both in the number of Grand Electors and the number of Princes. The Electors, initially seven, grew to nine members in the mid-18th century, with the addition of the Kingdom of Bohemia, reintroduced at the behest of Maria Theresa of Habsburg. The number of ecclesiastical Princes was around 37 units with relative votes, after the suppressions occurred with Protestantism; that of secular Princes around 63 with the addition of the "New Princes" introduced since the mid-17th century and 9 secularized lands (former ecclesiastical principalities passed to Protestant princes). With the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the College of Free Imperial Cities was also added with voting rights, which could cast its vote only after the other two colleges had reached a unanimous vote.

The sovereign states entitled to vote (Reichsstände) had a definite order of precedence. Listed below are the states divided by electoral college, according to the order of voting precedence and indicating in parentheses the imperial circle to which they belonged:

After the Treaty of Lunéville

With the Peace of Luneville, the onerous conditions imposed by Napoleon disrupted the structure of the empire. The composition of its Diet was also profoundly changed in the presence of its members. Many of the ecclesiastical principalities disappeared, being absorbed by secular principalities that expanded their possessions. New princes were introduced with voting rights in the Reichstag. The three constituencies that made up the Reichstag thus underwent transformations.

The Council of Great Electors saw the two ecclesiastical electorates of Trier and Cologne abolished, while that of Mainz was changed to that of Aschaffenburg. The new electorates of Salzburg, Hesse Kassel, Württemberg and Baden were added to the constituency and remained so until the end of the empire, despite requests from the Tsar of Russia to create a new electorate in favor of the Duke of Mecklenburg Schwerin.

The Council of Great Voters is composed as follows:

In contrast, the Princes' College reached 131 votes and seats after 1801:

The college of imperial cities continued to exist although many cities were gradually annexed by the various neighboring principalities:

With the fall of the Holy Roman Empire and the post-Napoleonic establishment of the German Confederation (Deutscher Bund, 1815) the Reichstag was reconstituted in Frankfurt with the surviving states:

With the new German Empire (Deutsches Reich) the seat of the Reichstag finally became Berlin. It was presided over by the Prussian heads of government and chancellors of the empire and by deputies elected by direct universal suffrage. The imperial Reichstag had no de facto decision-making influence over imperial politics now dominated by the Prussians. In fact, it was flanked by the Bundesrat, the assembly of representatives of the 25 surviving German princes federated with Prussia, where the emperor assumed the figure of an almost absolute ruler. In this regard it was referred to as the Kaiserreich, identifying with this term the German federal monarchy in contrast to the old Reich, which designated the first empire as a state entity, but without identifying its monarchical form. In the imperial constitution of 1871, the Reichstag consisted of 382 members elected by universal, direct suffrage and secret ballot, who exercised, with a five-year term, legislative power together with the Federal Council (Bundesrat) in a perfect bicameral system, where, that is, the agreement of the majorities of both chambers was necessary and sufficient for the passage of any law. Of that composition as many as 236 deputies were Prussians. This constitution, however, subordinated the national assembly to the federal assembly, in that the Reichstag could be unconvened when the Bundesrat was convened, but not the reverse. It should be added, moreover, that the Diet did not influence or cast any vote on the Chancellor, whose appointment was exclusively left to the Emperor's discretion.

Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany

The Constitution of the Weimar Republic (1919), entrusted legislative power exclusively to the Reichstag. The Reichsrat could only oppose the laws passed by the diet, provoking a conciliation procedure between the two chambers, which if it did not lead to a successful conclusion would lead to a referendum or to the promulgation of the law or its non-promulgation depending on whether the diet voted in favor by a two-thirds majority. The Reichstag, moreover, was entrusted with the appointment of the government; in fact, the chancellor and ministers, although appointed by the president of the republic, needed the confidence of the "national" chamber, without which they were obliged to resign.

After World War II, the Reichstag in the Federal Republic of Germany was replaced by the Bundestag (Federal Diet), the sole holder of federal legislative power, and in the German Democratic Republic by the People's Chamber, a unicameral legislature. The Bundesrat, in fact, has only the power to delay the passage of laws or to promote amendments to them. Relations with the executive are governed by Article 63 of the Basic Law, which provides that the Federal Chancellor is elected without debate by the Federal Diet on the proposal of the Federal President. The same chamber can express its no-confidence only by electing a new one at the same time (so-called constructive no-confidence).

There was a Reichstag in Austria in 1848-1849; the term was later avoided and in 1861 the Reichsrat was introduced to emphasize its merely advisory function to the emperor. With the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, however, the Hungarian parliament could also be called the Reichstag.


  1. Imperial Diet (Holy Roman Empire)
  2. Reichstag (Sacro Romano Impero)
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