The Thirty Years' War and Its Aftermath

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The Thirty Years' War and Its Aftermath

The Age of Religious Wars.

As the development of the state church came to affect the lives of more and more Europeans in the seventeenth century, religious issues continued at the same time to dominate events in the political arena. In the century following 1550, Europe was convulsed by a series of religious wars in which the lingering issues the Protestant and Catholic Reformations had raised prompted debate, civil strife, and military conflict. The Age of Religious Wars, the term that is often used to describe this period, is in many ways a misnomer. It implies that over a number of years Western European princes sustained organized military action to resolve the religious issues of the era. While military engagements caused a portion of the bloodletting in Europe in this century, the breakdown of public order—evidenced in the sporadic but deadly outbreak of religious violence in towns and villages—frequently proved to be far deadlier than military conflicts. Similarly, troop movements, rather than battles, killed far more peasants than soldiers, since as armies moved through the countryside they commandeered grain and other foodstuffs from local inhabitants, often leaving villages to starve in their wake. Armies, too, brought disease with them, touching off outbreaks of plague and other epidemics that proved to be more devastating than the casualties inflicted in battles. In the years between 1550 and 1600, these clashes were largely centered in France and the Netherlands and took on much of the character of civil wars. But the last and greatest of the religious wars, the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648) occurred in Central Europe, and its primary battleground was the loose confederation of states known as the Holy Roman Empire. Although it began as a localized dispute, the Thirty Years' War came soon to assume the character of a great international conflict, eventually involving France, Spain, the Scandinavian powers—indeed almost every major European state. Notable for its brutality, the length of its sieges, and the widespread depopulation and devastation that it wreaked on large portions of Central Europe, the war was a dismal climax to the great controversies that the Protestant and Catholic Reformations had bred in Europe since the early sixteenth century. The Treaty of Westphalia (1648) that drew the fighting to a close offered little new in the way of solutions to religious problems, but instead merely reiterated sixteenth-century precedents that upheld the right of a ruler to define the religion of his state. If any good thus came out of this massive bloodletting—the deadliest conflict in European history until the total wars of the twentieth century—it was by and large to discredit the arena of battle as a suitable forum for resolving religious differences. In the years that followed 1648, Europeans were to continue to fight one another, but it was increasingly to be territorial disputes, trade, and colonialism that inspired international wars, rather than religious issues.

Causes of the War.

The causes of the Thirty Years' War were complex and lay in the long stalemate that had developed between Protestant and Catholic forces in the Holy Roman Empire following the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. At that time both Lutherans and Catholics had drawn a truce that upheld the legality of Lutheran teaching in the empire, so long as evangelical reforms were established through the actions of a prince or town council. The formula upon which the Peace of Augsburg had been based was cujus regio, euius religio, meaning roughly "He who rules, his religion." Like many of the truces drawn in the religious conflicts of the sixteenth century, no one ever really expected the Peace of Augsburg's solution to the Reformation crisis to stand. Like the Edict of Nantes (1598), which granted limited toleration to French Protestants some four decades later, it was thought of as a truce, a cessation in the conflict that Catholics and Protestants anxiously desired so that they might recover from the bloodletting of the previous generation. Most princes fully expected that at some time in the future a single religion would be re-established in the empire, but they were assured throughout much of the later sixteenth century that that moment was not about to come soon. By 1600 the majority of German princes and towns were Lutheran, while the emperor—always a member of the Austrian Habsburg dynasty—was Catholic. The election of a Catholic emperor was, in fact, assured by the very contours of the empire's constitution. Only seven electors within the German parliament, or Diet, possessed a say in electing a new emperor, and at this time four of the seven were Catholic. Thus religious issues in Germany had come to a stalemate: the emperor and the majority of the German electors were Catholic, but in the German territories and cities Lutheranism dominated. Both sides recognized that any attempt to establish their position as the "official" state religion was doomed to failure because of the very nature of the political landscape. Although this situation prevailed until the early seventeenth century, the religious complexion of the German lands was already beginning to change in the later sixteenth century as some states adopted Calvinist religious reforms. According to the terms of the Peace of Augsburg, Calvinism was an unrecognized, and therefore illegal, religion. Despite its prohibition, though, a number of powerful states adopted Calvinist church ordinances, including the Palatinate, Hesse, Nassau, and Anhalt. The Palatinate, in particular, was a wealthy state in the German Southwest that was in frequent contact with Calvinists elsewhere in Europe, particularly with the Huguenots in France. The Palatinate's ruler was also one of the Diet's seven electors, and in 1613, he was joined in his decision to practice Calvinism by the elector of Brandenburg-Prussia, a ruler of one of the largest territories in the German northeast. Thus two of the three Protestant electors within the imperial Diet were now Calvinist, a situation that rankled the empire's Lutherans, and which raised Catholic concerns as well.

Resurgence of Catholicism.

In the generation following the conclusion of the Council of Trent in 1563, Catholicism had begun as well to revive throughout Germany. The center for much of this renewal was the large and powerful Duchy of Bavaria in the southeast, where Duke Albrecht V (1550–1579) pioneered a state-directed pattern of Catholic reform that was to be copied in other Catholic territories throughout the empire. Princes like Albrecht were concerned to transform their states into model Catholic territories, but they also hoped to work a widespread re-catholicization of the empire itself. Their efforts laid the foundation for a renewed spirit in the Catholic leadership and inspired some state leaders to convert to Catholicism, touching off a renewal of spirit in the Catholic cause that was well underway by the second decade of the seventeenth century. By this time, the spokesman for the revival was the Austrian figure, Archduke Ferdinand. In 1617, Ferdinand secured his election as king of Bohemia, then, as now, a region with a Czech rather than German population. In his new office Ferdinand set about reforming the religion of his new subjects, outlawing the religious toleration that had recently been assured in the state and laying the foundation for the region's re-catholicization. His efforts soon inspired resistance, and only several months after coming to power, his nobles revolted, capturing Ferdinand's two most powerful Catholic ministers in Hradcany Castle at Prague and throwing them out the window. The men survived their fall, but this "defenestration of Prague," which occurred on 23 May 1618, touched off the entire complex series of events that soon made war inevitable. Emboldened by their show of resistance, Bohemia's nobles deposed their Catholic king and in his place elected the Calvinist, Elector Frederick III of the Palatinate. Thus their measures called into question the entire balance of power in the empire, since Bohemia was a territory that possessed an electoral vote in the German Diet, and if Frederick's claim to the throne had been upheld, Protestants would have possessed a majority of the seven votes. Instead the following year when the ailing Emperor Mathias died, the Protestant electors universally agreed that Ferdinand should be elected to replace him. But rather than exercising generosity to his Protestant compatriots, the new emperor raised an army that marched on Prague, defeating its Protestant nobles at the Battle of White Mountain just outside the city in 1620. With this victory Habsburg control over the territory was assured, thus touching off an ambitious program to reestablish Catholicism in Bohemia in the years that followed.

Danish, Swedish, and International Phases.

Although Ferdinand's victory in Bohemia might have ended the conflict, his buoying of the Catholic cause inspired the Lutheran King Christian IV of Denmark to enter the wars in 1625 in order to rally Protestant forces in the northern part of the empire. A series of stunning Danish defeats, though, caused the country to withdraw from Germany in 1629. In the months that followed, Denmark's archrival Sweden was drawn into the conflict as well, to serve as supporter of the Protestant cause. The entry of Sweden, a major European military power at the time, soon widened the conflict. Poland, Spain, the United Dutch Provinces, and eventually France came to participate in the wars, with Catholic France fighting on the side of Protestant forces in order to oppose its rival Spain. The worst years of the conflict occurred in the mid-1630s, when heavy fighting, famine, disease, and the pillaging of armies wreaked a heavy toll on large parts of Germany. In the German Southwest, the large and wealthy Lutheran territory of Württemberg saw its population decline by more than 75 percent. In many places the mortality rate soared to a level more than 30 percent higher than the birth rate. Travelers who visited the region at the time, like the English physician William Harvey who would later go on to discover the circulation of the blood, remarked that Germany was a country very much without a population. While attempts to halt the destruction continued throughout the later 1630s, the war was to grind on for another decade until a general peace conference was convened in the northern German town of Münster. The treaty that resulted from these deliberations, the Peace of Westphalia, accomplished little when compared against the massive destruction that had been wrought. The principle of cujus regio, euius religio was upheld, meaning that German princes were free to define the religion practiced in their territory. Calvinism, previously left out of the settlement of the Peace of Augsburg of 1555 was now recognized as a legal religion, and other developments that had long been established facts, like the independence of the Dutch Republic or of the Swiss Cantons, finally received legal recognition. The costs that the war had exacted in deaths, in human misery, and in a general cheapening of life throughout much of Central Europe scarcely justified such slight achievements. Yet on the positive side Continental Europeans were never again to stage such an enormous battle over religious issues. The specter of the Thirty Years' War, in which initial religious zeal was quickly turned to baldly political ends, meant that the impulses that had fed religious conflicts had by 1648 largely come to be spent.


Ronald G. Asch, The Thirty Years' War. The Holy Roman Empire and Europe, 1618–1648 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997).

Joseph Bergin, ed., The Seventeenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Richard S. Dunn, The Age of Religious Wars. 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 1979).

Geoffrey Parker, ed., The Thirty Years' War (London: Routledge, 1984).

C. V. Wedgwood, The Thirty Years' War (London: Methuen, 1981).

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The Thirty Years' War and Its Aftermath

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