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6.6: The Thirty Years' War

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    Leading up to the outbreak of the Thirty Years' War, there had been an uneasy truce in the Holy Roman Empire between the Catholic emperor, who had limited power outside of his own ancestral (Habsburg) lands, and the numerous Protestant princes in their respective, mostly northern, territories. As of 1618, that compromise seemed relatively stable, despite the religiously-fueled wars across the borders in France and the Netherlands.

    The compromise fell apart with the attempted murder of two Catholic imperial officials by Protestant nobles in Prague, when the emperor Ferdinand II sent officials to demand that Bohemia as a whole renounce Protestantism and convert to Catholicism. The Bohemian Diet, the local parliament of nobles, refused and threw the two officials out of the window of the building in which they were meeting. That event came to be known as the Defenestration of Prague - "defenestration" literally means "un-windowing."

    The Diet renounced its allegiance to the emperor and pledged to support a Protestant prince instead. A flurry of attacks and counter-attacks ensued, ultimately pitting the Catholic Habsburgs against the German Protestant princes and, soon, their allied Danish king. The Habsburgs led a Catholic League, supported by powerful Catholic princes, while Frederick of the Palatinate, a German Calvinist prince, led the Protestant League against the forces of the emperor.

    From 1620 – 1629, Catholic forces won a series of major victories against the Protestants. Bohemia was conquered by Catholic forces and over 100,000 Protestants fled. (Historians estimate that during the course of the war, Bohemia lost 50% of its population.) Catholic armies were particularly savage, living off the land and slaughtering those who opposed them.

    In 1625, the Danish king, Christian IV, entered the war to bolster the Protestant cause. His armies were crushed and Denmark was briefly occupied by Catholic forces. During this period of Catholic triumph, Emperor Ferdinand II issued an Edict of Restitution (1629) that demanded the return of all Church lands seized since the Reformation. This action was hugely disruptive, as those lands had been in the hands of different states for over 80 years!

    In 1630, the Swedish king, Gustavus Adolphus, received financial backing from the French to oppose the Habsburgs and their forces. (Under the leadership of its savvy royal minister, Cardinal Richelieu, France worked to hold its Habsburg rivals in check despite the shared Catholicism of the French and Habsburg states.) Adolphus invaded northern Germany and even won a major victory against the Catholic forces. He went on to lead a huge Protestant army through the Empire, reversing Catholic gains everywhere and exacting the same kind of brutal treatment against Catholics as had been inflicted on Protestants. In 1632, Adolphus died in battle and the military leader of the Catholics, a nobleman named Wallenstein, was assassinated, leaving the war in an ongoing, bloody stalemate.

    In 1635, the French entered the war on the Protestant side. At this point, the war shifted from a religious conflict to a dynastic struggle between the two greatest royal houses of Europe: the Bourbons of France and the Habsburgs of Austria. It also extended beyond Germany, with follow-up wars being fought between France and Spain even after the Thirty Years’ War ended. Spain provided both troops and financial support to the Habsburg forces in Germany, too.

    From the French intervention of 1635, until the war finally ended in 1648, armies battled across the Empire, funded by the various elite states and families while exacting a terrible toll on the German lands and people. Over the 30-year struggle, the population of the Holy Roman Empire dropped by 8,000,000. Whole regions were depopulated and massive tracts of farmland were rendered barren. In 1648, exhausted and deeply in debt, both sides finally met to negotiate peace. The Treaty of Westphalia was a series of messages sent back and forth between the two sides, since the delegations refused to be in the same town.

    As a result of the war, the already-weak centralized power of the Holy Roman Empire was further reduced, with the constituent states now enjoying almost total autonomy. In terms of the religious map of the Empire, there was one major change. Whereas roughly half of Western and Central Europe was Protestant in 1590, only one-fifth of it was in 1690. Simply point, fewer people remained Protestants in Habsburg lands after the war.

    The “winners” of the war were the relatively centralized kingdoms of France and Sweden, with Austria’s status as the most powerful individual German state also confirmed. The big "loser" was Spain. After paying for many of the Catholic armies over thirty years, it was essentially bankrupt, and its monarchy could not reorganize in a more efficient manner as did its French rivals. Likewise, Spain missed out on the subsequent economic expansion of Western Europe. The war undermined the economy of Central Europe, and the center of economic dynamism shifted to the Atlantic seaboard, especially France, England, and the Netherlands. There, a mercantile middle class became more important than ever, while Spain remained tied to its older agricultural and bullion-based economic system.

    The war spelled the end of large-scale religious conflict in Europe. There would be harsh and official intolerance well into the nineteenth century. However, even pious monarchs were now very hesitant to initiate or participate in full-scale war in the name of religious belief. Instead, there was a kind of reluctant, pragmatic tolerance that took root across all of Europe - the same kind of tolerance that had emerged in France at the conclusion of the French Wars of Religion.

    Painting of the robbing and raping of bystanders by soldiers during the 30 Years' War.
    Figure 6.6.1: Soldiers robbing, murdering, and raping peasants during the War. The conduct of soldiers was so horrific that many Europe elites came to believe that better-regulated and led armies were essential to prevent chaos in the future.

    European elites came to focus as much on the way wars were fought as the reasons for war. The conduct of rapacious soldiers had been so atrocious in the wars, especially in the Holy Roman Empire, that many states went about the long, difficult process of creating professional standing armies that reported to noble officers, rather than simply hiring mercenaries and letting them run amok.

    Those concepts - order and control - would go on to inspire the development of a new kind of political system in which kings would claim almost total authority: absolutism.

    Military Interventions


    Source: Princeton University

    6.6: The Thirty Years' War is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.