The Thirty Years War

The Thirty Years War was the last religious war in Europe, and was also the bloodiest war to affect the continent before the twentieth century. Over 200 states of varying sizes fought in the war; causing Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden to note that "all the wars of Europe are blended into one. It was marked by egregious atrocities and incalculable bloodshed. German cities lost a third of their population and the rural population was reduced by two fifths. The population of the Holy Roman Empire declined from 20 million to 16 million. Mainz, Germany lost twenty five percent of its buildings and forty percent of its population. Württemberg, a predominantly Protestant town, lost three quarters of its population.

In addition to the devastation of war, plague, famine, and other diseases such as typhoid and influenza ravaged the population of Europe. Most deaths occurred in towns where refugees had fled the war, and lived in cramped unsanitary conditions. Germany would not recover from the war for decades, and the Holy Roman Empire never recovered.

The Holy Roman Empire and the Casus Belli: The Holy Roman Empire was a loose confederation of approximately 1,000 German states, with varying degrees of independence. They varied from the larger states such as Austria to independent states such as Hamburg and Lǖbeck. (To this day, Hamburg’s official title is the "Free and Hanseatic State of Hamburg.) The Holy Roman Emperor was elected by four princes and three archbishops. The German states seldom worked together, other than in opposition to the Turks.

The Peace of Augsburg of 1553 had established that the prince of each state would determine its religion under the principal of cuis regio, eius religio. However, this proved to be only a temporary solution. The agreement had only been between Lutherans and Catholics. Calvinists, who did not consider themselves bound by the Treaty, had made strong headway in several areas. Lands which had belonged to the Catholic Church were seized and secularized by Protestant rulers. At the same time, Catholics, led by the Duke of Bavaria and the Jesuits (who were becoming increasingly aggressive in their desire to regain that which they had lost to Protestantism) reclaimed several Protestant areas for Catholicism.

When Charles V abdicated in 1556, he divided his empire between his son Philip (who became Philip II, King of Spain) and his brother Ferdinand, who became Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor. Ferdinand was succeeded by his grandson Matthias, who had no heirs, and urged the promotion of his cousin, Ferdinand of Styria.

Growing political and religious tension led a group of Protestant princes to form a group known as the Protestant Union in 1608. In response, the Catholics organized the Catholic League in 1609. Each side was determined that the other would not make any religious (meaning "territorial’) advance. The Empire was thus divided between two armed camps.

In 1617, Ferdinand of Styria was elected King of Bohemia. This gave him jurisdiction over several Lutheran, Calvinist and Hussite areas although he himself was fiercely Catholic. When he began closing Protestant Churches, he ran into protests.

The Defenestration of Prague: On May 23, 1618, a number of Protestant officials met in Prague to protest the actions of the Emperor. In the fervor of the moment, they grabbed two Hapsburg Officials and tossed them out the window of the palace, and they fell seventy feet to the moat below. They both survived the fall relatively unhurt, although the reason for their delivery is a matter of debate: The Catholics claimed that an angel sent by the blessed Virgin had caught the two men and gently lowered them to the ground. The Protestants claimed that they fell into a large pile of manure which had accumulated in the moat and the soft substance broke their fall. This unfortunate event led to the outbreak of war.

The act of throwing something (or someone) out a window is properly known as defenestration, if you wish to impress your classmates and English teacher. It is derived from the French word, fenêtre.

The War is traditionally divided into Four Phases:

The Bohemian Phase: (1618-1625): This phase was largely a civil war between the Catholic League and the Protestant Union in Bohemia. In 1618, the Bohemians deposed Ferdinand as their King, and gave the crown to a Protestant. However, Ferdinand defeated the Protestants at the Battle of White Mountain, shortly after his coronation as Holy Roman Emperor. After his victory, with the help of the Jesuits, he wiped out Protestant areas. Bohemia was soon completely Catholic.

The Danish Phase: (1625-1629) Denmark was ruled by Christian IV, a Protestant but also a hard drinking, money hungry gambler. He had lots of ambition, but very little common sense. He was also Duke of the German state of Holstein, and saw the possibility of adding even more territory to his realm by intervening on the Protestant side of the war. Christian was confident that the Dutch and English, and maybe even the French, traditional enemies of the Hapsburgs (even though both were Catholic) would join him in the effort. He was soon disappointed. James I of England had died and been succeeded by his son, Charles I, who had too many problems of his own to intervene on the continent. The Dutch sent a few thousand men and a small amount of money. The French King, Louis XIII was fighting Protestants in his own country, and could offer little aid. Christian was thus left to fight on his own.

Opposed to him was one of the most brilliant (and eccentric) soldiers of the day: Albrect Wallenstein (1583-1634). Wallenstein had been born a Protestant but had converted to Catholicism at age twenty and became one of the most powerful of the Catholic generals. He had married money and made more by selling arms. To call him weird would be an understatement. He was an ardent student of astrology, had a violent temper, could be ruthless when he wanted to be, and had an obsessive hatred for noise of any sort. He especially disliked barking and meowing, and often ordered all dogs and cats in a town he had taken killed. He often forbade townspeople or his soldiers from wearing boots or spurs, or anything else that might make noise. He often vacillated between extreme generosity and violent cruelty, and was always accompanied by an executioner, ready to do his bidding.

Wallenstein offered Ferdinand an army of 20,000 men, not from patriotism but because he was anxious to increase his own landholdings. Wallenstein and Count Johann von Tilly managed to defeat the Danes, as a result of which Christian renounced all his claims to territory in Germany other than his previous holdings on May 22, 1629.

Ferdinand was encouraged by Wallenstein’s victories, and then declared the rights of all German princes who had supported Christian forfeit. His plan was to turn the Holy Roman Empire into a centralized Hapsburg monarchy. He gave much of the land to Wallenstein, who wasn’t even a nobleman. Ferdinand had previously issued the Edict of Restitution on March 6, 1629 which prohibited Calvinist worship and ordered the restoration of all Catholic properties that had been secularized since 1552. This threatened the very existence of Protestantism. Ferdinand’s actions alarmed even the Catholic princes who foresaw the loss of power to a strong central monarch rather than the loosely organized Empire. At the Diet of Regensburg, in summer, 16330, Catholic and Protestant princes together demanded that the emperor dismiss Wallenstein and force him to disband his army.

The Swedish Phase: Ferdinand’s actions were considered a threat to Lutheranism and the Lutheran King of Sweden, Gustavus II Adolphus, intervened. Gustavus, who had survived a shipwreck at age five, was a true Renaissance prince, fluent in seven languages, fond of Music and Poetry, and a capable military leader. He was also possessed of a violent temper. Once he came upon two stolen cows outside an officer’s tent, and dragged the thief by the ear to the executioner. His courage was legendary: He did not flinch when cannonballs exploded near him and barely paused when horses were shot out from under him or fell through the ice. He was frequently called the "Lion of the North."

England, the Dutch Republic, and several northern German states asked Gustavus to intervene, however his primary purpose in doing so was to extend Swedish territory. .He won several victories in Poland and other areas, and appeared set to carve out a large empire for himself, which caused great consternation. In April, 1632, Frederick was desperate, and turned again to Wallenstein to save the Catholic cause. Wallenstein agreed, in return for almost unlimited authority over the troops he commanded. He reconquered large areas against an army of 175,000, the largest ever under a single command in Europe. The Danish army should have dug in for the winter, but instead took a chance on attacking Wallenstein’s army at Lǖtzen in November. The battle was a bloody draw; however Gustavus was shot in the arm, back, and head.

Wallenstein’s days were also numbered. His army was living off the land and encountering resistance from the peasants from whom they stole. Also, he demanded that he be given command of a Spanish army that had arrived to assist the Catholics, a move that did little for his popularity. In the meantime, word leaked out that Wallenstein had planned to join Gustavus and had in fact offered his services to both France, the Hapsburgs’ traditional enemy, and the German Protestants (a true mercenary.) Ferdinand fired him permanently and ordered his murder. In February, 1634, an Irish mercenary crept into Wallenstein’s room, speared him, wrapped his body in a rug, and hauled it down the stairs for all to see.

The remnants of Wallenstein’s forces joined the Spanish army and defeated the combined Swedish and German Protestant armies in 1634 in Swabia. The Catholics now held the upper hand.

The French Phase: The War had lost much of its religious element, and had become a dynastic war. After the death of Gustavus Adolphus and the defeat of the Swedes at the Battle of Nordlingen the French intervened. French foreign policy for over a century had based on opposition to the Hapsburgs, as a weak empire divided into scores of independent principalities enhanced France’s international stature. This phase of the war is often called the "International Phase." French, Dutch and Swedes fought Scots, Finns, and German mercenaries. Both sides burned, looted, and destroyed German property. Neither side had the resources to gain a quick victory, and the war dragged on until October, 1648.

The Armies of the Thirty Years War: This war was one of the cruelest in the history of warfare. Numerous atrocities were committed, perhaps because many of the soldiers were mercenaries fighting far from home and knowing they had to live off the land to survive. Propaganda against other religions, often written in strident tones, may also have contributed. Although Gustavus Adolphus and others provided severe penalties, including execution, for cruelty to prisoners and peasants, it did little to stop the decadence. An example of the atrocities committed is described by a contemporary:

[T]he soldiers stretched out a hired man on the ground, stuck a wooden wedge in his mouth to keep it open, and emptied a milk pail full of stinking manure droppings down his throat—they called it a Swedish Cocktail. Then they used thumb-screw which they cleverly made out of pistols, to torture the peasants….They put one of the captured bumpkins in the bakeoven and set fire in it…I cant say much about the captured wives, hired girls and daughters because the soldiers did not let me catch their doings. But I do remember hearing heir pitiful screams in various dark corners.

Over one million men fought in the War, and casualties were enormous. Most casualties were not from battle wounds, but from disease. Large numbers of civilians were also killed by marauding armies. Many armies marched through the German countryside, speaking different languages, and taking what they wanted while burning, raping, and looting. The city of Marburg was occupied eleven different times. Armies were often ragtag with no discipline and often accompanied by women (some of whom were prostitutes) and children. Although they were to wear uniforms, these generally rotted in the damp German climate, and soldiers were often forced to steal clothes from the dead, friend and foe alike, or from civilians. Soldiers often wore symbols indicating their regiment and fought behind banners bearing the colors of the army—hence the phrase to "show one’s true colors."

The War ended with the Peace of Westphalia, of 1648. It recognized the sovereign independent authority of the German princes. Each ruler could govern his particular territory and make war and peace as well. Power was now in the hands of over three hundred princes; there were no central courts or central government. The Holy Roman Empire was effectively destroyed.

The Treaty acknowledged the independence of the United Provinces of the Netherlands, and the international stature of France and Sweden was improved. France gained the province of Alsace, and Sweden received a large cash settlement. The Papacy was denied the right to participate in German religious affairs—perhaps the end also of Church involvement in European politics. The treaty also stipulated that the Augsburg agreement of 1555 would become permanent, except that Calvinism was legally permissible along with Lutheranism and Catholicism. In practice, the northern German states remained Protestant and the Southern States remained Catholic.

With the destruction of the power of the Hapsburgs, France became the most powerful nation in Europe.