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Thirty Years' War

Map: Thirty Years' War


The colder and wetter climate that began around the year 1300 continued to create shorter seasons for farming in Europe. In the 1590s Europe suffered from periods of prolonged rain, drought and some exceptionally cold and long winters. In these years, harvest failures occurred in many areas from Norway and Sweden to Italy. There was starvation and plague. More beggars were roaming about. Spain lost perhaps half a million inhabitants. Food shortages caused prices of food to rise. Prophesies were made that the world would end in the year 1600. Instead came a temporary return of favorable weather and recovery. But after 1600 and through the century came more agricultural crises, more food shortages, various economic difficulties in Spain, England, France and the Holy Roman Empire, and here and there some population decline.

Another hell in the 1600s was the work of Europe's monarchs. The first half of the century embodied a lot of warring. It was a century in which monarchs increased the size of their armies and increased taxes to pay for it, a burden on a population already barely surviving. In the1600s were also scattered uprisings by desperate and unhappy people, no uprising big enough to substantially change the political landscape.

Ferdinand II

His most pious majesty, Ferdinand II of Habsburg, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, King of Hungary and Bohemia with his court "dwarf." He started the Thirty Years' War by moving against Protestants in Prague.

Soldiers plundering farm

Soldiers plundering a farmhouse: representation of an event before the Thirty Years' War. A kind of event that took place during that war. Soldiers plundering farm, enlarged

The Hanging, by Jacquest Callot

The Hanging, by Jacques Callot. Click to enlarge The Hanging, by Jacquest Callot, enlarged

Map of Thirty Years' War

Central Europe 1648, Click to enlarge

The Thirty Years' War was headed for its beginning in 1617 when a Habsburg prince from Austria, Ferdinand II (brother of the now deceased Philip II of Spain) was chosen as king of Bohemia. Ferdinand was a pious man, attending masses at all hours and a monarch who went on pilgrimages and endured self-abasement. In 1618, Ferdinand moved against Protestantism by closing some Protestant churches in Prague. Protestants there rebelled. The Catholic monarch of Bavaria, Maximilian, and the Catholic king of Spain, Philip III, sided with Ferdinand. Siding with the Protestants were some German princes. Another religious war had begun.

Between 1618 and 1625, Spanish armies supporting Ferdinand defeated Protestant armies. With the help of the Jesuits and forced conversions, Bohemia and neighboring Moravia were made Catholic. In Prague on June 21, 1621, twenty-six noblemen had been executed. Other nobles in Bohemia and Moravia had their property confiscated, property given to nobles who had demonstrated their loyalty to the Church and to Ferdinand II.

Witches, a Widening War and Pogroms

In central Germany, the Lord Abbot of Fulda, Balthasar von Bernbach, headed a mobile Inquisition in search of witches as part of his drive against Protestantism. Hunting witches predominated in prosperous villages, and within three years von Bernbach put 250 witches to death. A Protestant contemporary, Duke Heirch Julius of Brunswick, also hunted witches. The anti-witch campaigns reached a climax in Germany in the 1620s, with sadistic tortures used in forcing confessions. Around 900 are reported to have been burned to death at Würzburg and around 600 at Bamberg. The persecutions were done with Christian love to save those who stood on the brink of damnation. Being burned at the stake, it was believed, merely destroyed a person's body, while heresy killed a soul forever.

In 1625 the war widened with the invasion of Germany by the king of Denmark and Norway, Christian IV, who expressed his support for Protestant princes. He feared the power of the Habsburgs, and he wished to expand his holdings, particularly to gain control over the Elbe River. Against Christian IV, Habsburg forces under Albert of Wallenstein pushed northward from Germany into Denmark, ending King Christian's dreams, and Christian made peace with the Habsburgs in the Treaty of Lübeck in 1629.

The Habsburgs intended to secure power over the Baltic Sea in order to secure power against Denmark and Sweden and to throttle Dutch trade. Sweden had recently become one of Europe's more prosperous countries, growing from a country of peasants and few towns to a country with a money economy that attracted foreign investment and a leading producer of iron and copper. Sweden had grown as a European power, and the Protestant king of Sweden, Gustavus II, feared a Habsburg move against Sweden's domination of the Baltic Sea. Gustavus, too, had territorial ambitions. He expanded into Poland, and, after having eliminated hostilities against him there, he was free to move into northern Germany. Gustavus invaded northern Germany at Pomerania on June 6, 1630. Protestant princes joined Gustavus' forces, and in 1631 they crushed the Habsburg forces at Breitenfeld, securing northern Germany for Protestantism. Protestant Germany hailed Gustavus as a liberator. The Swedish army pushed on and wintered in Mainz. In the spring of 1632 the war resumed. A Protestant army from Saxony drove into Bohemia and occupied Prague. The Swedes drove as far south as Augsburg and Munich, and peasants in Bavaria responded to bullying from soldiers in Sweden's army by waging a small-scale war against them.

In 1634, the Habsburgs defeated the Swedes at Nordlingen (120 kilometers northwest of Munich), and Gustavas of Sweden had gained Catholic France as an ally. France was concerned with Habsburg power – power rivalry counting for more than the Catholic-Protestant conflict. France's army was small, poorly trained and equipped compared to the Habsburg forces. In 1635 the French marched eastward and crossed the Rhine River. The last and bloodiest phase of the war had begun in places in Italy, along the border between Spain and France, and between Denmark and Sweden, and the United Netherlands joined France in war against Spain. In 1639, the navy of the United Netherlands annihilated the Spanish fleet. Portugal revolted against rule by Spain's Habsburg king and, in 1640, re-established its independence.

Most of the fighting was in Germany, with soldiers and their camp followers trooping through the country. These mercenaries, in the tradition of knight-warriors, still believed that they were superior in rank to the common peasants. Discipline among them was lax, and criminal elements among the soldiers influenced those who had not been criminally inclined. Soldiers continued to bully and plundered peasants, and peasants continued to fight back, killing soldiers. The war damaged German fields. Bubonic plague and syphilis appeared. There were more witch hunts. Food shortages arose. Refugees from south-central Germany flocked into northern Germany. Pogroms against Jews occurred in cities such as Frankfort, Worms and Jena.

The Peace of Westphalia and a Changed Europe

Settling differences through violence led to exhaustion. Germany, it is said, had lost a third of its urban population and two-fifths of its rural people. Negotiating differences was decided upon. The war that people called the Great War ended in 1648 with a negotiated settlement, the Peace of Westphalia, thirty years after the war's inception, with France and Spain continuing to war for ten more years.

Negotiations at Westphalia were the choosing of order over chaos and the choosing of nationalism over the universalism that had been part of Roman Catholicism. The settlement spoke of a "Christian and universal peace, and a perpetual, true and sincere amity." The rages, bloodlettings and devastations of the Thirty Years' War had awakened in people the need for at least a modicum of tolerance. The Peace of Westphalia readjusted the religious and political affairs of Europe. German principalities were to be sovereign and able to make treaties with foreign powers. Calvinism, Lutheranism and Catholicism were recognized as legitimate faiths. The borders of German principalities were restored to what had been in 1618. The Peace of Westphalia gave recognition to secular kingship as the legitimate and dominant form of government. The sovereignty of Switzerland and the United Netherlands was recognized. With this new order Europe's period of religious wars came to an end.

The settlement returned to the Habsburgs their rule in Bohemia, but it recognized the end of Habsburg predominance in Europe. It was France that emerged as the preeminent power on the European continent – a victory for French arms and diplomacy. France was now the arbiter of Europe. Its authority in fragmented Germany was becoming greater than Germany's so-called Holy Roman Emperor. France's navy had increased as a challenge to the navies of the British and the Dutch.

Sweden gained Western Pomerania and bishoprics in Bremen and Stettin. They also gained control over the mouths of the Oder, Elbe and Weser rivers and emerged from the war as one of Europe's great powers.

Spain was compelled to make peace with France in 1659. A more aristocratic county and less bourgeois than the more economically successful European powers, Spain's economy had lost momentum. And waging war had been an economic burden. Spain had lost prestige. It was no longer considered the greatest power in Europe. It had emerged from the war without Portugal – which had declared its independence in 1641. It had exposed its weakness to Latin Americans. It was no longer "the Colossus of the Seas."

The war had increased centralization of power. New taxations had arisen and new governmental organization, to include subsidies to specific industries. Spain's central government had subjugated governmental bureaucracy to its absolute power – a new absolutism that was spreading in Europe. Government organization increased also in Sweden. There a new war council had been created charged with recruitment and supplies for the military.

In France the reign of Louis XIV had begun (1643 to 1715), the longest reign in European history, with France's monarchy reaching its peak in absolutism, claiming unity with God, the source of absolute power – rule by divine right.


The Thirty Years' War, by Herbert Langer, 1980

The Thirty Years' War, by Geoffrey Parker, 1997

Germany under the Old Regime, 1600-1790, by John G Gagliardo, 1991

Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Chapter 2, "Habsburg Bid for Mastery, 1519-1659," Paul Kennedy, 1987

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