Thirty Years' War
The Thirty Years' War (1618–1648) was one of the most destructive conflicts in European history. The war was fought in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, primarily (though not exclusively) in what is now Germany, and at various points involved most of the countries of Europe. Naval warfare also reached overseas and shaped the colonial formation of future nations. Military deaths from disease: 700,000–1,350,000; Total civilian dead: 3,500,000–6,500,000; Total dead: 4,500,000–8,000,000.
Anti-Imperial alliance prior to 1635
- Kingdom of Bohemia
- Duchy of Savoy
- Dutch Republic
- Heilbronn League
- 110,000 in Swedish service
- 80,000 in French service
- 30,000 in Danish service
- 50,000 other
Imperial alliance prior to 1635
- 120,000 in Imperial service (Reichsarmee and Kaiserliche Armee)
- 30,000 in Bavarian service
- 30,000 other
Post-1635 Peace of Prague
- Dutch Republic
Post-1635 Peace of Prague
- Holy Roman Empire
- Spanish Empire
- The Thirty Years’ War was a 17th-century religious conflict fought primarily in central Europe. It remains one of the longest and most brutal wars in human history, with more than 8 million casualties resulting from military battles as well as from the famine and disease caused by the conflict. The war lasted from 1618 to 1648, starting as a battle among the Catholic and Protestant states that formed the Holy Roman Empire. However, as the Thirty Years’ War evolved, it became less about religion and more about which group would ultimately govern Europe. In the end, the conflict changed the geopolitical face of Europe and the role of religion and nation-states in society. With Emperor Ferdinand II’s ascension to head of state of the Holy Roman Empire in 1619, religious conflict began to foment. One of Ferdinand II’s first actions was to force citizens of the empire to adhere to Roman Catholicism, even though religious freedom had been granted as part of the Peace of Augsburg. Signed in 1555 as a keystone of the Reformation, the Peace of Augsburg’s key tenet was “whose realm, his religion,” which allowed the princes of states within the realm to adopt either Lutheranism or Catholicism within their respective domains. This effectively calmed simmering tensions between peoples of the two faiths within the Holy Roman Empire for more than 60 years, although there were flare ups, including the Cologne War (1583-1588) and the War of the Julich Succession (1609). Still, the Holy Roman Empire may have controlled much of Europe at the time, though it was essentially a collection of semi-autonomous states or fiefdoms. The Roman-German Emperor, from the House of Habsburg, had limited authority over their governance.
The origins of the conflict and goals of the participants were complex and no single cause can accurately be described as the main reason for the fighting. Initially the war was fought largely as a religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics in the Holy Roman Empire, although disputes over the internal politics and balance of power within the Empire played a significant part. Gradually, the war developed into a more general conflict involving most of the European powers. In this general phase, the war became more a continuation of the Bourbon-Habsburg rivalry for European political pre-eminence, and in turn led to further warfare between France and the Habsburg powers, and less specifically about religion.
- The Thirty Years War began with a scene now infamous in history: the May 18, 1618 ejection, or “defenestration,” of Habsburg officials from the window of Prague Castle. At first, this act of rebellion by Protestant citizens of Bohemia against their Catholic Austrian Habsburg rulers, remained a simple local issue. But when an army of Bohemian rebels marched to Vienna and, with the aid of outside powers, deposed King Ferdinand of the House of Habsburg, it became obvious that this was more than just a provincial dust up. Sure enough, barely 18 months after the defenestration, the Bohemian crown was offered to one of the Habsburgs’ worst enemies, Frederick V, Elector Palatine, perhaps the most important Protestant German ruler at the time. With this act, the war was guaranteed to break from its Pandora’s Box with deadly results. The fighting expanded and by the end of the 1620s, two broad coalitions had crystallized, with the Habsburgs of Spain and Austria combating the rising influence of France, the tenacity of the Dutch Republic, and the stunning military supernova that was Sweden. With so much at stake, nobody could afford to back down, and nobody did, for 30 long years.
A major impact of the Thirty Years' War was the extensive destruction of entire regions, denuded by the foraging armies (bellum se ipsum alet). Episodes of famine and disease significantly decreased the populace of the German states, Bohemia, the Low Countries and Italy, while bankrupting most of the combatant powers. While the regiments within each army were not strictly mercenary in that they were not guns for hire that changed sides from battle to battle, the individual soldiers that made up the regiments for the most part probably were. The problem of discipline was made more difficult still by the ad hoc nature of 17th century military financing. Armies were expected to be largely self-funding from loot taken or tribute extorted from the settlements where they operated. This encouraged a form of lawlessness that imposed often severe hardship on inhabitants of the occupied territory. Some of the quarrels that provoked the war went unresolved for a much longer time. The Thirty Years' War was ended with the treaties of Osnabrück and Münster, part of the wider Peace of Westphalia.
Although the war caused immense destruction, it has also been credited with sparking a revival in German literature, including the creation of societies dedicated to "purging of foreign elements" from the German language. One example is Simplicius Simplicissimus, often suggested as one of the earliest examples of the Picaresque novel; written by Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen in 1668, it includes a realistic portrayal of a soldier's life based on his own experiences, many of which are verified by other sources. Other less famous examples include the diaries of Peter Hagendorf, a participant in the Sack of Magdeburg whose description of the everyday brutalities of the war remain compelling.
For German writers, the war continued to be remembered as a defining moment of national trauma, the 18th century poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller being one of many to use it in their work. Variously known as the 'Great German War,' 'Great War' or 'Great Schism', for 19th and early 20th century German nationalists it showed the dangers of a divided Germany and was used to justify the creation of the German Empire in 1871, as well as the Greater Germanic Reich envisaged by the National Socialists. Bertolt Brecht used it as the backdrop for his 1939 anti-war play Mother Courage and Her Children, while its enduring cultural resonance is illustrated by the novel Tyll; written by Austro-German author Daniel Kehlmann and also set during the war, it was nominated for the 2020 Booker Prize.
The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 reconfirmed "German liberties", ending Habsburg attempts to convert the Holy Roman Empire into a more centralised state similar to Spain. Over the next 50 years, Bavaria, Brandenburg-Prussia, Saxony and others increasingly pursued their own policies, while Sweden gained a permanent foothold in the Empire. Despite these setbacks, the Habsburg lands suffered less from the war than many others and became a far more coherent bloc with the absorption of Bohemia, and restoration of Catholicism throughout their territories.
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Thirty Years' War
- Encyclopedia Britannica 1911 Edition: Thirty Years' War
- Encyclopedia.com: Thirty Years War
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