6.4 Thirty Years' War

The Wars of Religion in France ended but they didn't end religious intolerance or wars fought over religion. On the contrary, persecutions on both sides continued all over Europe. The bloodiest conflict was still to come in the form of the Thirty Years' War. This conflict was in some ways a repeat in Germany of what happened in France the century before: Protestant princes were being pressured by Catholic princes. However, unlike in France where the wars were fought primarily over religious differences, the wars in Germany had less to do with religion and more to do with political differences. Germany's princes (especially the ones in the north) resented the interference of the Holy Roman Emperor (based out of Vienna, Austria) in their internal affairs. This is because the states of Germany were not independent; they formed part of an empire dominated by the Emperor. Thus, the Reformation gave the princes of Northern Germany an excuse to break the hold of both Rome (Pope) and Vienna (Emperor).

The Thirty Years’ War (1618-48) began when the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II attempted to prevent Protestantism's growth in Southern Germany (see map below). This effort sparked a rebellion among Protestant princes in the north. The war was entirely fought on German soil and it became synonymous with brutality and atrocities.The war also had important consequences for the political map of central Europe: before the war Germany was dominated by a Catholic emperor but after the war central Europe became a community of sovereign states.

The Thirty Years' War began in the Holy Roman Empire. The Holy Roman Empire was a collection of hundreds of various sized principalities in Central Europe. These principalities were all tied by feudal loyalty to the ruling family of Austria known as the Hapsburgs. For 200 years the Hapsburgs ruled these small states with little to no trouble; however, the religious and political forces unleased by the Reformation (and the Catholic Church's so-called "counter-reformation") led to the outbreak of a massive, protracted war. The Holy Roman Empire was divided in to Protestant and Catholic factions. Both sides of the conflict sought and received aid from other Protestant and Catholic countries.

The spark starting the fire began in the state of Bohemia ( 1618 AD). Bohemia's leader, Ferdinand II, was next in line to become emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Before he became emperor, Ferdinand began restricting religious freedoms for Protestants in Bohemia. Bohemian Protestants asked for assistance from Protestant countries like Britain, Denmark and the Netherlands. Ferdinand responded by calling for help from Catholics in Bavaria, Spain and Rome. In the fight that followed, Ferdinand and his allies won a major victory at White Mountain (1620) outside of a city called Prague. The Catholic victory led to Protestantism being outright banned in most of the Hapbsburg dominated Holy Roman Empire (presented in green in the map above).

Encouraged by his succcess at White Mountain, Ferdinand II attempted a complete removal of Protestants from Catholic regions. By 1629 Catholic imperial armies, commanded by Albrecht von Wallenstein, overran most of Protestant Germany and much of Denmark. Emperor Ferdinand II then issued the Edict of Restitution. The edict gave lands back to the Catholic Church that were seized and secularized by Protestants.

The situation seemed hopeless for the Protestant states; however, they received some timely aid from the powerful Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus. Gustavus landed in Germany and, with money from France and military support from small German Protestant states, the Swedes defeated the Hapsburgs at the Battle of Breitenfeld (1631). The Swedes were so successful they drove the Catholic armies from virtually all of Central Europe.

The Protestant side continued to enjoy success until in 1634 a Spanish Catholic army intervened at the Battle of Nordlingen (1634). The Spanish defeated the main Swedish army forcing the Protestants out of Southern Germany. This new Hapsburg success, however, scared the French. The French, despite being Catholics themselves, declared war first on Spain (1635) and then on the Holy Roman Empire (1636). The war, which in the 1620s was fought principally by German states with little foreign assistance, now became an international struggle involving all the major powers of Europe. Atrocities were commited by both sides. Eventually, France’s victory over the Spaniards at the Battle of Rocroi (1643) and Sweden’s defeat of the Holy Roman Empire at the Battle of Jankau (1645) forced the Hapsburgs to make concessions that led, in 1648, to the Peace of Westphalia, an agreement settling most of the outstanding issues.

The cost of the Thirty Years' War was enormous: upwards of 30% of Germany's total population died during the conflict; manufacturing and trade declined since many towns were outright destroyed. Until World War II (1939-1945 AD), the Thirty Years' War turned out to be the bloodiest conflict in Germany's history (even costlier than World War I). Yet, on the flip side, the war brought a close to an era of wars fought over religion. In the years after 1630 the importance of religion in European politics diminished. Thus, European society became even more secular and people became less and less willing to shed blood in the name of religion. With that said, religion (and apparent religious differences) remained an important part of the day to day life of people living in England, Spain and Italy.