Thirty Years War: 1618-1648

The Thirty Years War

The 17th century is widely regarded as a century of crisis. Immanuel Wallerstein argued that the resulting crisis of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) was a product of a general economic contraction throughout Europe and that marked the first world war of the capitalist world economy (Wallerstein, The Modern World System II, 1980, p. 23).  By the end of the war the results of widespread battles, massacres of whole villages and civilians, and the witchcraft hysteria and persecution of women denotes the scale of the crisis. 

One of the earliest novels of war was Hans von Grimmelshausen, The Adventurous Simplicissimus, 1668, written as a satiric but depressingly revelatory memoir of a common foot soldier.  There is a short excerpt in the link to Chapter 9's Primary Sources in Wiesner Hanks.    

The political crisis is also marked by two political deaths of monarchs that signify how the new European world and continental system had interwoven and how dangerous these conflicts were.  In 1610, Henry IV, the tolerant Protestant King in a majority Catholic country had been preparing for action against his Spanish rivals in the Rhineland and in Italy.  In May 1610 he prepared to strike.  He declared his queen Marie de Medici, regent of France in his absence and had her crowned.  Henry IV prepared to lead his army to the Rhine River, but before he could leave Paris he was assassinated in his coach by Ravaillac with a dagger.  Ravaillac was in the pay of Spain and had been paid off well in gold for his attempt. The powerful Duke d’Olivares counted it as a blessing grace for the Habsburg Empire. 

Figure 1.  Gaspar Bouttats, Assassination of King Henry IV of France by Francis Ravillace, May 14, 1610.

In the early 17th century the Spanish continued to lose their influence and holdings in the Flemish and Bohemian territories while the Dutch Republic was on the ascendant.  One may compare the relative decline of the trading city of Antwerp in Belgium after 1599 with the rise in importance of Amsterdam, the Hague and other Dutch cities.  The two branches of the House of Habsburg were united in action as they had never been in the reign of Phillip II of Spain. The merging of two wars, the War of Bohemia and the War of the Netherlands merged into the catastrophe The Thirty Years War which ultimately led to the unraveling of Spanish hegemony and Habsburg dominance in Central Europe.

Germany was caught in the middle between the conflicts in the Lower Countries (Holland, and Flanders) and Central Europe.  The attempts at enforced Catholicization of its population threatened the German Reformationists, who had benefitted in the 16th century from German metal trades and rise of specialized banking families like the Fuggers.

The rivalries over a share of the expanded world economic system were vast and complex.  The king of Denmark was also Duke of Halstein and a, a prince who sought to dominate the Baltic and his empire and control of secularized bishops. His ambition for the Baltic was challenged by the King of Sweden.  

Two major issues dominated European international politics. 
1)       French ambition to break the ring of Habsburg territories surrounding their state
2)      Preparations by Spain to reconquer the United Provinces

Spain sought a passage from her Northern Italian possessions through the Swiss valleys down the Rhine. This posed a threat to France.  A vigourous French anti-Habsburg policy was postponed until the rise of Cardinal Richelieu (d. 1642) The Dutch had won a respite by conclusion of a 12 year truce in 1609 but a renewal of hostilities was a threat.  Before the expiration of the truce, a revolt in Bohemia against Habsburg rule and Catholic domination broke out and precipitated the series of wars known as the Thirty Years War. The German and international situations made it possible for the war to spread from Bohemia to Germany, and to involve England, Spain and the United Provicnes, Denmark, Sweden, northern Italy and France. The pretense for the origins of the war on religious grounds soon gave way to a territorial war to secure the rich grain fields of Czechoslovakia and Poland.

It is customary to divide the war into the following sections

1)      Bohemian revolt and conquest of the Palatinate, 1618-1623
2)      Danish period, 1624-1629
3)      Swedish period, 1630-1634
4)      French period, 1635-1648
5)      Negotiations leading to Peace of Westphalia, 1644 to 1648

Since 1526 the Habsburgs had ruled Bohemia and adjoining Moravia, Silesia and Lusatia.  These lands provided large revenues from its grain production.  Now, Bohemia had been a region supportive of Protestantism, particularly since John Hus.  Lutheranism and Calvinism all found support there.  By 1609 the Protestants won a temporary victory by forcing the ruling king and emperor Rudolf II to grant the so-called Letter of Majesty.  This edict approved the Diet, and recognized liberty of worship to members of the reformed Bohemian church and guaranteed the church properties of  both Protestants and Catholics.  The Bohemian revolt began when Bohemian deputies surged into the royal palace at Prague and hurled the unpopular Slawata and Martinitz together with an inoffensive secretary from a window, known as the Defenestration of Prague.  Contempoary prints show them being through out about 46 feet.  They should have died from such a fall, but through a series of snags and luck the three all survived, though maimed and injured.  They escaped and sought refuge in nearby Catholic castles. Catholics proclaimed it a miracle saved by angels.  The rebels declared the three were saved by falling on a heap of rubbish.  Soon an army of 16,000 men was approved to be raised.  The revolt spread up toward the Palatinate region on the upper reaches of the Rhine River.

Fig. 2.  The Defenestrations of Prague, May 10, 1618.   

One of the aims of the  Bohemian revolt was the deposing of Ferdinand, the Elector Palatanite of Bohemia.  Frederick exacerbated the situation by his insistence and ended up transforming a rebellion in Bohemia into a German and inevitably into an international war. In November 1620 Frederick lost the City of Prague in the battle of white Hill, when he abandoned the city, never to return.  Despite the Spanish allied Habsburg reconquest of Bohemia and the Palatinate the war spread.

By the time of Philip IV’s succession in 1621, the Spanish government was bankrupt and corrupt, with a ruinous taxation and fiscal policy.  Nevertheless the policy of Coutn of Olivares, Philip IV’s chief advisor continued Spanish policies of the Counter-Reformation purges of heresy and spread of Habsburg hegemony. Campaigns in Alsace ended when Heidelberg fell in Setpember 1622.  The conquest of Bohemia left Germany open and vulnerable.

All of this affected King Christian IV of Denmark and King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, who held rival claims for control of the rich Baltic timber and grain trade which connected to the markets of the Lower Countries and England.  Sweden’s superior military organization would defeat Danish ambition.  Adolphus had hired a military general Albrecht von Waldstein, better known as Wallenstein.  Wallenstein during the course of the war used his military gains to become one of Europe’s biggest landowners.  He was clearly recognizing the war as a clearinghouse for control of the rich grain producing areas of Central Europe. His fame arose from his role in the Bohemian Revolt.  Military success enabled him to get credit with bankers who loaned money for purchase of land including the confiscated estates of the Bohemian nobility.

By 1632 Wallenstein and King Gustavus Adolphus had become opponents and Adolphus was killed in the Battle of Lutzen by a musket shot.  By this time France had entered into the conflict and Wallenstein who was accused of complicity with the French was assassinated.

The consequences of the war were devastating.  Historians estimate that one-quarter to one-third of the population of the Habsburg Empire died during the war (Wiesner-Hanks, 292).  A series of poignant and disturbing etchings of the war by Jacques Callot leave us with visual evidence of the targeting of civilians as a new problem of modern warfare.   

Fig. 3.  Pillaging and Burning of a Village by Jacques Callot. Etching. 1633.

Peace of Westphalia:  1648

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