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17th-century Europe was witness to one of the longest and most brutal wars in human history.
The conflict lasted over a generation and was responsible for the deaths of up to half the population in some countries.
When it finally ended, it resulted in a new geopolitical order, which, for the most part, still exists today.
Learn more about the Thirty Years’ War, one of the bloodiest wars in history, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
Given how significant the Thirty Years’ War is to world history and how bloody it was, it is surprising how little attention it receives and how little people know about it today.
The Thirty Years’ War began in the shadow of the protestant reformation.
After the protestant reformation began, protestant communities began springing up all over the Holy Roman Empire.
If you remember back to previous episodes, the Holy Roman Empire was really a collection of smaller states led by various princes and dukes.
Many of these regional rulers converted protestantism which caused an enormous amount of strife within the empire.
To end this instability, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, King of Spain, Duke of Austria, and Lord of the Netherlands signed the Peace of Augsburg in 1555.
The Peace of Augsburg said that each constituent state within the Holy Roman Empire could choose between Catholicism and Lutheranism as their state religion, but only those two options.
Likewise, people living in those states would have the freedom to migrate to a state which shared their religion if they so wished.
It created a patchwork of states with different religions, not to mention the various non-Lutheran protestant sects such as Calvinists and Anabaptists.
The Peace of Augsburg didn’t institute true freedom of religion, nor did it end all religious conflict, but it did put an end to large-scale religious conflict that could potentially destroy the empire.
Even then, it didn’t totally stop violence from erupting. In 1583, a war broke out in Cologne, Germany, between Catholic and Protestant factions. Likewise, riots would occasionally erupt in places where both Catholics and protestants lived.
For about 50 years, the peace tenuously held.
The Peace of Augsburg ended up being a stop-gap measure. Protestantism continued to spread, in particular, Calvinism and which wasn’t looked upon fondly by both Catholics or Lutherans.
It all fell apart in 1618 when the future Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II attempted to force his subjects in the lands he ruled directly to adopt Catholicism.
The place where Ferdinand decided to enforce this edict was the Kingdom of Bohemia, where he was king, and Austria, where he was the Archduke.
Bohemia is what is today the western Czech Republic.
Hapsburg rulers had ruled Bohemia since the start of the protestant reformation, and they had all been rather lenient towards religion in Bohemia. In particular, Emperor Rudolf II just nine years earlier, had issued what was known as the Letter of Majesty, which established religious freedom in Bohemia.
Things came to a head on May 23, 1618, when Catholic officials were sent to Prague to meet with Protestant nobles in Prague Castle.
What ended up happenings is that two of the Catholic officials and their secretary were thrown out of a window in an event known as the Defenestration of Prague. Defenestration is a fancy term for throwing someone out a window.
Despite falling 70 feet or 21 meters, none of the men died. The Catholics said it was due to divine intervention, and the protestants said it was due to landing on a dung heap.
Also, this wasn’t the first Defenestration of Prague. There were two other famous ones in 1419 and 1483, making Prague the defenestration capital of the world.
The Defenestration of Prague can be thought of in a similar vein to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. It was a single event that served as the spark to ignite a continent-wide war.
This act began a rebellion that became known as the Bohemian Revolt, which we know as just the opening act of a much larger war.
Here I should note that by the very name, The Thirty Years’ War, you can guess that there was a whole lot going on over a long period of time. You could literally spend hundreds of hours going through the minutia of every battle and alliance which took the palace over three decades, as there were a lot of them.
So I’m just going to try an summarize the general ebbs and flows of the war which took place over a periods of years.
In 1619, the year after the Defenestration of Prague, Ferdinand II became Holy Roman Emperor and tried to expand his enforced Catholicism.
The Bohemians initially had the support of protestant states in northern Germany, known as the Protestant Union. They also had the support of many protestant nobles in Austria.
Ferdinand was joined by other Catholic states including Bavaria and Spain, known as the Catholic League, and saw initial success against the Bohemians.
In the east, the Ottoman Empire, perpetual enemies of the Hapsburgs, took the opportunity to support Protestants in Hungary and fought Poland.
In 1625, King Christian IV of Norway and Denmark joined the fight in support of the protestants.
However, he and other protestants, including soldiers from Scotland, were eventually defeated by Ferdinand II, and much of northern Europe fell under Catholic control. Much of the success of the Catholics was due to their general, Albrecht von Wallenstein, a Catholic Bohemian.
In 1629, Ferdinand II issued The Edict of Restitution, which attempted to retroactively undo all changes in control since the Peace of Augsburg.
In 1630, Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus joined the fight on the side of the protestants and, over a period of two years, managed to turn the tide of the war, reclaiming for the protestants much of what had been lost in Northern Europe.
In 1632, the protestants defeated the Catholics led by Wallenstein at the Battle of Lutzen. However, Gustavus Adolphus was killed, which sapped the Swedish desire and ability to fight.
In part due to his loss at the Battle of Lutzen, Wallenstein lost the support of the Emperor, was eventually declared guilty of treason, and was assassinated by his own men in 1634.
The protestants made advances in Southern German.
With the loss of Wallenstein, the Emperor relied more on the Spanish, who had been fighting their own war this entire time with the Dutch, known as the 80 Years’ War.
In 1634, Spanish forces defeated combined Swedish and German Protestant forces at the battle of Nördlingen in Bavaria. This all but removed the Sweeds as a player and put southern Germany back into Catholic control.
In 1635, the Peace of Prague was signed, which banned alliances such as the Catholic League and Protestant Union, nullified The Edict of Restitution, and basically returned to the status quo of the Peace of Augsburg from before all of this started. It did so in a way that allowed the Emperor to save face by kicking the issue down the road for 40 years.
I’ve really painted this period of history with a very broad brush, and if you are familiar with the Thirty Years War, you probably can think of many major events and players that I’ve overlooked.
However, what I want you to take away is that from 1618 to 1635, the war was primarily a religious war between Catholics and Protestants, with a lot of very confusing alliances.
If you were given a test and asked, “what was the cause of the Thiry Years’ War”, you’d be correct if you just said, “religion”.
However, 1618 to 1635 doesn’t add up to thirty years, and the Peace of Prague wasn’t the end of the war.
That is because of one country that I haven’t mentioned yet, France.
The rulers of France, the House of Burbon, despite being Catholic, were bitter rivals with the Hapsburgs, who controlled the Holy Roman Empire.
The French were happy to provide financial assistance to the protestant forces fighting the Hapsburgs. However, with the Peace of Prague ending most of the internal strife within the Holy Roman Empire, the French decided to take direct action.
They began working directly with the Dutch against the Spanish in the Netherlands, and they sent troops into Northern Italy. The French also signed a treaty with the Swedes.
This phase of the war really wasn’t about religion, as both France and the Holy Roman Empire were led by Catholics.
In 1636, the Spanish attacked France they actually managed to threaten Paris until their long supply lines forced them to retreat.
In 1637, Ferdinand II died and was replaced by his son, Ferdinand III.
The war was mostly fought to a stalemate for several years, but then in 1640, Portugal rose up against their Spanish rulers.
In 1642, Sweden once again took up the fight against the Hapsburgs, claiming a major victory at the Second Battle of Breitenfeld.
In 1643, Norway and Denmark once again joined the war, but this time as an ally of the Hapsburgs, which they had fought just a few years earlier.
Also, in 1643, French King Louis XIII died, leaving the throne in the hands of his five-year-old son. A few days after Louis XIII died, the French had a huge victory against the Spanish at the Battle of Rocroi.
Fighting continued for several more years. The Hapsburgs fought the Swedes in Austria. Spain lost ground in the Netherlands and Portugal. There was fighting between France and Spain in Catalonia.
The conflict even spread to the New World and Asia, where the Dutch and Portuguese fought each other.
On top of everything I’ve mentioned and all the battles that were fought was the specter of disease and famine. Typhus, bubonic plague, and dysentery followed in the wake of armies targeting civilians of all religions.
The total population of the Holy Roman Empire dropped from 18 to 20 million in 1600 to 11 to 13 million in 1650. Some areas which saw extensive conflicts, such as Mecklenburg, Pomerania, and Württemberg, saw their populations cut in half.
The total number of deaths directly or indirectly from the Thirty Year War is estimated to be around 8,000,000, on par with the number of soldiers killed in the First World War.
However, this was at a time when populations were much smaller than they were in the early 20th century. If you measure casualties as a percentage of population, the Thirty Years’ War is one of the bloodiest in world history.
By 1648, everyone in Europe was sick of war. Both sides had won battles, but neither side could claim to have made any major gains in territory. Certainly not enough to justify the massive loss of lives.
The war ended in 1648 with the signing of the Peace of Westphalia, which I discussed in another episode.
The Peace of Westphalia ushered in the idea of fixed borders of states, with the government of those states being the absolute authority within those boundaries. It is considered to basically be the same international order that we live under today.
The Thirty Years’ War was one of the most significant events in European history. It began as a religious conflict and ended up as a political one. Despite its importance and impact on the population and history of Europe, it is a conflict that is often overlooked and ignored by many people today.