Between 1618 and 1648 Germany was wrecked by insecurity, depopulation, disruption to trade, the destruction of property, and military plundering. Neil Faulkner looks at The Thirty Years War.
By 1609, Imperial Spain had been defeated in its effort to crush the Dutch Revolution. Holland survived to flourish as a Protestant bourgeois republic during the 17th century. But the end of the Dutch War freed the Catholic Habsburg rulers of Spain for action elsewhere.
The Holy Roman Empire was ruled by another branch of the Catholic Habsburgs. The Emperor’s power-base was Austria, where the Habsburg family estates were concentrated, but his authority extended across Germany, Silesia, Bohemia, Moravia, Hungary, and parts of Northern Italy. The Empire was a vast dynastic super-state embracing most of Central Europe.
But it was deeply divided. In Germany and Bohemia especially, the Reformation was dominant. The authority of the Emperor had been cast off by local princes, and the wealth of the Church appropriated by new secular landowners.
In the early 17th century, the Habsburgs of Spain and Austria, launched a feudal-absolutist counter-revolution against the German Reformation. The unintended results of the conflict - the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) - transformed Continental Europe more radically than any subsequent event until the French Revolution (1789-1815).
The crisis broke in Bohemia (today the Czech Republic). The independence and wealth of the Czech nobility was threatened by the centralising and Catholicising policy of Vienna. The nobles responded by throwing three imperial officials out of a castle window (‘the defenestration of Prague’). They landed in a dung-heap.
The following year, 1619, the nobles refused to recognise the new (Catholic Habsburg) Emperor Ferdinand II as their ruler, granting the crown of the Kingdom of Bohemia instead to one of the leading Protestant princes of Germany, the Elector Palatine - in feudal-dynastic terms, a declaration of independence from both Empire and Church.
Bohemia was one of the most economically advanced parts of Europe. Though still dominated by feudal magnates, society was in transition as markets and money recast relations between lords, merchants, and peasants. It was in Bohemia that the proto-Protestant Hussite ‘heresy’ had flourished in the early 15th century. Protestantism and a tradition of religious toleration reflected the changing character of Bohemian society.
But at the Battle of the White Mountain near Prague in 1620, the ‘Catholic League’ defeated the Elector Palatine. Imperial government was restored, Czech liberties were abolished, the Bohemian crown was declared hereditary in the Habsburg family, and the Counter-Reformation was unleashed in all its fury.
The Bohemian nobility could have attempted to build resistance by turning the conflict into a popular war like the Hussite Revolt two centuries earlier. Class interest prevented this - they had no wish to resurrect the spectre of social revolution. Instead, they appealed - unsuccessfully - to other Protestant princes for support.
The North German ‘Protestant Union’ had no forces to spare. The Emperor and the Catholic League were on the offensive, and the war quickly spread, sucking in Holland, Denmark, Sweden, and eventually France. The other powers intervened to prevent a Catholic victory and the domination of Europe by the Habsburgs.
A religious war therefore turned into a geopolitical conflict. The transformative potential of the Reformation was deflected by princely leadership and dissolved into a conventional military struggle between rival states.
Each time the Catholic League looked poised for victory in Germany, a new defender would appear - the Elector Palatine, the Dutch Republic, the King of Denmark, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, and finally Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister of King Louis XIII of France.
Because of this, the war was protracted, and it devastated Germany. What had been one of the most advanced economies in Europe was wrecked by insecurity, depopulation, disruption to trade, the destruction of property, and the plundering of marching armies. The population may have halved between 1618 and 1648.
The Habsburgs were fought to a standstill, their attempt to create a pan-European absolutism defeated. Germany was left a mosaic of petty states, often at war with one another, separated by customs barriers, and divided by religion.
Where the Catholic League triumphed outright, there was black reaction. The screws of feudal exploitation tightened on the Bohemian peasantry, many of whom ended up handing over half their produce to the landlords, draining the countryside of the surpluses needed to improve farms and raise productivity. The towns were depopulated. The Czech language declined.
The nations of Central Europe were either fragmented or agglomerated without regard to linguistic, ethnic, or cultural boundaries. Only in 1871 was Germany finally to be united. Not before 1918 would the subject peoples of the Habsburg Empire break free.
This was the historical price paid for the ‘deflected’ Reformation - its transformation from popular revolution into aristocratic factionalism.
No less momentous was the impact of the war on Spain and France. Habsburg Spain, funded by its European and New World empires, had been the most formidable military power of the 16th century. But geopolitical pre-eminence had masked socio-economic stagnation.
The old feudal landowning class still dominated the Iberian peninsula. Trade and towns remained underdeveloped. Science and culture wilted in the shadow of Habsburg absolutism and the Holy Inquisition.
The 16th and 17th centuries were an age of transition. Mercantile capitalism and bourgeois revolution were elevating some societies at the expense of others. In this context, Imperial Spain’s politico-military ambition was in contradiction with its socio-economic backwardness.
During the Thirty Years War, the law of political gravity asserted itself. After a century-long struggle to crush the Reformation in Northern Europe, the drain on its resources between 1618 and 1648 caused Imperial Spain’s military power finally to collapse.
Geopolitical hegemony on the Continent passed to France. With the late 16th century Wars of Religion settled by compromise, the French monarchy was raised, during the 1620s and 1630s, into a powerful absolutism under the political leadership of Cardinal Richelieu.
The Huguenots lost their strongholds and ceased to be ‘a state within the state’. The nobles were brought to heel: castles were demolished, duelling forbidden, and plots crushed. The nobles became courtiers, the local parlements lost effective power, and royal intendants and travelling commissioners ruled in their place.
Loyalists were rewarded with offices and privileges. The French aristocracy morphed into a caste of pampered state functionaries and dependants. Feudal power remained intact in the countryside, and state taxation to support the absolute monarch’s war-machine ground the peasantry into poverty and apathy, punctuated by occasional doomed uprisings.
Between 1635 and 1648, absolutist France intervened in the Thirty Years War to prevent Habsburg victory. The result was French supremacy in Europe.
Between 1648 and 1653, the monarchy was challenged internally by ‘the Frondes’ - a popular revolt against war-taxes followed by an aristocratic revolt against absolutism. The Frondes were, in a sense, an abortive revolution by disparate, ill-defined, uncoordinated forces. The new monarchy weathered the storm.
Absolutist France was destined to dominate Continental Europe for more than a century. In that time, Britain would prove to be its most enduring and increasingly effective rival.
In Britain, on the other hand, the outcome of the struggle between Reformation and Counter-Reformation, between bourgeois revolution and absolutism, had proved very different from that in France, Spain, and Germany. It was here that the revolutionary promise of the Reformation was most fully realised.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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