Forgetting the Thirty Years War

Forgetting the Thirty Years War April 20, 2018

Some of the greatest events in human history simply fail to register in popular consciousness.

Last year, we rightly heard a terrific amount about the Reformation, or at least, about its early Lutheran phase. But the Spring of 2018 actually marks the 400th anniversary of the outbreak of the Thirty Years War, another critical event that was at least as significant as the Reformation. The war raged for a full generation, and claimed some eight million lives.

As to its significance? Among other things, the conflict ensured the survival of Protestantism, and meant that Martin Luther did not wind up as a forgotten heresiarch recalled vaguely in a Trivial Pursuit game played by Catholic seminarians. Quite apart from that religious aspect, the war profoundly influenced our ideas about politics, diplomacy, military affairs, and science, and it had an immense impact on art and literature. It created the European state system that endured until the last century.

Yet as far as I can see, we are facing nothing like the same flood-tide of books and commemorations that greeted the Reformation anniversary in 2017, no comparable wave of conferences and symposia, magazine articles and TV specials. You might ask whether we need a new book on the War, given the excellent scholarship already out there. But did we really, seriously, need all those new Luther books last year? Nobody seems to care about the Thirty Years War, particularly, and that is a dreadful shame.

I have a major essay on the war in the May issue of Chronicles magazine (firewalled). Here, I will describe the origins of the struggle.

The essential context was the fundamental rivalry between Catholics and Protestants, which had detonated so many conflicts since the 1520s, and by 1618, the Catholic powers were in a very strong position. Since Luther’s time, the Catholic church had staged a powerful restoration in culture and spirituality, and far outshone the Protestant world. Across Europe, Catholics not only survived the Reformation crisis, but from the 1580s they were making major advances in the process of reclaiming and re-Catholicizing dissident areas. Although the word is not too familiar in the Anglo-American historical world, “re-Catholicizing” was a key fact of the seventeenth century, and the phenomenon is consecrated in all those great Baroque churches we see across large sections of Central Europe.

The Catholic Spanish and Portuguese spread their religious and political power over large sections of Africa, Asia and Latin America, making millions of converts by force or persuasion. The Catholic church was proudly global, while their Protestant counterparts were largely confined to Northern and Western Europe. When Christians in 1617 recalled Luther’s Reformation, there was no question which part of the church seemed destined to flourish. The key question was whether Protestantism would even survive.

Europe in 1618 faced a perfect storm of diplomacy and dynastic conflict, which raised existential issues for Catholics and Protestants alike. Politically, the most important theme was the power of the mighty Habsburg dynasty, branches of which ruled Europe’s two greatest states, namely the Spanish Empire, and the Holy Roman Empire. Both branches were devoutly Catholic. The great rival of Spain was the Netherlands, which had fought a lengthy war of independence from the 1560s onward. In 1609, the Spanish and Dutch signed a twelve year truce, which effectively recognized the independence of the Netherlands, but European diplomats nervously anticipated its expiration in 1621. And as in the previous wave, the prospective Spanish-Dutch war would likely span the globe, with naval raids and battles as far afield as the Pacific and the Indian Ocean.

That approaching nightmare was made much, much, worse by conditions in the Holy Roman Empire, which (rather like the US in 2016) faced a desperate situation in its electoral college. The Empire had its heart in the German-speaking lands, but which cast its influence much further afield. The imperial office was elective, and was decided by a group of great aristocrats and prelates. Ever since 1440, that office had been in the possession of the Habsburg dynasty, which had produced such epochal figures as the great Charles V (1519-1556). But that long-unchallenged assumption appeared under threat. Briefly, there were seven Prince Electors (Kurfürsten), four Catholic and three Protestant. Respectively, the Catholics were the Rhineland bishops of Mainz, Trier and Cologne, and the King of Bohemia; and the Protestants were the rulers of Saxony, Brandenburg, and the Palatinate. This last was on the German Rhineland, with its capital at Heidelberg.

In an election, then, Catholics would predominate by 4-3, and they would inevitably choose a Habsburg. The obvious heir was the very devout Ferdinand II, who had already worked hard at re-Catholicizing his Austrian lands. In 1617, Ferdinand became king of Bohemia. From that base, he need only await the passing of his Habsburg cousin, the Emperor Matthias, and then he would surely succeed to imperial rule. (Matthias actually died in 1619).

But 1618 was a tumultuous year. Fearing Ferdinand’s intolerance, the Bohemian elite rebelled that May 23, and attacked imperial envoys. (They actually threw them out of a castle window, in an act technically remembered as Defenestration). They then invited Frederick, the Elector of the Palatinate to be their king. Superficially, this was a brilliant coup. Not only would Frederick rule Bohemia as a tolerant Protestant, who was moreover married to the daughter of England’s James I, but he would also hold two votes in any forthcoming imperial election. This would give Protestants a 4-3 majority, so that there would be a Protestant Emperor, presumably Frederick himself.

But the implications did not stop there, because Frederick’s home kingdom of the Palatinate dominated the Rhine. In 1621, the Spanish-Dutch truce was going to end, and the Spanish would fight the war as they had always done in previous decades, namely by running men and supplies from their territories in Italy, and in order to do that, they needed to pass through the Palatinate. If that state was to be very powerful, and radically Protestant to boot, that spelled catastrophe for the Spanish war effort, and for the larger Catholic cause.

One way or another, if Habsburg power was to survive, Frederick had to be stopped from ruling Bohemia. In 1618, the war began, as the Catholic powers overwhelmed both Bohemia and the Palatinate, and over the next decade, they swept across much of Europe, pushing toward the Baltic. This context is essential to understanding the mindset of the English colonists then settling New England, which in an apocalyptic scenario might soon represent the very last Protestant bastion to be found anywhere. By 1630 or so, in Europe, Protestantism appeared to be on its last legs.

I’ll leave the story there for right now. That should not be too tense a situation, as canny readers will in fact work out that the Protestants did get themselves together to fight back and survive. But that is a story for another blogpost.

So in the coming months – let’s see how, or if, the anniversary is covered. As yet, I see nothing.



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