The Next Thirty Years War


Siege of Stralsund, contemporary woodcut, 1628

by Eric D. Lehman

The Thirty Years War,
by C.V. Wedgewood,
New York Review of Books Classics, 520 pp.

The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy,
by Peter Wilson,
Belknap Press, 1024 pp.

It is a time of great unrest in Europe. A large portion of the population is connected by a loose confederation, which threatens to fall apart at any moment. This unstable situation is made worse by false news flooding the continent, shared and spread by new technology. There are too many standing armies, too many bank notes changing hands, too many disparities between rich and poor. One damaged but influential country uses propaganda and spycraft, while another wages a spiritual crusade. The most powerful country in the world, flush with the riches of the Americas, begins to behave more and more unpredictably. Alliances once thought firm and inevitable begin to tear, while religion and nationalism tears families and cities apart.

As familiar as this sounds, the year is not 2018; it is exactly four hundred years earlier, and one of the longest and most destructive wars in European history is about to erupt. Though it is rarely taught in American schools, and barely discussed even in the UK, this war caused the deaths of more people than any European conflict until World War I, including the Napoleonic and French Revolutionary Wars, which together lasted nearly as long and used deadlier weapons.

When this eponymously named Thirty Years War is discussed at all in America (if slightly more often in the UK), the cause and blame have usually been laid at the feet of religion. After all, a century earlier in 1517, Martin Luther had nailed up his ninety-five theses on a bulletin board at the University of Wittenberg, and the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation had followed. Religion therefore, was an easy answer in 19th Century history books, and is an easy Wikipedia-age answer today for all questions about this unusual and destructive conflict. No one can deny that the Thirty Years War was in some ways a culmination of that religious struggle, but we should know better by now. After all, the 20th Century produced Veronica Wedgewood’s The Thirty Years War and Peter Wilson’s The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy, both of which demonstrate convincingly that religion was only a small part of the story. Instead, the conflict was begun and extended for three decades by the hapless mistakes of rulers, by the continual failure of communication and cooperation, and by the human greed for territory and power.

Wilson’s book is slightly more comprehensive, but Wedgewood’s tells a smoother narrative. However, it’s difficult for either to fit all the information into 500 or even 1000 pages. The military maneuvers alone are impossible to keep track of, requiring a shelf of books rather than one volume, a task that has never been completed in English. Though a writer can begin to list the major figures of the war – Ferdinand II of Austria, Count Albrecht von Wallenstein of Bohemia, Gustavus of Sweden, Cardinal Richelieu of France – the cast of characters is in fact too large for any one historian to properly assemble and flesh out. Wedgewood has done the best job of creating a graceful narrative, taking us from the 1618 revolt in Prague, to the outbreak of total war, to the failure of peace talks in the late 1620s, to the entries of Sweden and France in the 1630s that renew the “Protestant” cause. By the 1640s every country in western Europe had become involved, and Germany was a virtual wasteland.

Both Wilson and Wedgewood make it clear that we cannot completely absolve religious hatred and prejudice from its part in the war. Brought to the point of hysteria by a toxic mix of dogma and conspiracy theories, religious fanatics on both sides participated in mob violence and committed atrocities. The slightly less fanatical beliefs of men like King Ferdinand II of Austria and King Gustavus of Sweden certainly drove them to make some of their political and military decisions. Nevertheless, both kings were fighting for the expansion of their nation-states, and both Sweden’s hostility with Protestant Denmark and Austria’s hostility with Catholic France problematize these easy characterizations of leaders and nations alike. Language, culture, and politics divided people along other lines, and as both these exhaustive studies prove, the conflict between Catholics and Protestants often only gave the rulers excuses and the people someone to blame.

Most of the war took place in what is today modern Germany, then the Holy Roman Empire. In 1618 this Empire was not an empire at all, but an untenable confederacy, broken into small communities, with 180 lay and 130 spiritual fiefdoms, 2200 towns, and 150,000 villages, encompassing most of central Europe. The fiefdoms were of various sizes, causing power imbalances in every relationship, and further complicated by an additional 1500 baronial and knightly landholdings. The land was broken by religion, not just Catholic and Lutheran and Calvinist, but often within each into various denominations, sects, and cults under the sway of local preachers. This sometimes led to positive results, as when Catholic priests living in rural communities refused to uphold the militant reforms handed down from the upper levels of the hierarchy. But it also led to neighbor-versus-neighbor conflict and terror, to peasant uprisings, and to increased tribalism and factionalism.

This German-speaking confederation was united by a constitutional system that gave lawful power to no one, that encouraged rather than dampened side-taking and ganging up. Some of the more important heads of state could vote, while others could not. The most important seven, called Electors, chose the Emperor, who after being chosen supposedly needed to run new laws through a Reichstag of all the independent rulers. A confusing and inconsistent system of communication and circular bureaucracy made getting anything done on a large scale nearly impossible. The flawed system at both the bottom and top of the government also set up the chance that a very powerful Emperor could simply do what he wanted by force. The election of Ferdinand II, the already powerful Catholic ruler of Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia, to the position of Emperor in 1619, was a situation that increased both religious and political fears of loss of power by the rest. This combination of a flawed constitutional system and the ambitions of the Hapsburg dynasty were what led to an extended European war, not the revolt in Bohemia a year earlier.

One reason this confederation existed at all was a surge of German-language nationalism, kept somewhat in check by lingering feudal aristocracies, religious divisions, and the impossible organizational system created by their constitution. Nearby, the United Netherlands’ eighty-year fight with the Spanish was based on their own newly awakened national pride, fueled by the rising bourgeois class of Protestant businessmen. Sweden, Denmark, and especially France also experienced this surge of nationalistic confidence during the 17th century, while the citizens of England and Spain had already achieved this level of local feeling during the previous century. Nationalism was becoming a cause of habitual conflict in Europe as it seldom had before.

Execution of Bohemian rebels in Prague Town Square, contemporary woodcut, 1621

In many cases throughout the war, national and religious sentiment conflicted. Catholic France’s national interests conflicted more simply and truly with its Hapsburg rivals than it did with their Protestant enemies, and though Cardinal Richelieu kept French soldiers out of most of the war, his money kept Swedish troops afloat after the death of King Gustavus and his intrigues kept Austria and Spain off-balance. The fact that Pope Urban VIII had another powerful Catholic king to back in Louis XIII helped to draw his support away from the Hapsburgs, whose ambitions he suspected and feared. When the Pope himself is not supporting a Catholic “crusade” against the Protestants, other elements must be at work.

Along with rising nationalism, another factor that lengthened and sustained the war was the presence of large mercenary and regional armies. Large military expenditures and standing armies can sometimes be “deterrents” to conflict, but more often lead to conflict themselves, and they certainly did in this case. During the “down times” of this long conflict, many of the leaders continued to move soldiers around like chess pieces, jockeying for position in possible peace negotiations. Nearly every time, these moves led to raids, massacres, or open warfare. Furthermore, when the “official” armies under independent generals like Count Albrecht von Wallenstein were deployed throughout both hostile and friendly territories, they increased the suffering of the peasants who bore the brunt of supporting these armies, willingly or unwillingly, as victims of levies or plunder.

In addition to the various “official” armies, up to five hundred separate small garrisons engaged in what we would call guerrilla warfare throughout the 1630s and 40s, burning crops and vineyards, sacking towns, and stealing and re-stealing gold and silver. The horrific details make many stories too shocking for even hardened historians to believe, but confirmed anecdotes include children held for ransom, priests tied under wagons until they died, burghers tortured for their wealth, peasants tied up and left to die of exposure. Both national and garrison troops forced people from their homes, creating refugees that swarmed and overpopulated “safe” regions. Few farmed the land and the harvests failed. Living amongst the ruins, peasants became robbers or the robbed, died of plague or starvation, ate rats and crows. Some chopped up corpses and sold the meat at market, sucking the marrow from human bones to stay alive.

These are the milder of the tales that come down to us from the records of this time. Any study of them makes clear that this war was more than an “event;” it was a period of human history in which war became normalized, accepted, and part of everyday life. Atrocities and injustices, which during stable times would have been outside the social order, were accepted as part and parcel of the new disorder. Authority itself became an anathema for common people, with hatred and insurgencies against everyone who held it, from the village priest to the Emperor. On the other side of the border in France, the people had already been through devastating civil wars in the previous century, and had accepted authority by force of arms. Richelieu used this fear of anarchy to crush internal revolts, and fostered anarchy in other countries to secure his own national interests.

Richelieu was not the only one to use propaganda. By the early 1600s, Europe was rife with misinformation from a proliferation of leaflets and books, and many decisions made leading up to and during the Thirty Years War were influenced by them. Pamphlets were published and read aloud to those who could not read – the information was shared by friends and family – and became “true” for certain groups. Suddenly, every fanatic had a voice. What was exposed then, and now, is a monumental inability to think critically, to separate the fake from the real, to make choices based on real values. In this way, both an illiterate and literate public are vulnerable to demagoguery, to mob rule, to short-term emotional thinking.

Witchcraft persecutions were one result, with public mass burnings and remote murders both peaking in 1629. Worse, from an international standpoint, people based their political decisions on the fears generated by these documents. In some cases, those fears were probably justified, as when the Bohemian nobility tossed Ferdinand II’s governors out the window of a castle, believing that they would ban Lutheran and Calvinist worship in Bohemia as Ferdinand had already done in Austria. Other cases were not so clear-cut, such as forged meeting minutes ostensibly from the Spanish Council of State that seemed to show an intention to foment anarchy in England, and which led to widespread anti-Catholic feeling.

Despite the destruction of printing machines and censorship by all sides, readership grew during these decades. Some of the printed material was state-level propaganda from one side or the other, some was individual-level propaganda from one fanatic or another, and some was privately printed material that resembled actual newspapers. However, not even newspapers were habitually “objective,” since in the 17th century the idea of “objective” truth was unpopular or unknown. Much of this material had religious overtones, and the reliance on this sort of printed material in future centuries was one reason historians supposed the war had been primarily a religious one.

It’s easy to see how the concentration of wealth in the hands of too few also prolonged the war. Europe was still in the grip of a landed aristocracy, propped up through taxation and outright thievery. Many of the aristocrats in positions of power knew or believed they were safe from the vicissitudes of war, and therefore did little to stop the conflict, and even profited from its protraction. Wilson’s book does a good job of parsing the numbers to show how war seems initially a boon, a possible power and money grab, but how quickly, and perpetually, it ends up destroying sustained wealth. However, this was national wealth, not personal wealth, and since these were divorced from each other, most European aristocracy suffered little from thirty years of constant warfare. The exceptions, of course, lived primarily in the geographical belt from Prague to Antwerp, where their lands and sometimes persons were directly affected.

Except in the Netherlands, the relatively new and small middle classes could do nothing to stop their own decline into bankruptcy. There was a modest increase in debt before the war, and a staggering increase of debt during it. Harvests failed, trade was disrupted, and middle-class taxpayers declined in numbers and in their individual wealth. In central Europe the situation was grim, with a total collapse of many local and state-level economies. A burgher whose house has been sacked by soldiers has no more to give to the state. And though some of the wealthy aristocrats remained safe, the fortunes of the territories they ruled were not. A state like the Lower Palatinate was reduced to one sixth of its assets.

Artistic activities of all sorts ground to a halt. As Frederick the Great later put it: “the land was devastated, the fields lay barren, the cities were almost deserted…how could someone in Vienna or Mannheim compose sonnets or epigrams?” Moreover, cultural wealth was plundered and lost, melted down or broken apart. The numbers of lost books alone is staggering. German universities also lost their foreign students and never quite recovered their places as centers of European learning.

Meanwhile, the Hapsburgs’ hopes for European domination, seemingly so close in the 1620s, began to recede. Austria was weakened when the ambitious Ferdinand II died, leaving his son to rule as the last Holy Roman Emperor with any real power. Though Spain should have been the richest country in the world from its century-long plunder of the Americas, even before the war it suffered from a weak king and mismanaged economy. Philip IV was in his teens when war began, and continued to love sport, art, and other non-political pursuits as an adult, leaving the running of the Kingdom to Gaspar de Guzman, Count of Olivares, whose erratic ambitions and schemes ruled Spain and affected Europe until he was ousted in the early 1640s. By then Spain was weak from feckless currency manipulation, inflation, and the sustained monetary and military effort of the war. Rebellions in Catalonia, Andalusia, and Portugal furthered its financial collapse.

With the victory of France against Spain at Rocroi in 1643, the deadlock seemed at last ready to break. Still, the war dragged on for several more years, and while the peace negotiations began in Westphalia, armies continued to jockey for position. Sweden recaptured part of Prague, the French invaded the Rhineland. The deaths of soldiers and common people went on and on. The weakened Spanish settled with the Dutch in January 1648, and the various German leaders settled with each other. Finally, France and Austria cut Spain out of negotiations, and signed their own treaty.

The language of these treaties, collectively known as the Peace of Westphalia, echoed Hugo Grotius’s De jura belli ac pacis, one of the founding documents of modern international law. In this way, the Thirty Years War set the stage for the next four centuries of diplomatic congresses, sovereign states, international neutrality, balance of power, and the idea of international law itself. Many of the concepts outlined by Grotius are ones that politicians of good will attempt to enforce today, as truth becomes a plaything of demagogues, as the rich seem to gather more and more wealth, and as nationalism and militarism gain traction once again.

If they fail and a new thirty years war erupts between the nations of the earth, the blame may be once again laid at the feet of fanatical religion, or of ideology, or of any other simple, graspable concept. We should beware such easy answers. Although the reduction of the complex to the simple could be a strength or weakness of our species, the striving to encompass with our minds the unbelievable complexity of something like the Thirty Years War, or relativity, or God, can only be seen as one of our best qualities. It is always worth our time and effort to pursue it.


About the Author:

Eric D. Lehman teaches creative writing at the University of Bridgeport and his work have been published in dozens of journals and magazines, from Berfrois to Entelechy. He is also the award-winning author of fifteen books, including Shadows of Paris, Homegrown Terror, and Becoming Tom Thumb. Visit his website at