Issues Involved in the Thirty Years’ War

The term ‘Thirty Years’ War’ was not used by contemporaries, who, in retrospect, tended to refer to the different stages as separate wars (for example, the Bohemian War and the Swedish War). The term was first used nearly twenty years after the Treaty of Westphalia, and seems to be more appropriate than any other; the issues involved were so complex that to use any one of them to describe the entire war would merely obscure the others. The term ‘Seven Years’ War’ to describe the European, maritime and colonial hostilities between 1756 and 1763 was the result of a similar difficulty.

The Thirty Years’ War consisted of five major wars and numerous issues which complicated the motives of the diplomats and combatants. The Bohemian War (1618–20), between the Bohemian rebels and the imperial armies, was ended by the Battle of the White Mountain (1620), by which time fighting had spread into central and northern Germany; the Danish War (1625–9) saw the attempts of Denmark to save the German Protestant states from conquest by Tilly and Wallenstein, but her withdrawal was enforced by the Peace of Lubeck in 1629; the Swedish War (1630–48) saw the continual involvement of Sweden, with brief intervals of peace, in a conflict with the Habsburgs for the control of northern Germany and the Baltic, for secular and religious reasons; the Franco– Habsburg Wars (1635–48) were a revival of the Habsburg-Valois struggles of the sixteenth century, only on a larger scale; add to these the worst civil war that Germany has experienced and the scale of the conflict becomes apparent.

This chapter will attempt to distinguish some of the basic issues behind these wars. It will examine the reasons for the involvement of the major powers in the Thirty Years’ War, the importance of the part played by rebellion, the civil war in Germany, and the role of religion in the war. Finally, it will provide an explanation for the length of the war.

The major powers participating in the Thirty Years’ War were France, Denmark, Sweden and the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs. They fought on German soil for issues which rarely concerned Germany alone, and inflicted far more suffering in the process than they themselves experienced.

The conflict between France and the two Habsburg powers was probably the most direct link between the Thirty Years’ War and the struggles of the sixteenth century. Its origins were varied and complex. During the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the Habsburgs had amassed substantial territory in Europe, some of it in a position which hemmed France in the west. The process had started in 1477 when the head of the House of Habsburg, the Emperor Maximilian I, married Mary of Burgundy, thus preventing France from completing the destruction of Burgundy which she had begun in the early fifteenth century. Subsequently, a complex system of marriages and a degree of historical chance had connected Austria and Burgundy with Spain and her Italian possessions, all of which came under Charles V in 1519. On the abdication of Charles V his brother Ferdinand I became Emperor, and his son Philip II became King of Spain and of the Burgundian and Italian possessions. Before 1559 there had been intermittent but intensive warfare between the Habsburgs and France until the temporary compromise of the Treaty of Cateau Cambresis.

This agreement never proved to be more than an armistice. The French Wars of Religion occupied France internally during the second half of the sixteenth century, but the revival of France as a major power under Henry IV (1589–1610) brought renewed interest in foreign affairs. The threat to France was still the same: Spain, in the south, a major Habsburg power (which still held much of Italy); to the east, the Spanish territory of Franche Comte and the Netherlands and, further east, the other major Habsburg power, Austria. Henry IV pursued a pacific foreign policy; but his successor, Louis XIII (1610–43) left external affairs to his chief minister, Richelieu, who was determined to weaken the two Habsburg powers and relieve pressure on France. In his own words, he aimed ‘to arrest the progress of Spain’1 and to ‘halt the advance of the House of Austria’.2He also wanted to win for France her ‘natural’ frontiers, which meant expansion into Habsburg– (especially Spanish–) held territory along the frontier of the Empire.

Richelieu did not enter the war immediately; instead, he subsidized the enemies of the Habsburgs in the field, especially Sweden (for example, by the Treaty of Barwalde, 1631). He hoped that the result would be the exhaustion of the Habsburgs by the Swedes, so that French military involvement, when it occurred, would be easy and profitable. This was the theory. In practice, the French declaration of war in 1635 was followed by military failure until 1637. The early 1640s, however, saw some spectacular French successes: the defeat of the Spanish army at Rocroi and the occupation of most of Alsace. Between 1645 and 1648, Franco–Swedish armies launched several successful invasions on southern Germany against France's second Habsburg enemy, Austria. Although Richelieu died in 1642, his three aims were substantially realized by the time the Treaty of Westphalia was signed in 1648. French involvement in the war had been carefully calculated and highly profitable. It marked a real turning point in France's status as a major power. Before 1635 she was on the defensive against a massive Habsburg combination. After 1648 she was able to ignore Austria and to demolish Spanish power at her leisure.

Sweden's enemy in the Thirty Years’ War was less obvious. Her main interest had been establishing her control over the Baltic, which meant that Denmark and Poland had tended to be her traditional rivals. When Tilly and imperial armies invaded northern Germany after 1625 it was Denmark who intervened on behalf of the Protestants, not Sweden. However, the defeat of Denmark and the arrival of Wallenstein's army on the Baltic coastline by 1627 forced Sweden to re– examine her policy of neutrality. For the first time in the seventeenth century Sweden had come into direct military contact with Habsburg Austria, and Gustavus Adolphus reacted forcefully. In 1629 he said: ‘Denmark is used up. The Papists are on the Baltic, they have Rostock, Wismar, Stettin, Wolgast, Griefswald, and nearly all the other ports in their hands; Rugen is theirs, and from Rugen they continue to threaten Stralsund; their whole aim is to destroy Swedish commerce, and plant a foot on the southern shore of our Fatherland. Sweden is in danger from the power of the Habsburg.’3

Wallenstein had made no secret of his intention to make Austria a great naval power in the Baltic, and it is therefore hardly surprising that Gustavus Adolphus should have felt impelled to intervene by invading Pomerania in 1630. His initial successes against imperial troops (especially at the Battle of Breitenfeld in 1631) encouraged him to see himself as a crusader on behalf of Lutheranism in northern Germany, and gradually the strategic and religious interests of Sweden merged. To these interests could be added a third: the desire to gain substantial territory in northern Germany so that Sweden could become a German power in her own right. Gustavus Adolphus even formed plans for the reorganization of Germany. In 1631 he drew up his Norma Futurarum Actionum, which stated that he intended to destroy the Habsburg grip on Germany and to set up a new Protestant union to defy the power of Catholicism.4 A Swedish-controlled Confederation would be established, consisting of Protestant states and Catholic states to be conquered in the future. The plan came to nothing because of the death of Gustavus Adolphus at the Battle of Lutzen in 1632, but it shows how comprehensive and ambitious Swedish policy had become. From a fight for survival in 1630, Swedish intervention had become a crusade and a threat to dominate Germany. After the death of Gustavus Adolphus, Sweden's fortunes fluctuated. But two things remained constant: her alliance with France against the Habsburgs and her desire for German territory, the latter eventually satisfied by the Treaty of Westphalia.

What of the two Habsburg powers under attack from France and Sweden? What was their motive in fighting such a degrading and expensive war? The short answer is that they were struggling to maintain the status quo, which had been to their advantage, and to overcome a series of rebellions which threatened to upset it.

The two major centres of rebellion were the Netherlands, which involved Spanish military action, and Bohemia, which affected Austria. The Treaty of Cateau Cambresis (1559) had worked out some sort of compromise between the Habsburg powers and France and, following a period of restless and over– ambitious foreign policy under Philip II (1556–98), Spain had begun to settle down. Austria, too, had no immediate plans for gaining further territory in Europe, and concentrated on consolidating her hold on the Empire and resisting further encroachments from the Turks. The Dutch and Bohemian revolts, however, forced Spain and Austria onto the offensive once more which, in turn, eventually provoked other powers.

The Dutch Revolt had broken out in the 1560s against Philip II's attempts to raise extra taxation, to enforce Catholicism by means of the Inquisition, and to maintain a Spanish army of occupation in the Netherlands, by which means he hoped to destroy any manifestations of rebellion and to give some credibility to Spanish claims to be the military arm of the Counter Reformation. By the time of his death in 1598 this policy had clearly failed and his successor, Philip III (1598–1621) was faced with a revolt which lasted a total of eighty years, overlapping with the Thirty Years’ War. At times Spain pooled her resources with Austria in a general campaign against rebellious Protestantism in Germany (for example, Spinola led 24,000 Spanish troops into the Palatinate in 1620), as well as sending armies to the Netherlands. When France entered the Thirty Years’ War in 1635 Spain used the southern Netherlands as a base from which to launch an attack on Paris, which failed. By 1648 the defeat of Spain in the western sector of the Empire vindicated the Dutch revolt, and the independence of the northern Netherlands (United Provinces) was recognized by the Treaty of Munster.

Bohemia was less fortunate. Acquired after the Battle of Mohacs in 1526, Bohemia had been one of the wealthiest of the Habsburg dominions. She had been relatively quiet until 1547, when many Czechs joined the Protestant cause in the Schmalkaldic War. They were defeated by Ferdinand (the future Emperor Ferdinand I) who imposed Habsburg rule more firmly on Bohemia while avoiding extreme policies persecution. Resentment accumulated, and was openly expressed in the first two decades of the seventeenth century in the form of Czech nationalism and Bohemian Protestantism, which came into conflict with the intolerant and strictly Catholic policies of the Emperor Rudolf II (1576–1612). Under the Emperor Matthias (1612–19) the situation got out of control, culminating in the famous Defenestration of Prague in 1618, and open Bohemian rebellion against Habsburg rule, German culture and the Catholic Church.

This revolt was the immediate and most easily identifiable cause of the Thirty Years’ War, but it did not provide the issues to sustain the war. The Czechs were crushed within two years, unlike the Dutch, and were never again able to challenge Habsburg authority successfully. Before these two years were out, however, the revolt had provided the fuel for a German civil war.

The link between the Bohemian Revolt and the German civil war is relatively straightforward. In 1619 the King of Bohemia, Ferdinand (who became the Emperor Ferdinand II in the same year), was declared deposed by the Czechs as the hated symbol of Habsburg rule. The Bohemian crown was offered to the Calvinist Elector Frederick V of the Palatinate instead. Frederick accepted the title and offered Bohemia the support of the Evangelical Union which had been formed in 1608 and which consisted of several of the more militant Protestant German states. This did not prevent the defeat of Bohemia, and from 1620 the Palatinate, Baden and Brunswick faced conquest and occupation by Spanish troops under Spinola and the imperial armies led by Tilly. Bavaria and other Catholic states had declared for the Emperor, bringing into effect the Catholic League which had been formed in 1609. The Empire was in the process of ripping itself apart.

The Lutheran states of Saxony and Brandenburg were initially unwilling to become involved; they were as suspicious of the militant Calvinism of the Palatinate as of Catholicism itself. However, as imperial troops overran northern Germany between 1625 and 1627 the imperial cause, supported by the Catholic states of Germany, came to be regarded as a dangerous menace. Gustavus Adolphus expressed disappointment when Brandenburg and Saxony failed to welcome the Swedish invasion of northern Germany in 1630. Their reservations about Swedish motives, however, vanished in the wave of horror which followed the sack of Magdeburg by the imperialists; and the troops provided by Brandenburg and Saxony contributed to the Swedish victory at the Battle of Breitenfeld (1631). Although various German states (especially Brandenburg and Saxony) attempted to make peace at various stages between 1632 and 1648, most of them were heavily involved in the most destructive phase of the war. Most were severely mangled, whether they fought for Sweden or the Emperor, whether they were Calvinist, Lutheran or Catholic.

To what extent was the Thirty Years’ War a religious conflict? This question can be answered differently according to two interpretations.

It can be argued that the war was indeed primarily religious in its inspiration, inception and development. Between 1555 and 1618 the absence of war within the Empire had been due to the settlement of the previous religious conflict by the compromise of the Religious Peace of Augsburg (1555), which had been based on the maintenance of the status quo between Lutheranism and Catholicism. The outbreak of war in 1618 was due to three conditions which destroyed this compromise and which precipitated further religious conflict. First, Rudolf II, Matthias and the rulers of Bavaria attempted to enforce the Counter Reformation on the Empire and to win back Lutheran areas in defiance of the Peace of Augsburg. Second, Calvinism, which had been excluded from the Augsburg settlement, established itself firmly in the Palatinate and, from its base in Heidelberg, became increasingly militant and anti-Catholic. Third, Bohemia provided an explosive situation as the Emperors attempted to enforce Catholicism and to remove the religious base of Czech nationalism. The Bohemian response was also motivated by religion; the revolt was followed immediately by the offer of the Bohemian crown to the Calvinist Elector Frederick of the Palatinate.

As the war progressed there were further examples of actions which were religiously inspired. In 1629 Ferdinand II issued the Edict of Restitution to reclaim for the Church property which had been secularized by the Lutherans. When Ferdinand dismissed Wallenstein in 1630, and again in 1634, he was acting under pressure from the Jesuits.5 There has been a tendency to underestimate the strength of religious feeling in the war because of the subsequent decline of religious influence in diplomacy after 1648, and also to attach too little importance to the influence of Jesuit and Protestant advisers on the decisions made by their rulers.

An alternative argument would be this. Religion played some part in diplomacy and in the deteriorating relations between the German states (and especially between the Emperor and Bohemia). But there are too many inconsistent factors to claim that the war was predominantly a religious one. A few examples should serve to illustrate this. After the Bohemian Revolt of 1618 many Protestant states refused to go to the assistance of their co–religionist, and initially Saxony even declared support for the Emperor—clearly a political decision. When the Protestant states were in general co-operation in the 1630s they were given valuable assistance not only by a Lutheran power, Sweden, but also by the Catholic king of France. While Gustavus Adolphus was campaigning in Germany between 1630 and 1632, threatening the very existence of some Catholic states like Bavaria, one of his admirers was Pope Urban VIII, who was secretly delighted at the discomfiture of the Emperor. During the 1640s Catholic fortunes were still further in decline and the imperial cause appeared to be on the point of defeat. Yet, at this very time, two Lutheran powers, Sweden and Denmark, went to war with each other to settle rival claims in the Baltic (1643–5), thus reducing Sweden's assistance to France and delaying the final thrust. Throughout the war strategic interests were of paramount importance and religion could be seen as a convenient form of justification for devious diplomacy and as a veil for cynical political decisions.

Why did the war last so long? Numerous attempts were made to stop it: there were several peace treaties, for example the Peace of Lubeck (1629) and the Treaty of Prague (1635), as well as the prolonged negotiations at Munster and Osnabruck from 1643 onwards. Yet it continued remorselessly, becoming increasingly destructive and seeming to assume a momentum of its own.

The basic reason was undoubtedly the number of states involved and the complexity of the issues for which they were fighting; war was constantly renewed as more issues came to the forefront. There was another factor of some importance. Usually the rapid conclusion of a war is due to the clear superiority of one of the combatants. The sides of the Thirty Years’ War were evenly matched, with France, Sweden, Denmark and the north German states confronting, at various stages, Austria, Spain and the south German states under the leadership of the Emperor. Neither side possessed the advantage necessary for a quick victory and none of the powers resorted to universal conscription or the total commitment of its resources.

Instead, many armies consisted of mercenaries rather than professional troops or conscripts of permanent loyalty. This was not conducive to a rapid military result since mercenaries are one of the few sections of a population who benefit from a prolonged war. The prospect of rapid victory was also undermined by poor military discipline. Only the Swedish troops of Gustavus Adolphus were tightly organized, but after his death in 1632 they, too, wrought destruction on a massive scale.

Meanwhile, the diplomats were in no hurry to settle the issue. France and Sweden refused to attend the same conference and so negotiated separately with the enemy from 1643 onwards at Munster and Osnabruck. All parties feared that they were about to be cheated and so were prepared to fight on for a little longer. After all, the main areas of the campaigns were the German states, not the territory of the major powers themselves. But the cynicism of the diplomats was only to be expected in a war which could produce such destruction and obvious disregard for the welfare of the civilian population.

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