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  • James Houser

October 24, 1648 - End of the Thirty Years' War

Updated: Jun 15, 2021

October 24, 1648. After thirty years of terrible, chaotic war across the European continent, the representatives of almost 92 different countries place the finishing touches on the Peace of Westphalia. The beginning and the end of an era, Westphalia not only ends the Thirty Years’ War but establishes new rules for diplomacy and sovereignty that persist to this day. It only took eight million dead to get here.

The Thirty Years’ War was one of the bitterest, darkest, and most disastrous chapters in European history. It brought on a period of mass death and chaos that Europe had not seen since the Black Plague and would not see again until the World Wars. Not only the ravages of all the competing armies but plague, famine and social upheaval all combined to turn Central Europe into chaos. Germany as a whole lost at least a third of its population, while some areas – such as Wurttemburg – lost as high as 85 percent. The sheer length of the war caused the European economy to stagnate and nearly collapse, while farms all over the continent lay fallow. It was one of the great human tragedies of the premodern era, even if it’s more or less forgotten today.

The war had begun as an internal struggle within the Holy Roman Empire. The fragmented, decentralized Empire spanned Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and much more of Central Europe. Ruled in theory by an Emperor that was elected by several of the leading princes of the realm, in reality the HRE consisted of almost 500 independent states that all mostly governed their own affairs. These states could be large, such as Saxony or Bavaria, or tiny blips on the map no more than a few square miles in size. Multiple cities like Hamburg, Nuremburg or Cologne were Free Cities which governed their own affairs. The Empire was a complex organism, with overlapping rules and obligations stretching back almost a thousand years. Anyone trying to learn Imperial Law had their work cut out for them.

The Empire was never conflict-free, and struggles over territory and dynastic strife had been common throughout the Middle Ages because, well, it was the Middle Ages. In 1517, though, a new form of conflict was born when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to a church door in Wittenberg. Within a few years, multiple Imperial princes had taken up Luther’s Reformation, in spite of the Emperor’s displeasure. The next several decades saw religious fighting break out within and between many of the major states as the new Protestant denominations struggled for rights and recognition within the Empire. The 1555 Peace of Augsburg ended this first round of fighting, though the tensions that had sparked it were not gone. Augsburg proved only to be a truce for fifty years.

The Habsburg Dynasty, a seemingly endless parade of ultra-Catholic rulers, had clung to the Imperial throne since the 1500s. They had been unable to destroy the Lutheran princes, however, and had been compelled to cut a compromise when they signed the Peace of Augsburg. The compromise was that each prince could determine his state’s faith. This doctrine was known in Latin as “cuius regio, eius religio” which literally translates to “whose realm, his religion.” If you were Lutheran and happened to live in Catholic Bavaria, or Catholic and lived in Lutheran Brandenburg – tough.

This settlement kept the peace in Central Europe, but it rankled both the Catholic Habsburgs, who were unreconciled to the presence of heretics within the Holy Empire, and hardcore Lutherans, who wanted total religious freedom across the Empire. Even less happy were the newly rising Calvinists, a strict Protestant theology that had no rights under the 1555 settlement and faced the ire of both Catholics and Lutherans. All these parties were able to keep the peace for the next five decades, though, and the Habsburg Emperors managed their own realms by practicing careful and judicious religious toleration.

The peace began to break down when the 1600s rolled around, and finally collapsed in 1618, when the Bohemians revolted. The Bohemians of the modern Czech Republic were almost all Protestant, but were ruled by the Catholic Habsburg family. In the famous “Defenestration of Prague,” they tossed several Imperial dignitaries and tax collectors out of the window of one of Prague’s castles. The Bohemian nobility then elected the Calvinist prince of the Palatinate as the new King of Bohemia. When he accepted, it was considered an act of war and interference with the Habsburg Emperor’s realms – a violation of the “cuius regio” doctrine. This kicked off the first phase of the Thirty Years’ War, though no one dreamed it would get as large as it did.

The Thirty Years’ War spiraled out from its original cockpit in Bohemia almost immediately. Within a few years, vast Protestant and Catholic armies roamed across Germany, Hungary, and Austria, slashing and smashing at each other. The militaries of the period were almost all mercenary armies, and due to the weak economy and dislocation brought about by the War most rulers had empty bank accounts. This resulted in the mercenary leaders becoming a force unto themselves, like Ernst von Mansfeld, the German Protestant mercenary who hopped from employer to employer with his ragtag, ill-disciplined army.

The ravages of the mercenaries wreaked a terrible toll on the defenseless civilians of Europe. The massive mercenary armies were so hideously expensive and demanded so much food and forage that they often ran short of funds and provisions on campaign. The only alternative was to help themselves to whatever the locals had. Any mercenary army passing through Germany would leave a trail of disease, starvation, rape, and looting in its wake, religion be damned. Most of the mercenary armies after a few years were barely united by anything but pay or leadership, and people of any creed or nationality could be found in each army’s ranks.

The first ten years of the war saw a string of Catholic victories, as the Imperial armies either forced the Protestant princes into submission or defeated their armies and confiscated their lands. As the Imperials moved from the largely Catholic south of Germany to the largely Protestant north, they were followed by devastation and the camp diseases of the unwashed, unsanitary, undisciplined hordes. Still, it seemed that the war might be about to come to an end.

In 1629, with the Catholic cause ascendant, the Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand II overplayed his hand. He ordered the restoration of many old Church lands that had been confiscated by Protestant lords since 1555. This unilateral attempt to change the Empire’s laws alienated many Protestant princes that had either made peace with or even allied with the Emperor, just in time for the war to expand.

Like a sinkhole, the Thirty Years’ War began to drag in all the neighboring powers, so that the conflict spread outside the boundaries of the Empire. Spain and the Netherlands, long sworn enemies, saw their own conflict merge with the Thirty Years’ War from 1622 onward. Denmark intervened on the Protestant side in Germany in 1625. A series of Spanish and Italian conflicts were sucked into the general upheaval by 1627. Behind the scenes of all these pressures on the Habsburg dynasty was the sleeping giant of France, which was a Catholic power but actively funded and encouraged the Protestant princes of the Empire. France, led by Cardinal Richelieu as regent for the young Louis XIII, was a long-term foe of the Habsburgs and was eager to see their ancient rivals brought low.

The most famous intervention into the German war, though, came with the arrival of the Swedes. King Gustavus Adolphus landed in northern Germany in 1630, and brought the impressive Swedish Army to the contest. The great German religious war, which had seemed about over, was kicked back into high gear once again. Gustavus Adolphus had come to support his fellow Protestants against Catholic domination, and in a few major battles and the sweeping campaigns of 1631 and 1632 turned back almost a decade of Catholic progress. His death at the Battle of Lutzen in November 1632 could not reverse the tide, and the Swedes would play a major part in the war from now on.

The Thirty Years’ War had entered a new and even deadlier phase, as Sweden brought both much more effective methods of warfare and a much more intricate system of exploitation to Germany. After a few years, most of the Swedish Army wasn’t even Swedish anymore – those original soldiers were mostly dead – but Germans, paid with German funds and supplied from German cities. Sweden had in effect mobilized north Germany in support of its war, and would do so for the next decade and a half. But when Sweden’s army suffered military reverses, France finally gave up pretending they were not involved and declared war on Austria in 1635. (Note the date: a whopping 18 years after this war started.)

When would the war end? It dragged on, and on, and on, exhausting its combatants and devastating the land. Cholera, typhus, influenza, and myriad other diseases ravaged the poor peoples of Europe. The demands of the armies, the destruction of farms, and particularly bitter winters brought widespread famine. Complete social collapse resulted in a rise in witch-hunts, anti-Semitic riots, and torture. The very ecosystem that humans had carved from the wilderness was disrupted, with the devastation and dislocation leaving large stretches of Europe nearly deserted. The food shortages were made worse by a rising swell in the rodent population, and Bavaria was overrun throughout the winter of 1638 by wolves and wild pigs of all things. To many people it seemed like the world was ending.

Any semblance of this being a “religious war” was gone. The Protestant and Catholic princes of Germany had been effectively sidelined, and now the conflict was basically France, Sweden, the Dutch and Friends versus Austria, Spain and Friends. Somehow, the war had spread to Portugal, to the Franco-Spanish border, to northern France, to Poland, to the Alps and to the North Sea. Though Germany was the apex, the conflict had swallowed up most of Europe by what seemed to be centrifugal force. The storm simply wore on, seemingly unending. The effect on Europe has been called, by some, a “frenzy of despair.”

But an end was coming; no country fighting this terrible, expensive, costly war could go on forever. Talk of peace had been going on in northwest Germany since 1641, when France and the Habsburgs had opened a channel to determine peace. This, of course, was seven years before peace would finally come to Germany. Cardinal Richelieu had demanded that his German allies be included in the conference, which initially caused the Empire to pull out of talks, but after a major military defeat in 1642 the Habsburgs finally agreed to this condition. All the parties to the war – whether they were sovereign states, or member states of the Empire – would be included in the settlement.

The peace talks began in 1643 and took place in two cities, Munster and Osnabruck, in the larger region of Germany known as Westphalia. Given how long the Thirty Years’ War was, it may be no surprise that the peace conference occupied the last third of the war. Though you could be forgiven for thinking that the war ended because everyone was too exhausted to continue, this would be deceptive. There was fighting going on to the very last minute of the conflict, as the Swedish cavalry swarmed Prague – where this had all began – and were still fighting in the city when news of the peace reached them on November 1, 1648. The course of the war continued to affect the peace conference even as it went on, with new victories for one side causing a sudden change in their bargaining position. This was one of the main reasons the conference took so long.

The parties that met in Westphalia included 16 different European countries, not including the 66 states of the Holy Roman Empire that all sent delegates – though several of these delegates represented more than one state, so a total of 140 Imperial States had a voice speaking for their interests. So you have 156 different countries, big and small, all trying to hammer out a peace settlement. But wait! It gets worse. Various religious factions, guilds, social organizations, trade leagues, and even independent armies all sent their own representatives. So really, this was one of the most complicated, difficult and longest conferences in human history.

How DO you untangle the Thirty Years’ War? That was the question. The problem was that it wasn’t one war, with Side A versus Side B, but actually a bunch of wars that had all gotten tangled together, connecting in some places and diverging in others. The Peace of Westphalia wouldn’t even settle all these differences. The war between France and Spain was part of the Thirty Years’ War, for instance, but it would continue for nine years after the Peace of Westphalia. The Dutch and Spain, on the other hand, had been fighting long BEFORE the Thirty Years’ War had begun, but the Peace of Westphalia would mark the end of that long struggle for good. This was like 156 kittens had all gotten their own balls of yarn tangled up together, and now their poor owners were trying to get their yarn back. Which is a cute thing to think about. (The Thirty Years’ War, on the other hand, was as terrible as that image is cute.)

Finally, Europe’s great agony came to an end with three separate treaties in 1648. First, the Dutch and Spain signed and ratified a peace on May 15, 1648. This was not just the end of their conflict in the Thirty Years’ War, but of a struggle for Dutch independence from Spain that had begun back in 1566. This conflict is also referred to as the Eighty Years’ War, which shows you just how creative Europe was when it came to thinking of names for wars.

The second and third treaties were both signed on October 24, 1648 between France and the Empire (and all their respective allies) at Munster, and Sweden and the Empire (and friends) at Osnabruck. As I mentioned above, the news of the Peace of Westphalia stopped some battles literally mid-shot. With this peace, the Thirty Years’ War was over.

The first result of the Peace of Westphalia was a complete end to the series of European religious wars. This was by design. The conflicts that had broken out after the Protestant Reformation were too dangerous, too massive and too passionate to be repeated. The Peace did its level best to make the internal religious affairs of a state into a non-issue for the foreseeable future. All parties recognized the old doctrine of “cuius regio, eius religio”, except that Calvinism now had a seat at the table and was included in this system. Christians who lived in a state where their faith was not dominant were guaranteed religious toleration, if not religious equality. No other state, from this point on, had a right to interfere in the internal disputes of its neighbors.

This may sound like a no-brainer, but for Europe – and especially the Empire – this was huge. The Peace of Westphalia in essence changed the relationship between ruler and subject within the states of Europe. Before Westphalia, many of Europe’s peoples had conflicting and overlapping loyalties to various groups and creeds. This had been especially true within the Empire, as the complexities of Imperial Law gave the Emperor, the Pope, councils and judges certain privileges above those of the free states. Westphalia abolished all of that. States now had inviolable borders and unquestioned sovereignty. What happened in Saxony was no one’s business but the Duke of Saxony. Same with Austria, Sweden, Bavaria, or any of the other states.

Though this was just one part of one treaty and applied to one section of Europe, historians and international relations theorists have pegged the creation of the modern nation-state to the Peace of Westphalia. They even have a phrase for it: “Westphalian Sovereignty.” The principle that was established at Westphalia was more important than the reality it created. To this day, these principles of sovereignty, autonomy, and freedom from foreign interference are qualities associated with the modern nation. Westphalia meant much more than just the end of the Thirty Years’ War: it meant the establishment of the modern state system.

That’s very nice and esoteric, of course, but it was an ending as much as a beginning. It was not just an end to Europe’s period of religious wars, but also an end to the viability of the Holy Roman Empire. One thing that had been conclusively established at Westphalia was that the Emperor had almost no power over the member states of the Empire anymore, with no right to meddle in their domestic affairs. This essentially spelled the doom of the Empire as a territorial unit. It would sink further and further into irrelevance for the next 150 years, to the point that in the 1760s Voltaire mocked it as “neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.” Only in 1806 would Napoleon put it out of its misery, but it had ceased to be anything more than a line on a map long before then.

Finally, since I guess this is supposed to be a military history series, the Age of Mercenaries had come to an end. The appalling impact that vast clouds of mercenary rabble had on the landscape of Germany was apparent to everyone, and was a big part of the shift from mercenary to professional armies. From this point to the present day, the nations of Europe would build long-service standing armies that were more reliable, more controllable, and more efficient than the mercenary hordes of the Early Modern period. The new control all states now had over their internal affairs, also thanks to Westphalia, further propelled this change since they now had complete control over their own subjects. This made it easier to raise and fund national armies rather than hire mercenary bands.

Basically, no one wanted to do the Thirty Years’ War over again, so everyone went out of their way to destroy the conditions that had made it possible. The next time Europe experienced a cataclysm of this size and scale, it would be ideology, not religion, that propelled the powers to their doom.

There’s a reason the period 1914-1945 is sometimes called the Second Thirty Years’ War.

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