Peter H. Wilson


On his book The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy

Cover Interview of April 23, 2010

The wide angle

It was not my intention to diverge so sharply from the accepted interpretation of the Thirty Years War.  My brief was to write an accessible account, updated to incorporate insights from more recent research and to consider questions which have only recently assumed importance in historical scholarship.

But having wrestled with the subject for nearly seven years, I can readily understand the temptation to fit the War into grand, generalized interpretations.  One of the most persistent and apparently persuasive of these is the belief that the War was a religious conflict with its roots in the Protestant Reformation of the early sixteenth century.

The Reformation shattered the medieval unity of religion and law. People nonetheless clung to the belief that truth and justice were singular, not plural, thereby denying dissenters any legitimacy.  These tensions were allegedly only papered over in the Empire by the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 which allowed most German princes to choose between Lutheranism and Catholicism according to the famous principle, “he who rules, decides the religion” (a phrase that isn’t in fact in the peace, but comes from a much later commentary on it).  Religious identities hardened as the generation born after the Reformation reached adulthood and influence.  The Empire supposedly polarized into two armed camps around the Protestant Union (1608) and the Catholic League (1609). General war followed the Defenestration of Prague when some Bohemian aristocrats threw two of the emperor’s representatives and their secretary out of the palace window in May 1618.  (All three survived, by the way, and the secretary, who is usually forgotten, was ennobled as “von Hohenfall,” or “of the high fall.”)

Unfortunately, this simple explanation does not hold up.  The Holy Roman Empire enjoyed 63 years of internal peace between 1555 and 1618—an era of tranquility in German history only matched in 2008 by the continuous peace since 1945.  France and the Netherlands descended into violent civil wars from the 1560s, but Germans preferred to argue rather than fight over their constitutional order. There were even signs that tensions were ebbing by 1618: the League had been disbanded while the Union was in a state of near collapse. Neither organization encompassed all their co-religionists, while the majority in the Empire hoped negotiation would resolve differences.

The War resulted from contingency and human error. A major factor was the underlying weakness of the Austrian Habsburg dynasty ruling both the Empire and the largest group of territories within it, including Bohemia.  This weakness obliged the dynasty to grant concessions to their nobles, most of whom had converted to Protestantism.  Tensions grew once the Habsburgs tried to stabilize their authority by making Catholicism a test for political loyalty.  Under pressure, a group of Bohemian Protestant aristocrats staged the Defenestration to force the more moderate majority to decide where their loyalties lay.

It was a colossal error. The Habsburgs had been constrained by their own sense of legality, only targeting Protestantism where it lacked firm legal foundation.  By taking up arms against the emperor, the Bohemians and their supporters in the rest of the Empire forfeited their rights under the constitution.  Viewing the War as a rebellion, the Habsburgs and their allies, like Bavaria, expropriated their opponents, wherever they had the opportunity.  Though most of this was reversed in the German lands, the redistribution of confiscated rebel land in the Habsburg monarchy constituted the largest property transfer in Central Europe prior to the Communist seizure of power in that region after 1945.

No party was in a position to fight in 1618 (another argument against inevitability).  All appealed for assistance, but few did so on religious grounds.  Instead, each party emphasized its constitutional rights, or “liberties” as they were known.  Foreign intervention was legitimated on these grounds, with each new belligerent justifying its involvement as upholding the “proper” interpretation of the imperial constitution. Each pursued its own interests.  Intermittent Spanish support for the emperor was motivated by the desire to pacify the Empire and allow Austria to assist Spain against its own Dutch rebels.  French intervention aimed to keep both Spain and Austria busy.  Denmark, Sweden and Transylvania all hoped to grab territory and enhance their own security.

Crucially, the religiously-motivated violence which occurred in France, Ireland and elsewhere was largely absent in Central Europe.  The War was undoubtedly vicious, even if it was not as destructive as once thought. However, atrocities such as the infamous sack of Magdeburg in 1631 all had their roots in the inadequacies of military organization, rather than sectarianism.

Far from seeking to inflame passions, clergy of all persuasions blamed their own flocks for the disaster, arguing the War had been sent by God to punish Germans for their sins.  This refrain was institutionalized in the subsequent official commemoration of the conflict, conveniently both absolving the political authorities of responsibility and justifying a post-war strengthening of the state as the best means to prevent such horrors reoccurring.