Germany: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

The Thirty Years' War

The two Emperors who followed Charles V did not harass the Protestants in any way. His brother, Ferdinand I (1556—1564) strictly kept to the treaties Charles had made, and did his utmost to restore order to Germany. Ferdinand's son, Maximilian II (1564—1576), was a good friend to his Protestant subjects, and did his utmost to keep the peace between Lutherans and Catholics. In his reign the Protestants became divided against each other: they fell into two parties, Lutherans and Calvinists. The Calvinists were followers of John Calvin, a Reformer whose teachings had spread through Switzerland, France, and the Netherlands, and, owing to differences of doctrine, there was the greatest bitterness between the two Protestant bodies.

The excellent Maximilian II was followed by a weak and foolish son, Rudolf II (1576—1612). Rudolf persecuted the Protestants, and ruled so badly that the powerful state of Bohemia rose against him and threw off his rule, his brother Matthias becoming King of Bohemia. The Protestants felt that they stood in great danger and, in 1608, they formed an alliance called the Union. In the next year the Catholics banded together under the name of the Holy League, and from that time the two great parties slowly moved towards a dreadful struggle.

In 1612 Rudolf died and his brother was chosen Emperor. Matthias being now called upon to rule the Empire, he handed over Bohemia to his nephew, the Archduke Ferdinand. The Protestants of Bohemia were very uneasy at this change of rulers, for they knew that Ferdinand was a rigid Catholic and no friend to them. Ferdinand soon showed his feelings by ordering that Protestant churches should be pulled down, and by refusing to listen to any protests on the part of Protestants who had complaints to make.

The proud and fiery Bohemians were filled with anger at this treatment, and the province was ripe for revolt when an act of violence brought about a rupture. A meeting was held in May 1618 at the Palace in Prague: here the Protestant leaders met the governors who ruled for Ferdinand and made anew their complaints of unjust treatment. A dispute arose, and two of the Catholic governors, who were noted for their harshness and injustice, were seized and hurled bodily through a window. From that moment may be dated the Thirty Years' War, a war which was to drag Germany to the lowest depths of misery and suffering.

The Protestants and the Catholics now gathered their forces, and the latter marched into Bohemia in August 1618, only to suffer a defeat. The next March the old Emperor Matthias died and Ferdinand himself was elected Emperor, so that the Protestants knew they had no mercy to expect. The Emperor's army was commanded by a famous soldier, General Tilly, who led the Catholic troops of the League to a great victory at Prague in 1620. This victory crushed Bohemia. The leaders who had risen against Ferdinand were put to death or imprisoned, all Protestant churches were shut up or handed over to the Catholics, the Protestant clergy were slain or banished, and the people were forced to rejoin the Church of Rome or leave the country.

The scene of war now changed to the banks of the Rhine in the province known as the Palatinate. Here the Protestants gained a victory over Tilly in 1622. But the victors were too careless. They divided their forces, and Tilly, rallying his troops anew, fell suddenly on the two scattered foes, and defeated each body in turn in two fierce battles. He was now the master of the Palatinate and he swept it with fire and sword, laying towns and villages in ashes and treating the Protestants, whom he hated, with most savage cruelty.

The Elector of the Palatinate had married the daughter of James I of England, and he had now been driven out of his electorate and outlawed by the Emperor. An alliance was formed to assist him, England, Holland, Denmark, and the Protestant states of North Germany joining to assail Ferdinand. But James I did little for his son-in-law, and Denmark was the only land to give the Protestants any real help.

The Emperor felt uneasy at the prospect of facing a number of enemies and called to his aid Wallenstein, Duke of Friedland, one of the greatest commanders of the day. Wallenstein had gained renown and wealth in the early days of the war in Bohemia, and he came to the aid of Ferdinand at the head of 50,000 men, adventurers from all parts of Europe, who served under his banner in the hope of plunder. In 1625 Wallenstein marched into Saxony and, after overthrowing a Protestant army, made himself master of the province.

The King of Denmark was defeated by Tilly in 1628, and then the two great captains joined their forces and marched into Denmark, and overran it from end to end; at the same time Wallenstein made himself master of the towns along the Baltic coast, and by 1629 the Emperor Ferdinand stood in a position of commanding power in all parts of Germany. He now issued decrees that all Catholic property which had fallen into the hands of Protestants should be restored, that the Protestant form of worship should be suppressed, and that all great Church offices should be filled by Catholic clergy.

The next year, however, saw a great champion of the Protestant cause enter Germany to fight on behalf of his German brethren. This was Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden, the "Lion of the North." In 1630 Gustavus landed in Germany with a small army and soon drove away all the Emperor's troops near at hand. As he moved through the country the people gazed upon his progress with wonder. They had fled before the fierce troops of Tilly, or the still more savage adventurers who followed Wallenstein. From this army there was no need to fly. Gustavus Adolphus was the greatest general of his age, and kept his men in perfect order. He allowed no noise or riot in the camp, and morning and evening a religious service was held. He permitted no disorder on the march, and the peasants whose homes had been burned and their barns plundered by the troops of the Emperor, flocked to hail him as their saviour and liberator.

At the first appearance of the small Swedish army the Emperor Ferdinand and his friends in Vienna had been scornful. "We have got another little enemy on hand," jeered Ferdinand, and his courtiers laughed at Gustavus and called him the "Snow King," who would melt away as he came towards the warm south. Before the winter was over their laughter died away. Gustavus proved a "Snow King" in truth, but not in the sense his enemies had meant. It had been the custom of the Emperor's troops to go into winter quarters, and take the field again in the spring, when the fine weather returned. Not so Gustavus. He and his hardy Swedes laughed at frost and snow, and marched and fought in midwinter as gaily as in summer warmth, and during the cold season he made immense progress, seizing town after town and driving the Emperor's men before him.

At first the Protestant princes were slow to join forces with Gustavus. This was because they dreaded the vengeance of Ferdinand, and feared to be assailed by Tilly, who was now besieging the important town of Magdeburg, in Saxony. Magdeburg had refused to obey the Emperor's decree against the Protestant form of worship, and the cruel Tilly was resolved to seize the town and give it up to his soldiers to sack. The citizens made a splendid defence and held Tilly out for six months. But, unluckily, before Gustavus could come to their aid, the town was seized by a sudden assault in May 1631. A terrible scene of butchery and plunder followed. The ferocious troops slew all before them, men, women, and children, and their savage old general made no attempt to check them. Fire and pillage laid the town in ruins, and the fate of Magdeburg sent a thrill of horror through the whole land.

But the Lion of the North was already preparing to spring upon Tilly. Gustavus, with a number of Protestant princes who had at last joined him, marched upon the Emperor's army, and faced it at Leipzig in September 1631. He won a complete victory. Tilly was now seventy-two years of age. He had fought many battles, yet had never been wounded. At Leipzig he had to fly, his body pierced by three musket balls. His troops fell in great numbers, and when they broke and ran, the peasantry avenged their wrongs on the soldiery who had ill-treated them by slaying the fugitives in hundreds.

Gustavus marched through Germany in triumph and was received everywhere with great joy. But Tilly gathered another army and again he and Gustavus met at Rain, on the Lech. In this battle Tilly received a mortal wound and died in a few days. His death left the Emperor without a great commander, for Wallenstein had been dismissed: he had offended the Catholic princes of the League by his overbearing conduct, and Ferdinand had been forced to part with him.

The Emperor now turned to Wallenstein and asked his assistance: the latter would only give it on his own terms, to which Ferdinand was compelled to agree. Wallenstein took the field and, in November 1632, found himself face to face with the great Gustavus Adolphus on the plain of Lutzen. Here a great battle was fought, and the Swedes won a victory for which they paid a terrible price. For their mighty leader and king was killed almost as soon as the battle began, and his body was found beneath a heap of slain.

The death of the great Protestant hero marked a dreadful change in the course of the Thirty Years' War. The destruction and misery had been great before his death: it became far worse afterwards. Instead of a religious war pure and simple it became a war in which every leader fought for his own hand, every prince seeking to extend his own territories, every victorious army seizing the chance to despoil the unhappy people among whom they fought. When the firm hand of Gustavus was withdrawn, the Swedes became as wild and lawless as the rest, and poor, bleeding Germany was torn and devastated by the armies which marched across her hills and plains, the path of every destroying horde being marked by blazing towns and villages, and heaps of slaughtered country folk.

Wallenstein did not live long after the death of his famous opponent. The great captain of fortune thought to better himself by changing sides and fighting against the Emperor. But before he could do this his plans were found out, and he was murdered by a party of the Emperor's men in 1634. The Emperor's son, whose name also was Ferdinand, became commander of the Imperial armies and the war went on.

The Emperor died in 1637, leaving a name stained with blood. Few men have acted more cruelly than he. In order to force his Protestant subjects to profess the same form of religion as himself, he sent fire and sword through his native land, causing the death of millions of human beings, and laying waste vast stretches of fruitful country. He was followed by his son, Ferdinand III (1637-1657), and the war dragged on. For another eleven years Swedes, French, and Germans marched and counter-marched, fought, beleaguered towns, and carried the worst horrors of war to every corner of the land. At last the struggle ended in 1648: it ended in Prague, where it had begun, and it was closed by the Peace of Westphalia.



The war had been destructive to Germany: the peace was no less harmful. By its provisions France seized a portion of the Empire on the west, Sweden a portion on the north, Switzerland was separated from Germany, and the Netherlands became independent of Spain. But one of the most dangerous provisions was that which made every German prince or princelet an independent ruler in his own kingdom, and allowed him to form alliances with other states or with foreign powers. This tended to split up the Empire into a multitude of small isolated states, often warring with each other, rarely moved by the spirit of national unity.

National unity, indeed, had been almost destroyed by the frightful effects of the Thirty Year's War. Wealth and prosperity had fled. Arts and commerce seemed to be driven from the land. Prosperous towns, busy villages, homesteads, and cottages had become heaps of ruins. There were great numbers of small towns and hamlets of which barely the memory was left: the names were in the records, but no man lived who could point out where they had stood. In a great plain which had been filled with cornfields and orchards, with meadows and vineyards, the traveller could journey for many miles and see not a single house, not a tilled field, not a fruit-tree, not a living being, either human or animal. The once smiling scene was a stretch of fire-blackened desolation. And such things were to be seen not in one region only, but throughout all Germany. Never has that great country known so terrible a state of affairs as she had to face at the end of the Thirty Years' War.