Germany Table of Contents
The Thirty Years' War resulted from a local rebellion, but the admixture of religion transformed it into a European conflict that lasted for more than a generation and devastated Germany. In 1618 Bohemian nobles opposed the decision of Emperor Matthias (r. 1608-19) to designate his Catholic cousin Ferdinand king of Bohemia. Instead, the nobles elected Frederick of the Palatinate, a German Calvinist, to be their king. In 1620, in an attempt to wrest control from the nobles, imperial armies and the Catholic League under General Johann von Tilly defeated the Protestant Bohemians at the Battle of White Mountain near Prague. The Protestant princes, alarmed by the strength of the Catholic League and the possibility of Roman Catholic supremacy in Europe, decided to renew their struggle against Emperor Matthias. They were aided by France, which, although Roman Catholic, was opposed to the increasing power of the Habsburgs, the dynastic family to which Matthias and Ferdinand belonged. Despite French aid, by the late 1620s imperial armies of Emperor Ferdinand II (r. 1619-37) and the Catholic League, under the supreme command of General Albrecht von Wallenstein, had defeated the Protestants and secured a foothold in northern Germany.
In his time of triumph, Ferdinand overreached himself by publishing in 1629 the Edict of Restitution, which required that all properties of the Roman Catholic Church taken since 1552 be returned to their original owners. The edict renewed Protestant resistance. Catholic powers also began to oppose Ferdinand because they feared he was becoming too powerful. Invading armies from Sweden, secretly supported by Catholic France, marched deep into Germany, winning numerous victories. The Catholic general Tilly and Sweden's Protestant king, Gustavus Adolphus, were killed in separate battles. Wallenstein was assassinated on Emperor Ferdinand's orders because he feared his general was becoming too powerful. After the triumph of the Spanish army over Swedish forces at the Battle of Nördlingen in 1634, a truce was arranged between the emperor and some of the German princes under the Treaty of Prague. France then invaded Germany, not for religious reasons but because the House of Bourbon, the dynastic family of several French and Spanish monarchs, wished to ensure that the House of Habsburg did not become too powerful. This invasion is illustrative of the French axiom that Germany must always remain divided into small, easily manipulated states. (Indeed, preventing a united Germany remained an objective of French foreign policy even late in the twentieth century.) Because of French participation, the war continued until the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648.
The Peace of Westphalia largely settled German affairs for the next century and a half. It ended religious conflicts between the states and included official recognition of Calvinism. Its signatories altered the boundaries of the empire by recognizing that Switzerland and the Netherlands had become sovereign states outside the empire. Portions of Alsace and Lorraine went to France. Sweden received some territory in northern Germany, which in the long run it could not retain. Brandenburg became stronger, as did Saxony and Bavaria. In addition, states within the empire acquired greater independence with the right to have their own foreign policies and form alliances, even with states outside the empire. As a result of these changes, the Holy Roman Empire lost much of what remained of its power and would never again be a significant actor on the international stage. The Habsburgs would continue to be crowned emperors, but their strength would derive from their own holdings, not from leadership of the empire. Germany was less united in 1648 than in 1618, and German particularism had been strengthened once again.
The Thirty Years' War had a devastating effect on the German people. Historians have usually estimated that between one-fourth and one-third of the population perished from direct military causes or from illness and starvation related to the war. Some regions were affected much more than others. For example, an estimated three-quarters of Württemberg's population died between 1634 and 1639. Overall losses were serious enough that historians believe that it took a century after the Thirty Years' War for Germany's population to reach the level of 1618.
Germany's economy was also severely disrupted by the ravages of the Thirty Years' War. The war exacerbated the economic decline that had begun in the second half of the sixteenth century as the European economy shifted westward to the Atlantic states--Spain, France, England, and the Low Countries. The shift in trade meant that Germany was no longer located at the center of European commerce but on its fringes. The thriving economies of many German towns in the late Middle Ages and first half of the sixteenth century gradually dried up, and Germany as a whole entered a long period of economic stagnation that ended only in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Data as of August 1995
Germany Table of Contents