European History Pt. 7 — Thirty Years’ War (background)

Yes, the apostrophe is after the “s” in “years.”

We’ve looked at some of the setup to the 30 years war (here), and though the book I’m reading A History of the Modern World (the beginning of this history series is here) does a really great job with the factors leading up to it, it can only do so much. There’s just so much history, animosity, and changes that lead to one of the defining conflicts of modern European history — The Thirty Years’ War.

This war is so complex that I’m going to tackle it in stages. Today I’m just doing background.

The background is that the German protestants became kind of ignorant and insular after their history-altering opposition to the Catholic church. There were more witchcraft burnings in Germany that in other places, which is one clue to the superstition that still gripped the area. German scholars weren’t reading internationally (is this because Luther translated the bible into German and so encouraged a kind of linguistic parochialism?)

Economically, trade had moved away from say, the Rhine, and toward the Atlantic. Furthermore, the Dutch controlled the mouth of the Rhine to serve their own interests, altering the commerce downstream.

In any case, Germany would be the site of a great conflagration.

The spark came in 1608 when the Elector Palatine (EP) became Calvinist. This is crucial because the EP is one of the people who elects the Holy Roman Emperor. Naturally, the protestants wanted to defend this gain in electoral power, and so the Dutch and the English, along with the ever-duplicitous French, formed a union in support. The Catholics, not to be outdone, formed a German Catholic union with the states of Bavaria. The Austrian Habsburgs (remember the Habsburg split into a Spanish and an Austrian/German line after Charles V retired to a monastery in 1556). Wanted German to be Catholic and so they joined that side. France opposed the Habsburg power and so defended protestantism as a way to unsettle the Habsburgs. Spain wanted to attack the Netherlands again and so allied themselves with the Catholic powers.

Complexity results from the fact that many conflicts were fought at once in the 30 years’ war. The war was an international “proxy” conflict of Catholicism and Protestantism, but it was also a civil war fought over centralization with the German princely states. There were also opportunists of all types who joined at one point or another.

My book conveniently divides the war into 4 phases. I’ll go into these next time.


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