A Brief History of the Thirty Year’s War

The Thirty Year’s War represents another attempt at the compulsion of belief, this time in the lands that make up modern-day Germany. The war was far too long and far too involved even to list its major events [here]. However, it was crucial for several reasons. First, it was another step in the marriage of religion and violence. Second, it tended to strengthen certain state and religious alliances, while weakening others. Finally, its end brought about a solution that infused sacred power with the power of the ruler in a way that was foreign to the European mind prior to the sixteenth century.

The war stretched from 1618 until 1648, giving it its name. It began almost exactly one hundred years after Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, and that was not an accident. In October 1617, Protestants celebrated a grand Reformation jubilee. Catholics took offense, and the pope immediately ordered a “counter-jubilee.” The two sides became ever-more suspicious of each other and waited only for a match to strke the flame. The match was struck in Prague. In 1618, the new king of Bohemia was Ferdinand II, a devout Catholic. On his election in 1617, Protestants in Bohemia had worried about their religious freedoms, which had been granted in the first decade of the seventeenth century. When Ferdinand sent counselors to arbitrate a dispute over the ownership of two churches, the citizens of Prague reacted violently. They threw the counselors out of the window of Hradcany Castle, some seventy feet up. This event became known as the Defenestration of Prague. The two men lived; according to Catholics, the angels cushioned their fall, but Protestants said they landed in a pile of manure. Furious, Ferdinand, who would soon become Holy Roman Emperor, attacked.

The war did not end until 1648, with the Peace of Westphalia. In the thirty years of its duration, most of the nations of Europe became entangled in its web in one way or another. No one won. Germany and Bohemia were devastated. While the war seemed to be between Protestants and Catholics, it was also between the Habsburgs and their rivals. Thus, for a time during the war, France supported the Protestant cause, in order to weaken the Habsburgs.

The Peace of Westphalia brought the hostilities to a close. It changed the map of Europe, but that is a political matter, not a theological or religious topic. For religion, the Peace of Westphalia demanded that all parties accept the terms of the Peace of Augsburg of 1555, with the addition of Calvinism to the allowed religions of Lutheranism and Catholicism. The religion of any particular realm was again decided by the principle of following the religion of the ruler … That meant that the ruler of a region set the accepted religion for his subjects. As well, the right of emigration for those who could not accept their ruler’s religion was maintained, and private worship according to conscience was allowed.

From R. Ward Holder, “Crisis and Renewal: The Era of the Reformation”, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, ©2009, pgs 220-221.

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