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4. Confessions
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1. Witnesses and Families   |   2. Governance   |   3. The Reformation   |   4. Confessions

B. Neighbors and Enemies.

From the early days of the Protestant Reformation to the eve of the Thirty Years War, all of the German lands were engaged to one degree or another in the Empire’s confrontation with the Ottoman challenge. This young, powerful state had recently arisen on the ruins of the Byzantine Empire (1453) and the Mamluke Sultanate (1517), upon the conquest of which the Ottoman sultan became Caliph and temporal leader of orthodox Islam. Soon thereafter Sultan Süleyman I (r. 1520-66) – “the Magnificent” to the Christians, “the Lawgiver” to his own people – acceded to the throne. His destruction of the Hungarian kingdom in 1526 inaugurated eight decades of alternating war and truce, during which border raiding periodically gave way to major field campaigns (1526-47, 1593-1606) in Hungary.

The Germans saw “the Grand Turk” and his peoples in four guises. He was: ruler of a semi-exotic, complex civilization; the most powerful warrior of his age; a tyrant who enslaved and slaughtered Christians; and (in Lutheran eyes) a servant of the Antichrist – the pope’s evil twin – who had come to inaugurate the world’s Last Days. The popular woodcuts and pamphlets about the Ottomans mostly conveyed a sensational impression of them as exotic, fierce, and cruel. In 1582, however, a more detached perspective appeared (in Latin) in the well informed Turkish Letters of the Flemish nobleman Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (1521-92). Thirty years before, Busbecq had traveled to Istanbul as King (later Emperor) Ferdinand I’s ambassador; in 1562 he returned bearing an Imperial-Ottoman treaty of peace. The first excerpt from Ogier’s Letters includes an account of his arrival in the Ottoman capital and his assessment of their civilization (and his own). The second excerpt recounts his leave-taking and return to his own country. Together they reveal Ogier as an intelligent, learned, and acute observer of a civilization he assessed as in some ways superior to his own.

The “Long War” (1593-1606) between the Empire and the Ottomans confirmed the military stalemate in Hungary. At first, the war went well for the Imperial forces, who recovered the city of Esztergom/Gran, seat of the Catholic primate. Rudolph II’s position was seriously threatened, however, by a challenge from his brother, Matthias, and by opposition from Prince István Bocskay (1557-1606) of Transylvania. Matthias’s peace with Bocskay, and the Imperial army’s loss of the city of Pest completely forced Rudolph’s hand. On November 11, 1606, the Treaty of Zsitvatörök (Upper Hungary, now Slovakia) was signed in his name and that of Sultan Ahmed I (r. 1603-17). The two monarchs guaranteed the territorial status quo; the emperor was freed from paying tribute to the sultan, who for the first time recognized him as a sovereign of equal rank; and the Hungarian villagers and nobles gained tax privileges. The peace endured right through the Thirty Years War until 1663. An earlier resumption of hostilities, say, in the 1630s, might well have brought down the Habsburg dynasty.

For Imperial Jewry, once numbered among the “enemies of God,” the sixteenth century was a time of improvement in external life conditions. As the worst terrors of the past – accusations, lynching, and massacres – receded, they were replaced by an integration of the Jews into the webs of Imperial, territorial, and civic regulation. Martin Luther’s vicious anti-Judaism had little influence on this main tendency, which was both promoted and symbolized by the monarchs’ receptivity to Jewish petitions. In Charles V’s time, the most prominent Jewish representative was the Alsatian Josel von Rosheim (ca. 1480-1554), who acquired the novel title of “Commander of All Jewry in the German Nation.” From Charles’s coronation at Aachen in 1520 well into the 1540s, Josel brought, by his own account, requests and proposals concerning Jewish interests before the emperor. He defended the Jews against allegations of crimes, argued against expulsions of Jews as usurers, and condemned Luther as an enemy of the Jewish people. Under Charles’s successors, who tended to continue this Jewish policy, the treatment of Jews in the territorial states began to shift from repression to regulation. As the law of 1585 from Hesse-Darmstadt illustrates, the desire to integrate the Jews produced extensive codes of regulations which prohibited some activities but protected others. The chief tendency of these changes was to make Imperial Jews legal subjects, still burdened by discrimination, of course, but increasingly free from the repression of earlier times.

The integration of Jewry coincided with the rise of witch hunting. In the fifteenth century, this capital crime acquired its first real justification in the “diabolic theory,” according to which witches formed a kind of anti-church based on Devil worship and malevolent terror. In the 1580s, enthusiasm for ridding society of the witches exploded. It swept through the German lands, where approximately 30,000 persons (perhaps one-half of Europe’s total number of executions for witchcraft) were executed, more than two-thirds of them women. In everyday life, witch hunting took place in the small towns and villages, where neighbor accused neighbor, but periodically veritable waves of panic engulfed larger cities, where they provoked mass trials and executions that spared neither wealth nor rank. Small, weakly governed states were more vulnerable to such panics than strongly governed ones, politically fragmented regions more than consolidated ones, and Catholic ecclesiastical states more than dynastic states of whatever confession. Over time, jurists began to have doubts about the compatibility of prosecution for this crime with the norms of legal justice. These doubts surfaced in discussions of the Bavarian ordinance of 1611 against witchcraft, sorcery, and superstition, the most detailed law ever drafted on this topic.

The great wave of witch hunting that swept through some of the ecclesiastical states (Bamberg, Würzburg, Trier, and above all Cologne) during the 1620s and 1630s intensified skepticism about the compatibility of witchcraft prosecutions with the norms of justice. In 1631, the German Jesuit Friedrich von Spee (1591-1635) published (anonymously) his arguments against prosecuting those accused of witchcraft. In his view, the practice of interrogating under torture for lack of eyewitnesses to the crime almost guaranteed a conviction. Witch hunting, he noted, was a German peculiarity, practically unknown in the Catholic Mediterranean lands of Spain and Italy. Prosecutions of witches continued apace for one more generation, until the 1660s, and then began to decline. For eight decades, witchcraft had been the great crime in the German lands. Whereas the Ottoman threat subsided as suddenly as it had arisen, and whereas the Empire’s Jews went from being repressed to being tolerated (with discrimination), the pursuit of witches continued. Over the entire period from 1500 to 1650, about thirty witches died for every heretic executed.

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