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4. Confessions
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C. Thirty Years War.

Almost from the beginning, the religious schism had promoted the formation of political-military alliances of Imperial princes and Imperial cities. While their forms resembled those of the traditional German leagues, their chief goal, defense of their faith, had been unknown since the Hussite Wars. In 1531, the Protestant estates formed the Schmalkaldic League, which lasted until its defeat by the emperor’s forces in 1547. In the 1600s, after a generation of strife had stoked confessional enmities in Europe, a series of internal political crises, chiefly over either an interpretation or an enforcement of the Religious Peace’s terms, began to undermine the Imperial convivencia. In 1608-09, just after the Ottoman peace, military alliances based on confessional solidarity began to reappear in the Empire. The Protestant Union of princes and Imperial cities formed in May 1608; eight months later the Catholic League formed under Bavarian leadership. This coincided, however, with the beginning of the Twelve Years Truce between the Spanish crown and the United Provinces of the Dutch rebels (1609-21).

Meanwhile, tensions were growing in the Habsburg lands between the Catholic sovereigns and their more or less strongly Protestant (in Bohemia also Hussite) nobles. Tensions simmered in Upper and Lower Austria, though the heyday of Protestant influence there had begun to decline from its peak. In the kingdom of Bohemia, however, the situation was coming into flux. In 1617, Emperor Matthias managed to have his heir, Ferdinand of Styria, elected to the royal thrones of Bohemia and Hungary, although the heir’s reputation for aggressive Catholic recovery made the Hussite and Protestant leaders either flatly opposed to or wary about the succession. When the new crown prince sent his commissioners to Prague to take charge of the regime in his absence, some Hussite nobles pitched them from a window of Prague Castle. This highly symbolic “defenestration,” which recapitulated a similar event during the fifteenth-century Hussite Wars, triggered the Bohemian revolt. It was followed by the deposition of Ferdinand (Matthias was still alive) and the election in his place of the Elector Palatine Frederick V (1596-1632), known for his brief reign as “the Winter King.”

Viewed as a German civil war, the Thirty Years War falls into three phases: first, the Catholic victories of 1618-29; second, the Swedish invasion and the Peace of Prague (1630-35) between the emperor and most of the Imperial estates; and, third, the military stalemate from the French invasion to the Peace of Westphalia (1635-48). During the war’s first decade, the Catholic/Imperial armies defeated the Protestant forces and occupied much of the German north (1618-29). The peak came in March of 1629, when Emperor Ferdinand II (r. 1619-37) published the Edict of Restitution. It required the Protestants to disgorge all the bishoprics, monasteries, and ecclesiastical lands they had secularized since 1552. Some lands did change hands, but the edict’s force depended on the Catholic armies’ fortunes in the field.

The Catholic victories, which seemed to presage a stronger Habsburg and Catholic monarchy, emboldened King Gustavus Adolphus (1594-1632) to land his Swedish army in Pomerania to the aid, he said, of the Protestant princes and peoples. His good fortune was dramatic but brief. In 1631, having beaten the Catholic armies at Breitenfeld in Saxony, the “Lion of the North” invaded the south to graze his troops on episcopal lands and the duchy of Bavaria. After he died in battle in the following year, peace negotiations began between the emperor and some Imperial estates, which led to a near-restoration of Imperial governance (Peace of Prague, 1635). This provoked a French invasion that shifted the center of military operations westward toward the Rhine.

One factor in the war of stalemate between 1635 and 1648 was the stiffening of confessional resentments. The most infamous event occurred in May 1631 at highly strategic Magdeburg, where the Catholic armies broke into the city, plundered it, and (intentionally or not) torched it. The surviving burghers – Magdeburg had housed 30,000 souls – fled the city to find only ruin and death. More than 250 newsletters spread news of this sack of a city and fueled Protestant anger and determination to repay the Catholics with “Magdeburg quarter,” that is, no mercy for survivors. Still, for the common people the worst challenge was not confessional struggle but the never-ending need of armies for supplies they could only rob from the farmers. While the notion of the Thirty Years War as a singular German catastrophe was formed only much later, the image of a murderous war of soldiers against peasants, punctuated by a few pitched battles, is realistic enough. The story received a realistic description from the Swabian cobbler Hans Heberle and a compelling literary dramatization in The Adventurous Simplicissimus (1668), a novel by the Hessian writer H. C. J. Grimmelshausen (1621-79). One can debate the latter author’s realism, but no one doubts that the war caused extreme destruction through plundering, famine, and disease. Two generations were required to make up for the losses in population, livestock, and tools, not to mention the losses in production and commerce.

The Peace of Westphalia, the end of hostilities, comprised two treaties signed on the same day between the emperor and his allies and the queen of Sweden and her allies at Osnabrück and between the emperor and his allies and the king of France and his allies at Münster. The most important articles for the German participants were those that restored the Imperial constitution and the Religious Peace. The Holy Roman Empire would continue in its old form as a monarchy of limited powers governed through collaboration with the German aristocracy. The Peace confirmed confessional parity – the Reformed confession was at last recognized – in Imperial collegial institutions; ownership of ecclesiastical lands and incomes was recognized as of possession on January 1, 1624; and the Imperial estates lost the right to force their subjects to choose between religious conformity and exile. Two dreams were buried in Westphalia, for the Empire became neither an absolutist Catholic monarchy nor a national Protestant one.

Thomas A. Brady Jr. and Ellen Yutzy Glebe

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