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Useful Notes / Thirty Years' War

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Death rides a coal-black horse...

"First came the Greycoats to eat all my swine,
Next came the Bluecoats to make my sons fight,
Next came the Greencoats to make my wife whore,
Next came the Browncoats to burn down my home.
I have naught but my life, now come the Blackcoats to rob me of that."
Anonymous Poem from the Thirty Years War

Massive European war raging from 1618 to 1648 (although the French continued fighting the Spanish for a bit longer), involving, directly or indirectly, just about every European power in some fashion. It is usually considered to be the longest recorded continuous war (The Hundred Years War had a couple of interruptions, as did The Eighty Years' War), and in its time was one of the bloodiest wars recorded in history. It was mainly (though not exclusively) fought within the Holy Roman Empire. It was devastating to the Empire: Most estimates suggest one third of Germans died in the war. In fact, a survey of Germans in the 2010s rated the 30 Years War as worse than World War II.

Its start is usually fixed on the (third) Defenestration of Prague, an event in which a throng of rebellious Bohemian Protestants forced their way into Prague Castle and, after a symbolical trial, threw two Catholic Imperial governors and their secretary from a third-storey window. They survived badly bruised, their fall having been cushioned by either angels led by St. Mary (Catholic propaganda), a heap of horse manure (Protestant propaganda), or neither of the two, because it wasn't a particularly high window (modern historians).

The causes of the war are complex, and considering the numerous participants arguably unique to each one of them. The basic conflict involved tensions between Protestants and Catholics inside the Holy Roman Empire, which had been building up since The Protestant Reformation, tensions between the emperor and his princes (Protestant and Catholic), tensions between the Czechs and the Germans within The Empire, the old French-Habsburg rivalry, Danish-Swedish rivalry, the Spanish conflict with the Dutch, the Spanish conflict with the Portuguese (who succesfully revolted against Spanish rule with French encouragement/help), and Swedish designs on the Baltic.

All of these things flowed together to create a 30-year-long clusterfuck in which the sides were not always clearly marked, with certain factions frequently changing sides or essentially blackmailing their "allies" as the situation seemed to shift to their own advantage. The only major Western/Northern European areas this conflict didn't really touch were Britain and Ireland, whose island status let them mostly sit this one out and intervene only when they felt like it—though they eventually became too busy killing each other to intervene at all. The three decades of war are considered to be very important because of the military, social and economic development that it accelerated: Armies in this period became even larger than they had been during the Habsburg-Valois and Habsburg-Ottoman and Religious Wars of the 16th Century, and new tactics were tried out that would eventually become important.

The war itself is considered to have been exceptionally destructive, killing off as much as 1/3 of the population of the Holy Roman Empire — not through fighting, though, so much as causing artificial famines with the giant and marauding standing armies' need to continually steal hundreds of tons of food daily from the surrounding landscape to sustain themselves. Worse, the indecisive and back-and-forth nature of the war meant that the same areas (given their economic and/or strategic importance) were raided again and again and again (whereas others remained totally untouched), as the page quote attests. The primary causes of death during the war were thus beriberi, measles, tuberculosis, smallpox, and the common cold.

Some historians argue that, even compared to the wars of the twentieth century, it remains the most destructive war in European history in terms of its proportionate death toll and the degree of economic damage and social mayhem relative to the state of society before it. The unprecedented level of destruction stemmed from the way the war was fought continuously and entirely by very large mercenary armies operating without supply lines. Mercenaries were used so exclusively because the new, more effective gunpowder weapons (particularly the flintlock musket) in combination with the perfection of the pike-and-shot systemnote  had made the old knight-based model of warfare obsolete nearly two hundred years ago by this point, and yet nobody had figured out the modern model of professional armies yet.note  Missing a payment would mean your armies switched over to your enemy. The soldiers themselves were conscripted. An army would come to town and say, "every man here joins us or we hang you". The ones who joined had to loot farms and towns in order to survive since armies march on their stomachs. Often an entire town had to pool their gold, and bribe the invading army to go away (of course, sometimes they'd just take the money and loot anyway).

It didn't matter whose side the army was on; to the common peasant, they were the enemy, as a farmer who found an army spending the winter on his lands would find he didn't have enough to feed his family. There were also large groups of civilians (mostly women and children) that were kidnapped from looted towns, and forced to live as servants and prostitutes for the army. Many children were born in the army and never knew anything else when the war ended decades later. Many mercenaries would just desert the army and strike it out on their own as "Freebooters" which more often than not was just a nicer way of saying bandits and highwaymen, thus furthering the plight of the common peasant just trying to live their lives.

Add to that the religious dimension of the conflict. A particularly fanatical lord would often decide he didn't like that his neighboring lord was Catholic, or Protestant, or the wrong kind of Protestant, and order his mercenaries to go and slaughter his neighbor's peasants even if the majority of said peasants were the same religion as him, as this would destroy that lord's income. Sadly, that's just scratching the surface. Unsurprisingly, many of the greatest works of art depicting the horrors of war have their origin in this conflict, most famously The Miseries and Misfortunes of War by Jacques Callot.

In a grim Foreshadowing of the modern military-industrial complex, the latter half of the war became infamous for largely degrading into the various participants continuing to fight because they could not afford to stop: it was simply cheaper to keep paying your armies by looting the enemy's lands than paying the severance package. This was eventually solved by having The Emperor pay.

The war once and for all broke any pretense of the Holy Roman Empire being a unified state, permanently knocked Spain off of the top spot of Europe's greatest power, cemented France as the dominant power in Europe (at least on land),note  and propelled Sweden to the status of short-lived great power. It also made boots fashionable. It concluded with the Peace of Westphalia, two treaties (in Münster and Osnabrück) that involved the Spanish accepting Dutch independence, a blanket pardon for any crimes committed in the war, and some territorial changes; it's sometimes called the "Peace of Exhaustion". The key point, though, was the acceptance that a ruler could choose the religion of his state (the so-called cuius regio, eius religio—"whose realm, his religion" principle), but those who followed other Christian denominations (Calvinism was covered in this for the first time) could also do that with some restrictions. While religious conflict and persecution still occurred in Europe well into the 19th century, this pretty much wrapped up the major religious wars of Europe as it was no longer seen as practical to wage wars to enforce a specific sect of Christianity.

The war itself had extremely long-lasting effects, the most notable of which was the Westphalian theory of sovereignty, which is to say the idea that a state has territory, population, a government, and that foreigners do not (overtly) interfere in its affairs, leading directly to the modern concept of the nation-state.note 

Indeed, 'sovereignty' is the real meaning of cuius regio, eius religio: while religious affairs were in themselves important, they also served as a stand-in for the more general displeasure of the German princes at the constant interference of the Emperor and of rulers across Europe at the constant interference of The Pope (it's no coincidence that the Pope tends to drop out of European history textbooks sometime in the 17th century, reappearing only to crown Napoleon, play the spoiler in Italian unification, and do a deal with Mussolini). The Westphalian system continued unchallenged among Western powers until the 20th century, when a few theoreticians attempted to make modifications in response to the atrocities of World War II and the nasty business after the end of the Cold War (particularly The Yugoslav Wars). Nevertheless, the modern system of states is more or less Westphalian, and several states (particularly China and to a lesser extent Russia) still insist on it.

One of the things that make the war so maddeningly complicated is that participants tend to go off and fight separate battles whenever they get tired of the central conflict, such as the Danish-Swedish war of 1643–1645, and the back end of the war is mainly concurrent with the beginning of the English Civil War, which had similarly wide-ranging long-term effects (for entirely unrelated reasons). Since the mid-20th century, some historians have lumped the Thirty Years War and other major crises, such as the collapse of the Ming Dynasty and Russia's Time of Troubles, into a broader period of the global disaster known as the "General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century." While not all of these conflicts overlapped, they often shared broader macrohistorical causes, including a period of severe climate change and economic mismanagement.

Those wishing to explore this time period more thoroughly in a comprehensive and understandable manner might want to check out C. V. Wedgwood's The Thirty Year's War, or Peter H. Wilson's The Thirty Years War: Europe's Tragedy.

Works set in the Thirty Year's War include:

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  • Der Abenteuerliche Simplicissimus, a German satirical/picaresque novel (1668; four sequels) about a lad growing up in the middle of the war and conscripted into a military career; probably partially based on first-hand experiences of its author, Hans Jakob von Grimmelshausen. The first modern novel in the German language, it lampshades the endlessness and pointlessness of the war.
  • The poetry of Andreas Gryphius (1616-64), a famous German poet of the Baroque period, often reflects the author's first-hand experience of the Thirty Years War. Gryphius' poems are still standard School Study Media in German schools, making him the oldest German author who is invariably covered in German class.
  • The 1632 series by Eric Flint has a 20th century West Virginia coal mining town dropped into the middle of the conflict, in the middle of the Germanies.
    • The whole series can be seen as a Roaring Rampage of Revenge against the perpetrators of the war. Germany has been transformed from a giant free-for-all zone into Europe's dominant superpower, with the rebuilt Magdeburg as its capital and industrial center. And after the brief civil war in 1636, the commoners of Germany are without question the dominant faction. Those peasants who got continually robbed, raped, and murdered by rampaging mercenary armies? Yeah, they now have the most advanced army in Europe.
  • Välskärin kertomukset (The Surgeon's Tale) by Zacharias Topelius.
  • The War Hound and the World's Pain by Michael Moorcock.
  • German 1910 historical novel Der Wehrwolf (The Warwolf) by Hermann Löns, a revenge-fantasy about North-German peasants who, after having been plundered and brutalized repeatedly by occupying troops, become guerrillas who routinely ambush and massacre foraging soldiers. The book is notorious for being a favorite of the Nazis; it directly inspired the terrorist Werwolf guerrillas at the end of World War II. From the other wiki:
    "The name was chosen after the title of Hermann Löns' novel, Der Wehrwolf (1910). Set in the Celle region, Lower Saxony, during the Thirty Years' War (1618-48), the novel concerns a peasant, Harm Wulf, who after his family is killed by marauding soldiers, organises his neighbours into a militia who pursue the soldiers mercilessly and execute any they capture, referring to themselves as Wehrwölfe ("Defense-wolves"). Löns said that the title was a dual reference to the fact that the peasants put up a fight (sich wehren) and to the protagonist's surname of Wulf, but it also had obvious connotations with the word Werwölfe in that Wulf's men came to enjoy killing. While not himself a Nazi (he died in 1914), Löns' work was popular with the German far right, and the Nazis celebrated his work. Indeed, Celle's local newspaper began serialising Der Wehrwolf in January 1945."
  • Wallenstein (1971), a non-fiction biography of Albrecht von Waldstein by historian Golo Mann, son of novelist Thomas Mann.
  • Wallenstein (1920), German historical novel by Alfred Döblin, focusing on Ferdinand II and Wallenstein, and drawing many implicit parallels to World War I.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In an episode of 30 Rock, Jack mentions the Defenestration of Prague when trying to explain to Liz who the Hapsburgs are.

  • Rex Regi Rebellis by the Finnish band Turisas.
  • The first half of the Sabaton album Carolus Rex covers this from Sweden's perspective, emphasizing the horrors of the war. "A Lifetime of War" in particular covers it in two different ways: the English version of the song spends the first verse discussing the causes of the war (royal ambitions disguised by religious zealotry) before moving into an entire song of "What the Hell, Europe?" The Swedish version focuses on the experiences of a common soldier fighting the war.

    Tabletop Games 

    Theatre & Opera 

    Video Games 
  • Cossacks: Parts of this war are covered in the French campaign of European Wars. A DLC pack for Back to War (the second expansion pack to European Wars) has a campaign allowing the player to play as the French in the war. In addition, there are several multiplayer scenarios dramatising key battles in this conflict.
  • Europa Universalis includes this era and has a bookmark to start in the Thirty Years' War. The fourth installment's Art of War DLC has the religious leagues mechanic that simulates the conditions that lead to the war and inevitably causes it to fire off at some point after 1550 in every playthrough.
  • The standalone Expansion "With Fire and Sword" for Mount & Blade picks up right after the war just to the East of it, and its effects echo heavily.
  • Mount & Blade: Warband mod Europe in Flames (1618 A.D.) bsasically uses the Mount & Blade open-world gameplay to depict the Thirty Years War, with historical factions and characters, a map of Central Europe, and a starting date set in 1618. The same modder created a similar mod named Europe in Flames: XVII Century Wars, still set in the era but with more factions and a wider map (thus, not limited to the strict theater of the historical Thirty Years War).