As some- or maybe all-of you may know, this novel I’m working on is loosely based upon the Thirty Years War, which engulfed Central Europe between 1618 and 1648. Because it’s not a super-popular topic among English-speaking readers, I thought I’d provide some general background information about the whole mess. Because it really was about the hugest mess there ever was, in my less-than-scholarly opinion.
Obviously, there is way too much to cover in one post. In most cases, it’s too much for one book, whether it’s history or fiction. So today, I’ll start by outlining the conflict in general. In future posts, I’ll discuss some of the components and the key players in greater detail.
For most Europeans who study history, the Thirty Years War is a big deal. If you’re American, the interest in the Civil War is pretty equivalent, reenactors and all.
Nearly all of the countries of Europe were involved at some point, and the area comprising modern-day Germany and Austria, as well as parts of The Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, France and the Czech Republic were completely devastated. As Peter Wilson puts it:
Nonetheless, even in the twenty-first century, German authors could assert that ‘never before and also never since, not even during the horrors of the bombing during the Second World War, was the land so devastated and the people so tortured’ as between 1618 and 1648 (Europe’s Tragedy: A New History of the Thirty Years War, pg. 6)
However, if you think that such a horrible and significant conflict would have clearly defined reasons for starting, think again.There was more than one cause, and different countries got involved for different reasons.
Some of those reasons went back nearly a hundred years, to the beginning of the Protestant Reformation (More about that in a future post). But it was much more than just a religious conflict. Europe was also in the midst of political, military and economic convulsions that eventually played out in this conflict.
The fun began in Bohemia, a kingdom within the Habsburg Empire, that revolted when a new Habsburg emperor, Ferdinand II, came to power. The Bohemian nobility was largely Lutheran, and since Ferdinand was known for his hard-core Roman Catholicism, they feared for their religious freedom.
The Bohemians threw out (literally, out the window) the Emperor’s representatives in Prague and proceeded to elect their own king, Frederick V, a German prince, who was also, confusingly, a Calvinist. Even more confusingly, his wife was the daughter of James I of England, who was not Catholic, but also neither Lutheran nor Calvinist.
As it turned out, James was not the useful ally his son-in-law had hoped for, and initial support from other German Protestant leaders was also virtually non-existent. It seemed that no one except for the rebels actually wanted a war.
Before long, Frederick and the Bohemians were soundly defeated, and that should have been the end of it, except it wasn’t. The fighting continued somewhat sporadically until Denmark got involved in 1625, for confusing reasons I still don’t understand. Finally defeated in 1629, Denmark went home, and Sweden invaded Germany in 1630.
The Swedes had a spectacular king in Gustavus Adolphus, and Germany would probably be Sweden today if he hadn’t inconveniently (for the Swedes) died in battle. Still Sweden carried on for three years after their king’s death,without making much progress. It was time to ask for help from France.
Even though the French king and his henchman, Cardinal Richelieu (of Three Musketeers fame) were Catholic, confusingly, France came in on the side of the Protestants. But that’s also a story for another day.
The whole thing finally got wrapped up via the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 because all parties were exhausted and/or dead. Except for the French and Spanish, who kept at it for another ten years or so.
As you’ll soon find out, my story is going to compact the chronology- I don’t want to take thirty years to tell it. I’m looking to capture the spirit, rather than the letter, as it were. You can thank me now, because this gross oversimplification is an act of mercy, as any of you who’ve read Wilson’s tome (linked above) can attest.