10 Things You Didn't Know About 30 Years' War

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Huh? The 30 Years’ War? This is a pretty random war to highlight, I admit, but it’s one that deserves a bit more scrutiny, if only to add some color to your week and small talk at your next cocktail party. Fought between numerous polities from 1618-1648, the 30 Years’ War is infamous for its high rate of civilian casualties and the devastation it wrought on the area that is now known as Germany.

Here are 10 facts about the 30 Years’ War you probably didn’t know:

1. Let’s get the big one out of the way: The 30 Years’ War was not a religious war. Most history textbooks, if they mention the 30 Years’ War at all, lump it in the category of one of the many “religious wars” to plague Europe in the early modern era. Conservatives, at least in the Anglo-American sphere, are okay with this narrative because it can play to a distinct and almost subtle anti-Catholic narrative. And Leftists like it because of their continued confusion between “secular government” and “secular society.” But make no mistake: the 30 Years’ War was all about power and money.

2. Take France for example. A Catholic state, Louis XIII and his foreign minister, Cardinal Richelieu, found themselves sandwiched between two major Catholic rivals - Spain and Austria - which also happened to be governed by the Hapsburg family (a hated rival of the French state). Paris ended up allying itself with the so-called Protestant factions in order to even its own playing field, even as it slaughtered thousands of French Protestants (Huguenots) in the name of Catholicism.

3. The Holy Roman Empire was a lot more robust than many people realize. Not only did this decentralized conglomerate of petty states survive the brutal 30 Years’ War, it lasted until 1806, almost 160 years after the 30 Years’ War came to an end. Germany the nation-state came to gradually replace the HRE, but here’s something to chew on: Were the two world wars of 1914 and 1939 any better than the continental conflicts the Holy Roman Empire took part in?

4. Mercenaries! Nationalism was simply not important at this point in time. Money and power reigned, as people were still unwilling to die for a country just because they were born in it. Kings, popes, princes, burghurs, and other would-be military leaders depended on the power of the purse to fight their wars. This made large-scale battles harder to fight, but it also meant that less discipline could be kept when cities fell to invading armies. The people who suffered most in the 30 Years’ War were not the aristocrats who hanged when their cities or armies were captured, but the folks who had to endure the plundering tactics of soldiers who cared not for glory or nation.

5. Sweden was once a major European power. Believe it or not folks, the Kingdom of Sweden was once a feared and well-respected member of the Great European Powers, and Stockholm had no qualms about picking fights with neighbors in order to gain power, prestige, and wealth. Today Sweden is the world’s paragon of neutrality, moderateness, free markets, and social security nets (and Swedes will be sure to tell you this if you ever find yourself drinking with them in a pub), but thanks to King Gustavus Adolphus’ decision to invade the Holy Roman Empire (ostensibly on the side of minor Protestant states), Europe plunged into another horrific war. Skaal!

6. The 30 Years’ War was a global war. One of the better ways to illustrate this is to point to the example of a Transylvanian prince, Gabriel Bethlen, who invited the Islamic Ottoman Empire into his lands so that Istanbul’s generals might have better access to Polish lands. In exchange for such generosity, the Ottomans recognized the sovereignty of Transylvania and gave the new state a discount when it came to paying annual tribute to the Sultan. (I could not find any information on whether Transylvania paid a lower tribute fee than Muslim states.)

7. Perhaps the second-worst off region in the world to be affected by the 30 Years’ War (after the HRE) was the island of Sri Lanka, which had hundreds of Buddhist and Hindu temples and libraries destroyed by warring, marauding, vengeful Portuguese and Dutch troops. Thousands of people were slaughtered as well. The Dutch and Portuguese had aligned themselves to rival kingdoms on the island, and when hostilities in Europe commenced, “East Indian” rivalries flared up and were essentially given a green light by the 30 Years’ War.

8. The Battle of Lützen, fought in November of 1632, was perhaps the bloodiest battle of the entire horrific conflict. Fought between Sweden and some of its allies based in the north of the Holy Roman Empire, and the legitimate Holy Roman Empire’s army, thousands of men perished, including Sweden’s beloved king, Gustavus Adolphus, whose armor was stolen off his dead body and brought to Vienna to be displayed as a trophy (Sweden got the armor back in 1920.) Despite losing its king, the battle was considered a victory for the Swedish state and its allies.

9. The 30 Years’ War laid the groundwork for the Peace of Westphalia, which contributed immensely to the world as we know it today. In the Peace, the Dutch Republic was recognized as independent from the Spanish crown for the first time, and most scholars consider this and other gestures found in the Peace to be the basis for the nation-state as we understand it today. Prior to the Peace of Westphalia (also known as the Peace of Exhaustion), sovereignty was gained or lost with money and power. The Peace of Westphalia showed statesmen how to gain sovereignty for their homelands through diplomacy and shrewd negotiation.

10. Speaking of the Dutch Republic, the 30 Years’ War essentially gifted the Dutch  their Golden Age (1650-1700). As most of Europe lay in ruins, its populations devastated and its polities impoverished, the Dutch were finally free of Spanish rule - de facto and de jure - and they took full advantage of their opportunities. There is plenty of scholarship on the Dutch Golden Age (my favorite is Simon Schama’s The Embarrassment of Riches), but one thing that may have slipped better minds is the comparison between the Dutch situation in 1648 and the American one in 1945.

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