The great struggle known as the “Thirty Years’ War,” which desolated Germany, and finally settled the limits of Protestantism and Catholicism on the continent of Europe, began about 1618 and ended with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. The war was at first religious in its objects, as a struggle of Catholics against Protestants concerning the spiritual ascendency of the Church of Rome, but it afterward lost its religious character, and became a struggle of various nations Calvinistic, Lutheran, and Protestant banded against the House of Austria, and combating the temporal ascendency of that power. The war became a war for the equilibrium of Europe, one in which community of political interest was far more regarded than community of religious belief. The war of sects was succeeded by the war of States, and since the middle of the Seventeenth Century there has been no religious war between Catholics and Protestants as such.
Germany had been distracted ever since the Reformation by the mutual jealousy of Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists. The fire which had long been smouldering burst out into a flame in Bohemia, where the Protestant doctrines had made much progress and received great con-cessions from the Emperor Rudolph II in 1609. These were withdrawn by the Emperor Matthias in 1614, and in 1618 the Protestants in Prague offered violence to certain imperial councilors, and caused the first part of the great struggle that known as the Bohemian War. The Protestants in Bohemia revolted; Matthias died in 1619, and Ferdinand II, who was a rigid Catholic, succeeded, and refused all toleration to the Protestants. When Frederick, Elector Palatine, who was married to Elizabeth, daughter of James I, of England, a Protestant prince, was made King of Bohemia by the rebels, the Catholic troops of Germany marched against him, and in November, 1620, gained the victory of the Weissenberg, or White Mountain, near Prague, which drove Frederick from his throne, put an end to the Bohemian rebellion, and crushed the Protestant cause in that quarter. Frederick’s own dominions on the Rhine the Palatinate were conquered in 1621-1622 by Spanish and Bavarian troops under the famous Count Tilly (a pupil of Alva’s in the art of war), and the Emperor Ferdinand II was triumphant by 1623. Ferdinand’s intolerance toward the Protestants caused help to be supplied from Holland, and the Lutheran King Christian IV, of Denmark, plunged into the fight, partly from religious zeal and partly in hope of gaining territory. The celebrated Wallenstein, Duke of Friedland, whose history is told in an article in the volume entitled “Great Warriors,” now appeared on the scene as the Emperor’s general, and headed the forces of the Catholic League, in coöperation with Tilly, in 1625. In 1626 Wallenstein defeated the Protestant General, Count Mansfield, at Dessau, in the center of Germany, north of Leipsic, and Tilly drove back Christian, of Denmark, to his own dominions. Holstein, Schleswig, Jutland, Pomerania, and Brandenburg were overrun by the imperial troops, and Ferdinand and Catholicism were supreme in Germany to the very shores of the Baltic. In 1628 they received a check at Stralsund, in northwest of Pomerania, opposite the island of Rugen, which Wallenstein besieged with furious efforts for ten weeks, being at last forced to retreat with great loss. In 1629 Christian, of Denmark, retired from the struggle, receiving back his devastated territories, and undertaking to meddle no more in German affairs. Ferdinand issued an edict which roused the Protestants once more against him. He required the restitution to the Catholics of all the church lands and other property that had been acquired by the Protestants since the religious peace of Passau in 1552. This was to deprive them of many bishoprics and of almost all the abbeys and other ecclesiastical foundations in North Germany; the Protestants refused to obey the edict, and both sides prepared again for war. Wallenstein was deprived of his command, and Tilly became head of the imperial forces. In 1631 Tilly captured the Protestant town of Magdeburg, and the sack and destruction of the place followed, forming one of the most dreadful episodes of this fratricidal war.
The Protestant hero of the struggle had already come forth to do battle for his cause. In June, 163o, Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden, landed with an army on the coast of Pomerania, and was hailed by the Protestant inhabitants of Germany as a deliverer from Ferdinand, and as a champion of their creed against the Catholics. This great man, the best King who ever reigned in Sweden, was a grandson of Gustavus Vasa, who was the author of Swedish independence. After an excellent training in classical and other studies, and in the military art, he commanded the Swedish army in a war against Denmark at the age of seventeen. His chancellor and chief minister was the famous Oxenstiern, one of the greatest of European statesmen. Gustavus had warred with success against Russia and Poland before his Protestant sympathies, not unmixed with a desire to extend Swedish influence and territory on the southern shore of the Baltic, called him into the Thirty Years’ War. As a commander he was beloved by his troops, maintained admirable discipline, improved the equipment of soldiers, showed great skill, and acquired enduring renown by his brief and brilliant career. The army which the Swedish King took with him was small about 13,000 men but of the highest quality; he was aided with supplies of money by the French minister Richelieu, who was jealous of the power of the House of Austria, and thousands of Scotch and English volunteers went over to join his standard. In September, 1631, Gustavus completely defeated Tilly at the battle of Breitenfeld, near Leipsic, and the Swedes advanced to the Rhine and the Main. In April, 1632, Gustavus again defeated Tilly, who was mortally wounded-at the battle of the Lech, a tributary of the Danube, in Bavaria, occupied Augsburg, and advanced to Munich. The Emperor Ferdinand had called Wallenstein again to his aid, and that General raised a new army. The caution of this skillful leader at first foiled Gustavus, who made unsuccessful attacks on his strong position near Nuremberg, and then retired into Saxony, followed by Wallenstein. In November, 1632, was fought the great battle of Lützen, in which the Swedes, under Gustavus Adolphus, with the troops of Bernard, Duke of Saxe-Weimar, stormed Wallenstein’s intrenchments and gained a decided victory, but at the cost of the Swedish King’s life an irreparable loss to the Protestant cause in the war.
The war was continued by the Swedish Chancellor Oxenstiern, acting for the Queen of Sweden, a mere child, whose generals were Bernard, of Weimar, and the Swedish Commander Horn. In 1634 Wallenstein was murdered by a conspiracy of his officers, and in the same year the imperial troops completely defeated Bernard at Nördlingen, in the west of Bavaria. The Elector of Saxony and some other German princes now retired from cooperation with the Swedes, and made separate peaces, in 1635, with the Emperor, who withdrew, in effect, his edict about restitution of property to the Catholic Church. The Thirty Years’ War now assumed a new phase, as a contest of France and Sweden, directed by the able statesmen Richelieu and Oxenstiern, against Austria. Bernard, of Weimar, and the Swedish Generals Baner, Torstenson, and Wrangel, gained successes over the imperial forces, and the French armies fought with varied fortune in the west of Germany and on the Rhine. The Emperor Ferdinand II had died in 1637, and had been succeeded by his son, Ferdinand III; Richelieu died in 1642, and his policy was continued by Cardinal Mazarin. The great French Generals Turenne and Condé had begun to act with decided effect, when the Emperor at last yielded, and the long struggle ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.
The Treaty of Westphalia established a new political system in Europe. The religious and political condition of Germany were settled in a way that put Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists on a level as to the free exercise of their religion, and that frustrated the consolidation of the German Empire. Thus the policy of France and Sweden was triumphant. Richelieu, on behalf of France, had aimed at preventing the union of German States into one powerful whole; Sweden had aimed at obtaining equality of rights for the Protestants and acquiring territory in Germany for herself; both had succeeded. The different princes and States of the Empire had now the recognized right of making war and alliances among themselves or with foreigners. Germany was, in fact, dismembered. The bishoprics of Metz, Toul, and Verdun, with Alsace, and ten imperial cities were now formally ceded to France; Sweden received part of Pomerania, the bishopric of Bremen, and other territory; the total loss to Germany was 40,000 square miles. France acquired great influence in German affairs, and several German princes formed alliances with her. By the Treaty of Westphalia, too, the independence of Holland and of Switzerland was formally acknowledged. The general result was German disunion and weakness, French strength and aggrandizement, destined to have important influence on the future history of Europe. For ages after this time Germany remained “a mere lax confederation of petty despot-isms and oligarchies, with hardly any national feelings”; popular freedom became extinct, and over two Centuries were to elapse before the creation of unity in a revived Empire. France became the leading power in Europe, Spain having greatly declined, and the House of Bourbon took the first place instead of the House of Austria.
The Thirty Years’ War was not only productive of infinite misery to innocent people while it raged, but it had other ill effects on Germany of a more lasting kind. The increase of power in the petty princes led to the keeping up of expensive courts, standing armies, and hosts of civil officials, bringing heavy taxation on the long-suffering and industrious people. There was a great decline in trade and manufactures, which had been driven by incessant commotion and destruction to other lands. Many of the great commercial and industrial towns were quite impoverished, and did not recover their position and wealth for several generations. German art and literature were for a long time destroyed, and foreign influences prevailed in every branch of culture.