Introduction to Thirty Years' War

Thirty Years' War , a series of European conflicts from 1618 to 1648, fought primarily in Germany. The war started in Bohemia with a Protestant revolt against the Holy Roman Empire and eventually involved almost all of the countries of Europe. By its final years, religious issues had been submerged and it had become a struggle for power between Austria and Spain on one side and France on the other.

The war demonstrated that neither Catholics nor Protestants were strong enough to dominate the continent. Religious toleration was increased in Germany itself, but freedom of worship was still severely limited in all countries.

The Thirty Years' War radically altered the balance of political power among the countries of Europe. The Holy Roman Empire lost effective control in Germany, and the influence of the Austrian Hapsburgs, the hereditary emperors, was thus greatly reduced. France emerged as the dominant nation in Europe. Sweden, too, gained in influence. Spain's power and prestige declined greatly. Holland, which had broken away from Spain in the preceding century, was formally acknowledged as independent, as was Switzerland.

Germany, already divided into many semiautonomous states, became a patchwork of independent countries. In regions where armies had camped and fought, the devastation and loss of life were so great that some communities were permanently deserted.


The Thirty Years' War was the culmination of the long struggle between Roman Catholics and Protestants that had resulted from the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. The war was centered in the Holy Roman Empire. This unique political organization was at that time made up of Germany, including Bohemia and Austria, and the Spanish Netherlands (Belgium). The imperial title was held by the Hapsburgs of Austria, a Catholic dynasty. The Holy Roman Empire was supported politically by Spain, which was ruled by another branch of the Hapsburgs.

Some of the countries in the empire were under the direct rule of the Austrian or Spanish branch of the Hapsburg family. Most of the German states, however, were governed by rulers who were theoretically subject to the authority of the emperor but in reality had a large degree of independence. Many of the German states had Protestant rulers and chiefly Protestant populations. The Protestant states had become increasingly dissatisfied with the rule of the Hapsburgs, who had made frequent attempts to reduce Protestant religious liberties within the empire.

The Course of the War

Bohemian Phase

In 1617 the Hapsburg Duke Ferdinand, regarded as the probable successor to the office of Holy Roman Emperor, succeeded to the throne of Bohemia. His strong opposition to Protestantism and the action of some of his representatives in Bohemia alarmed the predominantly Protestant Bohemian nobility. In 1618–19 they revolted against Ferdinand and as king elected Frederick, ruler of the German Palatinate, another Protestant country within the empire.

Ferdinand, who became emperor (as Ferdinand II) and ruler of Austria in 1619, soon moved to repress the rebellion. He was aided by several Catholic states within the empire, united in a military association called the Catholic League. He also received help from Philip III of Hapsburg Spain. The Bohemian forces were decisively beaten by Count von Tilly, chief general of the Catholic League, at the Battle of White Mountain (November, 1620). Frederick fled Bohemia, while representatives of the emperor took control of the country, suppressed the rebellion, and abolished Protestant religious liberties. Ferdinand also took the Palatinate from Frederick by force of arms and gave it to Maximilian of Bavaria, the leading ruler of the Catholic League.

Danish Phase

In 1625 the conflict was renewed by King Christian IV of Denmark, who held lands within the empire. Although Christian was a Protestant, he had not opposed the emperor during the Bohemian revolt. He believed, however, that Ferdinand had exceeded his imperial authority by taking the Palatinate from its rightful ruler, Frederick. Because this action was a threat to all rulers within the empire, including himself, Christian declared war against Ferdinand.

Many of the German Protestant rulers came into the war in support of Christian. He also received money from France and England. (Although France was a Catholic country, Cardinal Richelieu, chief minister of state, was eager to diminish Hapsburg power.) Holland, which had waged a long war for independence from Spain, also joined the coalition against the Hapsburgs.

The armies of Christian's allies were scattered by Ferdinand's brilliant general, Count Albrecht von Wallenstein. Then, at the Battle of Lutter am Barenberge (August, 1626), Christian himself was defeated by Tilly. By the Peace of Lübeck (1629), Denmark retired from the war.

Swedish Phase

In 1630 another Protestant king, Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, intervened in Germany. He was motivated both by his Protestant faith and by a desire to extend the influence of Sweden in northern Europe. Many German Protestants were tired of war and fearful of the Swedish king's ambitions. However, new anti-Protestant legislation by the emperor, and the brutal destruction of the German Protestant stronghold of Magdeburg by Tilly's soldiers, persuaded them to join Gustavus. The Swedish army also received financial support from France.

Gustavus' many victories made the defeat of the emperor seem certain. Then, at the Battle of Lützen (November, 1632), the Swedish king was killed while leading his forces to victory against Wallenstein. The Protestants were temporarily demoralized by the loss of their commander, and the Hapsburg forces were able to regain some of the territory they had lost.

French Phase

By the Peace of Prague (May, 1635) the German Protestant states won religious concessions from the emperor and agreed to stop fighting. However, Richelieu was not willing to see the war end with the Hapsburgs still in a position of great influence in Europe. While the Peace of Prague was being negotiated, France concluded alliances with Sweden and Holland and declared war against Austria.

By 1643 the triumphs of the French generals the Duc d'Enghien (later Prince de Condé) and the Vicomte de Turenne had assured final victory over Austria and its allies. After five years of negotiation, during which fighting continued, the Thirty Years' War ended with the Peace of Westphalia (1648). Conflict between France and Spain, however, lasted until 1659.