The Thirty Years War and Why It Matters Today

The Thirty Years War and Why It Matters Today, by Philip Jenkins.

The Thirty Years’ War is just a blank for most nonspecialists in the English-speaking world. …

That oblivion is not hard to explain, as the kingdom of England was never formally involved in the war. Despite early efforts to entangle England, her King James I staunchly favored peace. In the event, all four nations of the British Isles supplied many thousands of mercenaries and volunteers to the fighting, and if they had served under a common flag, England would have been a key political and diplomatic player in European affairs. As it was, James showed wisdom. Tragically, his efforts failed in the long term, as European divisions spilled over into the British Isles and did much to spark the devastating civil wars that ruined Britain and Ireland in the 1640’s. For whatever reason, those wars are rarely placed in their proper international context, so that Anglo-Americans regard the Thirty Years’ conflict as some strange European squabble that had nothing to do with them. …

The course of the war:

The essential context of the war was the fundamental rivalry between Catholics and Protestants, which had detonated so many conflicts since the 1520’s. …

The war now began in earnest [in 1618]. Catholic forces won dramatic early victories… When Ferdinand actually did become emperor in 1619, he undermined Protestantism as systematically as his enemies feared, advancing his policy of spiritual reconquest in the newly acquired territories. Over the next decade, the war expanded steadily in scope and scale, involving the Netherlands, Spain, and multiple German states, as well as the [Holy Roman] Empire itself. Catholic military power triumphed repeatedly, under generals like Counts Tilly and Wallenstein. By 1630, Catholic battle standards advanced to the Baltic, raising the question of where, if anywhere, might still be considered safe Protestant territory.

It was this very overreach that prevented a Habsburg triumph. Tilly’s successes provoked a counterstroke by the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus, who smashed Catholic forces at Breitenfeld in 1631 …

By 1641, it was clear that neither side could win outright victory, and that only diplomacy could resolve the bloody stalemate. Several years of intense fighting ensued before the powers signed their comprehensive peace in Westphalia, in 1648.

The outcome:

The war’s most immediate results were straightforward, and of defining significance for later Western history. Although neither side emerged as a clear victor, it was no longer possible to contemplate total victory for either Catholics or Protestants, nor the extirpation of either side, as had seemed all too possible in 1618. …

Not only was the war so unspeakably prolonged, but it was fought in ways that raised real concerns for the survival of European civilization. The year 1640 has a fair claim to rank as the worst year in European history before 1940.

States of the time were utterly incapable of paying or supplying armies, who had to live off the land — in other words, they seized food and treasure from every community through which they passed. …

Armies faced no legal constraints in terms of their treatment of civilians, especially when religious fanatics on both sides were calling for the annihilation of rival believers as infidels. Massacres and sacks were commonplace, the most notorious being the Catholic destruction of Magdeburg in 1631. Some 25,000 perished in “Magdeburg’s Sacrifice.”

Sack of Magdeburg, 1631

A 17th-century landscape of war was a nightmare theater of plunder and rape, famine and cannibalism, in which civilization all but ceased to function. German lands especially suffered horrific damage, from which they took decades to recover. In all, Germany probably lost a third of her population, a level of destruction we today associate with nuclear warfare. Inevitably, ordinary people sought scapegoats for the disasters of the age, making the post-1625 decade one of the bloodiest eras ever in European witch-hunting.

Much of European history over the following two centuries can be understood only in light of this horrific experience, and the overwhelming need to prevent a recurrence. At the international level, this meant the so-called Westphalian system, in which nation-states were paramount, and they had recognized boundaries. …

Domestically, the chaos of the Thirty Years’ War era led directly to absolutism, which remained the dominant political order in Europe until 1789. So dreadful was the violence of the radical years that elites were willing to suspend or abolish their representative institutions, their parliaments or estates, to place all power in a royal court. Again, this development marked a vital contrast between parliamentary England and the absolutist Continental powers, although even England came close to losing her parliament later in the 17th century. …

Much of what we think of as the origins of the modern West can be traced to this era. These writers had witnessed a generation of bloodshed, massacre, and assassination, when the boundaries separating states from bandit gangs seemed hard to draw. When so many moral assumptions were collapsing, what were the foundations on which society could and should be reconstructed? What were the core elements of the European Christian tradition, which separated it from pagan barbarism? What were the rights of individuals? …

So who won the Thirty Years’ War? Not the people who started it.

In the last two decades, the globalist bureaucrats have tried to introduce a doctrine of “right to protect (RTP)” to replace the older Westphalian ideal from 1648 of non-interference in another country’s internal affairs. RTP was used as an excuse for the West to become involved military in Libya and Syria.