The Reformation and the disastrous Thirty Years’ War

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Turning Points in Modern History

By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Since the onset of the Reformation—the breakdown in the theoretical unity of Christianity—religious wars were wrecking Europe and even extending to other parts of the globe where European explorers or traders ventured and ran into one another.

A Martin Luther monument in front of Frauenkirche cathedral in Dresden, Germany.
Martin Luther launched the message of religious reform within the Catholic Church in 1517, which eventually led to the wars within Christianity. (Image: Vava Vladimir Jovanovic/Shutterstock)

Religious warfare was not what Luther had expected at first when he had launched his message of religious reform within the Catholic Church in 1517. At first, the struggle was a rhetorical one expressing different points of view, carried out from pulpits and, especially, in print, using the new power of Gutenberg’s printing press.

Within weeks of Luther announcing his Ninety-five Theses, printed copies were distributed all around Germany. Luther’s writings were mass-produced. Then, the opponents of Luther in the Catholic Church produced their own literature in turn, and people saw a war of fliers.

In German, the word for a flier is flugblatt, literally a ‘flying sheet of paper’, and these fliers, circulating throughout Germany, often decorated with vivid illustrations and easy to post on walls as handbills, really accelerated and increased the temperature of the debate. The debate became even more complex when divisions appeared in the camp of the reformers since Calvinists urged a doctrine of predestination, disagreeing with the interpretations of the Lutherans.

Fatefully, this theological debate in print erupted into warfare, and one saw the scandalous spectacle of Christians killing Christians over points of doctrine. Germany was among the places hit first, as the sort of ground zero of this ferment, a country divided between Catholics and Protestants. Protestant princes banded together to fight against the Catholic emperor. The war ended inconclusively, but the emperor was forced into a sort of ceasefire to acknowledge the Lutheran princes’ right to exist in Germany.

A portrait of Martin Luther, a seminal figure in Protestant reformation.
Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses eventually led to a religious war within Christianity. (Image: Lucas Cranach the Elder/Public domain)

This happened with the so-called Peace of Augsburg in 1555, which officially established the formula of ‘cuius regio, eius religio‘: ‘whose rule, that person’s religion’. A prince could choose which faith, Catholic or Lutheran, to establish officially in his lands. Calvinists, by contrast, were not recognized, so those who were of a different faith could convert or emigrate. This severe formula at least gave a temporary respite for some decades before conflict flared anew.

France was next in line. There, the French Wars of Religion lasted from 1562 to 1598 and included horrific atrocities, like the famous St. Bartholemew’s Day Massacre, when thousands of French Calvinists were murdered in Paris.

Religiously inflected war also erupted in the Netherlands, which had been under Spanish rule. The Calvinist Dutch population rose up in revolt against their Catholic Spanish rulers in 1568, and this was the start of the so-called Eighty Years’ War for independence for the Dutch, which they finally only achieved in 1648 at the Peace of Westphalia.

Learn more about the Treaty of Westphalia.

The Beginning of Thirty Years’ War

The disastrous launching of the Spanish Armada against England in 1588, which failed, was seen by the Spanish as a kind of holy fight or crusade against English heretics. Then, the grinding, unending, and ultimately indecisive Thirty Years’ War broke out in earnest in the Holy Roman Empire or the German lands in 1618.

In her classic history of this war, British historian Dame Veronica Wedgwood called it the “outstanding example in European history of meaningless conflict”. If you know something about European history, you know that that’s really saying something!        

The war started absurdly, with imperial messengers being thrown out of a window in Prague by Protestant leaders in Bohemia who were defying their Catholic emperor. Then the war began, spreading from Bohemia into the German lands proper, as Protestants and Catholics rallied to their princes and war was engaged.

In the first years, things went so well for the Catholic emperor that he must have been exultant, thinking that perhaps his universal claims to authority might not be so impractical, after all. But ironically, precisely because the emperor was doing well, other outside powers got dragged in to balance him. The kingdoms of Denmark and Sweden entered the war as Protestant champions, to save their co-religionists fighting against the emperor.

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Thirty Years’ War Descending into Chaos

But increasingly, something strange happened: what had started as a religiously-motivated conflict mutated and over time became something less coherent. Rather than a religious conflict with clear lines, it turned into more of a multisided battle royale. Catholic France also entered the war, but not on the Catholic side. It entered the war against the emperor and against Spain on the side of Protestant allies. Eventually, more than 200 states, great and small, participated in the Thirty Years’ War.

The war grew ever more muddled with the Dutch-Spanish war folded in as well. The conflict even extended beyond Europe, worldwide. For instance, there was fighting between the Dutch and the Spanish in Brazil, and a Dutch admiral actually captured the famous Spanish treasure fleet in a harbor in Cuba in 1628—a great victory. The war went on, and on, and on.

A painting displaying the atrocity of the Thirty Years' War.
The Thirty Years’ War was a man-made disaster that destroyed many families and villages. It is estimated that over three million people died in Germany alone. (Image: Jacques Callot/Public domain)

To many ordinary people caught up in this war, the claims and counterclaims, political as well as religious, seemed increasingly meaningless when set against their own experience of suffering. The German lands were destroyed thoroughly in this man-made disaster. Germany became the playground for huge mercenary armies living off the land, plundering, pillaging, raping, and killing.

These mercenaries did, in fact, leave one tiny cultural contribution which endures into our own times: men’s neckties originated with Croatian mercenaries who wore colorful cloths knotted around their necks (in parts of Europe to this very day, neckties are sometimes still called cravats, which simply means a Croatian or something in the Croatian style).

In this war, around a million soldiers took part, and it’s estimated that about a third of them died. But the civilian losses were far greater. Historians are still having a vigorous debate today about just how hard Germany, at the center of all this, was ravaged by this war. But even if you take current, lower estimates, that still puts the deaths at about 15 to 20 percent of the entire German population at the time, over three million people.

Some areas were hit harder than others: when Swedish armies captured the hometown of Gutenberg, Mainz, that city lost 40 percent of its people. The city of Augsburg lost half its population. Many cities were occupied repeatedly, over and over again. The most notorious of these, was when the besieged city of Magdeburg, held by the Protestants, was captured by the Catholic imperial forces, the population was again put to the sword.

There’s no wonder that one anonymous German poet sighed with a deep, deep anguish that can still be heard in his verses today: “The houses are burned out / The churches are destroyed / The villages are looted / The food has been eaten / One sees the cities, the hopes of the land, in flames / No one can recognize any more the splendor of the land.”

Learn more about the fall of Constantinople.

Common Questions about Wars within Christianity

Q: What is Reformation in Christianity?

The Reformation was a 16th-century movement within Western Christianity. It posed a religious and political challenge to the Roman Catholic Church and papal authority in European nation-states.

Q: What did the Reformation do?

The Protestant Reformation led to a political, intellectual, and cultural upheaval that divided Catholic Europe by setting in place new structures and beliefs that would define the continent in the modern era.

Q: What was the worst war of the Reformation era?

The Thirty Years’ War was the worst war of the Reformation era. It devastated Germany and killed nearly one-third of its population.

Q: How did the Reformation wars end?

The Reformation wars finally ended with the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia, which eventually led to secular and sovereign European nation-states.

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