Europe’s apocalypse

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W Gustavus Adolphus, the Swedish king, at the Battle of Breitenfeld, 17 September 1631, the first major Protestant victory of the Thirty Years’ War. Painted by Johann Walter (1594-1634).
W Gustavus Adolphus, the Swedish king, at the Battle of Breitenfeld, 17 September 1631, the first major Protestant victory of the Thirty Years’ War. Painted by Johann Walter (1594-1634).

Before the First World War, it was known as the most destructive conflict in European history — responsible for the loss of as much as 40 per cent of the German population, which according to some estimates may have fallen in the years between 1618 and 1648 from around 20 million to 12 million. This immense human toll as a result of battle, famine, and disease would scar the continent for centuries — so that some historians describe it as the greatest trauma in German history.

But as well as being horrific in terms of the sheer numbers of casualties inflicted and lives destroyed, the Thirty Years’ War was also horrific for the manner in which it was conducted. As the large number of surviving eyewitness accounts attest, this was a war of attrition, in which civilians often found themselves on the front line. Massacres such as that during the Sack of Magdeburg — the conflict’s worst atrocity, which left up to 20,000 of the city’s 25,000 Protestant inhabitants dead — were conducted without mercy. Huge numbers of refugees were also created, as neighbours were pitched against each other, and entire areas of the country were laid waste.

It began as a local dispute — over the zealous anti-Protestant policies introduced by Ferdinand of Styria (the future Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II), who in 1617 was elected as the new king of Bohemia (the modern-day Czech Republic). Protest sparked into war following the momentous event
known as the Defenestration of Prague, on 23 May 1618, when a group of local noblemen threw two of Ferdinand’s newly appointed Catholic governors from a high window at Prague’s Hradcany Castle. Over the next three decades, the conflict escalated to become Europe’s apocalypse — fought out over four distinct phases that can on one level be seen as part of the wars of religion between Catholics and Protestants, but on another as part of a more complex international struggle that would eventually pull in most of Europe’s great powers.

With the benefit of hindsight, the Thirty Years’ War is often described as the first modern conflict: a military revolution involving entire populations and whole economies, and ushering in a new age of total warfare that, as the historian Michael Roberts noted in an oft-quoted article published in 1956, stands ‘like a great divide separating medieval society from the modern world’. More recently, attempts have been made to draw parallels between the various interconnected religious and sectarian struggles fought out during the Thirty Years’ War and those that now divide the Middle East.

As we discover in our latest issue, however, such observations would be lost on the millions who lived and died during the course of this epochal conflict, as central Europe was smashed to pieces around them. In our two-part special for this issue, Stephen Roberts first offers an overview of the long and painful history of the war; and then analyses in detail the Battle of Lützen, the crucial engagement on 16 November 1632 that cost the life of a king.

This is an extract from a special feature on the Thirty Years’ War from the December 2023/January 2024 issue of Military History Matters magazine.

Read the full article online on The Past, or in the print magazine: find out more about subscriptions to Military History Matters here.

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