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Europe (AD 1648) ~ The Peace of Westphalia

The storms of war, civil strife and religious intolerance which had raged over Europe for decades seemed to calm down at the dawn of the seventeenth century. The French Wars of Religion ended in 1598 with the Edict of Nantes, giving the French Huguenots a place within the Kingdom of France, which was henceforth led by the House of Bourbon. France having finally braved its religious turmoil, Spain could do little more than to accept a Bourbon King on the French throne and make peace that same year. In Ireland, English forces had won the Nine Years’ War against the Spanish-supported Irish clans, making peace in 1603. Subsequently in 1604, England and Spain made peace in the Treaty of London, effectively ending English involvement in Spain’s ongoing war with the Dutch Rebels for control of the Netherlands. War-exhausted and on the brink of complete bankruptcy, the Spanish then concluded the Twelve Years’ Truce with the Dutch in 1609. Spain thereby accepted the partition of the Netherlands, at least temporarily, for indeed the Dutch had by now established their own de facto independent nation in the north; the United Provinces of the Dutch Republic.

Some of Europe’s major underlying tensions and problems nevertheless remained an open question. The power of the Spanish Empire started to fall in decline, which the French and Dutch would be more than willing to take advantage of in the future. More importantly, the nearly equal religious division of the Holy Roman Empire was considered unacceptable by both its Protestant states and the Catholic imperial authority. The distrust and hostility dominating the Holy Roman Empire thus set the stage for a new clash: an internal struggle sparked by religious differences turning into a pan-European war which ravaged major and minor powers alike.

1.) Prelude to War

The Holy Roman Empire, a conglomeration of approximately three hundred member states, extended from France in the west to Poland in the east and from Denmark in the north to Italy in the south. By the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, the Empire had been almost evenly divided between Catholics and Protestants, which was a serious obstacle to any sense of unity between the peoples and member states existing within the imperial borders. Much more than ethnicity or language, religion was considered the uniting factor of any kind of community in the Early Modern Era, be it a town or an empire. Although the Catholic Austrian Habsburgs held on to the imperial leadership, a great number of member states had officially turned Protestant and many more Protestants lived in the officially Catholic states. Furthermore, the Protestant presence in Austrian Habsburg lands outside of the Empire (notably among the Hungarian nobility) was a matter of increasing frustration and suspicion at the court in Vienna. While the Holy Roman Empire had been one of the foremost powers in European life at the dawn of the sixteenth century, it had lost much of its prestige a hundred years later. Cultural and intellectual life came to be dominated by the obsessive competition between Protestants and Catholics to prove the truth of their doctrines. In many ways, the Empire began to fall back into the dogma and superstition of the Middle Ages. On top of this, the Empire’s economy weakened as well: the emergence of global maritime trade seriously crippled commerce in the Rhineland and southern Germany, further worsened by the de facto breakaway of the Dutch, whom now controlled the mouths of the Rhine and Scheldt. By the dawn of the seventeenth century, the Holy Roman Empire suffered cultural, intellectual and economic decline, while the underlying tensions caused by its religious division were on the rise.

As Lutheran power within the Empire consolidated and expanded, there was also the rise of Calvinism to be considered. The 1555 Peace of Augsburg had been a religious compromise – or ceasefire, more like – between Catholics and Lutherans, excluding the Calvinists, whom therefore had no official right to exist within the Empire. Nevertheless, a small number of member states turned Calvinist. The most notable of these was the Electoral Palatinate, which was both strategically and politically important, holding lands on the Rhine and being one of the seven states to vote in the election of the Holy Roman Emperor. In 1608, the Electoral Palatinate led the formation of a Protestant Union to defend both Lutheran and Calvinist interests against the Catholic states, asking for help from England, the United Provinces and France. In response, Bavaria organised a Catholic Union the following year with help from Spain. The Holy Roman Empire was falling apart into two power blocs, each calling on foreign aid to press its advantage against the other, thus working up the tensions considerably.

Adding to the war climate were several other brewing issues: Habsburg Austria had not given up on its ambitions of centralising the Holy Roman Empire under its leadership, Spain and the United Provinces both desired a new war as the Twelve Year Truce came to a close and the re-emerging power of France once again sought to oppose the House of Habsburg wherever possible.

2.) The Thirty Years’ War (1618 – 1648)

As is the case with many major conflicts, the Thirty Years’ War was sparked by a series of seemingly minor events. The formation of the Protestant Union in 1608 caused Habsburg Austria to take a more hostile stand against Protestants, actively attempting to not only stop Protestantism from spreading further within the Empire, but also root it from the Habsburg dominion itself, especially in Bohemia. In 1617, Holy Roman Emperor Matthias of Habsburg issued multiple decrees aimed at discriminating Bohemian Protestants. The tensions caused by this ultimately resulted in the famous ‘Defenestration of Prague’: Bohemian Protestants threw two imperial emissaries out of a window on the third floor of the Hradschin Palace in Prague (which they survived). This event is traditionally considered the starting point of the Thirty Years’ War. The Bohemian Protestants subsequently deposed Matthias as King of Bohemia and named Frederick V, the Calvinist Count Palatine as their new lord. However, Matthias’ successor Ferdinand II called for help from Spain and Bavaria’s Catholic League, ultimately routing the Bohemian Protestants at the Battle of White Mountain. Frederick V, nicknamed ‘the Winter King’, fled to the United Provinces as Spanish forces overran the Electoral Palatinate. Habsburg Austria meanwhile reorganised the Bohemian nobility by confiscating protestant estates and granting them to Habsburg loyalists or the Catholic Church. The Catholic victory caused the dissolution of the Protestant Union in 1621. However, the end of this so-called Bohemian Phase by 1625 was far from the end of the war.

Following the defeat of the Bohemian Protestants and the fall of the Protestant Union, King Christian IV of Denmark (who was also Duke of Holstein) entered the war in 1625 under the pretext of protecting the Protestant states of northern Germany against the Catholic advance. His main motive was in fact to gain control of the mouths of the vital Elbe and Weser rivers, thus expanding Danish influence considerably. Habsburg Austria responded by sending the Bohemian nobleman Albert von Wallenstein with an army of 30,000 to stop the Danish advance. Wallenstein defeated the Danes at the Battle of Dessau (1626), advanced to the Danish border and invaded Denmark itself.

Catholic forces now had the upper hand on every front: the Bohemian Protestants had been smashed, the Electoral Palatinate had been conquered and the imperial armies swept over northern Germany and invaded Denmark, burning protestant lands with Habsburg approval along the way. By the Peace of Lübeck in 1629, Denmark left the war, ending the Danish Phase (1625 – 1629). The Holy Roman Emperor subsequently issued the Edict of Restitution, commanding that all ecclesiastical territories secularised by Protestants since 1552 should be restored to the Catholic Church. The Protestant states now panicked and called for help from France, Sweden and the United Provinces. With Franco-Dutch financial aid, the Swedish King Gustavus II Adolphus invaded northern Germany in 1630, initiating the war’s Swedish Phase (1630 – 1635). Gustavus had in previous years pacified Sweden internally, while simultaneously extending Swedish holdings in the Baltic and building one of the most professional armies of the seventeenth century. Sweden smashed the forces of the Catholic Union at the Battle of Breitenfeld (1631) and dashed across Germany. However, the rapid Swedish advance imposed a horrible toll on the civilian population of Central Europe: the Swedes neglected to bring in supplies from home, instead proclaiming that ‘war feeds itself’ (‘bellum se ipsum alit’) and plundering their supplies as they advanced.

The next year, Sweden stood victorious yet again at the Battle of Lützen, though Gustavus II Adolphus himself fell in the battle. Swedish forces nevertheless carried on the campaign under Gustavus’ Chancellor Oxenstierna, pressing further south, capturing Munich and even reaching the Danube. However, the death of Gustavus II Adolphus caused the Protestant front to lose direction in the war. Saxony, Sweden’s most important German ally, signed the Peace of Prague with the Holy Roman Emperor, who revoked the harshest aspects of the Edict of Restitution. Many Protestant states, appalled at the Swedish treatment of civilian population and property, then turned their back on Sweden and were willing to negotiate peace with the Catholic side. Moreover, Habsburg forces obliterated Sweden’s rampage at the Battle of Nördlingen in 1634, seemingly paving the way for peace.

However, the Swedish defeat at Nördlingen provoked Catholic France to openly enter the war on the Protestant side, providing increased financial aid to both Sweden and the United Provinces, and hiring the German Protestant prince Bernard of Saxe-Weimar to command a German army in French service. The Swedish-French Phase of the war thus broke loose (1635 – 1648), but France’s initial war effort went far from smoothly: Habsburg forces invaded from the Southern Netherlands and the Franche Comté, destroying Champagne and Bourgogne, and giving the French a taste of the destruction they had been funding in the Holy Roman Empire. But the tide turned in 1640 when both Portugal and Catalonia rebelled against the Spanish King Philip IV of Habsburg. France, England and the United Provinces quickly recognised Portuguese independence and French forces invaded Catalonia to help the resistance there. Meanwhile in the Holy Roman Empire, fighting continued despite the declining Protestant support for the Swedish-French interventions, which were ravaging Central Europe. In 1644, hundreds of diplomats gathered at the German towns of Münster and Osnabrück to discuss an end to the war. Peace talks nevertheless dragged on for years, for the armies continued fighting, causing one side or the other to constantly raise or resist new demands. France and Spain simply refused to make peace and remained at war until 1659.

3.) The Peace of Westphalia

In 1648, peace in Central Europe was at last agreed upon in the two treaties of Osnabrück and Münster, commonly known as the Peace of Westphalia. For the Holy Roman Emperor and the Austrian Habsburgs, the humiliation could hardly be greater, for the Holy Roman Empire was torn apart religiously, territorially and politically. The 1555 Peace of Augsburg was reaffirmed, Calvinism gained full recognition and all Catholic claims to the ecclesiastical territories secularised by Lutherans were abandoned. The Empire formally lost the Northern Netherlands and Switzerland, the French annexed territories in Alsace-Lorraine, the Swedes gained key footholds on the Empire’s northern shores and the Empire’s strongest member states gained new territories (notably Brandenburg, Bavaria and Saxony), adding to the Elector states’ status quo with Habsburg Austria. Most importantly, the French imposed a new constitution on the Holy Roman Empire, which made each and every one of its member states de facto independent: the Empire was forbidden from raising armies, instituting a tax system or declaring war without the approval of each of its member states. Furthermore, each member state could henceforth conclude treaties with foreign powers without approval from the Holy Roman Emperor. While many of Europe’s strongest nations were undergoing royal centralisation, the Empire collapsed completely into the fragmentation of the Middle Ages.

On top of the Empire’s diplomatic humiliation, the physical toll of the war was appalling. Rampaging armies had systematically looted cities, burned regions and butchered entire civilian populations, leaving over 4,000,000 dead in Germany alone. The end of the war was furthermore far from the end of civilian suffering. Agriculture largely ceased because farmland had been ravaged and the peasant masses had been murdered or driven away, provoking wide-spread starvation and epidemics among the surviving people. The Thirty Years’ War paved the way for the emergence of France, England and the United Provinces as the pre-eminent European powers of the seventeenth century and ended the Spanish Habsburg hegemony, while the Austrian Habsburgs gave up their ambitions of centralising the Holy Roman Empire (although the Holy Roman Emperor continued to be a Habsburg). Austria would henceforth focus on developing its ancestral territories, not forgetting its defeat at the hands of France but rebuilding its power for a war against its other nemesis: the Ottoman Empire.

The Peace of Westphalia not only ended the Thirty Years’ War but also the Eighty Years’ War (1568 – 1648), which was rekindled after the end of the Spanish-Dutch Twelve Years’ Truce in 1621. In the decades that followed, the United Provinces managed to conquer sizeable portions of the Southern Netherlands; Zeelandic Flanders, northern Brabant and northern Limburg. Such staggering progress was made possible in part due to French aid: France granted the United Provinces significant finances before openly entering the war in 1635. Thus the Southern Netherlands were besieged from all sides: the Dutch to the north, the French to the south and the French-Swedish alliance to the east. By the Treaty of Münster in 1648, the United Provinces stood utterly victorious: Philip IV of Spain formally recognised Dutch independence, as well as the additional Dutch conquests and the Dutch colonial possessions. Furthermore, the Dutch closed the mouths of the Scheldt and established toll points across the Flemish coast, thereby economically strangling Antwerp in favour of Amsterdam. However, the Dutch had every reason not to humiliate Spain and the Southern Netherlands too much, for the increasingly obvious expansionism of France soon raised more Dutch eyebrows than did Spanish claims to the Northern Netherlands. The Dutch therefore quietly hoped for Spain’s victory in the continued Franco-Spanish war after 1648, so that French power would stay out of the Southern Netherlands. Idle hope, as it turned out: the war-exhausted Spanish proved no real match for the French anymore and by the Treaty of the Pyrenees (1659), France gained the province of Artois and several Flemish cities (including Atrecht and Betun), in addition to Roussillon and parts of Luxembourg. The French thus took a sizeable bite out of the Southern Netherlands – the first of many to come. For their part, the Dutch began to realise Spain would no longer be their main adversary in the future, but rather France. This would soon estrange the United Provinces from their old ally and set the stage for new wars in the Southern Netherlands, for the Dutch wanted French friends, not French neighbours

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Duc-in-Altum's avatar
Excellent map! Thumbs Up Thumbs Up SPN 
This is arguably the war that helped to create modern Europe. Part of the Greatest History Never Told trope sadly. A tv show set in this era would be fantastic!
andreasc2's avatar
Then the winged hussars arrive!!!!
yehudihasidi's avatar
Great map! How do you make them?
Undevicesimus's avatar
Thanks (: This one was done in Adobe Photoshop.
BlutEisen's avatar
The sheer amount of death and suffering, while diminished by the bloodiness of other conflicts that came after it, is still staggering considering the time period. That a whole generation and a half could endure constant war, famine, deprivations and hardships is just something I don't think most students of history appreciate. 

In my class for example, we mostly talked about the Peace of Westphalia and how it created the modern Nation-State, but not really the impact of the war on the people who lived through it, or what life must have been like in such conditions.

It would be amazing, I think, if someone could do a Ken Burns-esque documentary on this period, it would definitely shed some light on an often neglected part of history. :) 
RafnMaps's avatar
This is really impressive :)
Undevicesimus's avatar
RafnMaps's avatar
No problem man, your maps are amazing! 
Undevicesimus's avatar
jillcb's avatar
This is really impressive. 
grisador's avatar
grisador's avatar
You're very welcome ! :)
Umega's avatar
I like how you used most of the country colours from Europa Universalis. I guess you play it? :)
Undevicesimus's avatar
Ah finally someone notices that ^^ Yea I play it :la:
szuli's avatar
there is error - in Poland-Lithuania there is region 'white russia' its is not 'russia' it was 'ruthenia' there was white ruthenia, red ruthenia, black ruthenia... but not russia - russia is in moscov
PersephoneEosopoulou's avatar
So it was France that screwed up the HRE like that ? no wonder Germany didn't emerge as a nation until much later, who knows if the Hapsburgs had united Germany rather then the Hohenzollerns things would have been fairly different.
Undevicesimus's avatar
Yes it's one of the great what-ifs in European history, in my opinion.
PersephoneEosopoulou's avatar
A world with Prussian militarism in Europe may potentially be better off even....
Undevicesimus's avatar
Not sure I fully understand that sentence ^^;
PersephoneEosopoulou's avatar

I was just commenting that a Germany formed by a state without a heavy focus on militarism like Prussia is/was well know for would have probably made Europe better off potentially.
Undevicesimus's avatar
Oh yes, now I understand ^^ Yea that's a good point. A united Habsburg HRE would've been better than a Hohenzollern-led German Empire... The Habsburgs were more interested in keeping Western Europe guarded from outside threats, like the Ottomans, rather than trying to take over (parts of) other European states (excepting Poland, perhaps ^^;) like Prussia and France. Also, a Habsburg-led unified HRE would've been a multi-ethnic/cultural state, not just a German empire; it would've included Austrians, Czechs, Slovenians, Flemish, Walloons, Danes, etc... The HRE was a mini United Europe, basically, and I think its failure to centralise and keep up with its rivals (primarily France) is a very big missed opportunity in European history. 1648 was a very very bad year for Europe (and the period of 1618-1648 in general).
PersephoneEosopoulou's avatar
At least the Ottomans never managed to advance any further however, silver-lining and all that.
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