Who Won the Thirty Years War? Peter H. Wilson Unravels One of the Most Notoriously Bloody and Complex Conflicts in European History to Answer the Question

By Wilson, Peter H. | History Today, August 2009 | Go to article overview

Who Won the Thirty Years War? Peter H. Wilson Unravels One of the Most Notoriously Bloody and Complex Conflicts in European History to Answer the Question


Wilson, Peter H., History Today


Dame Veronica Wedgwood concluded her celebrated account of the Thirty Years War, first published in 1938, by claiming it 'solved no problem' and was 'the outstanding example in European history of meaningless conflict.' To those caught in its maw, as well as later generations struggling to understand it, the war seemed an endless succession of horrifying events which ravaged all who became involved and devastated its principal battleground, the Holy Roman Empire. The sheer length of the struggle contributes to this impression by obscuring the connection between the initial causes, its outbreak in 1618 and the eventual outcome in the Peace of Westphalia of 1648. Other than the rulers of Bavaria and Saxony, none of the major players of 1618 was still alive 30 years later. When peace came it was determined to a considerable extent by Sweden and France who only became involved in 1630 and 1635 respectively. The very nature of the peace makes it harder to assess whether anyone profited from the bloodshed. The treaties open with statements of eternal friendship, followed by renunciations of reparations and promises to bury past differences in the interests of Fasting tranquillity.

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Yet anyone reading the vast literature on the conflict is left with a lingering sense of a Protestant triumph over Catholicism. The peace modified the Empire's constitution to give legal and political equality to Calvinists alongside Lutherans and Catholics. The voting procedure in the imperial diet and other institutions was changed to protect Protestants from the in-built Catholic majority where the agenda touched matters of religion. Lutheran Sweden, along with the Calvinist Hohenzollern dynasty ruling Brandenburg-Prussia, emerged with significant territorial gains in northern Germany. Numerous lands long associated with the Catholic imperial church were secularised as Protestant principalities. The Catholic Habsburg dynasty appeared confined to their own hereditary lands in Austria, Bohemia and Hungary, leaving the Empire little more than a loose confederation of primarily Protestant principalities. This was certainly how it looked to 19th-century historians whose works were profoundly influenced by the struggle between Protestant Prussia and Catholic Austria for the mastery of Germany. Prussia's triumph by 1871 seemed to confirm that the future was Protestant, something that received a further boost from influential commentators like the sociologist Max Weber, who presented Protestantism as a modernising, secularising force in history.

This interpretation does not sit well with how the war was interpreted in the century and a half following 1648. Most late 17th- and 18th-century writers argued that the peace had strengthened the imperial constitution by resolving the political and religious issues causing the war. This broadly positive reception is supported by a large body of research since the late 1960s which agrees that the Empire, while still flawed in many respects after 1648, proved surprisingly successful in resolving internal tensions and defending itself against external attack until the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars forced its final dissolution in 1806.

The question of who might have won helps disentangle what the war was actually about. The standard presentation of it as a religious struggle is seductively misleading. Closer inspection reveals that the combatants do not divide neatly along confessional lines. Not only did Catholic France back Protestant Sweden financially from 1631 and militarily from 1635, but Saxony and many Lutheran princes supported the Catholic Habsburg emperor for most of the conflict. More fundamentally, the term 'religious war' has little utility as a historical concept. Religious issues were at stake in other conflicts both before and after the Thirty Years War without these being interpreted as sectarian struggles. Defence of the 'true religion' was a general characteristic of all public policy in early modern Europe.

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Who Won the Thirty Years War? Peter H. Wilson Unravels One of the Most Notoriously Bloody and Complex Conflicts in European History to Answer the Question
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