The Thirty Years War

COMENIUS WAS ONLY 26 when it started; he was an old man by its end. Europe exploded into war and for 30 long years princes and generals jockeyed for position while the common folk saw their land laid waste. Historians estimate that half of Germany’s population was lost in the fighting. War followed Comenius as he moved throughout Europe. It served as a painful backdrop to his life. In some ways the war robbed Comenius of lasting fame; but it also gave his writings an edge of urgency—education would bring understanding, and understanding, peace.

1—The war began in Bohemia, Comenius’s homeland. Bohemians, mostly Protestant, were unhappy with Emperor Ferdinand II of Austria. They had enjoyed a measure of independence under Ferdinand’s predecessors, but this emperor was cracking down. A devout Catholic, Ferdinand had closed one Protestant church and destroyed another. As a staunch enforcer of the Counter—Reformation, he was determined to make all his lands thoroughly Catholic.

The violence began May 23, 1618, with the Defenestration of Prague— Bohemian rebels stormed the royal palace and threw Ferdinand’s governors out the window (they landed in a manure pile and were not killed). The Protestant rebels elected Frederick V as their king.

But Ferdinand was a Hapsburg, part of the dynasty that had held thrones throughout Europe for nearly two centuries (mostly in Austria, Spain, and Germany, known then as the Holy Roman Empire). Ferdinand got help from his Spanish cousins and defeated the Protestants at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620. In typical Hapsburg fashion, Ferdinand was expanding his power. Not only did he reassert his control over Bohemia, but he was also named emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

2—King Christian IV of Denmark, a Protestant, perhaps fearing such consolidation of power, moved against Ferdinand’s empire from the north. But the Catholic forces, led by Wallenstein and Tilly, prevailed and actually invaded Denmark.

Fresh from victory over the Danish, Emperor Ferdinand issued the Edict of Restitution, demanding the return of land seized by Lutherans since 1551. It restated official toleration for Lutherans, but excluded Calvinists and other Protestant groups (more bad news for Comenius and the Brethren).

3—Gustavus Adolphus II of Sweden, a Lutheran stronghold, invaded Germany in 1630. The Swedes won substantial victories in Germany over the next dozen years, even after Gustavus’s death in 1632. The tide was turning, and the Hapsburg forces began to seek peace negotiations.

Another force in this conflict was France, a Catholic nation, but heavily populated by Calvinists. Under prime minister Cardinal Richelieu, France substantially funded the Swedish campaign against Ferdinand. The French interest was more nationalistic and dynastic than religious. France was poised to become a major power if Ferdinand’s empire weakened. Also, there were still sharp memories of the fighting between the house of Hapsburg and the French house of Valois in the previous century. France’s Louis XIII was of the house of Bourbon, but was still wary of the Spanish—Austrian Hapsburg cooperation. The fall of the Hapsburgs would seem sweet.

4—French forces entered the conflict in 1643, invading southern Germany. Fierce battles ensued, but Ferdinand’s power was waning.

Finally, in 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia was negotiated. Imperial power was dismantled as the various German states won sovereignty over most of their affairs. France won some important bits of land. Calvinists won toleration. The Bohemian question— the return of the Brethren to their homeland, which Comenius pressed for—was never touched.

By the Editors

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #13 in 1987]

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