The Thirty Years’ War

The greatest single disaster in German history was the Thirty Years’ War of 1618 to 1648. The war impeded the flowering of the German nation for centuries after the last sound of gunfire had faded away.

The war began as a conflict between Protestants and Catholics. The Protestant side consisted of central and northern Germany, Holland, Denmark, and Sweden. Catholic Europe was represented by the German Holy Roman Emperor with a base in southern Germany and with allies in Austria, Italy, and Spain. The initial religious zeal turned into an excuse for political opportunism. Whatever the motivation of the parties, the arena in which the struggle was played out was German soil.

From a religious point of view, the war was a draw. From political, cultural, and social points of view, the big loser was the German citizen. At the start of the war, the population of Germany was perhaps 18 million people and at the end of the war the population was one-third to one-half of this. The implications were tremendous. The income of rulers was sharply reduced and, in an effort to boost the taxes, people were invited to move in from other areas and nations. In the decades which followed, there was a net exodus from Austria, Bavaria, and Switzerland to the west and north. Many of our Germanna ancestors participated in this migration which had both religious and economic overtones.

Thousands of villages and towns were wiped from the map. Fields remained vacant. One consequence is that the boundaries of minor jurisdictions became blurred, leading to future arguments. Weakened by want, hunger, and epidemic disease, Germany was impoverished and handicapped for many decades. The poet, Andreas Gryphius lived through the war and expressed his thoughts in Tears of the Fatherland, 1636. One verse read:

We have been completely, yea more than completely laid to waste,
The blaring trumpet of the impudent hordes of soldiers,
The blood-drenched sword, the thundering cannon,
Have consumed all of the fruits of our labor and diligence.

After the Peace of Westphalia, the mouth of every major German river was under the control of foreign nations. The towns and cities became mere shadows of their former selves. Reconstruction was hampered by lack of raw materials and skilled labor. Trade, commerce, and the economy in general were thrown in near chaos.

The peace settlement recognized more than three hundred separate German states as sovereign entities. The petty German princes became more powerful at the expense of the German Emperor. Conflicts between the princes and the inhabitants grew (and were cited by our Germanna ancestors as a reason for emigration).

The decline in the cities and towns caused a reduction in demand for agricultural products with a consequent reduction in income for the small landowners and peasants. At the same time, the princes were attempting to raise more money to restore their place in the world. In some places, the peasants recognized they had rights which were being ignored. This led in some cases to armed conflicts between the classes.

The ruling trinity of power of was the landed aristocracy, the military nobility, and the higher officialdom. They remained in this position until the First World War. A second tier of power consisted of the police, customs officials, tax collectors, teachers, and clergyman. All of these officials cowed and controlled the general population by means of intimidation and bureaucratic brutality.

As the seventeenth century and eighteenth centuries unfolded, the German states became more and more bureaucratic and the citizens exhibited a deference toward authority that appeared excessive to non-Germans. Having faced death, famine, and disease on a daily basis during the Thirty Years’ War and afterward in the invasions of the French, the German citizens seemed to want an authoritative system that seemed strong enough to prevent a recurrence of the terrors of war and its aftermath.

In time this acceptance came to be the norm and obedience to authority acquired the weight of tradition. The arguments continued into the nineteenth century between the political activists seeking an expansion of popular rights and the traditionists who felt that the preservation of Germany depended on obedience in the existing authorities.

Life for a typical German was markedly provincial with a marked indifference to life outside of their villages and towns. In these close-knit, ingrown cities and towns, a strong local pride developed with a desire to preserve traditions. Outsiders and transients were looked on with mistrust and suspicion. Dialects in speech developed. Family and local feasts were cherished. The outside world had failed them; their strength lay in establishing a “safe harbor” in their immediate area.

[These comments were adapted from Robert Rabe in his German Professions of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.]

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