To fully understand modern history, it is important to comprehend the full effects of the Thirty Years War. The end of the Thirty Years War produced a number of dramatic consequences and altered Western Europe in significant religious, political, and social ways. Generally speaking, the post-war period produced the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire and the subsequent fall of the Hapsburg powers. The later divisions that occurred made Europe more like it is now with the Catholic areas in the south and the Lutherans farther north and more importantly, it took the central power from the Catholic Church. It also worked to quelled some of the religious struggles with the eventual Peace of Westphalia. The war also had a large impact on society as it decimated a large portion of the German population, destroyed crops, aided in the spread of disease and obliterated the German economy from the small to large scale. The average people living in Europe during this time were perhaps the most affected by the war. The armies were huge and in order to fund them, states had to raise taxes. In addition, many of the mercenaries went through villages and towns taking all they could from already destitute towns and this, coupled with the increasing demands of the state, planted the seed of anger toward governments that would later emerge throughout the Enlightenment and future rebellions.
Although it was not easy to come to a resolution the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648 and as a result, Western Europe was changed politically. Because of the war, a number of important geographical consequences occurred; Germany was broken up, the Swiss Confederation and the Netherlands were declared as autonomous nations, but most importantly, the Holy Roman Empire lost power and began to decline from the signing of the Peace until modernity. Another significant development that arose in the wake of the Peace of Westphalia is that France and Sweden came to the forefront of European commerce, pushing Spain out and changing the course of European history up until that point. The Spanish Hapsburgs were no longer the primary power and were eventually forced to declare Dutch and Swiss independence. The political tides changed when the Holy Roman Empire was no longer the center of Europe as other countries began to take over. This would become even more important later with the rise of secularism as a result of the Enlightenment. In addition to the more geographical political changes, other alterations occurred throughout Europe such as a new way of going about warfare. The Thirty Years War required vast armies of mercenary troops and this, although militarily wise, was a large drain on state resources. All parties involved in the war went nearly broke because of the size of their respective armies and this in turn had a devastating impact on the economies as a whole. In addition to this, new bureaucracies were needed to keep up with the increasing demands of state and such changes are still present today in European politics. Also of related importance is the fact that in order to fund these vast armies the states were pressed to collect an increasingly higher number of taxes. This meant more paperwork and of course, more anger on the part of the working people and peasants—those who bore the financial brunt of the costly wars. Such unfair taxation would certainly be called into question as the years wore on, particularly in France, but it is clear that the excessive spending seen during the Thirty Years War had an impact on the economy and thus the peasants. Inward political strife would soon follow based on the external struggles that began before the Thirty Years War.
When discussing the last years of the Thirty Years War it is almost easy to forget that it all began because of religious differences rather than those based on politics and geography. One consequence of the end of the war was that the Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic Hapsburgs would no longer dictate the religious beliefs to a large portion of Europeans. Instead, after the war was over and princes of Germany were allowed to declare their own affiliations, Western Europe changed a great deal. Another important aspect of the Peace of Westphalia in terms of overall European history and its religious struggles, is that after its was agreed upon, all the princes within Germany had the right to declare their provinces as either Catholic, Lutheran or Calvinist. This allowance created divisions throughout Europe based on religious affiliation with the Catholics in the south of Europe, the Lutherans in central Germany, and the Calvinists in the northern part of Europe. While this is not to say that the close of the war mended relations between those of diverse faiths, this separation made it so that this was the last real religious war fought.
Socially, the Thirty Years War caused a significant number of problems, particularly for the peasants and working people. The sizes of the armies required for the prolonged fighting required vast amounts of money and because the fighting went on so long with mercenary troops, the only alternative was to heavily tax the citizens of the states going to war. There were a large number of uprisings throughout Europe, particularly in France, which was a shadow of things to come. The cycle of unfair taxation and the abuse of state bureaucratic power was a major problem for the people of the counties but this was also because times were hard in every aspect of their lives. During the years of the Thirty Years War agricultural production declined significantly. As a result, people who at least worked for enough to eat were having trouble feeding their families. This was made even worse because oftentimes the mercenary troops would lay siege to small and large towns alike, plundering if need be because even they were not given enough. This was compounded by the fact that many of the troops had a large entourage of women, children, and others who came along with them and they too needed to eat as well. These problems were all combined and a long period of disease and general famine swept across Europe and was particularly bad where the armies passed by. “At times desperate peasants revolted and attacked nearby castles and monasteries. War and intermittent outbreaks of plague cost some German towns one-third or more of their populations. One-third of the inhabitants of Bohemia also perished” For the common people, the number of social ills were stacking up but despite some uprisings, these people were generally not heeded by their governments until much later in history.
Generally speaking, the Thirty Years War began because of religious conflict. While this was one of the main instigators for the ensuing military action, it should also be noted that there was already a great deal of instability throughout Europe, particularly because of the fragmented nature of the individual states and their mixed alliances. With the fall of the Holy Roman Empire and the Hapsburgs, Western Europe changed dramatically as the balance of power shifted from Rome and religion to a more secularly-based set of nations that were more interested in trade, economics, and non-religious affairs. With this in mind, one of the most significant consequences of the Thirty Years War is that is was, essentially, the religious war to end all wars. After this point, religious differences were no longer of primary importance, especially because there was an increasingly unbalanced distribution of wealth between countries in the few years to follow the Peace of Westphalia. Countries that had proven themselves strong (such as Sweden and Denmark, for instance) during the first years of the Thirty Years War were to find themselves in the shadow of wealthier nations such as France. In many ways then, another more general consequence of the War was that it allowed, for the first time in European history, a country to obtain prominence because of trade, economics, and politics rather than because it was the center of a religious hierarchy. In other words, without the events and resolutions of the Thirty Years War Europe and the balance of wealth and power would be dramatically different.
For more essays and articles on this and other historical topics, please visit the history archives *
1) Asch, Ronald G. The Thirty Years’ War: The Holy Roman Empire and Europe, 1618-48. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.
2) Maland, David. Europe at War, 1600-1650. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1980.
3) Polisenský, Josef V., and Frederick Snider. War and Society in Europe, 1618-1648. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978.