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    Social Consequences of the Thirty Years’ War: Was it Worth it?

    The Thirty Years’ War was a major European war that occurred during the 17th century. While the conflict took place mainly in the area of modern day Germany, it involved many of the great European powers at that time. The Thirty Years’ War had a profound impact on Europe, and some of the consequences of this war can be seen in the changes that were made to European society.

    The Beginning of a Brutal 30 Years

    The Thirty Years’ War began in 1618, and lasted until 1648. This war started off as a religious war that pitted Catholics against Protestants in the Holy Roman Empire, but then evolved into a conflict between the Habsburg Dynasty and other European powers.

    The immediate cause of the Thirty Years’ War was the decision by the newly-elected Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand II of Bohemia, to impose religious uniformity in his empire. This was seen by his Protestant subjects as a violation of the Peace of Augsburg, and they banded together to form the Protestant Union. This, in addition to Ferdinand’s refusal to tolerate his Protestant subjects, led to the Thirty Years’ War.

    Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia by Joseph Heintz the Elder

    Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia by Joseph Heintz the Elder ( Public Domain )

    Other major European powers were soon drawn into this conflict, though most of the fighting took place on German soil. While it seemed that these powers chose their sides based on their own religious inclinations, it was in fact politics that influenced their decisions. France, for instance, though Catholic, sided with the Protestants, as they were surrounded by Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, both of which belonged to the Habsburg Dynasty.

    Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden at the Battle of Breitenfeld by Johann Walter 1632

    Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden at the Battle of Breitenfeld by Johann Walter 1632 ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

    Paying the Price for the Thirty Years’ War

    During the Thirty Years’ War, heavier taxes were imposed upon the people. As the fighting went on for a prolonged period of time with a large number of mercenary troops, much money was needed to pay these soldiers of fortune. Therefore, citizens of the powers involved in the war were taxed heavily.

    The situation was made worse by the fact that during that period agricultural production declined drastically. Poor harvest coupled with heavy taxation resulted in revolts by the peasantry in various parts of Europe. In spite of such uprisings, the discontent and suffering of the people was ignored by their governments.

    It may be added that the mercenaries generally pillaged and destroyed whatever towns they captured, thus exacerbating the condition of the civilians caught up in this conflict. Moreover, the influx of soldiers from foreign lands, including mercenaries, helped aggravate the spread of disease, which was already rampant during the war.

    The civilian death toll was highest in Germany, where much of the fighting took place. It has been estimated that armed conflict, disease, and famine reduced the population of Germany by between 15 and 20%.

    Soldiers plundering a farm during the thirty years war by Sebastian Vrancx, 1620

    Soldiers plundering a farm during the thirty years war by Sebastian Vrancx, 1620 ( Public Domain )

    The Peace of Westphalia

    The Thirty Years’ War ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Some of the social consequences of this conflict can be seen in the treaty. For example, under the Peace of Westphalia , the rulers of the German states were once again given the right to determine the religion of their domain.

    In addition, both Catholics and Protestants were now equal before the law, and Calvinism was given legal recognition. Furthermore, the right to practice one’s faith in public at allotted hours and in private at will was given to Christians living in states where their denomination was not the established church. In a way, this may also be seen as a step towards the separation of Church and State, and the freedom of religion in Europe.

    A Scene of the Thirty Years War

    A Scene of the Thirty Years War ( Public Domain )

    A Long Road to Religious Freedom

    In short, the Thirty Years’ War had an extremely negative impact on the people of Europe. Disease, famine, and battles took their toll, and caused widespread suffering. The imposition of heavy taxes caused further suffering, which led a discontented population to rise in revolt. Though these were not seen as overly important during the period, it was a shadow of things to come.

    Nevertheless, the Thirty Years’ War did have some positive impact on European society too. This is seen notably in the increase in religious freedom , as well as its contribution towards the development of the separation of Church and State .

    Top image: The Battle of Rocroi, by Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

    By Wu Mingren

    Updated on November 6, 2020.

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