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Aftermath and Fallout

The Peace of Westphalia, actually treaties signed at Münster and Osnabrück, had religious and political ramifications that lasted for centuries. First, the peace recognized the sovereignty of the German princes, all 300 or so of them. Each prince was free to choose the religion for his principality. Furthermore, the papacy could no longer intervene in German religious issues. The Church’s practical influence on European affairs took a major hit. The Peace of Westphalia also upheld the Peace of Augsburg, added Calvinism to the short list of religions allowed in German states, and made the Edict of Restitution null and void. As it turned out, even after all the fighting and subsequent diplomacy, the states of northern Germany remained mostly Protestant while the southern German states remained mostly Catholic.

Would You Believe?

The Peace of Westphalia is often looked to as the first example of modern diplomacy, diplomacy where matters of state take precedence over religion.

As for the political aspects of the peace, the United Provinces finally won recognition as an independent state. Switzerland, too, won recognition as a state. The German princes, as part of their sovereignty, won the right to make alliances and form treaties as long as they didn’t declare war on the Holy Roman Empire. Sweden received a nice wad of cash and control over land along the Baltic. The biggest winner politically, though, was France. France received the region of Alsace, an area of land that would be hotly contested between France and Germany even as late as World War II, and in a later treaty received part of the Spanish Netherlands and land along the Pyrenees. France’s international meddling had paid huge dividends. Spain no longer stood as the most powerful nation in Europe. That distinction, after the Peace of Westphalia and the Treaty of the Pyrenees, belonged to France and France alone. Spain officially lost the United Provinces while France grew larger. France also benefited from the fragmentation of the Holy Roman Empire.

Would You Believe?

The Catholics and Protestants refused to meet face to face so they agreed to use two cities to formally end the war. The Catholics signed in the city of Münster and the Protestants in Osnabrück.

The End of an Empire

The Holy Roman Empire arguably reached its zenith with the Edict of Restitution and stood on the threshold of becoming a permanent, powerful fixture not only in Germany but also in all of Europe. Then, just 20 years later, the Peace of Westphalia rendered the empire virtually irrelevant. With the German states now sovereign, the empire had no control over the states collectively. There existed among the German states no central government, no central court system, and no checks on princes or nobles who might fall out of favor with the empire. The cession of territories to France and Sweden and the acknowledgement of the independence of the United Provinces and Switzerland shrank the geographic area over which the empire could possibly have any influence. For all intents and purposes, the Holy Roman Empire lost nearly all power after the Peace of Westphalia.

Would You Believe?

The Holy Roman Empire, though basically a powerless, nostalgic institution, did not cease to exist until 1806 after a defeat by Napoleon.

While the empire seemed to crumble, the Habsburg family emerged from the war in remarkably good shape. The war had not finished off the family along with the empire. Ironically, the Austrian Habsburgs found themselves in a great situation even though their attempts to strengthen the Holy Roman Empire and eliminate Protestantism had failed. The Habsburgs controlled Austria and Bohemia and were on the verge of extending their control eastward into the Balkans and southward into Italy. Even after the Holy Roman Empire fell, the Habsburgs ruled what became known as the Austrian or Austro-Hungarian Empire, a formidable multiethnic empire that was considered a European power.

Agricultural, Economic, and Population Disaster

Spain and the Holy Roman Empire lost in a big way as a result of the Thirty Years’ War. The biggest losers, though, were the Germans. Because the overwhelming majority of fighting during the war took place on German soil, Germany suffered terribly in a number of ways. Soldiers and looters destroyed countless farms and estates and wiped out both crops and livestock in the process; the mercenary troops by far did the most damage. Even after the war, the farmland was in no shape to begin productive agriculture and the livestock had been drastically depleted. The supply of food might have been enough to support the German population alone but the huge numbers of foreign troops who occupied areas of Germany added an enormous strain.

As a result of the food shortages, Germans suffered not only from malnutrition but also diseases such as dysentery, typhus, the plague, and even scurvy. The diseases already present in Germany prior to the war worsened during and after the war. Wherever the troops went, disease was sure to follow. The lack of food and supplies caused innumerable refugees to flee their homes in search of food and shelter. These population displacements, along with casualties from the fighting, often left entire towns or rural areas completely depopulated.

The German economy took blow after blow over the course of the war. Because of the dramatic influx of gold and silver into Spain from the New World, Europe saw significant inflation. This inflation was compounded in Germany by the shortages that raised prices of food and supplies to often ridiculous levels. Inflation rose higher in Germany than anywhere else in Europe. Trade and commerce practically ceased in many areas because of the fighting and because of the lack of people necessary to support trade routes.

Interestingly, though, the economies in a few cities actually boomed, due to the floods of refUgees who sought safe harbor within the city walls. The depopulation of so many areas created labor shortages similar to the years following the Black Death (see Chapter 1). Many landowners were forced to pay high prices for laborers to work the land. Some lacked the resources to start again and were forced to sell to wealthier landowners. The scores of peasants forced to sell their property eventually became serfs in many parts of eastern Europe.

While the economic and agricultural losses were enormous, the population losses were staggering. Historians and economists estimate the total cost of the war in human life at somewhere in the range of several million. Several hundred thousand lost their lives on the battlefields; the balance died as a result of poor agricultural conditions or epidemic diseases. Some figures, though debated by many historians, showed the population of the German states shrinking by as much as 30 percent because of the war. If those numbers were conservatively cut to 20 percent, that would still estimate the German population dropped from over 20 million to around 15 million over 30 years. Estimates indicate that both urban and rural areas suffered heavy population losses so there were very few safe havens for refugees. It should be no wonder that the Thirty Years’ War remained the greatest disaster in German history until the twentieth century.

As a Matter of Fact

The inhumane actions of the mercenary armies during the Thirty Years' War caused great loss of life not only because of their destruction of farms and livestock but also because of their brutal enforcement of imperial laws and their lack of loyalty to the imperial cause. The poor showing of the mercenaries in this war contributed to the demise of mercenary armies and the rise of national armies.

The Least You Need to Know

The Holy Roman Empire, theoretically, dealt with all secular issues concerning Christendom, while the pope handled all the religious issues. Realistically, the empire’s influence remained mostly over the German states.

The Holy Roman Emperor often quarreled with the pope over territorial issues, issues concerning limits on imperial power, and over pseudo-religious issues like investiture.

The Habsburgs, by virtue of controlling Spain at its peak and the Holy Roman Empire at its peak, could be considered Europe’s most powerful family during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

The Thirty Years’ War actually started when some Protestants threw three Catholics out of a castle window into a dungheap.

The Thirty Years’ War began as a war of religion and ended as an international war of politics involving German states, the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, France, Denmark, Sweden, and others.

The Thirty Years’ War resolved little with regard to religion, the original cause of the war, yet it cost Europe millions of lives. The Thirty Years’ War effectively ended the Holy Roman Empire.

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