The Effects of the Thirty Years’ War on Germany

Before the twentieth century, there was overwhelming agreement among historians that the Thirty Years’ War had disastrous effects on Germany. This view of the German ‘catastrophe’ originated in seventeenth-century Brandenburg, and was passed on to Prussia and the Second Reich. Gustav Freytag (1816–95) expressed the general consensus of opinion about this cataclysmic period of German history: ‘When the war ended there was little remaining of the great nation.’1 During the present century, however, the view that the Thirty Years’ War was totally destructive has come in for some questioning, although most historians continued to see it as having contributed much to German decline. The most advanced advocate of a revised view has been 8. H. Steinberg, who argued that the war's evil reputation was greatly exaggerated by the ‘original atrocity propaganda emanating from Berlin’2 to enhance the authority of the Great Elector and to provide justification for his measures. The real impact of the war, Steinberg believed, has to be seen in perspective; the struggle was not concerned primarily with the future of Germany, and its impact on Germany has been overstated, particularly since the economy and prosperity of the German cities were already in decline before the main period of the war.

The difference between the two interpretations has been clearly outlined by Theodore K.Rabb, who has labelled the original theory's exponents as the ‘disastrous war school’ and those who advocate a completely revised view the ‘earlier decline school’. Both sides have been thoroughly represented and the dispute persists today, although the majority of historians have tended to accept the most convincing components of each. For some the ‘disastrous war’ argument has always been conclusive, especially for D.Ogg (Europe in the Seventeenth Century) and W.Durant (The Story of Civilisation). Many others, however, accept elements of the ‘earlier decline’ theory, while, at the same time, attaching far more importance to the destruction within the Empire than does Steinberg. Examples are F.L.Carsten (New Cambridge Modern History, Volume V), V.H.H.Green (Renaissance and Reformation) and AJ.P.Taylor (The Course of German History).

The purpose of this chapter is to examine briefly the impact of the war on Germany's civilian population, economy, political structure, and culture. In the course of this composite arguments from both sides will be used and illustrated.

What is not generally questioned is that the war was the most savage conflict seen in Europe before the total wars of the twentieth century. When the effects on the civilian population are analysed there is good evidence for the ‘disastrous war’ theory. In no European war before 1914 (some would push the date to 1939) were non–combatants so extensively involved as between 1618 and 1648.

There were two main reasons for this involvement. First, each of the several sides in the war made use of mercenary and paramercenary armies who usually lived off the land and who grew accustomed to pillage and violence. Warfare brutalized the population in many areas, to the extent that some armies were actually outnumbered by their civilian hangers–on, who hoped for protection and a share in the spoils of victory. When a town or city was attacked, therefore, the chaos and destruction would be enormous. What made matters worse was that commanders like Tilly, Pappenheim, Wallenstein, Spinola, Gallas and Torstenson were unable to impose military discipline of the type which would have been taken for granted a hundred years later. Second, the war covered virtually every part of Germany. Campaigns were not limited to rapid marches and pitched battles. The complexity of the issues and the number of participants meant that there was an exceptionally large number of smaller armies, who frequently bungled a first campaign and had to repeat it later. Some areas endured twelve or more campaigns during the course of the war; the city of Magdeburg was besieged ten times. The civilian population lost its usual resilience and fortitude in the face of war because the frequent repetition of destruction prevented recovery and reconstruction in many areas. The constant reappearance of armies brought, too, a wide variety of diseases, including the plague itself, which probably accounted for as many casualties as the fighting. Ogg, Wedgwood and Durant have all written evocative passages on the sufferings of German civilians.

There are no really accurate statistics to show the effect of the war on the population of Germany, but there are widely accepted estimates. In 1618 the Holy Roman Empire had the largest population of any political unit in Europe and the Middle East, with the one exception of the Ottoman Empire, the total standing at about 21 m. By 1648 this had shrunk to about 13^ m. The population of Bohemia, within the Empire, was reduced from 3 m. to 800,000 during the same period and 29,000 of her 35,000 villages were deserted during the conflict.3 Urban centres also suffered severely. Augsburg, the major German city, with 48, 000 in 1620, had only 21,000 in 1650.4 Magdeburg lost 25,000 of her 30,000 inhabitants in the notorious sack of 1631.5 In general, the areas worst affected were the Palatinate (which, in some places, lost 80 per cent of its population), parts of the Rhineland, northern Brandenburg and Pomerania, Bohemia, and parts of Silesia and Bavaria. These experienced numerous campaigns and came to fear the armies of their allies as much as those of their enemies.

The impact of the war on the total population of Germany was long–lasting. France rapidly replaced the Empire as the most populous European state and German population growth was delayed until the period of the Second Reich (1871–1918), when a population explosion took place.

The impact of the war on the German economy and society is more difficult to assess, and there is considerable scope for the ‘earlier decline’ theory. During the Middle Ages, Germany had been the meeting ground of European trade, served by the arteries of the great German rivers like the Rhine, the Elbe and the Oder. Italy possessed larger commercial units and cities, but Germany had an enormous number of prosperous towns and a great diversity of interests and products. By 1618, however, Germany was already set into decline. The reign of Charles V (1519–56) had seen the misuse of the Empire's resources in the pursuit of an overambitious foreign policy which was bequeathed to his son, Philip II of Spain (1556– 98). Spanish foreign policy after 1556 depended heavily on loans from German bankers, particularly the Welsers and Fuggers, both of whom were adversely affected by the bankruptcies of Philip's reign. Meanwhile, the peripheral powers were gaining increasing control of the main volume of trade: the Hanseatic League, so dominant in the Middle Ages, was being challenged by Sweden in the Baltic, and three major commercial and maritime powers had appeared in the west: England, the Netherlands and France. Trade was now beginning to bypass the Empire altogether.

Economic decline, therefore, predated the war but there can be no doubt that the process was greatly and artificially accelerated between 1618 and 1648. German economic recovery was always a possibility until Germany was trampled underfoot by her neighbours.

The fall in population inevitably affected the economy disastrously. The main result was the decline in the status of the Imperial Free Cities, which became a prey to the less commercially successful surrounding German states. A total new economic network had to be built up, based this time on the support of state rulers (like the Great Elector) rather than on the free enterprise of the cities.

The period of the war created a great commercial vacuum in Central Europe which the other European powers learned to dispense with altogether. The conditions of warfare between 1618 and 1648 rarely favoured the usual practice of conducting campaigns and trade simultaneously, and the destruction was so enormous that the normal trade routes were broken. The peripheral routes, therefore, became more important, as England, the Netherlands, France and Sweden all reduced their volume of trade with Central Europe. Germany was further affected by the Treaty of Westphalia, which gave control over the outlets of major German rivers to foreign powers. For example, the Netherlands controlled the mouths of the Rhine, while Sweden dominated the mouths of the Weser, the Elbe and the Oder. Consequently, where trading contacts were renewed with Germany they were conducted to the advantage of foreign powers, who could impose tolls in the arterial routes under their influence. The general result in large parts of Germany was the decline of the middle classes as entrepreneurs and their tendency to enter bureaucratic service instead. There were, of course, some exceptions to the process of decline. Hamburg, for example, emerged from the war unscathed and proceeded to become Germany's major port. For every Hamburg, however, there were several Augsburgs and Magdeburgs, cities which never regained their previous importance and wealth.

The rural areas of Germany were affected in two fundamentally different ways. F.L.Carsten6 draws a distinction between southern and western Germany on the one hand and north–eastern Germany on the other. The impact of the war on the peasantry was generally severe: they constituted the majority of the population and they were most affected by the destruction caused by the armies. Yet the long-term effects were more complex.

In southern and western Germany, especially Bavaria and the Palatinate, the war hastened the decline of feudalism, already under way before 1618. The decline in the peasant population reduced the number of tenants available and therefore greatly improved their bargaining power with the nobility. In the north and east, however, the nobility were somewhat more powerful and the decline in the peasant population had the unfortunate result of tightening feudal obligations, as the nobility appealed to their rulers to issue legislation to this effect. In Brandenburg the Great Elector used this situation to gain the support of the nobility to embark upon a programme of political reform and recentralization. In all parts of Germany the nobility were ruined by the war and were thus made more dependent on state rulers; presumably this would have happened anyway as individual rulers gained in power at the expense of the Emperor, but the process was greatly accelerated during the war years. In most states, like Bavaria, the nobility entered state employment. The transition was particularly important in Brandenburg. Here the nobility were encouraged to devote their lives to service in the army and bureaucracy, which became the twin pillars of Prussian autocracy in the eighteenth century.

The effect of the war on German political development again seems to provide qualified support for the ‘earlier decline’ theory. The main political process, decentralization, had been taking place for centuries, as the princes increasingly challenged the authority of the Emperor himself. The reigns of Maximilian I (1493–1519) and Charles V (1519–56) had seen unsuccessful attempts to reverse the process. The disintegration of imperial authority was increased by the association between the north German states and Lutheranism and between the Rhine area and Calvinism. Freytag's ‘German nation’ was not, therefore, destroyed by the Thirty Years’ War, for the simple reason that there was no German nation to destroy.

Nevertheless, the political fabric of the Empire was, if anything, much weaker in 1648 than it had been in 1618. The Treaty of Westphalia tied the hands of the Emperor and enabled the German princes to conclude their own alliances with foreign powers if they so wished. The Empire had now lost all the characteristics of a sovereign state and was never again to come to a united political decision or to wage war as a unit. Even Charles V had managed to rally the Empire together to face a common external threat in the early 1540s; this could not have been possible after 1648. In the future it was time and time again to be the scene of warfare between member states (for example, the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years’ War) as well as between external powers.

The major political effect of the war was to accelerate another earlier development, the growth of large German states. The most extreme case was Brandenburg, who had been slowly consolidating her position in the sixteenth century but was now catapulted into major power status by the Treaty of Westphalia (evidence of an ‘earlier rise’ theory being combined with a ‘beneficial war’ theory?). The result was the growth of a major military power in northern Germany to balance the traditional power of Austria in the south. Future conflict between them was inevitable.

Contemporary and eighteenth–century opinion was appalled by the nature of this war, and it was widely regarded as an example of the utmost barbarism. Grimmelshausen's The Adventures of Simplicissimus provided a rough and penetrating satire of the period, while Callot's engravings Les Miseres de la Guerre are a clear and gruesome indication of an artist's attitudes, comparable only with Goya's Disasters of War (on the Peninsular War) nearly two hundred years later. The writers of the eighteenth century, especially Voltaire and Diderot, condemned the fanaticism which produced the excesses of brutality and destruction. The war has even provided inspiration for modern writers: Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children uses the Thirty Years’ War to analyse the impact of warfare—it provides a direct link between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries.

Literature and art, therefore, tend to support the ‘disastrous war’ school. How should history see the effect of the war on German culture? Ogg7 refers to a serious decline, especially in literature, and observes: ‘Germany continued to produce great men, but they were mostly great in their isolation, and preeminent in those things–metaphysics and classical music—which influence a small minority.’ Some historians go so far as to refer to a greater German affinity to coarseness and violence, part of a bleak picture of cultural decadence.

A more optimistic view, however, could be put forward. It is true that Germany was no longer the cultural focal point of Europe in 1648 and that she came increasingly under French cultural influence in the eighteenth century. As the courts of rulers like Frederick the Great (1740–86) replaced the Free Cities as the cultural centres of Germany, foreign and non-indigenous influences were bound to develop. Nevertheless, there was eventually a revival of German literature, as Goethe (1749–1832), Herder (1744–1803) and Schiller (17591805) appealed to a larger cross section of the German population. Together with the many other figures of the German Romantic movement, they influenced the more positive and less militaristic aspects of German nationalism in the first half of the nineteenth century. The ultimate conquest of Germany by militarism and authoritarianism was due less to any cultural deficiencies inherited by Germans from the Thirty Years’ War than to the rapid emergence of a new Sparta within the Empire: Brandenburg–Prussia.

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