Long: How Modern Europe began 400 years ago

By John Long

Being a sucker for historical anniversaries, I couldn’t resist writing about a crucial event in the history of western civilization. It was a war that started with a desperate act of terrorism, then unexpectedly escalated into a conflict raging across Europe, drawing in all the major powers. Modern weaponry inflicted unprecedented carnage. No one at the beginning could foresee the damage that would be done or the millions of lives that would be lost. Parts of Europe were so demographically devastated that recovery would take decades.

Heroes came to the forefront and villains were named; propaganda spread lurid tales with varying tinges of truth; nations found surprising allies at their side and enemies across the field who weren’t all that different. After it was all over, a great peace conference was held, and the world was imperfectly remade, with ramifications that continue to this day.

Yeah, I could be writing about the centennial of the First World War. But instead my topic du jour is the 400th anniversary of start of the Thirty Years War. My guess is, if you’ve heard of it at all, you haven’t given it much thought since some forgotten history exam years ago. So let’s take a few hundred words to explore this seminal event from a world that wasn’t, when you get down to it, so different from our own.

By 1618 Europe was a good century along with the Reformation; Europe had divided (if very untidily) into Catholic and Protestant states. Then within Protestantism there were disparate factions; in few places would anyone find anything remotely resembling freedom of worship as we would define it. In the Bohemian capital of Prague, a group of Protestants grew tired of what they (with good reason) believed to be Catholic outrages. In response, in May 1618 they tossed some representatives of the Catholic king of Bohemia (who was also in the process of becoming the Holy Roman Emperor) out of a tower window. This goes down in history as the Defenestration of Prague; the flying noblemen survived, incidentally, because they landed in a manure pile.

Somewhat like the American Revolutionaries in another century and a half, the Bohemian protestants decided that, the current king being a tyrant, they had the obligation to choose a new ruler. A sympathetic Protestant was crowned, but of course the Catholic emperor was not going to let such a provocation pass. War was soon on, and the insurrection was crushed mercilessly. Catholic armies then spread through the rest of Germany chasing the remnants of the Protestant factions, and since armies in those days ate what they could find and were paid in plunder, the “unprovisioned armies began to live off the land like so many hordes of locusts,” in the words of historian Norman Davies.

It would take all of three decades to resolve the conflict, which went through several distinct phases. Not surprisingly, the war soon drew in other European states, usually but not always along the lines of religious preference. Spain came in on the Catholic side; England, the Netherlands, and Sweden took up the Protestant banner. Denmark was on both sides at different times. Perhaps most unexpectedly, Catholic France eventually stepped in as a defender of the Protestant states, but more for political reasons than religious, evidence that this “last major religious war in Europe” was rooted in power politics as much as theology.

By the 1640s the belligerents were tired of the fight, although no one could quit without some reason to do so. Negotiations opened, but were not finalized until 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia. The terms were too complex to explain in this space, but it marked a watershed in modern diplomacy by instituting the international system recognizing modern states as sovereign within their borders—sometimes called Westphalian Sovereignty.

The treaty made the old Holy Roman Empire essentially an empty shell and the myriad German states pretty much independent. France was now the dominant continental power; we don’t usually think of Sweden and Holland as great powers, but in 1648 they were indisputably that. Spain was clearly waning as an international power broker.

So what, you (removed by four centuries) wonder. How does this affect our life today? Of course, in a sense, all events impact subsequent happenings, but this war was a big deal. Among other things, the lingering hopes of some that a united “Christendom” could be reestablished ended in 1648. Modern Europe, in essence, was produced by the Thirty Years War.

Long is the education director for the National D-Day Memorial.