Counter-Reformation and Thirty Year War

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The Catholic Church responded to the Reformation with a cleaning up of its own house somewhat, the persecution of Protestants. The choosing of sides — the Catholic or the Protestants — was often mixed up with a struggle for political power that culminated with the Thirty Year War that devastated Germany and broke up the Holy Roman Empire.

In 1529, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) decreed the "reading, purchasing or possessing of any proscribed books, or any New Testaments prohibited by the theologians of Louvain" were crimes in which "men" are to "be beheaded, the women buried alive, and the relapsed burned." In 1601, the Spanish Dominican Alonso Giroi demanded that all religious books written in languages other than Latin were prohibited.

The Council of Trent (1545-63) set the stage for the Catholic Counter Reformation. The first Council of Trent 1545-47 condemned Protestantism. The Council of Trent in 1563 stamped reformation teachings as heresies. Jesuit founder Ignatius Loyala wrote: "Even if my own father was a heretic , I would gather wood to burn him."

During the Counter-Reformation the Catholic Church "retreated into orthodoxy": banning books, confining Rome's Jews to a ghetto and burning heretics at the stake. The Counter Reformation against Protestants was led the Jesuits (founded in 1534 by Loyola), who also played a big part in the Catholic revival that occurred during the Counter-Reformation. Many people converted to Catholicism in Poland, Hungary and south Germany and missionaries were shipped to India and China. [Source: World Almanac]

In the later part of the 16th century, the Catholic church was able to convert many Germans and regain control in parts of Germany like Bavarian. Religious parties—The Protestant Union (1608) and the Catholic League (1609)—were formed.

Websites and Resources World Council of Churches, main world body for mainline Protestant churches ; Wikipedia article on Protestantism Wikipedia ; Internet Sourcebook ;

Reformation and Counter-Reformation Religious Wars

A century and a half of religious wars associated with the Reformation and Counter-Reformation began before Martin Luther's death in 1546. The first conflicts were a revolt of Reich knights in 1522 and a peasant uprising in 1524 in southern Germany. The later was repressed with Luther's support. Both rebellions failed and were brutally put down.

Civil war between Huguenots (Protestant nobles and merchants) and Catholics mostly in France lasted from 1562 to 1598, leaving tens of thousands dead. It pitted Catholics against Calvinists and climaxed with the demise of the Valois dynasty, the royal house of France from 1328 to 1589, and the conversion to Catholicism of the Protestant heir to the throne, Henry of Navaree, who said, "Paris well worth a mass." The Treaty of Nantes, which ended the fight, and recognized the Protestants was revoked in 1685.

Papists burning Luther's books

During the Thirty Year War, Germany was devastated by local and foreign armies from France and Sweden.. The peace of Ausberg in 1555 promised religious freedom to the princes and nobles in Germany. The main beneficiaries of the religious wars were the German princes, who used Protestantism as an excuse to confiscate the riches of local Catholic church. The Habsburg attempt to restore Catholicism was resisted in 25 years of fighting.

One of the most tragic events of the Counter-Reformation was the Massacre of Huguenots — the massacre of Protestants on St. Barthalomew's Day in Paris in 1572, when King Charles IX ordered the murders of 3,000 French Protestants and the Huguenots were driven into exile. One scholar was so intent on learning Hebrew on this frightful day that a colleague wrote "that for some time he heard neither the clash of arms, nor the groans of children, nor the wailing men, nor the shouting of men.”

In the mid 16th century, the Catholic Regent Mary, Queen Dowager of Hungary and ruler of Flanders, ordered that all heretics be executed with "care being taken that provinces were not entirely depopulated."

Peace of Ausburg

Charles V tried to crush the Protestant revolt but was forced to sign the Peace of Ausburg (1555), a truce which allowed each prince in the Holy Roman Empire to decide whether to be Protestant or Catholic. The fighting between Catholic and Protestants ceased for 63 years in what is now Germany and much of central and eastern Europe after the Peace of Ausburg went into effect. The truce said that every prince, whether Catholic or Protestant, had the right to choose the religion of its subjects. The agreement sealed the religious division of Germany and was broken with the Thirty Year War in 1618.

At the time of the Peace of Augsburg about 80 percent of Germany was Protestant. Encouraged by the Peace of Augsburg, Protestantism spread and Protestant rulers banded together to form the Protestant Union in 1608. The Catholics responded by founding the Catholic League. In 1619, the Habsburg emperor Ferdinand II asked for help from the Catholic League to put down a Protestant uprising in Bohemia. This was one of the main causes of the Thirty Year War.

The Peace of Augsburg greatly weakened the authority of the Holy Roman Emperor. The Treaty of Westphalia (1648) that ended the Thirty Year War further weakened it and allowed local princes to form their own alliances and make their own policy. This opened the way for the rise of Prussia, which over time gained strength as Austria declined.

Thirty Year War

Thirty Year War (1618-48) fought between the French, Swedes, Habsburgs was messy, confusing and one of the world's deadliest conflicts, resulting in as many as 10 million deaths and devastated Germany. Like World War I, it began with a small incident, expanded through allied agreements and only ended after millions were dead.

The Thirty Year war was the longest continuous war. The Hundred War occurred of and on .
The Thirty Year War was spawned a number of controversies between Catholic and Protestant principalities, claiming jurisdiction based on ancient documents. It began when Bohemian Protestants in Prague threw Catholic representatives of the Habsburg emperor out of a window of Prague Castle,

Massacre of Protestants Vassy, France in 1562

Protestant Sweden and Catholic France allied with the German Prince against Ferdinand.

During the war Germany was invaded by several foreign powers invited in by the rulers of individual princely-states. The first invader was King Christian IV of Denmark, who was supported financially by Protestant England. After five years of fighting he was thrown out by the Habsburgs. In 1630, the Swedes, headed by Protestant Gustavus Adolphus and subsidized by Catholic King Louis XIII of France and Cardinal Richeliu, invaded.

The Catholic French were willing to subsidize the Protestant cause to keep Germany — which the French viewed as a threat — divided and tied up in a civil war. The French strategy worked perfectly. Over 20,000 people were killed in 1631 in the attack of Magdeburg alone. When Sweden was defeated at the Battle of Lützen in 1632, France sent its own troops to the conflict and the war continued for another 16 years.

Beginning of the Thirty Year War

The Thirty Year War began when Protestant princes in Germany revolted against Ferdinand III, the head of the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburg Empire. Ferdinand was a supporter of the Counter-Reformation, which intended to restore Catholic power in Europe.

The war began in 1618 with an incident called the "Defenestration of Prague," in which Protestant aristocrats from Bohemia, who had recently chosen a Calvinist king, rejected the Habsburg Archduke Ferdinand as their King and threw Ferdinand's regents 60 feet out of a window at Prague Castle. They survived after landing in the moat. The Habsburg then sent an army to Prague to throw out the new king.

The result was the Battle of White Mountain, an hour-long rout in November 8, 1620 that destroyed Central European Protestantism and replaced it with Catholic repression. Even though Bohemia was only a small princely state about the size of Maryland and the powerful Habsburgs quickly achieved their goal, the fighting continued for 30 years.

Magdeburg in 1631

Destruction and Savagery During the Thirty Year War

Germany was devastated by the Thirty Year War. Agriculture and commerce were ruined. Once-rich fields reverted to wilderness; packs of wolves roamed the countryside; there were even reports of cannibalism. By most estimates, the population had been reduced from perhaps 16 million to less than 10 million. Some 350,000 people died by the sword, the rest from famine. Compromise was impossible because either the Pope was Christ's vicar or he wasn't.

Swedes raped and pillaged, and destroyed castles. Baroque architecture took hold in Germany partly because the Swedes destroyed so many structures. Armies tormented peasants and perceived enemies with the "Swedish cocktail" (manure droppings pored down the throat of a victim). People were burned alive in bread ovens and abandoned children wander along roadsides. Bandits emerged from the woods and slaughtered travelers and peasants.

In the Thirty Year War one of the primary strategies of both side was to destroy food and farms of the peasantry lest they fall into the hands of their enemies. The result of this was widespread famine and death on a scale not seen since the Great Plague. In the worst hit areas, in the Rhineland and Alsace, people survived on weeds, leaves, cats, dogs and rats and even soaked cowhide. Reports of cannibalism were widespread: mothers eating their children and people fighting over limbs and organs of executed criminals.

Peace of Westphalia and Legacy of the Thirty Year War

The Thirty Year War came to end when the Peace of Westphalia was at last signed in 1648. Switzerland and the Netherlands withdrew from German control and large chunks of former German territory were ceded to France and Sweden. The Treaty of Westphalia has been described as the most important treaty of the millennium. It ushered in a period of peace, ended the concept that Europe could be unified into a single empire and the notion that Catholic church and Europe were united. It also established the modern system of nations, which now governs the world.

Peace of Westphalia in 1648

"In German memory, the Thirty Year War still lives, in somewhat the same way that the Civil War does in ours," Otto Friedrich wrote in Smithsonian magazine. When the conflict was over "France stood predominate in Europe. What is now modern Germany lay in ruins."

The war's biggest loser were the Holy Roman Empire and its ruling Habsburg Dynasty of Austria. Much the Westphalia treaty was devoted to handing out former Holy Roman Empire territory ro regional leaders that was formally under Habsburg control.

At the end of the war the Habsburg held onto Austria and Bohemia but lost much of their empire. Protestantism endured and the remainder of Germany was divided up in mini-states ruled by more than 300 dukes, counts, margraves, barons and bishops—all of whom were granted sovereignty over their territory by the Peace of Westphalia.

The treaty also ended the notion of religious tolerance. States were created along religious grounds and residents who belonged to other religions and didn't like the arrangement were told to leave. The concept of universal values was replaced by nationalism. The Frankish Diet, a Protestant body, legalized bigamy in the mid 1600s as a means of increasing the population after the Thirty Year War.

Impact of Protestantism and Reconciliation

Peter Schjeldahl wrote in The New Yorker: “ Luther’s discounting of personal charity as a self-deluding substitute for faith prompted state welfare to compensate the poor. More generally, his emphasis on personal responsibility gave rise to the Protestant ethic of gainful hard work.” The philosopher and sociologist Max Weber argued that the Protestant work ethic was responsible for the rise of capitalism in northern Europe.

In 1998, the Vatican announced with a few caveats that it supported the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification on which Catholic and Lutheran theologians had been working since 1967. The declaration states: "Together we confess: By graces alone, in faith in Christ's saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Sourcebook ; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible,; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) , Frontline, PBS, Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time,, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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