The thirty years war, mostly affecting central Europe, is historically considered as one of the most brutal wars with millions dying in the military battles, diseases, and famine. Between 1618 and 1648, the war started between protestant and catholic states that constituted the Roman Empire (Parker, 23). As the war progressed, it turned out that it was less concerned about religious matters and more inclined towards determining who was to consolidate more power and govern Europe. There were conflicts between the Dutch Republic and Spain, France and Spain, and later, all nations across Europe were involved after the alignment to one of these warring powers. When the thirty years war ended, there were changes in Europe’s geopolitical characteristics, and people reconsidered the role of religion in politics in society. The separation of the church and state would soon become one of the most widely discussed topics among policymakers in order to accommodate all people within subjecting them to one popular denomination or belief.
Although there are popular interpretations that the war was fought for religious purposes, it is evident that they were only prominent, but political motivations were more pronounced and behind the deep hatred between the two groups. Analysis of this case further proves that political and religious issues were constantly overlapping making interpreters and analysis to have challenges in understanding the war’s complex structure and picture. In the 1619 elections, it was expected that Emperor Ferdinand II would take over leadership, backed by the Roman Empire (Pursell 67). However, the Bohemian estates, who were largely protestant, opted for Frederick V and the threat of an unexpected win forced Ferdinand to vote for himself. To punish his opponents, he decided to punish heresy a decision motivated by his anti-protestant views making some of the protestants being thrown out of the palace in Prague. The war that ensued was, therefore, an antagonism between the Protestants and Catholics, but the underlying issues were politically motivated. The doctrine of Imperial Generalissimo advocated for by Ferdinand was under the threat of the Imperial Constitution. Borrowing lessons from Spain and France, Ferdinand also wanted Germany to have one ruler, an objective that was achievable through the spread of religious hatred and divisions to create disunity. Eventually, all these nations would embrace concepts similar to imperial constitutionalism restoring power to the people who would make choices on who was the best fit to lead them. However, some nations such as Spain and England managed to maintain their traditions even in the modern world by having positions occupied by Kings although there is still the adherence to constitutional provisions.
Ferdinand II and his advisors realized that the Imperial Constitution would limit the powers accorded to the emperor and therefore, there was an urgent need to make his enemies surrender for, in politics, the end justifies the means as Niccolo Machiavelli argued in The Prince. Wallenstein believed that the roles played by princes and electors would not be necessary again (Neal 130). Catholic princes and other emperors could, therefore, associate with Ferdinand II’s ideas that just like other states in Europe, Germany deserved to one ruler who would unite the people on religious beliefs rather than introducing an amendment to stripping off the powers of the emperor. From the account of Ferdinand II, it can be concluded the Thirty Years War was not religious but more concerned about the political directions and the liberties of Germany.
Politics can also be used to attain religious objectives causation that can be used to explain why the Thirty Years War was more religious motivated. Ferdinand II was concerned about the religious uniformity of the people he ruled over and was, therefore, decided to use his power and authority to suppress dissenting voices regardless of the cost implications. Assuming to power, the Emperor revoked all pacts that allowed the toleration of Protestantism, including the Peace of Augsburg that was invalidated (Parker 49). He was further determined to use politics as a means to retake the Bohemia, which was so much under the influence of protestants. Through political allies in Bavaria, Saxony and the Spanish Kingdom, Johan Tserclaes, who was the Count of Till, was ordered to lead the attack with the intentions of quick annihilation of the religious enemies. Despite the efforts to counter the emperor’s tactics, they were defeated under Prince Christian.
The religious motivations triggering the war has however sparked scholastic debates that have made many historians neutral on the real causes. The war has been reported to be more than what the catholic rulers and followers of the faith advocated for in promoting peace, uniformity, and other aspects promoting social order. Those opposing the emperor believed that the existing religious form of leadership was a cause of poverty and undesired aspects in the Kingdom that were been escalated by bad leadership. There was, therefore, an urgent need to defend faith rather than the self-interests defined by expansionist policies to acquire more territory. A profound analysis of the two sides of the debates explaining the causes of the Thirty Years war; however proved it is difficult to separate political ambitions and religious fervor, two aspects that are intricately intertwined. The idea that politics and religions should exist autonomously were later extensively discussed by political realists such as Thomas Hobbes and Niccolo Machiavelli who argued that politics could not be guided by morals. Sometimes, leaders are forced to sacrifice justice for the sake of peace and therefore, impossible to have all actions confined within religious frameworks.
Conclusively, the causes of the thirty years war are both political and religious. However, political issues played a significant role in triggering the hostilities that later affected entire Europe. It is, therefore, true to say that the religious divide was magnified by diplomatic and political tensions. For political and religious reasons, major powers in Europe rose against each other leading the loss of millions of lives. After realizing the need to have peace, the warring nations decided to end the war using the Peace of Westphalia after an extensive assessment of the economic, social and political effects of a war that was creating more divisions and hatred instead of appreciating the territorial sovereignty of states. Europeans would then realize the need to be tolerant of each other’s beliefs and avoid another conflict, although some decades later, World War I and World War II were triggered.
Neal, Larry. “The Variety of Financial Innovations in European War Finance during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648).” Financial Innovation and Resilience. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, 2018. 127-145.
Parker, Geoffrey. The Thirty Years’ War. Routledge, 2006.
Pursell, Brennan C. The winter king: Frederick V of the Palatinate and the coming of the Thirty Years’ War. Routledge, 2017.