Thursday, October 24, 2013

This Day in European History (30 Years War Ends With ‘Peace of Exhaustion’)

October 24, 1648—It took delegates at Munster five hours from when they were told to arrive to sign a pair of peace treaties before the deed, the Peace of Westphalia, was done. But delay, disorder, disharmony and death had been the order of the day in Central Europe for over a generation. Not for nothing did the conflict now concluded become known as the Thirty Years War, though that is something of a misnomer.

Six months of negotiations had elapsed just to decide where the delegates would sit. The key to Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III’s resolution accepting a settlement had been lost, requiring a further delay. Then it took forever to decide in which order the treaties would be signed.

Many contemporaries decided that a more appropriate phrase for the cessation of hostilities was “the Peace of Exhaustion.” No wonder: Just when the conflict had assumed one form, it became infinitely more complicated—and bloodier.

It began in May 1618 with the “Defenestration of Prague,” as three Catholic representatives of the Holy Roman Emperor were, quite literally, thrown 70 feet out the window of the royal castle by Protestant nobles. Nobody was hurt, largely because a dung heap cushioned their fall.

But what started as something akin to Bohemian opera bouffe became a war involving every important player on the Continent, and what began with adversaries divided neatly along religious lines turned into decisions driven by realpolitik rather than spiritual issues.

Like the Hundred Years War between England and France, this conflict did not run uninterrupted. Rather, it was marked by four different phases, with different primary rivals: 1) Bohemian (1618-1625), 2) Danish (1625-29), 3) Swedish 1630-35), and 4) Swedish-French (1635-48).

The group producing the Peace of Westphalia-- the first modern diplomatic congress, a forerunner of such later momentous assemblages as the Congress of Vienna and the Paris peace conference that concluded WWI—did not try to square the circle. It tried to square 190 of them—the number of secular princes of Europe affected by negotiations. 

At the end of it all, there were some definitive outcomes that affected subsequent European history:

*State sovereignty was enshrined as the guiding principle of the modern nation-state;

*The Protestant Netherlands threw off the yoke of Catholic Spain, further hastening the latter's decline as an imperial power;

*Sweden gained control of the Baltic;

*German princes were allowed to determine the religion of their own lands;

*Following from the last result, the Holy Roman Empire was given a sharp jolt toward irrelevance; and 

*France became the main power on the European continent--and an increasing object of concern across the English Channel, by Great Britain.

The resulting state of affairs accomplished one hope of the Vatican (which, under Pope Paul V, contributed 625,000 florins between 1618 and 1620 to the cause of the Holy Roman Emperor)—it halted and reversed the momentum of Protestantism in Central and Eastern Europe. But, by putting the question of a state's religion in the hands of its rulers, it left Protestantism a permanent fixture in the European landscape. 

Moreover, the multiple agreements succeeded in fulfilling the aim of France’s decidedly unsentimental Cardinal Richelieu several years before: “We want to kiss his [the pope’s] ring but bind his feet.”  (To that end, he had allied with the most brilliant commander of the Protestant forces in the war, Sweden’s King Gustavus Adolphus.)

One of the best histories of this conflict, C.V. Wedgwood’s The Thirty Years War, simply threw up its hands at the prospect of estimating casualties. But guesses run from five to ten million people, including up to one-quarter of the population of Central Europe.

Relatively speaking, battlefield casualties were not that enormous. But the war placed ferocious pressures on the civilian population of the continent. None of the powers was strong enough to strike a knockout blow, so they all staggered around, faced with the unenviable task of supplying, paying and feeding armies in the field.

Individual soldiers that filled out the regiments were often mercenaries with few ties to the lands they fought for. Armies were expected to be funded not by the government but by whatever they could steal or extort from occupied territories. These foraging armies turned large stretches of Germany into a virtual desert, ruining crops and livestock, leaving civilians prey to famine and disease.

It also left their descendants haunted by disaster. In a searching article in the journal Germany History, “The Myth of the All-Destructive War: Afterthoughts on German Suffering, 1618–1648,” David Lederer of the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, recalls an official 1962 questionnaire distributed in rural Hesse asking participants to rank seven great catastrophes in German history. The Thirty Years War topped them all—even the still-fresh-in-memory German defeat in WWII.

It’s hard for Americans to imagine the wound left on the consciousness of continental Europe, particularly Germany, by the Thirty Years War. But playwright Bertolt Brecht was acutely aware of it when he chose to set his bitter 1939 satire on the lengths required to survive war, Mother Courage and Her Children, in the first decade of the psychologically not-so-distant conflict, in Germany, Poland, and other parts of Central Europe—a region about to be devastated by even more hardship and brutality.

It is hard to top another—nonfiction—assessment of the war’s toll written at the same time as Brecht’s, Wedgwood’s somber conclusion to her striking historical account:

“The war solved no problem. Its effects, both immediate and indirect, were either negative or disastrous. Morally subversive, economically destructive, socially degrading, confused in its causes, devious in its course, futile in its results, it is the outstanding example in European history of meaningless conflict.”

(The image accompanying this post is Peace of Westphalia: The Swearing of the Oath of Ratification of the Treaty of Munster, a 1648 oil painting by Gerard ter Borch. It is part of German History in Documents and Images, or GHDI, a comprehensive collection of original historical materials documenting German history from the beginning of the early modern period to the present.)

No comments: