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The Thirty Years’ War Essay

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Updated: Oct 8th, 2020


The Thirty Years’ War was a dark page in European history that was associated with a remapping of the continent. The chaotic warfare led to a large number of casualties and devastated entire regions. The aim of this paper is to outline the main themes of Wiesner-Hanks’ discussion of the war. The paper will also detail the treaty of Westphalia and the obliteration of a large European city Magdeburg. It will be argued that despite the enormous cost of the military conflict, it helped to achieve a balance of political power on the continent.

Main Themes

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe can be viewed as a long sequence of violent military clashes the sheer volume of which prevented historians from giving specific names to some of them (Wiesner-Hanks 321). The continent-wide conflicts that occurred in the period from 1618 to 1648 became known as the Thirty Years’ War (Wiesner-Hanks 321). The war was characterized by intermittent violence which involved the participation of Sweden, Spain, France, and Austria (Wisner-Hanks 321-356). Similar to conflicts that followed in later centuries, the Thirty Years’ War had a strong political dimension; however, unlike military hostilities of the twentieth century, the war had substantial religious undertones.

The balkanization of religious denominations in Europe made it extremely difficult to settle ecclesiastical conflicts without resorting to the use of violence. Wisner-Hanks maintains that the war can be regarded as a continuation of “religious wars that resulted from the Reformation” (321). The unwillingness of Calvinists to adhere to terms of the Peace of Augsburg and the formation of military alliances by Lutheran and Catholic rulers contributed to the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War. In his book on early modern European history, Wisner-Hanks argues that territorial and dynastic consideration took precedence over religious ones in the war (322).

The destruction of a German city Magdeburg that occurred during the second half of the war was a major humanitarian catastrophe in the seventeenth century. According to Robinson, the sack of the city led to more than 20, 000 casualties (211). When describing the massacre, the mayor of the city Otto von Guericke stated that it was nothing but “beating and burning, plundering, torture, and murder” (qtd. in Robinson 211). During the event that was described as “frenzied rage” by the city’s mayor, numerous books and manuscripts were stolen and burned (qtd. in Robinson 212).

The Treaty of Westphalia was a sequence of peace agreements that ended the war. The treaty was signed in 1648 by major European states—Austria, Germany, France, and Sweden (“Treaty of Westphalia”). Even though Wisner-Hanks recognizes the importance of the document, the author emphasizes that it failed to achieve lasting peace (323). According to the article 67 of the treaty, the Empire’s sovereigns were provided a full jurisdiction over their religions, laws, and taxation policies (“Treaty of Westphalia”). It follows that the treaty helped to ameliorate the influence of major religious disputes that had taken place in central Europe.


The intermittent violence that occurred in the seventeenth century was an example of the previously unseen ability of the belligerent political atmosphere to precipitate violence on a massive scale. It is hard to disagree with Wisner-Hanks in his assessment of the religious undertones of the conflict. Despite the fact that many confrontations between the parties to the conflict were due to political implications of the power vacuum created by the end of Rudolf II’s reign, there is no denying that hostilities between three major religious factions in Europe also contributed to the war.

Wisner-Hanks points to the fact that neither the Calvinists, nor Lutherans, nor Catholics were content with the results of the Peace of Augsburg established in 1555 (321). It follows that the mercurial relationships between the denominations served as a perfect conduit for political discontent.

It can be argued that the connection between religious and political tensions is a mutually-reinforcing one. Thus, the creation of military alliances by Lutheran and Catholic rulers can be regarded as the emergence a positive feedback loop. The formation of the Protestant Union and the Catholic League increased magnitudes of the two elements of the loop—religion and politics. From this vantage point, it is clear that the Peace of Augsburg was doomed from the beginning.

Despite the devastation that the war brought to the European continent, it helped to bring sovereignty to major states that comprised the Empire. The Netherlands, Switzerland, and Sweden won a substantial extent of religious freedom, which was a major achievement of the military conflict. In addition, the Thirty Years’ War helped to diminish the role and power of religion in many European states, thereby preparing grounds for secularism.


The paper has discussed the most devastating humanitarian catastrophe of the seventeenth century—the Thirty Years’ War. It has been argued that the war was precipitated by the confluence of political and religious incentives that guided European rulers towards violent confrontations. The military conflict brought sovereignty to many states and helped to undermine political sway of religion.

Works Cited

Robinson, James, editor. Readings in European History. Vol. 2, Ginn, 1906.

.” Avalon. Web.

Wiesner-Hanks, Merry. Early Modern Europe: 1450-1789. Cambridge University Press, 2006.

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