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The Thirty Years War was a war over religion rather than politics Essay

‘During the whole of the seventeenth century there were only six years in which there was no war in some area of Europe; in the first half of the century there was no year of peace at all’1. During these fifty years Europe was embroiled in a period of conflict known as the Thirty Years War. The main conflicts of this period were; the war in Germany (1618-1648), conflict between Spain and the Dutch Republic (1621-48) and war between France and Spain (1635-59).

Though only four European nations are mentioned here these conflicts eventually spread and overlapped to involve every European nation to some extent. Viewed at face value the alliance division of the war into Catholic and Protestant nations lends itself to the interpretation that this was a war fought over religion. However it could be argued that though religious factors were prominent political factors too were highly important. Moreover religious and political issues can often overlap and combine to create a more complex picture.

The aim of this essay will be to analyze the circumstances surrounding the three principle struggles referred to above and, using historians’ interpretations, arrive at a conclusion as to whether or not these wars were fought over religion rather than politics. The first conflict of the Thirty Years War that will be looked is the conflict in Germany. In 1619 long suppressed religious and political problems were bought to the fore in the Holy Roman Empire with the election of Catholic Emperor Ferdinand II. Yet in 1619, the election of a Protestant Emperor was a theoretical possibility.

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Two days before the Ferdinand’s election as Emperor, a new candidate had emerged. The Bohemian estates deposed Ferdinand as King and elected the Protestant Frederick V to replace him2. Thus there was a temporary Protestant majority in the Electoral College however, news of the Bohemian decision did not reach the electoral meeting in time and Ferdinand was able to secure power by voting for himself. Thus the catalyst for unrest in the Empire at this time is clear as according to Bonney Ferdinand was firmly anti-Protestant and had made a notorious vow to eliminate heresy throughout his territories3.

Tensions reached boiling point when a number of Protestant Bohemian noblemen threw two royal governors out of a palace window in Prague, landing luckily on a refuse heap. Comic as this event may seem historians later agreed that this was the beginning of the most devastating war that Europe was to experience before the twentieth century4.

The commencing of war could be interpreted as purely antagonism between Catholics and Protestants however there were important underlying political factors that drove the fighting. H. G Koenigsberger argues that the rebellion was ‘resistance by a privileged group for both political and religious reasons to an aggressive, centralizing monarchy’5. The argument that fighting commenced due in part to the perceived increasing political power of Ferdinand II is supported by Bonny who argues that Ferdinand and his “Imperial generalissimo” Wallenstein were agitated by the weakness imposed on them by the Imperial Constitution. Wallenstein is alleged to have remarked that the electors and princes of the Empire were no longer necessary.

In France and Spain there was only one king, and thus Germany should have only one ruler6. Such hints of autocratic intentions even aroused suspicion among the Catholic princes who shared the Emperor’s religious objectives. Thus there was an element of truth in the Franco-Swedish propaganda of the 1630’s that the Thirty Years’ War was not just a religious war but a war for ‘the liberties of Germany’7. In addition D. H Pennington casts doubt on the strength of the religious motivations of both the Catholic Emperor and the Protestant rebels.

He states that the emperor argued, not often convincingly, that his cause was that of Catholic rulers, and the Catholic faith everywhere. He continues saying that Protestant governments could, when it suited them, agree that a struggle against the emperor was part of their devout resistance to the all-pervading evil of popery8. However Maland argues that in the Thirty Years war, the cause of religion was something more than a mere rallying cry to the masses. Princes… the defense of their faith was as much a matter of self-interest as the acquisition of territory, influence and power9.

This difference in historical interpretation shows just how difficult it was to separate religious fervor and political ambition as both appeared to be closely interconnected in the minds of the military leaders. Thus it can be said that deeper political issues played their part in the commencing of hostilities in Germany as well as religious factors and not an either or scenario suggested in the question. It could be further argued that the simplicity of labeling the opposing sides Protestant and Catholic distorts the political motivations of the Monarchs and Armies involved.

Just because a Catholic nation fights a Protestant one does not necessarily mean there are not more important political reasons for doing so rather than just an opposition to a certain faith. It is not the intention of this argument to dismiss the important religious factors involved in the conflict, it’s merely an attempt to provide a balanced response. For example were those European nations that were drawn into the German civil war fighting for religious supremacy or tactical, political advantage?

Though the former may be seemingly accurate there is also grounds to argue that the latter became an increasingly prominent factor as the war progressed. Koenigsberger argues that the ‘domino theory’ played an important role in nations’ decision to fight in the war. One after another, the powers decided to enter the war because they feared that a real or potential opponent was winning and becoming to powerful10. The progressive escalation of potential disasters appeared to be a dominant factor in the decision to attack a neighbor for the sake of defense.

This occurred in Sweden for example where Gustavus Adolphus persuaded his government that Ferdinand II’s success over the Protestant rebels and their allies presented a major threat to Swedish security. However, after winning important victories this justification for war was further modified as political ambitions took hold of Adolphus. In a sense ‘defense had been transformed into a new imperialism’11. Though Adolphus’ death put a damper on his more radical plans Sweden continued to fight for economic and political control of the great Baltic river estuaries.

Furthermore, Koenigsberger argued that although the Protestant-Catholic antagonism remained the basic determinant, it was not the over-riding one12. As fighting progressed armies were recruited almost indifferently from Catholics and Protestants. Their generals often had private ambitions and fell foul of their employers, so much so that regiments and even whole armies would change sides13. What this shows is that as the conflict in Germany continued religious persecution was no longer the main cause of bloodshed.

Instead, as time progressed, political factors such as territorial expansion, national security and personal aggrandizement became increasingly apparent. Conflict during this period was not solely restricted to the German Princes and their allies, this after all the Thirty Years’ war involved every major European nation. Therefore, the remainder of this essay will look at the Dutch Republics conflict with Spain and Frances conflict with Spain in an attempt to determine whether religion was indeed the main motive for fighting.

Although Spain had close religious ties with Ferdinand II political prestige was arguably an important cause for Spanish military action. The war in Germany had presented the Spanish government on with a dilemma as the alliance with Ferdinand was proving to be expensive. However if Spain withdrew from the alliance there would be a grievous loss of prestige for herself and her allies14. Yet before Spanish intervention in the Empire could begin the Dutch Republic had to be confronted. Spain feared that the Dutch would be free to support Spain’s enemies in Italy as they had done in earlier years unless war was renewed.

Parker supports Bonneys’ argument and expands by stating that the monarchy’s strategic position and commercial prosperity made war necessary15. Economic matters played an important role in Spain’s decision to go to war. During the truce period between conflicts the ‘Dutch rebels’ were able to capture much of the carrying trade from Western Europe and the Baltic to Spain. Furthermore, they had never ceased their attacks on the Spanish and Portuguese overseas colonies16. Yet Koenigsberger concludes, ‘Spain was not engaged in a Catholic Crusade’17.

Pennington supports this view by arguing that ‘the great aim of the Spaniards was to get German troops to fight against the Dutch. Saving Catholic Germany from Protestant aggression was no concern of theirs’18. However, Spain’s actions may not have been a ‘Catholic Crusade’ but religion was still an important factor in the decision to go to war. After the expiry of the truce between the two nations in 1621 Spain offered a new truce based on certain conditions including and end to Dutch expansionism and that the Dutch should allow free rights of worship to Catholics19.

The Dutch refused the conditions thus hostilities commenced. What this information shows is that Spain in much the same way as Sweden was motivated to intervene based on a perceived threat to Spanish political, religious and economic interests. But what of the Dutch Republic? If Spain had made a deliberate choice to restart the war, so had the United Provinces. The opportunities seemed splendid and the risks not too great20. The Dutch had a powerful navy and their borders were defended by modern fortresses a highly skilled military.

Both Catholics and Protestants recognized that the peaceful and placid United Provinces were the center of resistance to the growing political power of the Habsburgs. In a sense, they were fighting for their own and for Universal Liberty21. If Spain was prepared to use military force for economic reasons then surely the Netherlands would fight to protect their economy? Koenigsberger argues that due to the far-reaching influence of the many firms that had developed in the provinces Dutch actions did not constitute a conspiracy against the Spanish or indeed Catholicism.

While others fought for religion and politics, Calvinist capitalists were out to make money22. As it increasingly seemed that war with Spain was being fought more and more for the benefit of the house of Nassau and the economic position of the Republic. Though many would have been prepared to end the war with a reasonable settlement many were afraid that peace would lead to renewed civil and religious strife23. Thus it could be said that the Dutch maintained war partially for religious reasons, namely to avoid possible religious unrest.

France intervened in the conflict in 1635 for more clear-cut reasons. For France war was fought not over the religious divisions of Catholicism and Protestantism but politics. This can be seen in the fact that France, itself a Catholic country, declared war on fellow Catholic country Spain. Instead motivation for intervention stemmed from France’s opposition to the growing power of the Habsburgs in Europe. This is an argument supported by Pennington who states that Frances ‘enemy was Habsburg power… all possible forces must be aligned against it’24.

Religious preference was of no consequence as according to Pennington ‘Catholic and Protestant princes alike were possible allies of the French’25. Therefore out of Spain, France and the Dutch Republic it can be argued that France was the only nation to have gone to war mainly on political grounds. In conclusion to argue that the Thirty Years War was a religious war rather than a political one would be inaccurate. From the evidence presented in this essay it is apparent that the conflicts of the period were fought over a multitude of issues which varied depending on the particular nation in question.

Yet due to the nature of the conflict between Catholics and Protestants religious factors were ever present in the motivations of Europe’s leaders. It can be said that the period certainly began as a primarily religious conflict as a Catholic monarch attempted to halt Protestant rebels. The argument that this element of the conflict was fought over religion is cemented by the fact that at the post-war settlement the German princes were confirmed in the right to determine the religion of their subjects26.

Though as the conflict in Europe widened it can be said that war was pursued for more economic and political reasons including personal aggrandizement and imperial expansion. Yet into these political factors were woven strands of religious fervor and conflict and vice versa. This ultimately highlights the complexity of the situation because as secular governments did not begin to develop until after 1648 religion and politics were always influencing each other. Due to this it is possible to conclude that the nature of the Thirty Years War cannot be attributed to solely Religion or Politics rather a symbiotic combination of the two.

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