Europe’s apocalypse: the Thirty Years’ War

With more than 5 million dying in an orgy of violence between Protestants and Catholics, it's little wonder that the Thirty Years' War was remembered as the moment when God deserted Europe. On the 400th anniversary of its outbreak, we asked Peter H Wilson the most pressing questions on a 17th-century cataclysm

A painting depicting the battle of the White Mountain

Most modern histories of the Thirty Years’ War portray it as an almost uniquely brutal conflict. Does it deserve this grim reputation?

The Thirty Years’ War claimed the lives of at least 5 million people – so, yes, its grim reputation is well deserved. In fact, the population of the Holy Roman Empire, the conflict’s main theatre, did not recover its prewar levels until around 60 years after the war ended. Through a combination of plague, famine and violence, the conflict brought misery to people living across vast swathes of central Europe.

The violence was, in many ways, a product of the large numbers of actors involved in the conflict. Beginning in 1618, the Thirty Years’ War was, at heart, a struggle for constitutional and religious power within the Holy Roman Empire – Europe’s largest and most populous state. It pitted the Austrian Habsburg family and their predominately Catholic supporters against a number of Protestant states in an increasingly bitter conflagration that would pull in foreign powers such as Denmark, Sweden and France.

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