French Intervention and the Peace of Westphalia
The Peace of Prague did not concern the Spanish Habsburgs, who had resumed their war against the rebellious Dutch in 1621 and were also engaged within Germany in support of their Austrian cousins. It also excluded the Swedes, whose troops were still ﬁ ghting against impe-rial forces, largely ﬁ nanced through subsidies paid by the French.
The French, longtime rivals to the Habsburgs, had no interest in fostering peace within the empire or allowing Ferdinand to consolidate his posi-tion. Despite his Catholic allegiance, the French statesman, Cardinal Richelieu (1585–1642), formed an open alliance with the Protestant Dutch and Swedes to keep the war going in the empire.
He also declared war on the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs, leading to the ﬁ nal, devastating phase of the long-running conﬂ ict in Germany.Between the abortive Peace of Prague in 1635 and the Peace of Westphalia that ﬁ nally ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, the agony of Germany’s long-suffering civilian population became catastrophic.
The last dozen years of the conﬂ ict proved indecisive, marked primarily by the destruction of the countryside and the misery of its inhabitants. Pitched battles were few and far between, as rapacious mercenary armies burned and looted their way across the empire, savagely requisitioning supplies and burning towns and villages to deny support to their ene-mies.
Supported by French money, the Swedes devastated wide swaths of Germany, some of which were completely depopulated as thousands of terriﬁ ed and starving villagers took to the roads to escape the destruc-tion. Disease followed the roving armies and also claimed the lives of tens of thousands of malnourished peasants throughout the empire who were in their path. While it is impossible to arrive at accurate ﬁ gures, given the poor state of record-keeping during these chaotic times,
Germany’s total population loss may have been reduced by as much as one-third during the Thirty Years’ War, destruction on par with the onslaught of the Black Death three centuries before.The period of the Thirty Years’ War, a time of religious fervor and rising fear, also witnessed the great European witch hunts, and nowhere was the panic more deadly than in Germany.
Unchecked by central authorities, territorial princes and magistrates, ranging from powerful prince-bishops in mighty city-states to minor potentates in backwater counties, tried and executed thousands of suspected witches between 1550 and 1650. Scholars suggest that some 90,000 people suffered execution for witchcraft in early modern Europe and that half of these witch burnings took place in Germany, the true “heartland of the witchcraze.”
In the prince-bishopric of Würzburg, for example, 160 suspected witches died at the stake between 1627 and 1629 after delivering forced confessions under torture. The social dislocation and terror caused by the witch trials, prosecutions that reached a fever pitch in the empire during the Thirty Years’ War, only added to the misery of the age.
In the last, frenzied years of the war, the conﬂ ict also spilled beyond the borders of the empire, embroiling much of the Continent, from the Netherlands to Bohemia and from Denmark to Italy. French troops fared poorly in Germany, and Spanish and imperial forces quickly pursued them back into France, ravaging the countryside and even threatening Paris in 1636.
After the death of Richelieu, his successor, Cardinal Mazarin, sought to end the conﬂ ict, which had proven quite costly for France. By 1643, all of the major combatants were eager to end hostilities, and peace negotiations began in the Westphalian cities of Osnabrück and Münster in that year, although warfare continued during the negotiations unabated.
After a series of defeats in 1645, Ferdinand III (r. 1637–57), successor to Ferdinand II as Holy Roman Emperor, began to seek peace in earnest. After years of complicated negotiations, conducted while warfare still raged throughout Germany, the Peace of Westphalia was ﬁ nally signed in 1648.
The treaty was signed by more than 150 delegates, representing the emperor, the rulers of Spain, France, and Sweden, the United Provinces of the Netherlands, and the major German princes, ending 30 years of warfare in the empire and 80 years of hostilities in the Netherlands. The settlement established a new political order in the empire that would dominate German affairs until its dissolution in 1806.
The Peace of Westphalia enacted a series of sweeping changes in ter-ritorial borders and political arrangements in Europe and the empire. Sweden, which gained important territory along the Baltic, and France, which got most of Alsace and Lorraine from the emperor, proﬁ ted the most. Other winners included the Calvinist Wittelsbach line of Frederick V, who regained the Rhine Palatinate, and the Dutch, who ﬁ nally won recognition of their independence from Spain.
Within Germany, the Peace of Westphalia restored the provisions that the Peace of Augsburg had established in 1555, with a few important modiﬁ cations. Rulers of individual territories could still choose the religion in their domain, but their subjects were now granted the freedom to worship a differ-ent brand of Christianity or to emigrate lawfully.
Furthermore, the Westphalian settlement also reﬂ ected the new confessional realities within the empire by allowing rulers to adopt Calvinism, which had been prohibited by the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. As Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand III alone gained the right to impose Catholicism within his own lands. This proved to be one of the few concessions that the emperor was to gain from three decades of war.
The Peace of Westphalia also fundamentally changed the nature of imperial politics. It diminished the authority of the emperor by making the 300 princes of the empire formally sovereign within their own ter-ritories and allowing them to conduct their own independent foreign policies.
During the ﬁ nal convulsive period of war, in 1644, Ferdinand III had granted the German princes the right to pursue their own inter-national diplomacy in an attempt to garner their support.
This war-time concession, codiﬁ ed in the Peace of Westphalia, eroded imperial authority and prestige, effectively ending forever the Habsburgs’ dream of transforming the Holy Roman Empire into a centralized territorial monarchy like France or Sweden.
Distracted by the incursions of the Turks on their eastern frontier, the Austrian Habsburgs retreated from imperial politics for much of the 17th century. These developments would also spark a competition among the most important German principalities, Saxony, Bavaria, and upstart Prussia, which struggled to challenge the Austrian Habsburgs for dominance within the empire.