Thirty Years War

I’m going a bit afield here to look at a war most people have never heard of—the Thirty Years War. Bear with me, because I’m going to tie it in with the Civil War. Right now I’m working on reviews of several books dealing with guerilla warfare and the treatment of civilians, and as we’ll see the Thirty Years War (1616-1648) forms a sort of baseline for that. As a recent book review notes:

At seven in the morning on May 20, 1631, 18,000 soldiers loyal to the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II stormed the ancient German city of Magdeburg. The Protestant city was in rebellion against its Catholic overlord but had only 7,000 defenders, almost half of whom were armed children. Plague had weakened the populace, and ammunition was low. By mid-morning, Magdeburg was overrun. By noon, it was ablaze. The thousand citizens who huddled in the cathedral were saved; but outside the flames lit hellish scenes of murder and rapine. Twenty-thousand corpses were eventually heaved into the Elbe River. Of 2,000 city buildings, only 200 survived. A year later, the ruins of Magdeburg sheltered less than 500 souls. The city’s destruction would go down as the most notorious atrocity of the Thirty Years War.

The war fought between 1618 and 1648 remains, by many measures, the most destructive in Europe’s history. During those years the Holy Roman Empire—which governed most of the European continent east of the Rhine—lost as many as eight million subjects, or a staggering 20% of its population. This amounted to three times Europe’s death rate during World War II. Whole swaths of central Europe were depopulated, abandoned to wild pigs and wolves.

The sack of Magdeburg was an extreme but by no means an isolated event. Armies of the time were “self-financed,” or to use a modern term, “privatized.” Many  army commanders viewed war as a business, and the kings who employed them expected them to supply and pay themselves from plunder, plus turn a profit. There were also many “free companies” who were in for whatever they could get by whatever means. In short wars this might have been marginally tolerable, but the repeated campaigns across central Europe over thirty years made parts of it a virtual desert. There were no rules—war was conducted on the whim of local commanders. The execution of prisoners was routine and the rape, torture, and plunder of civilians was commonplace. There is no need to elaborate, but if you want to see a contemporary representation you can take a look at artist Jacques Callot’s Miseries of War, which will tell you all you need to know. Callot was the precursor of the combat artist of the Civil War.

The period remains an important one because of the reaction to it. The nation-state emerged as the primary political entity and diplomatic relationships as we know them today were defined by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

For our purposes the other reaction was the emergence of the modern laws and customs of war afterward in an attempt to mitigate the horrors of the Thirty Years War. Henceforth armies (or at least the officers) were to be professional, to answer to and be paid by a sovereign and not let loose to plunder. In the Eighteenth Century armies were supplied by a system of magazines and held in check with harsh discipline. Prisoners were granted certain rights and the civilian population protected when possible. War between states had much more limited aims—the capture of fortresses, provinces or colonies—rather than the destruction of whole areas. Eventually these practices developed into what was generally known as the Laws and Customs of War, finally written down in the Leiber Code.

Thus, although the Civil War could be very harsh at times, Atlanta and Richmond—or even Lawrence—did not suffer the fate of Madgeburg.






One response to “Thirty Years War”

  1. elektratig Avatar


    I just ran across (via Metafilter) a pretty thorough site on the Thirty Years’ war, so I thought I’d add the link here for those who are interested:

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