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Thirty Years’ War

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

Thirty Years’ War

The Thirty Years’ War is the name given to a series of religious and political wars fought in the Holy Roman Empire from 1618 to 1648. In religious terms, Catholics and Protestants struggled for ascendancy. In political terms, two prominent ruling families each tried to dominate the other, and several nation-states fought to improve their position.

The Holy Roman Empire was not a nation; it had no form of central government. It was a loose collection of seven electorates, covering present-day Austria and Germany and parts of the Czech Republic. The emperor was chosen by the seven ruling electors. The people of the empire spoke German, French, and Czech. The Peace of Augsburg (1555) stated that each elector could choose the state religion of his own principality. In 1600, three of the electorates were Protestant and the other four were Catholic. Of course, Catholics and Protestants hated one another, but there was also quite a bit of conflict within the Protestant portions of the empire. For instance, Calvinists loathed Lutherans, believing that they were far too lax in their approach to religion.

In the early modern era, European rule was a family affair rather than an official form of government as we understand government today. National borders changed with bewildering rapidity as monarchs died and passed their authority and their lands on to their children. Kings, princes, and electors of Europe ran their territories in much the same way that a lord ran his estate. The territory was considered to be similar to private property; the king owed his subjects his protection in return for their obedience.

The two most important and influential ruling families in the Holy Roman Empire were the Wittelsbachs and the Hapsburgs. As of 1600, there was religious dissension within each family, although the Hapsburgs were mainly Catholic and the Wittelsbachs were mainly Protestant. One major figure emerged in each family in the early 1600s: Ferdinand Hapsburg, elected king of Bohemia in 1617 and Holy Roman Emperor two years later, and his rival Frederich Wittelsbach.

The Thirty Years’ War falls into three major phases, although fighting continued in various parts of the empire throughout the entire span of time.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

Thirty Years' War Practice Test

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