The 30 Years' War & the Birth of the Enlightenment

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  • 0:01 The Thirty Years' War
  • 3:49 Impact of the Thirty…
  • 4:50 Birth of the Enlightenment
  • 7:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will examine the consequences of the Thirty Years' War, as well as the birth of the Enlightenment. We will place these events in historical context and show their lasting impact.

The Thirty Years' War

Oh boy. The Thirty Years' War. This is a struggle that most people do not know much about. Compared with the American Civil War or World War II, the Thirty Years' War is highly complex. Let's dig in, and learn a little bit about this conflict.

The Thirty Years' War was a series of wars fought among numerous European powers between 1618 and 1648. While theses wars had multiple causes, religious issues were a leading factor. Remember, religion was a huge deal during this time!

Following the Protestant Reformation, which Martin Luther sparked in 1517, Protestants and Catholics were often at each other's throats. Religious tension between Calvinists, Lutherans, Catholics, and other factions ran rampant throughout 16th and 17th century Europe. In the diverse Holy Roman Empire, Protestants and Catholics were sharply divided, and each group looked to other foreign states for support.

When the Catholic Ferdinand II ascended to the position of Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Bohemia (which was one of the many independent kingdoms within the Holy Roman Empire) many Protestants feared their religious rights would be jeopardized. They rebelled and sought support from other leading Protestant states, including England, the Dutch Republic, Denmark, Sweden, and others. In 1619, Ferdinand II became the Holy Roman Emperor. He formed alliances with other Catholic states, including Spain and Hungary. We should understand the Thirty Years' War was thus very much a religious war, pitting Protestants against Catholics.

In the early stages of the conflict, the Holy Roman Empire's imperial army was successful in overrunning Protestant Germany. In 1631, Swedish intervention and French assistance allowed the Protestants to achieve victory at the Battle of Breitenfeld. This battle was the first major Protestant victory in the conflict.

French involvement in the war stemmed from the fact that it was surrounded on both sides by Habsburg dynasties: Spain (in the West) and the Holy Roman Empire (in the East) were both ruled by Habsburg families. You can see how this was not exactly a good situation for France. This also explains why the Holy Roman Empire was allied with Spain and why France intervened.

Throughout the 1640s, France and Sweden won a number of important victories, causing the tide of the war to turn in their direction. Exhausted from years of warfare, and neither side able to gain a decisive advantage, negotiations among the European powers finally resulted in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The Peace of Westphalia was not a single peace treaty, but rather refers to a series of separate treaties ending the Thirty Years' War.

In addition to ending the war, the Peace also granted certain liberties. It stipulated that each state or kingdom was free to decide its own religion; it guaranteed religious minorities the right to practice their religion freely; and it made Calvinism a valid religious option. Certain territorial and political provisions were also laid out.

The Impact of the Thirty Years' War

The Thirty Years' Wars had a profound impact on European society. The religious war caused some Europeans to become disillusioned with established religion. Following the war, state-sponsored religion declined, as states allowed greater religious freedoms. The influence of the church also declined. This bred the individuality and even skepticism that was characteristic of the Enlightenment - don't worry, we will address the Enlightenment in just a moment or two.

The war also impacted views of government. For centuries, Europeans had espoused the concept of the divine right of kings, which basically meant monarchs were put into power by the will of God and were not subject to any other Earthly power. But the war shook faith in government. The atrocities committed during the war caused many intellectuals to decry war and fostered a skepticism of government.

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