The Habsburg family, originally from Switzerland before it became entrenched and powerful in Austria, was unrivalled in its use of that most deadly of dynastic weapons, the wedding ring. This enabled them to surround France with an eclectic group of Habsburg land holdings in the late 16th and early 17th centuries CE. France, arguably Europe’s most powerful nation at the time, fought to break the Habsburg encirclement for generations. One curious outcome of this effort was the emergence of a French Prince of the Catholic Church as a savior of German Protestantism.
The Habsburgs held the throne of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation from 1438 to 1740. This ramshackle political entity covered most of Germany, Austria, and the Low Countries, as well as much of Italy and portions of the Slavic lands abutting German-speaking regions. Originally founded by Charlemagne in 800, by the 15th Century the Holy Roman Empire consisted of an incredibly complex mixture of autonomous principalities, Habsburg family lands, bishoprics, and autonomous city-states. It had failed both as a German nation and as an imperial power over the Italians and Slavs.
As no revenue was associated with the title of Holy Roman Emperor, the Habsburg family monopoly on the elective position was usually tolerated without much dispute. Unless dominated by a leader of the stature and strength of Charlemagne or Otto I, Germany was too large and diverse to be effectively united much less governed for long with the communications and administrative tools available to Medieval and Renaissance European rulers. France was about the maximum size capable of being efficiently managed in the West in those times.
Habsburg fortunes took a dramatic turn for the better in the late 15th and early 16th Centuries. Like most marriage-based triumphs, it developed in a circuitous manner, and deserves a bit of explanation.
Louis XI of France, the “universal spider” [reigned 1461 – 1483], was attacking Burgundian holdings in the Netherlands. The Burgundian heiress married the Habsburg Maximilian, heir-apparent to the German Empire, for protection. Their son, named Phillip, married the only surviving child of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, a woman named Joanna. Phillip died young. Joanna went spectacularly mad, and was declared incompetent. Phillip and Joanna’s son, Charles V [of the Holy Roman Empire, he was also Charles I of Spain] inherited among other lands Spain, Spain’s colonies in the New World, the Habsburg lands in Germany and Austria, the wealthy Netherlands, and much of Italy. Vast quantities of precious metals from the Americas and armies of tough professional Spanish infantry seemed to promise further success for the House of Habsburg. The most pernicious effects of inbreeding that were to result in the multiply handicapped Charles II, Spain’s last Habsburg monarch [1661 – 1700], lay in the future.
The French immediately apprehended the danger of being surrounded by Habsburgs in Germany, the Low Countries, Spain, and Italy, and attacked Habsburg holdings in Italy, mostly without success. They had slightly better luck in the Low Countries and Germany, but a series of weak French kings and religious disputes resulting in a massacre of French Protestant Huguenots  sidelined France in the second half of the 16th Century.
At about the same time, Phillip II of Spain bungled the handling of a revolt in the Low Countries, resulting in the creation of a strongly Protestant Dutch Republic [firmly established by 1594 – 1607] as well as English legends about the Spanish Armada . The ability of the Dutch to resist Spanish aggression until the cost became prohibitive for the largest empire in the world is no less remarkable in hindsight than it was to contemporaries. Goethe’s friend Friedrich Schiller wrote about it in his Geschichte des Abfalls der vereinigten Niederlande von der spanischen Regierung [History of the Revolt of the United Netherlands from Spanish Rule].
But even more serious trouble began in Germany and Central Europe in 1618 with the Defenestration of Prague. A Bohemian Protestant crowd threw three bullying Catholic Imperial officials out of a window to the street 70 feet below [21 meters]. The officials survived their fall either through miraculous intercession by angels or the Virgin Mary, or as a result of landing on a dung heap.
This incident sparked the Thirty Years War [1618 – 1648], which resulted in at least 8 million deaths. Traditionally this conflict has been seen as a fight between the Protestant German princes and the Catholic forces of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II. Ferdinand had hopes of becoming the first Holy Roman Emperor since the Middle Ages with effective centralized power. Without France’s subsidies and direct participation on the side of the Protestants, the war would have ended much sooner, with a very different outcome than reached in the Peace of Westphalia . France was not fighting for religious reasons.
The first serious stages of the war were successful Habsburg attacks on Bohemia and its northern Protestant allies, greatly enhancing Habsburg land holdings and power. A second round of attacks on the Baltic region thoroughly alarmed the German princes, Protestant and Catholic alike, as well as the Swedes, who held some territories in the area. The German princes might not be able to agree on religion, but they were united in their opposition to the idea of a Holy Roman Emperor with real power. By threatening the Habsburg succession, they convinced Emperor Ferdinand to draw back.
But France’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Richelieu [1585-1642], had different ideas. War in Germany absorbed Habsburg energies and offered intriguing possibilities for France to break the ring of Habsburg encirclement. Richelieu subsidized the Protestant Netherlands in their fight against the Spanish Habsburgs and the Lutheran Swedes against the Austrian branch of the family. Although he became a Cardinal in 1622, Richelieu’s early training had been military. He had joined the Church and become a bishop to protect family income when his older brother became a Carthusian monk, renouncing worldly possessions with a serious vow of poverty.
Richelieu found a willing instrument for his strategy in the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus. The Swedes cut a meteoric path through The Holy Roman Empire with brilliant successes at the battle of Breitenfeld  and in Bavaria, until their costly victory at Lützen  resulted in the death of Adolphus. Their utter defeat at Nördlingen  resulted in the German princes and the Habsburgs agreeing on terms for a general cessation of hostilities. Richelieu saw a new effort was necessary to keep peace from breaking out. France declared war, coming to the aid of the German and Swedish Protestants.
The Swedes regrouped in northeastern Germany and began winning battles again. The French and Dutch pressured Imperial forces in the northwest of Germany. Spain began to encounter serious problems. Catalonia, threatened with higher taxes, seceded from Spain and asked France for help. Richelieu was delighted to oblige. Portugal, unhappy with the state of its colonies since it had been unified with Spain, revolted. The French army destroyed irreplaceable Spanish prestige and troops at the battle of Rocroi .
The new Emperor Ferdinand III [reigned 1637 – 1657] opened a peace conference in Westphalia, making it clear that he was no longer pursuing Imperial Catholic goals. It took four years of negotiations before the terms were agreed upon and the conflict stopped, but there was no doubt about who the victors were in 1648: France, Sweden, and the German Protestant princes. Richelieu died six years before his victory was sealed by the Peace of Westphalia, which also laid the foundation for the development of the secular West European state.
Despite his prolonged campaigns that resulted in the preservation of German Protestantism, Richelieu could demonstrate implacable opposition to Protestants who threatened French domestic stability. He declared suppression of the Huguenot’s revolt to be the first priority of the kingdom. During the siege of La Rochelle [1627 -1628], Richelieu acted as commander of the French troops when the King was not present.
Zhou Enlai, when asked if he were more Communist or Chinese, replied he was more Chinese. Cardinal Richelieu, if queried as to whether he were more Catholic or French, might, if maneuvered into an honest response, have identified himself as more French. His actions in the Thirty Years War indicate a mind that had moved beyond confessional polities and dynastic landholdings to grasp the essence of the modern nation state.
- Perhaps the best introduction to the Thirty Years War in English is Peter Wilson’s The Thirty Years War.
- Grimmelshausen’s Simplicius Simplicissimus, the best-selling novel of the 17th Century, gives a contemporary view of the Thirty Years War that in many ways has never been bettered.
- Brecht’s Mother Courage is a dramatic fable set in the same conflict, which some modern German polls rank as the worst disaster the country has ever experienced, including bombing, invasion, and defeat in the Second World War and occupation thereafter.
- Alexandre Dumas provides a rousing if historically inaccurate picture of the times in France in The Three Musketeers and its sequels.
- Geoffrey Parker’s The Dutch Revolt offers a lively overview of its topic; Jonathan Israel’s The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness and Fall 1477 -1806 provides context and perspective.