Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) 400th anniversary


Luther’s Hymn “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott” (c.1529)

The Thirty Years War (1618-1648)

The devastating effects of this European war were felt long after its end. In this brief survey to mark the 400th anniversary of the outbreak, we shall examine what happened and how the economic and cultural consequences influenced what could be achieved in 17th and 18th century Germany in every particular and for decades to come. The ruler who triggered it all was Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia.

The King was a catholic whose wish to bring about religious uniformity resulted in rigorous dissent by the Protestant community and ultimately led to the outbreak of what turned out to be a protracted and vicious conflict.  As the years past, more States were drawn in and the war became Europe-wide.

Meanwhile in England…


James I (1603-1625)

To set the Thirty Years’ War in context with what was taking place here, the most notable event that coincided with the war’s outbreak  in 1618 was the execution of Sir Walter Raleigh, one of Elizabeth’s I heroes who was ultimately to fall from grace. Her successor James I (pictured) regarded the conflict emerging on the continent as essentially a European War about religion and he was reluctant to get involved. However, the pressure to do so led to his sending a troop of just 1200 men to assist Frederick of Prussia and King Christian of Denmark in 1624 at a time when the King himself was far from well. He died in March the following year. Furthermore, the English contingent was so under-resourced that their presence dissipated not long after arrival. Later, England became meshed in its own Civil War between King Charles I’s Cavaliers (Royalists) and Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads (Republicans). As the Peace of Westphalia was being signed in 1648 ending the European conflict, Cromwell was near to achieving his objective to establish his republic (Commonwealth) achieved in 1649 on the execution of Charles I.

Devastating Effects

With the war eventually drawing in most if not all European states, the effects of such a conflict on this scale were very considerable. Famine and disease amidst huge loss of life brought about economic hardship on a ‘wagnerian’ scale. The cost bankrupted participating states and reduced the population in some areas of Germany by as much as 40%. Typhus and dysentery were also rife. After two years’ drafting the Treaty, the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648, effectively ending the wars between all the states. However it signalled the beginning of a massive ‘clean-up and repair’ operation economically, socially and culturally that took decades to accomplish in Germany.  Music to help heal wounds was a powerful vehicle on the road to recovery.

Two members of the Bach Family lived through the war: (The relation to JSB in brackets)

  • Heinrich Bach (1615-1692 Gt. Uncle) 
  • Christoph Bach (1613-1661 Grandfather)

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