The Thirty Years' War ranges among the epoch-making confrontations in the history of Europe. This conflict, which involved the whole of central Europe, supported the modern process of state formation in such a way that it is justified to describe it as the beginning of a new period in early modern history. Its duration, its intensity and the social changes caused by that left their mark in the collective memory of large parts of the population until today, most of all in Germany. At first sight, the manifold intertwinement of political, denominational and economic factors, especially in a European context, and their long-term effects give the picture of a fascinating albeit rather impenetrable complex dynamism. Maybe this is why an interest in the Thirty Years' War, far beyond the world of science, can still be noticed today.
The war was especially long and cruel in the north of Brandenburg and in parts of Mecklenburg and Pomerania. Right in the centre of this region, not far from the city of Wittstock, Swedish and Imperial and Saxonian troops clashed in a bloody battle on the 4th of October, 1636. The magnificent victory over the allies not only opened the way for the Swedish army back to central Germany but also secured the denominational status quo in Northern Germany. The victory at Wittstock was an essential condition for the continuation of the war, which was dragged on until the peace of exhaustion negotiated in Münster and Osnabrück in 1648.
Therefore the Thirty Years' War, the region of Ostprignitz, the battle and &endash; last but not least &endash; the city of Wittstock with its historical buildings are parts of the ideal background for the set-up of Europe's first Thirty Years' War Museum. The Bishop's Castle from the late Middle Ages with the remains of its walls and with its impressive tower, which was occupied and ruined time after time by several armies in the course of the war, is the perfect environment of a permanent exhibition, the centre of which is the soldiers' and civilians' life and suffering during the war. The museum has got seven floors where different aspects of this are presented.
In the view of large parts of the population &endash; not only in Germany &endash; the Thirty Years' War is the paradigmatic warlike catastrophe of the early modern period. Whereas later wars &endash; such as the War of the Spanish Succession or the Seven Years' War &endash; did not enter deeply into the collective memory, for generations the Thirty Years' War has been associated with all the horrors of an armed combat. At all times the Thirty Years' War has inspired writers, publicists and historians in this way. Hans Jakob Christoph von Grimmelshausen created the pattern for a great number of renowned works treating this subject. They reach from Friedrich Schiller to Ricarda Huch and August Strindberg.
Most of all in the 19th century, the Thirty Years' War became a symbol of violent denominational confrontations. The destruction of Magdeburg and Gustaf Adolf's death near Lützen were the foundation of the formation of protestant myths about the Swedish King. On the other hand Wallenstein was stylized as the contrary model of a power-hungry Condottiere, whereas Tilly, the military leader of the Catholic League, being called »the Mother-of-God's general«. The entry of France into the Thirty Years' War was the point of departure for a Franco-German traditional enmity, which was efficiently fomented during the late 19th century, while the Peace of Westphalia was interpreted as a visible sign of the inner conflicts and the powerlessness of the Reich.
Recent research has shown that many of these constructions are tenacious myths.
In the 17th century, the ideal concept of Europe was different from today's: »Christendom« was still imagined as a unity where a single ruler was to occupy the position of monarch. It was, however, a matter of dispute who that should be.
The most promising candidates for such a universal monarchy were the Habsburgs, who held the emperorship of the Reich and the Spanish kingship and controlled the resources of the New World. The French and, surprisingly, the Swedish king were their competitors. At the same time the Bohemian revolt and the formation of the Dutch state jeopardized the position of the Habsburg empire and unleashed the war.
Thus new states rose and gained a position on the same level with the other powers. After a warlike learning process of thirty years all former candidates for universal power and the new-formed states had to recognize each other as equal members of a European system of states. However, this European war of state formation was at the same time a constitutional conflict between the Emperor and the territorial sovereigns, and a religious war, too, where political confrontation was at times amplified by denominational antagonism.
Our notion of the 17th century and the Thirty Years' War is shaped by ebullient mirth and courtly splendour as well as deep religiosity and apprehension of death, formed by the apocalyptic scourges of the epoch: war, plague and famine. Prophesies, astrology and magical rites were essential for man's attitude towards the future and towards nature, whose workings were felt to be overwhelming.
Remote from battles and war atrocities, every-day life in cities, towns and countryside went on as usual. Some cities, like Hamburg and Amsterdam, profited from the booming trade in goods vital to the war and from the evolving money market &endash; an important precondition for the continuation of the war. Cities like Liège, an armament centre, or Oldenburg, famous for its horse husbandry, were not disturbed by the warring factions.
As the war went on and on the population suffered increasingly from the armies, which received inadequate provisions and were famished. The rural population fled from advancing armies to the cities and forests or emigrated to adjacent areas in search of better living conditions.
This resulted in large-scale migration movements and decreases in population, which were still perceptible long after the war. In Sweden, which did not suffer directly from the war, the systematic conscription of young men led to a persistent decrease in population.
The armies of the Thirty Years' War consisted of up to 40,000 mercenaries. Princes, however, had considerable financial and organisational problems recruiting them and providing for them. Therefore independent war enterprisers were commissioned to raise regiments, who recruited men on their own. Profit interests prevailed clearly. Private bargains with suppliers, embezzled soldiers' pay and cuts in provisions filled enterprisers' and officers' coffers.
At the same time living conditions of the common soldiers worsened in the course of the war. The result was an increasing pauperisation. Often the only chance to survive was foraging by use of force among the peasant population. Poor living conditions also meant that far more soldiers died from epidemics than in the course of fighting. Anyway, as a result of material want, which during the war became more and more palpable for civilians, too, many men were driven to enlist. Only higher-ranking officers could expect booty and glory.
The baggage train, necessary for military reasons but difficult to control because of its size, was another problem. Not only the sutlers were found here, but also numerous socially uprooted outsiders and the soldiers' families. Frequently commanders saw strict military justice as their only means of counteracting the increasing lack of discipline and waywardness.
In the Thirty Years' War, armed confrontations took the form of battles in the open field and, even more frequently, sieges of fortified cities in advantageous strategic positions.
Officers and war theorists had recognised that a regimental commander did not only need profound knowledge in mathematics, geometry, tactics and engineering. The ability to keep up the discipline of his own regiment with an iron hand in order to avoid disorder in the battle and violence against the native poulation was no less important.
As a rule, armies consisted of three branches of arms. The infantry, drawing on pikemen and musketeers, was the most important tactical unit in battle. The cavallery served to surprise the enemy with swift manoeuvring and rapid movements. The artillery had only got very heavy cannons in the 17th century, which had to be drawn by horses. When a battle had begun it was impossible to move the cannons. In siege warfare the artillery made sure that the city walls were damaged and the population was demoralised by the deafening roar of guns.
Low-ranking soldiers had little chances of surviving a battle or a siege. In battle the greatest risk was being wounded by musket bullets or blade weapons. Such wounds were difficult to heal. During a siege the soldiers suffered hunger no less than the inhabitants of the beleaguered city.
In the Thirty Years' War open battles occurred relatively seldom; they were always risky and the outcome was unpredictable. As a battle consisted of numerous encounters frequently even the commanders had no precise general idea of the events. After the units had been led into the fight, there was hardly any chance to change the disposition in a fundamental way.
At a time when large parts of the armies did not wear uniforms soldiers depended on marks like coloured armlets or twigs. Most important, however, to tell friend from foe were different passwords which were used as signs of recognition in the fracas of the battle.
Most battles ended without a clear winner. If neither side had left the battleground before dusk fighting was put off and in many cases leaders' and soldiers' nerves decided whether one of the sides would withdraw. As a rule the army which endured on the battleground was deemed winner.
In the course of the war an important innovation came to pass, concerning the order of the battle. Whereas at the beginning the armies fought in immovable square bands (Gevierthaufen), whose impact was mainly due to their mass, after Sweden's entry into the war the less deeply echeloned »Swedish order of the battle« gained importance. However, its success depended heavily on the discipline and inner unity of the troops.
The war, which began with the local rebellion of the Bohemian estates, gained soon a European dimension. Its extensiveness in terms of both place and time made the steps towards peace extraordinarily difficult. Anyway the destructive effects of the war prevailed on leaders to seek peace again and again. During all periods of the war official and secret negotiations and exploratory talks took place between the adversaries. However, the powers which relied on military force and superiority determined politics and diplomacy right to the end.
During the war the people's wish and longing for peace manifested itself with growing intensity. It is, however, hard to establish the impact of this on political decisions. In some shape or other all these hopes and efforts eventually entered the peace agreement of Münster and Osnabrück.The treaties which ended the state of war between Spain and the United Netherlands (January 1648) and between the Emperor (and the Reich) and the Swedish and French Crowns (October 1648) reflected the relative strength brought about by the war in the Reich and all over Europe. These treaties solved the problems by a universal renunciation of the maximum aims of the war and by transfering the matter for conflict into a legal sphere.
Due to the given facts of power and society the Peace of Westphalia could not redeem the promise of »pax perpetua«, but it showed the way toward handling future situations of warlike conflict.
Museums in the Old Bishop's Castle:
Museum of the Thirty Years' War
Amtshof 1- 5, D-16909 Wittstock, Germany
Phone: (033 94) 43 37 25
Fax: (033 94) 44 90 78
Hours of opening:
Tue.- Thu. 10.00 am - 5.00 pm
Fri. 9.00 am - 1.00 pm
Sat. 1.00 pm - 4.00 pm
Sun. 11.00 am - 4.30 pm
Edited by Museum of the Thirty Years' War
Director Dr. W. Dost
Wissenschaftlicher Beirat: Prof. Dr. B.R. Kroener, Prof. Dr. J. Burkhardt, Prof. Dr. H. Langer, Hofrat Prof. Dr.M. Rauchensteiner, Univ. Doz. Dr. Höbelt, Prof. Dr. J. Lindegren, Reichsarchivar Dr. E. Norberg
Exhibitionarchitecture and design: Prof. Karin Hinz + Prof. Birgit Weller
Translated by B. Käser and O. Engelen
wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiter: Olaf Gründel, Michael Herrmann, Beate Käser , Dr. M. Rock und Martin Winter
This WEB-Site is created by Michael Herrmann
Sponsored by the Ministery of science, research and culture of the county of Brandenburg.
A richly illustrated catalogue of the museum has been published.