Your RDA of Irony

A Fool and His Empire

August 28th On this day in 1619: Ferdinand Hapsburg Gets the Family Job

Charles V (1500-1558) was no fool.  Being King of Spain, Duke of the Low Countries, Holy Roman Emperor, and landlord of Italy obviously had its perks, but the job did come with enemies.  Occupying Hungary in the east and the Balkans in the South, the armies of the Ottoman Empire were nerve-wracking neighbors.  And France seemed always ready for another defeat.  So Charles really did not need the distraction and devastation of a civil war in Germany.  The Emperor never had difficulty ignoring Popes, so he disregarded the fulminating demands to eradicate Protestantism in Northern Europe.  Charles knew that the task was probably impossible and the cost certainly inconceivable.

Yes, when the Protestants princes forgot their deference to their Catholic Emperor, Charles could wage a humbling tutorial.  A recalcitrant Prince of Saxony found himself reduced to a country squire.  But Charles was not prepared to destroy northern Germany simply to reinstate bishoprics there.  Indeed,  in one of the last acts of his reign, Charles consented to the Treaty of Augsburg (1554) which guaranteed the status quo within Germany.   “Cuius regio, eius religio”:  the faith of the sovereign would be the official religion of his realm.  So Northern Germany was conceded as being irretrievably Protestant.

If the Princes of Germany were granted religious freedom, it did not necessarily mean that their subjects would have the same right.  The Catholic in Prussia and the Lutheran in Bavaria were wise to maintain a low profile on Sundays.  But most of the princes did not interpret the Treaty as their right to persecute alternative views of communion.  On the contrary, in the second half of the 16th century, an ecumenical peace prevailed throughout Germany.  This was while Catholics and Protestants were slaughtering each other in France and the Low Countries.

As I said, “most” princes; of course, there was one notable exception:  Ferdinand Hapsburg (1578-1637).  Unfortunately, he was more that just the terror of his archdiocese.  Ferdinand was the heir to Austria, Hungary, Bohemia and the Holy Roman Empire.  When all of 18, Ferdinand was entrusted with the rule of most 0f Austria.  Although Austria was predominantly Catholic, it was not homogenously so.  Ferdinand undertook to correct that, subjecting Protestants to the confiscation of their property and banishment.  (Well, he was named for his great-great-grandfather in Spain–although that involved a different minority group.)  Depending on your theology, Ferdinand’s policies were either acclaimed or condemned.  The Emperor Matthias did not actually approve of his cousin’s intolerance, but the laws of heredity can also be dogmatic.  Ferdinand was the indisputable heir, but it was hoped that practical responsibilities might temper the Archduke’s bigotry.  Bohemia was a Protestant enclave within the Hapsburg realm; assigning it to Ferdinand might prove an edifying experience.  After all, it is hard to persecute a majority.

Ferdinand was appointed King of Bohemia in 1617, and he did demonstrate some sense of tolerance by simply avoiding the province.  But he did choose Catholic administrators to rule in his place, and they evidently were not much more endearing than Ferdinand.  In 1618, a Protestant mob in Prague seized the two councilors, hurled them out a window and onto a manure pile.  What might seem a joke was in fact the beginning of a war.  The Bohemians rose against Ferdinand, declaring their independence and inviting a Protestant prince to be their king. Their defiance incited Protestant rebellions in Austria and Hungary.

On this day in 1619, Ferdinand did find a few supporters: the Catholic princes who elected him the Holy Roman Emperor.  The Catholic alliance crushed the Protestant rebellions by the end of 1620.  Alarmed by both Ferdinand’s reputation and the prospect of Hapsburg domination of Germany, the Netherlands and the northern German states formed an alliance.  Of course, the Spanish–good Catholics and Hapsburg cousins–were always happy to fight the Dutch; in fact, they had been doing so since 1568.  So, the Imperial armies concentrated on crushing Northern Germany.  The Hapsburg successes prompted the intervention of the Danes in 1625 and the Swedes in 1630 to  save their fellow Protestants.  The Swedish army was so good that it averted an almost certain Hapsburg victory.  Nonetheless, the Hapsburgs seemed to be ahead on body count, forcing Cardinal Richelieu to make a remarkable decision.  Thinking as a French statesman rather than a Prince of the Church, he had more to fear from victorious Hapsburgs than an irate God.  So in 1636 he had Catholic France intervene on the Protestant side.

Neither Richelieu nor Ferdinand would live to see the end of the war in 1648.  They both succumbed to natural causes; that cannot be said of the millions who died in the Thirty Years War.  An estimated one third of the German population was killed.  That reflected the nature of the war.  Both sides, but especially the Hapsburgs, employed armies of mercenaries whose pay was whatever they could loot. Since it is always easier to rob a corpse, the mercenaries were eager to cause those corpses.  Cities and towns in Germany were put to the sword simply to feed and pay the soldiers.

And after 30 years of slaughter, the Treaty of Westphalia largely repeated what the Treaty of Augsburg had established 94 years earlier.  The Church had gained little, although the Catholics were now the majority in Bohemia. The Protestant states had survived, and two–Sweden and Prussia– had emerged stronger from the war.   The Hapsburgs had lost, destroying any hope of creating a genuine empire in Germany, and they saw their rival France emerge as the greatest power in Europe.

The Thirty Years War was the disaster that Charles V had imagined:  an impossible cause at an inconceivable cost.   Ferdinand II was not so prescient.

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