I know it's been a while, I know you're sick of the gaps, probably sick of the era, and sick of me pillaging computer games for my backing soundtrack (many thanks to Europa Universalis III for the Breitenfeld soundtrack, I just had to use it don't you know). But we're on the home stretch now. The 1630's represent a key decade in not just the Thirty Years War, but also the transformation of the early-modern world.
In January 1630, the Habsburgs were on top, Denmark was defeated, the Dutch were alone, and Wallenstein's successes appeared to guarantee Ferdinand II's reforms, namely the Edict of Restitution that sought to redefine the Emperor's relationship with his subjects.
Fast forward to January 1640, and we're faced with a totally different situation. The Dutch are now supported by a France that is bankrolling everything for their allies. The Spanish have no hope of defeating and reconquering the Dutch. Ferdinand II is dead and his son is his polar opposite, seeing peace as the ultimate goal rather than some hairbrained scheme to renegotiate years of religious developments.
The tide is clearly turning against the Habsburgs and will only get worse; a Sweden will continue its rampage throughout the HRE as Ferdinand III proves unable to finance anything, owing to his ally Spain falling into chaos. Spain's Portuguese and Catalonian problems will spill out into the open in 1640, crippling its ability to either fight France or aid its Austrian ally.
How do we explain such a dramatic transformation? Is it simply the case that empires will always rise and fall? Or can we blame certain peoples for that empire's demise? Can we really blame Ferdinand II for taking things too far, turning Protestant (and yet xenophobic) portions of the HRE against him while Sweden remained a threat? I believe that to a certain extent we can. In my most recent episode, 25.75, Ferdinand II dies.
We have been with this guy since he first broke on the scene in Styria, in 1595. He was a podcast consistency, a WDF alumni if you will, for almost a whole working year. In the past 12 episodes on this TYW special, Ferdinand II has at least appeared, (though often required a large portion of our attention), for 9 of them. Additionally, though I know it's unprofessional, I've really developed a dislike for the man.
I would hazard a guess to say that there will be some who disagree outright with my portrayal of Ferdinand II; I expect to be proven (or at least to have people think they have proven me) wrong. I hope in fact to be proven wrong, because just like Germany in the early 20th century got the most reckless, immature individual for a Kaiser, the HRE in 1617 comes under the rule of the man who holds his Jesuit, militant Catholic court above the interests of the wider Holy Roman Empire and who believes, sincerely, that it is his mission to bring to the HRE a Counter-Reformation style revolution. An intolerant ruler at the best of times, I do not buy the argument that the Defenestration of Prague wouldn't have occurred had Ferdinand been in place. To a certain extent, let's be fair, Calvinist extremism did play a part in the events of 1618 that began the TYW all those episodes ago.
But to another extent, what in God's name was Ferdinand II doing to defuse it? That's the point I make, or at least try to, in 25.75, that Ferdinand was not trying to defuse anything, because he saw the opportunity granted to him as Emperor of the HRE as his chance to 'right the wrongs' of years of organic religious development. The fact that the HRE was a seriously complicated animal, the fact that over the years emperors in Ferdinand's position had advocated and indeed acted as though the principles of tolerance, of 'German liberties' and decentralisation were paramount, did not seem to register in Ferdinand's mind. Matthias and Rudolf before him had recognised that their ruler depended upon the approval of all involved; that the distinct polity of the HRE depended upon putting the lessons learned by previous Emperors into practice. There was no point in trying to do it any other way, because the results of it would be an impossible religious war that nobody could win; if one was to simply allow each Elector, each minor prince and each major one to rule his domains as his own man, answering nominally to the Emperor of course, then everyone's world would be far simpler and more pacific.
This was a fact proven by attempts made by both Rudolf and Matthias to accommodate the HRE's various religious elements. Ferdinand did not abide by these rules though, and he didn't learn the lessons of their leadership. This was because for Ferdinand the HRE and the religious imbalance therein were problem issues. On his doorstep lay a breadth of religious diversity, but to Ferdinand this was a threat, an affront to Catholic piety and an act against his authority. When all was said and done, when Ferdinand had thoroughly trounced Fredrick V and his Palatine allies by 1624, that could have and should have been the end of it. The Defenestration, the upheaval that followed, one could at least reasonably argue that Ferdinand had been reacting, rather than acting majorly in that course of events. Could he have been more tolerant? Sure. Could he have acted better? Definitely. But these would be the limit of the criticisms leveled against him, especially if he managed to defuse the situation and prevent the escalation of the Palatine issue into a religious, widespread, European conflict. Imagine the good press he'd receive; Ferdinand II, the great accommodator, the man who the HRE can place its trust for the well-being of all its citizens, not just the ones which Ferdinand shared a religious affinity with.
But we know what really happened don't we? Ferdinand did not call a conference, he did not appeal to exterior forces to curb Fredrick's high ambitions for Bohemia and he did not make any attempt to settle Bohemia's fears either. Bohemia, though an electorate of the HRE and its most prosperous region, was treaty as a war prize by Ferdinand. He confiscated what wasn't nailed down to pay for his operations, he resettled or imprisoned or forced into exile those who had acted against him, and he began the religious reorientation of the entire kingdom. This, bear in mind, was going on while Fredrick V tried to organise a coalition against his emperor. Nobody, it seemed, was all that bothered that the religious balance of the HRE had been upset, or that its political gears were locked in stasis, because the delicate balance established centuries before had been erased. Just like that. Fredrick V was deposed as the Palatine's head. Bohemia came under the direct control of the Habsburgs. Just like that, Ferdinand had defeated his enemies, empowered his Spanish ally with its Palatine conquests and turned the voting powers he had in the Council dramatically in his favour.
The world's second richest man was watching Ferdinand's moves though and moved to action because of his perceived endangerment, Christian IV of Denmark declared war against Ferdinand in 1625. Even now there was still a chance; there was always a chance. Christian brought some serious resources to the table, but he couldn't fight on forever in hostile territory. He knew this. He looked for allies. They meekly answered the call, and the Dutch were more than happy to see a new ally set against the Habsburgs. But it was not to last. Not even English support could save Christian's lackluster campaign, and when his defeat came at the Battle of Lutter it signified the end. It should have meant the very end. Ferdinand should have been focusing on containing this war, on ensuring that nothing else happened to encourage the tensions now spreading in his domains. Instead he saw the Danish victory as a victory for his family and his religion; and sought to emphasise this by creating something unheard of.
The Edict of Restitution pretty much guaranteed that conflict would continue. Ferdinand had gone the completely opposite direction of his predecessors; far from showing those within and without his lands that they had nothing to worry about, the Edict looked like something a conqueror would impose on its defeated rival. It was unpopular, even among Catholics that it was supposedly aimed at, as they recognised that their fellow HRE inhabitants would never accept it. We've seen how even Wallenstein, the man who made the Danish victories possible, even stood against it. Everyone with a moderate bone in their body, it seemed, saw what the Edict meant for the HRE. Formerly allied moderates like John George of Saxony and George William of Brandenburg, who had profited from allowing the Emperor to have his way thus far, were now cast into a sea of doubt as to exactly how far Ferdinand would go. Would he really force the Edict upon an unwilling populace? Did he not realise what this meant, what this would mean? How could John George trust his emperor to maintain the level of tolerance he had come to expect as an elector? The point was that he couldn't. That is the key issue here; Ferdinand was just not the man who could ease even a moderate Lutheran like John George of Saxony and address his concerns. John George had seen Ferdinand's confidence and ambitions grow. He was treating the HRE more and more like his battleground, where he could wage wars and then increase his power in the process, where he could defeat local enemies and redraw the religious boundaries of his empire that were never set in stone in the first place.
And then, Gustavus Adolphus invaded.
How exactly was John George of Saxony supposed to ignore the monumental symbolism that this young, charismatic, successful Swede stood for? Well he managed well enough. Attractive as it may be to side with one who has the power to counterbalance that of Ferdinand's, John George viewed any foreign intervention into the HRE with disdain, no matter who it was or for what purpose. In other words, despite everything Ferdinand had done to his religious brethren, despite the excesses which John George was well aware of, he would not turn against his emperor because it was constitutionally wrong. Approaching the situation with words as he had for the past decade, and presenting himself as the representative of the HRE's Lutheran population, John George no doubt believed that Ferdinand would place, if not religious tolerance, then at the very least the security of the HRE and its elements, above that of his own ambitions. Then, in early 1630, perhaps the only man remotely capable of combatting the looming Swedish threat, Wallenstein, was dismissed amidst a blaze of controversy. Mere months later, a wholly Lutheran city, Magdeburg, was sacked; this turned the Calvinist Elector George William of Brandenburg against his Emperor, at least in theory.
When Tilly's pressured, under-rationed and demoralised army appeared outside of Leipzig, one of Saxony'y most critical cities, John George was faced at last with only two choices. Tilly was not offering to inhabit the Saxon elector's lands, he was demanding provisions, quarters and full cooperation. Under orders from Ferdinand, anything less could be considered treason and as just cause for occupation. As you may have heard, John George's 'sweet meats' joke was ignored by Tilly, who occupied Leipzig and the majority of John George's lands in mid-1630. Having often acted in concert with Ferdinand (mainly because he was sponging off his success and gaining lands), John George had to face the ugly truth that his Emperor had turned against him for his refusal to allow his army in. But John George knew what 'allowing Tilly in' meant; it meant devastation, the ruin of the peasantry and the sinking of his lands into despair. It had happened everywhere else, and Saxony held the only lands physically untouched by the war that had raged from neighbouring lands till that point. But now he was forced out of his neutrality.
We know the next phase of the story. Two years after he invaded, Gustavus Adolphus had conquered the majority of the HRE and apparently could not be stopped. But then, suddenly, he died in battle. This was the turning point. The next two years saw Swedish fortunes gradually plunge, despite the efforts made by Axel Oxenstierna to reiterate Swedish power over Germany. John George of Saxony and George William of Brandenburg were on Sweden's side, but it was an awkward partnership, created because of Ferdinand's lack of tact in the previous years. But four years against their emperor proved four years too many. It was obvious that both were waiting for a chance to bring the association with Sweden to the end. Nordlingen gave them that chance; as you'll discover. But this was the last gasp of a tired, flagging Habsburg initiative. Spain was exhausted; its coffers had been running in the red since the century began, but its inherent problems were getting out of control, and France still loomed large even while the Dutch sapped the energy and enthusiasm of the Iberian Union.
France's entry into the morass of the HRE in 1635 transformed the TYW utterly. How could one link the Defenestration of Prague in 1618 with France's intervention almost two decades later? Pretty much the only constant factor in those years had been Ferdinand II as Holy Roman Emperor. I don't believe that Ferdy wanted to see Europe engulfed in the TYW, but what I do believe is that Ferdinand, unlike his predecessors, attempted to redefine both his own role and the status of others. By targeting the most sensitive issue at the time, religion, Ferdinand virtually tore open a Pandora's Box in the process. Despite attempts to close it, it was almost as though Ferdy seemed content to open it just a little, and keep peeking inside, until he could keep it closed no longer.
What he got in return was a complete metamorphosis of the European situation. A decline in Habsburg fortunes to an incredible degree and a Europe that had truly learned its lesson. The lesson that no man could possibly create a uniform religious system in an area as large and complex as the HRE. I chastise Ferdinand not because he listened to his Jesuit advisors, or because he upheld his own religious beliefs as the key controlling influence of his life. I chastise him because he failed to listen to his predecessors, to the warnings of those who had sat where he sat, who had dined where he dined. He refused to accept what had already been established as fact; that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy enough nor imperial enough to enable the kind of centralising uniformity Ferdinand envisioned. He did not and would not listen to reason. For that, we have the TYW. A series of events certainly, that cannot all be blamed on Ferdinand II, but which, I can't help but wonder, could have been so different, had someone other than Ferdy been in place at the time. Would a different Emperor have accepted the lessons taught by generations of Emperors, or would they, like Ferdinand, only acknowledge that his policies had failed when he was faced with no other option but reconciliation?
Perhaps the most tragic thing was, it was a lesson learned too late.
Did you agree with my assessment of one of Europe's most important 17th century figures? I'd love to hear your thoughts/comments! Find When Diplomacy Fails Podcast on Facebook and let us know there. Also, of course, don't forget to download and listen to the podcast episode itself (more specifically episodes 25.7 and 25.75) available on iTunes and other directories now!
Thanksssss for reading!