The greatest conflict in 17th Century Germany and Europe is, because of its range and length often considered as first ‘total war’, in some respect similar to WWI and WWII. All powers engaged in this war; Holy Roman Empire, Sweden, Denmark, France and Bavaria, were not inclined to finish it, because too much was at stake. It was a struggle to gain domination over Europe. Main opponents were Holy Roman Empire (supported by Bavaria) and Denmark (up to 1626), Holy Roman Empire-Bavaria and Sweden (1626-1635) and finally Holy Roman Empire-Bavaria and France (1636-1648). England and small northern German principalities provided protestant armies with new troops, whereas roman-catholic Italy sent many soldiers as reinforcements for the Emperor. We can clearly see, that the religiously (protestant North and catholic South) divided Europe, tended to evoke religious conflicts. But was it in fact a religious war? We will try to answer this question, together with that concerning this war’s being total or not total.
What makes a war a total one? Firstly it must be a conflict in which many soldiers, nations and powers are engaged. It was definitely so in this case. Secondly this conflict must last for many years (at least several), and must cause many casualties. What also seems to be a characteristic of total war is , that not only soldiers but also civilians of the enemy country are to be killed, because are seen as an almost equal danger as armed troops. This kind of attitude must be ‘justified’ among civilians and soldiers of the state, which is at war. To ‘justify’ using violence towards all representatives of the enemy country it’s usually necessary to invent some ideology, which could for some time overshine normal human reactions (if the opinion, that people are naturally good is true). In the recent total wars, namely WWI and WWII it was also typical, that the whole nation tends to identify with ‘their’ soldiers, although in the peace-time it would rather criticize the authorities for many actions, like; taxing, limitation of civil liberty etc. The last characteristic of ‘total war’ could hardly be adapted to Thirty Years' War, because it had been fought, before the period of nationalism, but faith and religion can to some degree, replace modern identification with “my own” nation.
The opposite to ‘total war’ is ‘cabinet war’, other type of military conflict, typical for 18th Century. The War of the Spanish Succession (1702-1714), and the War of the Austrian Succession (1741-1748) are good examples of this type. The Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) is sometimes called ‘first global war’, or even ‘first world war’, but it was definitely not a ‘total war’, because as the majority of ‘cabinet’ wars it was fought for very concrete and particular gains, as succession of the throne, land, access to attractive markets etc. Wars for domination and wars for faith, can last for centuries. The famous competition between Vienna and Paris, Hapsburgs and Bourbons is one of the most stable factors of the whole political situation from 16th to 18th, which ended only before the Seven Years’ War, when it came to so-called: renversement des alliances. As the significant minister of 18th Century Austria Wenzel Anton Kaunitz remarked, the duel between the two monarchies was no more sensible, because many other countries (England, Prussia, Russia etc.), were profiting in this situation, and strengthening their own force. We see now, that a ‘total war’ is maintained as long as it seems to be sensible, as long as there’s something to win.
WWII was a total war, because it’s goals were almost unlimited; gaining power over the whole civilised world or preventing this folly. There was no concrete goal of WWI, which was the effect of the general cliffhanger in Europe, when every nation was strengthening it’s forces, afraid of the neightbours. The ‘cabinet wars’ ended automatically, when their limited and concrete goals were achieved, at least for one side. Had the ‘cabinet’ War of the Spanish Succession ended with giving all the provinces of the deceased Carlos II of Spain to Louis XIV of France, it would have almost certainly been followed by another “total war’ against Louis’ domination.
The other aspect that makes the division between “cabinet’ and ‘total’ war is the purely professional character of the first. It means that only or almost only professional soldiers are engaged. Of course some situations during ‘cabinet wars’ may require engaging civilians’ support (like in the battle of Malplaquet in 1709), but it’s generally contrary to the general idea of ‘cabinet’ wars. Thirty Years' War was fought by both mercenary and professional troops, and also many civilians were abducted to the army or ‘persuaded’ to do so. That hardly happened during typical ‘cabinet’ wars, the only exception are, I gather, piratical methods of Frederic the Great of Prussia, who abducted many peasants to the army, when he was short of money or soldiery.
The ‘cabinet wars’ are directed only against soldiers. During them, the civilians can be killed only accidentally. Let us compare the two conflicts in question: War of the Spanish Succession and Thirty Years' War, and the causalities the both wars caused, in the first about 450.000 soldiers have been killed, during the second – 150.000. We must of course remember, that the War of the Spanish Succession was fought by bigger armies. The losses among civilians are, as usually far more difficult to estimate. But there is a general agreement between historians, that hardly any civilian was killed during War of the Spanish Succession, who was not directly exposed to the effects of battles (like inhabitants of besieged towns). During Thirty Years' War, civilians were frequently victims of marauders constantly searching for food and destroying villages.
We must also remember about the natural catastrophes as hunger, which was evoked by the character of warfare typical for Thirty Years' War. Soldiers of this war were constantly under-fed. There were naturally supply columns at the disposal of commanders, but they could not provide soldiers with sufficient quantity of nourishment. The towns of the period were small, and unable to supply armies for long. There were no military magazines, which were invented at the end of 17th Century by the French. This invention has revolutionized the warfare and make the war itself more human, naturally if any war can be human. Soldiers fighting in the War of the Spanish Succession or the Seven Years’ War, were no longer constrained to rob civil inhabitants. Inventors used all the negative experience of Thirty Years' War.
There’s a ‘bridge’ between Thirty Years' War, and wars of the Napoleonic era, the bridge of cruelty. During the French Revolution, it was ‘needed’ to mobilize many civilians against Prussian army, taking defense of the arrested French king and intervening in France. Revolutionary leaders decided to institutionalize the practice of taking civilians to the army, even if they hadn’t volunteered. It was called levee en masse and meant that from now (1791) on every man can be called to the army service because it’s his duty to die for his country. Nationalism appeared on the scene of history. There were many people perfectly glad to be torn into pieces because it’s ‘needed’ for your country. In my opinion it was the most terrible crime in the modern history to return to barbaric custom, that every man can be killed in the war, whether he is a trained soldier or not. From now on every milkman, every baker, every seller, every pianist, every painter, every craftsman and even every cripple (it it’s ‘needed’) could be (and unfortunately still can be) called to the service and killed. As Erich Maria Remarque once said it would be easier to execute all man able to wear weapons, instead of conducting costly and long wars. The war was now supposed to last till there’s a single man able to fight, not any longer; as there’s a single soldier to be killed. An Effect of this folly, was WWI. Thirty Years' War is a bit similar to WWI and WWII, as far as the lack of clear division between soldier and civilian is concerned. WWII was directed first and foremost against civilians, who are easier to kill. During Thirty Years' War one-third of the 12 million population of Germany lost their lives. Many of them killed by marauders.
We cannot, of course, trace nationalism in the 17th Century, but it was religion, which played a very similar role as nationalistic sentiments play today. What should be highlighted, religion was maybe used by 17th Century leaders engaged in Thirty Years' War, but almost certainly it wasn’t a casus belli and consequently; this wasn’t a war of religion, because all religious matters were already settled in Germany since the Augsburg treaty (1555), which gave the princes of Reich the right to decide over their subjects’ confession (cuius regio eius religio). The 1555-treaty was an effect of real religious war. During Thirty Years' War, confession was no more cause to join this or those side. We perceive 17th century as a very religious period, but this vision is not entirely true. Jesuits were scared seeing many persons distanced from religious live. There were many aristocrats in Paris, whose live is naturally far more known than a common townsmen’s or peasant’s live, who were atheists, but not of this type, we meet today. They were not negligent or indifferent, but actively atheistic. For instance the party, who used to gather in Ninon de Lenclos’ house in Paris, attending blasphemous and idiotic rituals like marrying cats to other animals etc. There were also sects like Jansenists, who have caused more problems to Jesuits than protestant ‘heretics’ have. The founder of the Jesuits Ignacio Loyola, stressed (1540) the necessity of ‘rescuing as many souls as it’s possible’. They tried to make it, but were able only to oppress ‘heretics’ in particular countries. State leaders were in 17th Century used religion as a pretext of starting the war, but weren’t to choosy when it came to find allies. Protestant Sweden joined it’s forces with roman-catholic France in 1636. We can also trace many examples of violence used by protestants against protestant civilians and catholic armies oppressing roman-catholic inhabitants. This attitude started even before the war. In 1610 the troops mobilized for the Emperor by the prince-elector Leopold, plundered the city Passau in the southern Germany, because they haven’t got their soldier’s pay in time. In March 1619 count von Dampiere – a protestant looted some towns in Bohemia.
The effect of Thirty Years' War was typical effect of a total war. The whole political structure of Germany and the balance of power in Europe altered. In October 1647 Spain declared bankrupt. In France a rebellion of aristocracy called le fronde (1648) took place. The Emperor lost his political control over more powerful princes, who were from now on allowed to conduct their own foreign policy, separated from Emperor’s foreign policy.
Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) was a real ‘total war’, of the most cruel type. Murdering of people, was not planned (like during WWII) but casual, but it does not change the general character of the conflict. Nothing was made to spare human suffering. This is a common characteristic of Thirty Years' War and the two World Wars fought in the 20th Century.
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