Do we know the truth about the Thirty Years’ War?

Different perspectives and eye-witness accounts reveal historical fallacies and myths about the war.

Gustavus Adolphus II
Gustavus Adolphus II. Credit: Wiki Creative Commons

They say the terrible war is now over. But it still doesn’t feel like peace anywhere. Everywhere there is jealousy, hate and worse things – the war has taught us such. The old people have grown old with godlessness – how could they still change before their end? There are only a few cottages left in the village. We people live like animals, eating bark and grass. No person can imagine that something like this has happened before us. Many people say it is now certain that there is no God. In the last couple of days, foreign people moved in, they say from the mountains. They speak a strange language. Seem to me to be capable workers, anyway. Want to stay here, since they were driven out because of heresy. Benckheler, Heinzmann, I and one of the strangers got together today to see whether we couldn’t make a couple of the crumbling cottages habitable again. The others all say it’s not really peace, the soldiers will surely come again and there’s no point in doing anything. But we believe that God has not abandoned us. We all must stand together now and get to work, inside and out.

This text was written as a notation in a family Bible in the village of Gerstetten in southern Germany. It is dated January 17, 1647. What the anonymous writer did not know is that ‘the others’, the villagers who argued that ‘it’s not really peace’, were right. The Thirty Years’ War did not end until the autumn of 1648 and the ravaging hordes of soldiers that had turned Germany into a land of ruins would continue to occupy it for another two years, until war reparations had been paid.

The Gerstetten notation is an example of how the war was conceptualised and experienced by ordinary people, by the victims of the mercenaries who made a living out of plunder. We do not have to look far to find examples of the opposite, of reports written by the soldiers that peasants, such as those in Gerstetten, learned to fear and hate. A typical example is this excerpt from the diary of Peter Hagendorf, a German mercenary who fought from the mid-1620s to the end of the war, switching from the Bavarian and Imperial side to the Swedish side and back again. The year is 1641:

From Bonames to Limburg through the Westerwald, a rough land. To Montabaur, here a meeting was held with the army. June 12, to Dierdorf. A terrible land. Here we got army bread and the dogs didn’t want to eat it. Here I got a bit drunk during the evening and in the morning I was straggling a stone’s throw behind the regiment, because I had a headache. There were three peasants hidden in the brush and they attacked me there and took my coat, pack, everything. Through God’s grace they jumped away from me at once, as if somebody were chasing them, although nobody was back there. So I came back to the regiment beaten-up, without my coat, without my pack and they just laughed at me.

The story continues several months later, when Hagendorf and his fellow soldiers returned to the area after a lengthy campaign:

I went to the headquarters, to look around, to see if I couldn’t find any of the three who had taken my things… I came across one of them, whom I immediately took to the military police and then to jail, with the declaration that he must return my things, or he must hang. And so Field Marshal Wahl [ie Joachim Christian, Count of Wahl], who heard about this right away, offered to me, in front of the commander of the military police, the auditor general, the quartermaster general and the entire watch, to have the peasant hung if he did not satisfy me. So the authorities in his village gave me 12 talers. In addition the commander of the military police received 1 taler, the auditor 1 taler, the quartermaster 1 taler, the jailer a 20-kreuzer coin. So I was happy again.

There is nothing peculiar about these texts. The examples can easily be multiplied, provided that we take the time to look up the various eyewitness reports that have survived. There is no shortage of texts. On the contrary: we have lots of vivid observations, written by men as well as women. Literacy was widespread in 17th-century Germany and many wanted to preserve their personal experiences in writing.

For a female perspective, we may look at the memoirs of Anna Wolff, a miller’s daughter from Schwabach, near Nuremberg, who ran the family mill, together with her brother, after the death of her parents. In the summer of 1632, Schwabach was sacked and occupied by imperialist troops, who took advantage of the fact that the Swedish army was unable to leave its fortified camp near Nuremberg to help the burghers. Together with four other women, Anna managed to stay out of trouble when the soldiers arrived:

When the gate was to be opened, the people were so afraid that they didn’t know where to go. The majority fled into the two churches and locked themselves in; few stayed in the houses. I hid myself in a concealed dovecote in my mill, where the five of us could not stand up for five days and, while the bullets whistled back and forth, truly God protected us.

Three of the women died shortly afterwards, probably due to the harsh conditions in the cramped shelter. As for the mill, it was thoroughly plundered. The soldiers only missed one thing:

A chest full of flour was still left, right by the door. Many hundreds had gone past it, but not one had opened it… We divided the chest of flour that was left to us among the poor people, who hadn’t had a bite of bread in eight days. I went into the mill myself to beg flour to make gruel for the small children, just boiled in water.

Anna Wolff was not the only woman to describe the war. The one thing that makes her stand out in a historiographical overview is her social position: she was a miller’s daughter. If we shift our focus to the monastic world, we quickly find a considerable number of women detailing their experiences of the hardships of the age in diaries and chronicles of their own. A good example is the account of Maria Anna Junius, a Dominican nun in the cloister at St Mary’s Church in Bamberg, who witnessed the arrival of the Swedish army under the command of Duke Bernard of Saxe-Weimar.

Our cabinetmaker, who had also been at the city hall, came to us at 1am and he told us, too, that there was no human soul left at the city hall. They had all fled and the shooting that continued was the enemy’s. ‘If you want a protective guard, send somebody into the city soon, because, before daylight, the enemy will advance over the bridge.’ We didn’t know what to do for fear and terror. Immediately, I and another sister went to the mother superior. We asked her for God’s sake quickly to write a request for a guard troop now, because, by daylight, the enemy would be upon us. Immediately she wrote to the colonel and asked for a guard troop, but we couldn’t get anyone who would take the note into the city, so we were in great need and worried and, again, we did not know what to do. We were in the greatest need, though, and it was already 4am, so our gardener’s apprentice came to us and said he would risk his life and body for ours and carry the letter in.

When the gardener’s apprentice arrived, Colonel Wildenstein [Georg Wulf von Wildenstein], who had taken quarters in the tavern house on the market, was still lying asleep. But after our boy had waited for quite a long time, he asked the cook, for God’s sake, to wake up the colonel, otherwise his virgins were going to die miserably before daylight. She reported it to the colonel and, as soon as he heard this, he asked immediately, ‘Is anybody there to whom I am related?’ Immediately, a nobleman, who must have been descended from a fox and was cousin to our prince, went to him. He said to the colonel, ‘Cousin, here I am.’ Then the colonel sent him with five musketeers to be our guard troop.

Oh, God, we were in such deadly fear and terror during this time, because we assumed that the apprentice gardener had been killed. Therefore, we were ready for death at any moment, because we constantly thought that the enemy was coming and would kill us. We had willingly given ourselves up to that and were willing to live or die according to God’s merciful will, as it pleased His Godly Majesty. But then, when it was already going on 7am, there were several sisters on the lookout and they saw several soldiers coming to our cloister and thought they were the enemy. They ran up here quickly and screamed, ‘Oh, oh, you dear sisters, the enemy’s coming and headed for our cloister. Oh, let’s go together into the chamber and, when they come, beg for mercy, or die with each other, as God wants.

While we were in such a great panic, a sister came and spoke: ‘Be calm, you dear sisters; this will be our guard troop.’ When we heard that, we were a little at ease. We were in the windows and the soldiers saw us weeping so heartfully. They said to us that we should be at ease: ‘Nothing will happen to you.’

None of these examples are well known. They do not belong to the standard image of the Thirty Years’ War and they are absent from ordinary textbooks about the 17th century. The reason is obvious: the Gerstetten notation, the Hagendorf diary, the memoirs of Anna Wolff and the text written by Maria Anna Junius are all examples of historical sources that were produced far from the royal courts and parliaments and they all view the war from a local and private point of view. This category of sources has seldom been allowed to play a significant part in the construction of historical memory. Most people do not even know that these texts exist. The ways in which we visualise and remember warfare are subject to a biased selection of sources. These texts vary greatly in character. It is inevitable that there will be a pronounced discrepancy between the ways in which warfare is described, legitimised and analysed, depending upon which sources are selected by the historian. One of the major problems is that a number of sources, such as the ones quoted above, are routinely neglected, since they do not fit into a narrative framework that has already been constructed. To a large extent, these frameworks have determined the selection of sources and thus perpetuated a certain kind of narrative during the course of decades or even centuries.

One of the earliest examples of this problem is the history of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48), the conflict that resulted in the writing of the four eyewitness accounts quoted above. The Thirty Years’ War originated as a Protestant rebellion in Bohemia, aimed at liberating the country from the Habsburg dynasty, but quickly developed into a German civil war. Many other conflicts were drawn into the war, such as the struggle between Spain and the Netherlands, the struggle between Transylvania and the Austrian Habsburgs and the struggles between French and Habsburg forces and allies in the Alpine regions and in Italy. Nations that had little or nothing to do with the initial conflicts – such as Denmark, Sweden and France – eventually joined the war and thereby contributed to the immense difficulties experienced by 17th-century diplomats, who were trying to put a stop to the seemingly endless bloodshed. It should also be noted that many German princes used the war as a pretext to attack their own enemies, adding family feuds, as in Hesse and Baden, to the complex weave of warfare. Since Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands had established colonies and outposts overseas, the war spread across the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean and might arguably be characterised as the first world war.

The Thirty Years’ War is reflected in a number of sources and textually transmitted perspectives that differ sharply from one another. The participating monarchs each made a point of explaining their actions in theological and juridical terms. Defence issues, pecuniary reasons and explanations based on religion were employed in political discussions, while other reasons were used in propaganda. At the same time, the main events of the war were reported and discussed in newspapers. The war also resulted in the production of fiction, such as Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen’s famous novel Der abenteuerliche Simplicissi­ mus Teutsch (1668). Most interestingly, however, is the fact that a number of eyewitness accounts have survived. Since they, too, differ greatly, historians may view the conflict from several angles.

Many eyewitness accounts were written by victims of the war, for example nuns, priests, parsons and burghers, whose convents, churches and cities were plundered by the armies. Other accounts were produced by soldiers, both German mercenaries and adventurers from other countries, such as Scotland and England, who joined various armies in the 1620s, 1630s and 1640s; it was common for soldiers to switch sides more than once during the course of the war. Robert Monro, James Turner, Thomas Raymond and others described their experiences on the battlefield and on the long marches, often in great detail. Sometimes, the great number of eyewitness accounts make it easy for us to examine one single event from a series of diverging perspectives, for instance with regard to the fall of Magdeburg in 1631. To this should be added accounts written by neutral observers who were forced to traverse Germany, such as William Crowne’s A True Relation of All the Remarkable Places and Passages Observed in the Travels of the Right Honourable Thomas Lord Howard, covering the history of the Earl of Arundel’s embassy to Ferdinand II of Austria in 1636.

All in all, these sources provide us with several excellent opportunities to compare various images and experiences of the Thirty Years’ War with each other. However, if we read about the war in a standard textbook, this multitude of angles is usually absent. The war is described in a largely predictable fashion that fails to take into account the wealth of information at our disposal.

Swedish historiography may serve as an illustration of the general tendency. In the vast majority of Swedish overviews of the Thirty Years’ War, the events between 1618 and 1630 are quickly summarised. A point is made of the fact that King Christian IV of Denmark was utterly defeated, but otherwise, the first 12 years of the war are treated as a prelude to the events of the years 1630-32. In 1630, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden launched a successful invasion of Northern Germany. At the battle of Breitenfeld in 1631, the Swedish forces crushed Tilly’s Catholic army and turned the tides of the war. From then until the death of Gustavus Adolphus in the battle of Lützen in November 1632, Sweden played a greater role in world politics than on few other occasions. After the death of the king, the standard Swedish relation of the Thirty Years’ War changes in style and the rest of the war is treated as a lengthy epilogue to the climax of 1632. Finally, the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, one of the most successful treaties in Swedish history, is given due consideration and the various German territories gained by the Swedish monarchy are carefully enumerated. Taken as a whole, the Thirty Years’ War is visualised as an international conflict that served to pave the way for the Swedish Age of Greatness (stormaktstiden).

In traditional German accounts of the Thirty Years’ War, the image is different. The classical German vision of the era, popularised in Gustav Freytag’s Bilder aus der deutschen Vergangenheit, a five-volume work published between 1859 and 1867, is that of a deluge, a tragic history of rape, plunder and death. Germany is perceived as the victim of ruthless armies from foreign countries and of the egoistic ambitions of warlords and statesmen, such as the Austrian, Spanish, Danish and Swedish monarchs and Cardinal Richelieu in France. The war is described as a nightmare that left large tracts of German land waste, after which the country was doomed to remain a political and economic dwarf for more than a century.

Both the standard Swedish and the standard German image of the Thirty Years’ War are connected to the rise of nationalism. For Sweden, the war has served as a tool in the construction of a great past, an era in which the country was far more politically important than later. Gustavus Adolphus and his commanders, generals like Johan Banér and Lennart Torstenson, have been regarded as heroes comparable to the Vikings of the late Iron Age. In the 19th century, the Thirty Years’ War occupied a prominent part of Swedish history books and it is still referred to in the Swedish national anthem as ‘old glorious days’ (fornstora dar).

In Germany, the Thirty Years’ War has been used as a means to create a tale of a dark past, a pit from which the country had to rise in order to achieve future greatness. This is particularly evident if we look at the historiographical development in Brandenburg-Prussia. The electors and, later, kings in Berlin used the memory of the Thirty Years’ War as an ideological basis in their efforts to legitimise the expansion of state power, internally as well as externally. By creating and maintaining a view of the conflict as a disaster of biblical proportions, the reforms and wars of Brandenburg-Prussia were perceived as heroic and important. The Hohenzollern dynasty of Brandenburg-Prussia was interpreted as a champion of a true and strong Germany, a superior alternative to the internationally dominant realms of the Bourbons of France and the Habsburgs of Austria. The ravages of the war could also be employed as useful arguments when explaining why Prussian society developed the way it did in the 17th and 18th centuries: the peasants and the landowning Junkers had to be controlled and the army had to be strengthened, so that it could be used to combat the enemy that had devastated the country in the 1630s and the 1640s.

It should be observed that the Swedish authorities during the second half of the 17th century also wanted to turn the Thirty Years’ War into an even greater disaster than it was. The reason is obvious: Swedish victories grew in importance as the memory of the war became increasingly darker. It is interesting to note that the Swedes and the Prussians employed the same historian, Samuel von Pufendorf (1632– 94), whose dark image of the war, in De statu imperii Germanici (1667) for example, was of paramount importance to the development of the view of the conflict during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Thus, the memory of the Thirty Years’ War gradually became standardised. The semi-official narrative of the conflict grew to almost mythical proportions. In Sweden, the exploits of the war were glorified. In Germany, the war was used to explain the national weakness in the 18th century and to legitimise the unification and expansion of the Reich in the modern era. German right-wing nationalists and German left-wing Marxists usually agreed on the standard image of the war. In Bohemia, the war was perceived as a great national tragedy, the end of the old Czech kingdom and the beginning of the era of Austrian domination. Likewise, in Denmark, kejserkrigen became symbolically important as the beginning of the end of the great Danish Renaissance monarchy that had dominated the Baltic region. And so on – the participating countries developed their own versions of the war.

As a consequence, it became difficult to introduce new perspectives and shift focus from one area of interest to another. Teachers as well and students of history expected narratives of the war to be presented in a certain way, to conform to a pre-arranged pattern, and to contain a specific number of battles, sieges and campaigns. This is obvious even in general textbooks and monographs written in the late 20th and the early 21st centuries. A typical Swedish book about the Thirty Years’ War is still strongly focused on the Swedish participation, especially from the invasion of 1630 to the battle of Lützen in 1632 and, to a lesser degree, to the defeat at Nördlingen in 1634. Very little attention is given to the war in the Rhineland, in the Netherlands, in Alpine regions or in Hungary, and the war in Italy and overseas is usually forgotten. Similar nationally biased visions of the conflict are continually repeated in other countries.

The transformation of the war into a mythical conflict with heroes and villains is even more obvious if we look at the history of specific groups and individuals. Few persons in Swedish history have been the object of so many myths, so many speculations and so much hero-worship as Gustavus Adolphus. In Finland, the Finnish light cavalrymen, known as hakkapeliittat, from the battle cry hakkaa päälle (‘strike upon them’ or ‘cut them down!), have achieved legendary status.

In this way, an international conflict that is covered by a multitude of sources, even published eyewitness accounts and newspaper articles, has been and still is interpreted according to agendas that have little to do with the actual events. Most of the eyewitness accounts have been forgotten and even those that were printed during the 18th and 19th centuries are largely neglected by historians. Memoirs written by monks, nuns, peasants and artisans are difficult to reconcile with already existing narratives, whose inherent strength and popularity cause them to be retold in a way that should be used as a warning to all those interested in history. But they are not. On the contrary, the repetition is accepted.

As a result, the biased image of the war that was produced by orders of various kings and princes in the decades after the Peace of Westphalia continues to play a dominant part in the history books of today. At the same time, the true face of the war, although easily accessible, remains unknown to most of us. The sheer force and power of the narrative framework excludes the voices of the participants and the victims themselves.

This essay originally appeared under the title The Thirty Years’ War: the gap between official versions and eyewitness accounts in War: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar, 2015.


Dick Harrison