Who doesn’t know it from history lessons, the Thirty Years’ War? You can still roughly remember that it had happened around 1600 and something and had devastating effects. But who fought whom and why? And above all: What was it about? I guess most people can’t remember for sure or not at all. One person who knows very well, however, is Prof. Dr. Franz-Josef Jakobi. I had the opportunity to meet him and draw on his wealth of knowledge.

Professor Jakobi is a historian and renowned pedagogue. For a long time, he was head of the Münster City Archive. Previously, he taught history at the university and worked in teacher training. He is now approaching 80 but remains in “unretirement”. He supports the project Frieden.Europa for the City of Münster with all his energy, advises on many topics relating to the Peace of Westphalia and, as an often-requested expert, repeatedly gives interviews and lectures. He is well versed in the Thirty Years’ War – its causes, consequences and its significance for the present.

So, my interview begins with the questions: Who actually fought in the Thirty Years’ War? What was special about this war in a time of constant struggle and conflict? Calmly and concentrated, Professor Jakobi gives an explanation. He patiently explains what he has already explained many times, so that it is not forgotten: “The Thirty Years’ War has a special place in European history. Wars between individual nations or regional powers had been fought again and again, but never had they been so extensive and far-reaching. In this war, three major causes have worked together.”

War for religious freedom

He explains: “Firstly – in the wake of the Reformation – there was a great war of confession between the Protestant and Calvinist powers in Germany and Europe on the one hand, and the catholic powers and the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation on the other. It was a historic struggle for religious freedom.” This struggle mixed with political interests and so it was fought with rigour and determination.

War over centrality versus decentralization

The second complex of causes had its roots in the constitution of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. Its King was an electoral king. He was not legally entitled by birth but was chosen by the Prince Electors and then crowned Emperor by the Pope. Professor Jakobi sums up the politically complex situation as follows: “There was a very strong position of the Imperial Estates and hence power struggles between the particular powers and the Emperor broke out again and again in various places.” These power struggles in the Thirty Years’ War were no longer fought only politically but by force of arms.


War for supremacy in Europe

The third conflict was over supremacy in Europe. France had felt “surrounded” by the Habsburgs, who reigned in the Empire and in Spain, and had tried to shift power. Sweden and Denmark wanted to strengthen their powerful position. “In addition,” says Professor Jacobi, “there was the 80-Year War between Spain and the Calvinist northern provinces of its Dutch territories parallel to the Thirty Years’ War. It was a kind of ongoing civil war or, as we would say today, ‘guerrilla war’, in which the Netherlands rebelled against its Catholic ruler. This war also had to end in order to bring peace to the whole of Europe.


It all began with the “Winter King

While Professor Jakobi tells in an exciting and understandable way, I secretly ask myself a little frustrated why my history teacher couldn’t do the same at the time. Because: If history is explained correctly and told in an exciting way, it is brought to life. So, I would like to know more and ask how this whole war had actually begun? Professor Jakobi continues: “Mostly the famous Prague defenestration is regarded as the trigger of the Thirty Years’ War. It has the following background: The kingdom of Bohemia, which belonged to the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, rebelled against its Habsburg King, who was also Emperor. The protestant Bohemian Imperial Estates (‘Reichsstände’) opposed the ‘recatholization policy’ of the King; and feared for their estates and religious freedoms. That went so far that they threw the Imperial Governors out the window at a meeting in Prague. This was, by the way, a not unusual form of political resistance”. The Bohemian ‘estates’ then elected a new King: The protestant Elector Friedrich V. of the Palatinate. To accept the election, however, was a very daring and subsequently disastrous decision on his part. It was the spark that started a wildfire. Friedrich was mocked as “winter king” because he remained in power for only one winter.


A war raging across Europe

I ask Professor Jakobi how we can imagine a Thirty Years’ War today, whether the whole of Europe really has been in battle. He corrects me: “The Thirty Years’ War was not a large-scale war like in the 20th century. By today’s standards, there were only small armies that were involved in different regions and never in simultaneous armed conflicts.” The war moved all over the continent. “Time and again there were special focal points, such as the destruction of the protestant city of Magdeburg during the conquest by Imperial General Tilly,” says the history expert. “What was new at the time, however, was the rapid spread of reports of the war. What was new at the time, however, was that reports of the war quickly spread. The invention of letterpress allowed pamphlets to be produced and distributed,” he continues. This was the first time that war propaganda had been effective. Despite the war being regional, the consequences were extreme. “Almost a third of the total population of the affected areas died,” Professor Jakobi describes the events. This was due to marauding troops and mercenaries devastating the country, failing harvests and diseases which followed the war and claimed victims. Simultaneously, according to Professor Jakobi, there was another cause for the mass death: “At the same time there was a so-called small ice age in Europe, which caused a bad climate and poor agricultural yields. Together with the war, this effect consumed the country completely. The situation had been completely muddled, and a solution to the problems seemed impossible”. He concludes: “Any bilateral attempt to end parts of the war had failed. So how should one get out of this situation? Here, too, something new and unique was needed. And finally, the ‘Peace of Westphalia’ treaties were successful.