Beyond History Blog

Thirty years of war and their impact on genealogy

Heike Leiacker - 23. May 2018 - Anniversary, General, Genealogy, Germany, Hamburg, Historical Events, History, Knowledge

The Thirty Years‘ War was one of the most destructive confrontations on German territory. Prior to the two world wars in the 20th century it was considered to be probably the most incisive event in German history. It also had an impact on today’s genealogy. The Thirty Years’ War was precipitated by the Second Defenestration of Prague on 23 May 1618.



The Defenestration of Prague

It wasn’t the first time that persons were thrown out of a window in Praque due to religious disputes. In 1618, the reason was a conflict between the Catholic Hapsburg sovereign of Bohemia and the predominantly Protestant Bohemian estates.

Following the reformation there were tensions between Catholics and Protestants all over Europe. Since the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 German sovereigns had the right to decide on the religion of their subjects. In 1609, however, the Holy Roman emperor Rudolf II had granted religious freedom to the kingdom of Bohemia with his Letter of Majesty. When in 1617 archduke Ferdinand (as of 1619 emperor Ferdinand II) became king of Bohemia, he started to restrict the religious freedom of the Protestants. This led to protests by the estates.

On 23 May 1618, Protestant nobles attacked the Bohemian Chancellory at Prague Castle and threw two regents and a secretary out of a window. They survived, but the incident was as good as a declaration of war. At the end of the following war, the Protestant population of Bohemia had no choice but to convert or leave the kingdom.



War and peace

But the Thirty Years’ War didn’t come to an end yet. Various different conflicts were fought on German territory. In addition to the religious conflict and the internal problems between emperor and estates, the power distribution within Europe played an important role. The German emperor and Spain were facing France, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden.

The war came to an end in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia. It was preceded by a preliminary peace of Hamburg in 1941. In the neutral city initial talks for a general peace had taken place.

The pan-European peace congress was held in Münster and Osnabrück. The new peace order intended all countries and religious denominations to be equal. The Dutch Republic and Switzerland became independent. Sweden and France were the winners of the war and gained territories whereas Spain lost its power. The Hapsburg emperor was weakened as well, while the estates were strengthened.



Depopulated and ravaged

The Thirty Years’ War had a high death toll. People died not only during battles, but civilians were killed by ravaging soldiers or died due to hunger and epidemics. It is uncertain how many people perished in total.

Whole regions were depopulated and ravaged. This was not least because of the “contributions” Albrecht von Wallenstein had introduced and that were copied by other war parties. For the war was not financed by a central treasury, but by the population of the territories where it was fought or that were occupied. The further the war proceeded, the crueler the plundering and ravaging became. If as region was bled to death, the troops moved on.

It is relevant for genealogy that accordingly there was a lot of migration. Many escaped due to religious reasons, others due to poverty or the invading troops. Also, the soldiers were followed by hundreds of civilians. They hoped for protection as well as an economic basis for their lives.

Different regions were affected to a different extent. The war was particularly hard on Mecklenburg, Brandenburg, Pomerania, Thuringia and Württemberg for example. Some places were almost completely depopulated, others were overrun by refugees. Supplies for the refugees were sometimes hard to ensure. After the war, sovereigns of depopulated regions sometimes aimed to settle immigrants to compensate the lack of population.

Hamburg had pursued a policy of armed neutrality from the beginning of the conflicts. As early as 1616 it had invested in massive ramparts due to a conflict with Denmark. This saved the city from ravaging troops. Furthermore, the growing Hamburg benefited from the streams of refugees, for example from the Netherlands. It did large parts of the trade with Central Germany and continued to flourish as a trading city.



Destroyed genealogical sources

Often, genealogical researches come to an end when they reach the time of the Thirty Years’ War. During the chaos of war, many records were lost, particularly church books which are amongst the most important genealogical sources. They fell victim to ravages and destructions of the invading troops. Furthermore it seems understandable, if during such difficult times there were gaps due to other reasons.

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