3. The Thirty Years' War: Effects

The negotiations which concluded with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 marked  the first time in European history that countries came together (at a congress) to resolve a number of different disputes in the hope of reaching a general settlement and lasting peace. In this sense Westphalia was the fore-runner of the Treaty of Vienna (1815) and the Treaty of Versailles (1919). Westphalia led to a longer period of general European peace that either of these subsequent congresses. Its significance has been the subject of great debate between historians.

Guiding questions:

What were the main aims of the participants in the peace negotiations at Westphalia?

What were the main terms of the treaty?

What was the political and the territorial impact of the Treaty?

What was the significance of the Treaty of Westphalia?

What were the demographic and economic impacts of the war?

How far did the Treaty resolve the issues that had caused the war?

The war solved no problem. Its effects, both immediate and indirect, were either negative or disastrous. Morally subversive, economically destructive, socially degrading, confused in its causes, devious in its course, futile in its result, it is the outstanding example in European history of meaningless conflict’

C.V. Wedgewood ‘The Thirty Years’ War’ (1938)

  Perhaps Veronica Wedgewood’s approach was influenced by the decade in which she wrote her history of the Thirty Years’ War, the 1930s, and her experience of growing up in the shadow of the First World War. (Recent historians have offered a more balanced assessment of the war.)

Discuss in pairs the following question: can our treatment of past events as historians be influenced by subsequent events (in this case the twentieth century wars), which can have had no possible impact on what actually happened in the past?

1. What were the aims of the participants in the peace negotiations at Westphalia?

A total of 176 diplomats attended the peace congress, representing 196 rulers. All the Estates and princes of the Holy Roman Empire were invited, alongside the Emperor’s envoys and those of France, Sweden, Spain and the Dutch. The negotiations began in 1643 and continued for 5 years, with occasional breaks when fighting broke out. Most of the disputes were settled in the period 1645-47. The negotiations were complex because of the number of participants and the length of the conflict. There were religious as well as territorial issues to be settled. Catholic rulers were divided between those who were prepared to compromise on the Protestant gains, and those who were not. Protestant rulers were divided between Lutheran and Calvinist but were more united than the Catholics overall.

The main peace-makers at Westphalia were France, Sweden and the Holy Roman Emperor.

Task One

ATL: Thinking skills

Match the three peace-makers above with the correct summary below of their aims regarding the peace treaty:

A. Desperately in need of a peace settlement because its army had been eliminated and faced the threat of Sweden in the north and France in the Rhineland. This meant it was prepared to make concessions of land, but would like to hold on to the religious changes as much as possible, seeking to confirm Catholic lands achieved up to 1627 (as agreed at the Peace of Prague in 1635)

B. Would like a broad peace which would end the war with Spain as well as the war they had fought against the Holy Roman Empire. Unfortunately for this aim, the Spanish made a treaty with the Dutch and so continued the war until 1659. Would like to have destroyed the influence of the Emperor in the German states but the German princes were against this. Their territorial demands from the Empire were quite limited, as the land they wanted was Spanish, in order to break the ‘Spanish Road’

C. Sought territory in northern Germany to give them security in the Baltic and to weaken the power of the Holy Roman Empire. Also sought financial compensation. Made a claim on the whole of Pomerania, which rightfully belonged to the Elector of Brandenburg, Frederick William. This raised concern from other states of the ‘balance of power’ and Brandenburg was supported by France. This was to lead to concessions such as reduced compensation and the division of Pomerania

2. What were the main terms of the Treaty of Westphalia? What were the territorial, political and religious consequences of these terms?

The treaty gave the Swiss independence of Austria and the Netherlands independence of Spain. The German principalities secured their autonomy. Sweden gained territory and a payment in cash, Brandenburg and Bavaria made gains too, and France acquired most of Alsace-Lorraine. The prospect of a Roman Catholic reconquest of Europe vanished forever. Protestantism was in the world to stay.

History Today, Richard Cavendish, October 1998

Task one

ATL: Thinking skills

In pairs or small groups, read the terms of the Treaty below and discuss the following questions:

  • What would the effect of the religious changes be? Could religion again be a cause of conflict in Europe?
  • What impact would the political changes have on the power of the Holy Roman Emperor?
  • Who gained the most from the territorial changes?

Religious issues

  1. The principle of ‘cuius region, eius religio’ was reaffirmed, but would now only apply to public life. This meant that attendance at the established church was no longer necessary and private freedom of worship was allowed. Any change in the religion of the ruler in future would not affect the religions of his subjects.
  2. Calvinism was recognised within Confession of Augsburg, and so was protected by 1555 settlement.
  3. The Edict of Restitution of 1629 was abandoned.
  4. All land secularised before 1624 could be retained, except for the Austrian and Bavarian lands, which included Bohemia.
  5. Any disputes on religion within a state must be settled by compromise, and not by a majority vote in the Diet (Parliament).

Political issues

  1. The separate states of the Holy Roman Empire were recognised as sovereign, free to control their own affairs independently of each other and of the Emperor. (Article 63)
  2. Maximilian of Bavaria retained his electoral title as elector of the Palatine and the territory of the Upper Palatinate.
  3. A new electoral title was created for the Protestant Karl Ludwig, son of the former Elector Palatine, and he was restored to the Lower Palatinate.

Territorial changes:

  1. John George of Saxony was confirmed in his acquisition of Lusatia.
  2. Frederick William, the elector of Brandenburg gained Cleves, Mark and Ravensburg, Cammin, Minden, Halberstadt and Magdeburg.
  3. The Emperor’s hereditary rights in Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia established.
  4. France gained the Sundgau, Lower Alsace, though excluding 6 free cities and bishopric of Strasbourg. France’s occupation confirmed in the bishoprics of Metz, Toul and Verdun confirmed. France also gained Moyenvic, Baccarat, Rambervilles, also Pinerolo in Savoy, Breisach and Philippsburg on the right bank of the Rhine.
  5. Sweden had acquired mainland provinces of Jemteland, Herjedalen, Halland, and the islands of Gotland and Osel (Treaty of Bromsebro 1645). Westphalia confirmed Sweden’s control of the German coastline, gaining western Pomerania and control of river mouths of Oder, Elbe, Weser – occupied Western Pomerania, Stettin, Stralsund, Wismar, the dioceses of Bremen and Verden and the islands of Rugen, Usedom and Wollin.
  6.  Sweden also gained an indemnity of 5 million Thalers.
  7. The United Provinces were declared independent of Spain and of the Holy Roman Empire.
  8. The independence of Switzerland was recognised by the Emperor.
  9. No prince of the empire, including the Emperor, could ally with Spain.



As you will have seen significant gains were made by:

  • The Elector of Brandenburg, Frederick William, who gained territory in the Rhineland to add to his lands further east. He was a Protestant. These gains were supported by Cardinal Mazarin of France in order to ‘balance’ the power of Sweden in northern Germany.
  • John George of Saxony (Protestant). He had always had an Electoral title.
  • Maximilian of Bavaria (Catholic) who retained the Upper Palatinate and so the title of Elector of the Palatinate. Karl-Ludwig (Protestant), the son of the former Elector Palatine, was given a new electoral title in the Lower Palatinate. This meant there were eight electors and that the Palatinate was divided into two regions, one Catholic, one Protestant.

The increase in powers in these German states was accompanied by a decline in the power of the Emperor.

Task Two

ATL: Thinking and communication skills

1. In pairs review the information below concerning 'winners and losers' of the Treaty.

2. Then discuss the following question and write an essay plan for it:

It is far from clear who won the Thirty Years’ War but it is obvious that the Habsburgs lost it’.

Discuss this view of the Treaty of Westphalia

Winners and losers:

  1. The Pope, Innocent X, condemned the treaty. He wrote that ‘great prejudice has been done to the Catholic religion’.
  2. The Pope’s view was not shared by the Catholics who signed the treaty.
  3. The religious settlement has been seen as realistic overall.
  4. Ferdinand’s Edict of Restitution of 1629, the high point of the Catholic Counter-Reformation was lost and the reversion to a date as early as 1624 was more favourable to the Protestants than the Catholics (who had hoped for 1627).
  5. The Holy Roman Emperor lost some rights to act independently, for example to declare war on behalf of the Empire.
  6. A lot of the rights given to the states of the Empire were already allowed in practice, and were no made part of law, so they were not really new rights.
  7. Karl Ludwig gained a new electoral title.
  8. The Emperor was in a much stronger position in Austria and Bohemia, having crushed the political opposition in the Bohemian Revolt of 1618
  9. Saxony, Bavaria and Brandenburg, especially Brandenburg, gained in size and importance and were developing into independent sovereign states. Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg, gained territory out of all proportion to the state’s involvement in the war. This was because France wanted a power in northern Germany to control Sweden. Brandenburg soon became Brandenburg-Prussia and eventually, in the 19th Century, led Germany to unification.
  10. France gained little in terms of territory and was unable to push its case because the war between France and Spain was still going on (until 1659).
  11. The Emperor was not allowed to support Habsburg Spain, which would help France.
  12. Spain was excluded from the Westphalian settlement. In 1659 Spain lost its fortresses on the French border and so the ‘Spanish Road’ was destroyed.
  13. Sweden made significant gains in the Baltic, although not as many as they might have achieved after Gustavus Adolphus success in the early 1630s. France feared that Sweden would be too strong and so supported gains for Brandenburg.
  14. The Catholic Counter-Reformation had been stopped. The Protestant Reformation could not be reversed.
  15. Peace was brought to the states of Germany, but they were now divided more than before. Protestant to the north, Catholic to the south. Germany was also politically divided, into its autonomous states, and economically divided. These divisions were to remain for 200 years.

3. What was the significance of the Treaty of Westphalia?

'Although the Treaty of Westphalia did not, as such, end all religious wars, it did provide a settlement which made them anachronistic and which gave stability to Catholics and Protestants in most countries'

Stephen Lee, Aspects of European History, 1494 - 1789, pg119

Task One

ATL: Thinking skills

Read the following extract from ‘The Thirty Years’ War’ by Peter Limm (1984). What are his key arguments for why the Westphalian settlements marked a ‘turning point’ in European history.

Although the Westphalian Agreements did not actually end war, the territorial changes made in 1648 remained formally valid until the nineteenth century. Although religion continued to be bound up with decisions of state, the influence of religion on internal affairs was less obvious after 1648; the provision that 1624 was to be the standard year for reservation of ecclesiastical property meant that further religious dissension like that of Donauworth in 1608 did not recur and the assumption that territory had to be reclaimed for one side or the other was gradually abandoned. The territorial distribution of the main religions, with Lutheranism in the north, Calvinism in the Rhine area and Catholicism in the south, remained intact until the twentieth century.

After 1648 there were more secure constitutional guarantees for both Catholic and Protestant Princes within the Holy Roman Empire, making the government of the empire more stable. When Louis XIV challenged the religious divisions in 1686 he was opposed by both Catholic and Protestant Princes allied together in the League of Augsburg. This League also included Spain, the Emperor, the Netherlands, Sweden and England. The Treaty of Westphalia had established a settled structure for conducting international affairs and, until the late eighteenth century, it was considered to be an important basis of the European state system.

Although there were many territorial changes made after 1648, for example the treaty of Utrecht in 1713, the method of settling international disputes by congresses, backed by the signatories as ‘guarantors’ had been born. After the complex problems of the years 1618 to 1648 people began to believe that the Westphalian settlements had been a diplomatic turning point

Click on the eye for the key points:

  • The map of Europe was settled for 200 years.
  • Europe was made up of more equal, sovereign states.
  • Religion became an issue of private life rather than public policy.
  • In future states would act in their ‘national interest’ rather than their religious interest.
  • The Holy Roman Empire had survived and was in some ways more secure.
  • Protestant and Catholic alike had learnt that religious divisions should not be the basis of a quarrel.
  • The ’congress system’ had been born as a way of settling future disputes.

5. What were the demographic and economic impacts of the war?


What is the message of this source?

The population of the German lands 1550-1700


Population in millions









Task One

ATL: Thinking skills

This is an extract from a lecture by Professor Peter Wilson given at Gresham College in 2018.

What evidence does Wilson give that this was 'the most destructive conflict in European history'?

The Thirty Years’ War was the most destructive conflict in European history prior to the twentieth century world wars. At least 5 million people died in the Empire, reducing its population by about a fifth (though some estimates put the total losses much higher). On this basis, the war emerges as even more destructive than the world wars: the Soviet Union suffered the highest losses in the Second World War (at around 40 million deaths), but had a much larger population (making its proportional loss at about 12%, or considerably lower than in the Thirty Years War). In addition, we need to remember that we are talking about a pre-industrial society when it was much harder to replace human labour with machines. This explains the very slow post-war recovery: the 1618 population levels were only restored around 1713, or 65 years after the war ended.’

Note that you can see the whole lecture by Professor Peter Wilson here: highly recommended for an overview of the causes, events and consequences of the war!

The economic and social effects of the Thirty Years’ War has been a matter of controversy. The nineteenth century view was that the war was catastrophic for Germany, causing widespread death and destruction and holding back the development of the country. Some thought that the war had killed up to 60% of the German population. This view is now regarded as one of the myths of the war. Past historians have made too much use of unreliable sources such as ‘The Adventures of Simplicissimus the German’ by Grimmelshausen, which exaggerated the impact of the war.

Recent studies at a local level have corrected this notion leading to a more complex picture. The loss of life was higher in some areas, and some of the loss of population was due to migration rather than death. The agreed figure is now some 15-20% of the German population killed. Nevertheless, this is very significant in comparison with modern warfare, as Wilson points out above and as the figures in the source above show.

Most people were not killed in direct military action, but by loss of food. Agriculture was disrupted, grain was seized by troops and livestock killed which led to starvation and disease. There was also a plague outbreak in the 1630s. The slaughter of civilians and destruction of villages did occur in the 1630s as you will have seen on the previous page, but was quite rare.

The population lived through a terrible experience which was sustained over a long period of time. The sense that there was a crisis tested traditional religious beliefs. The social and economic problems encouraged more extreme beliefs and the search for a scapegoat. In the 1620s, as the Catholic armies advanced, this led to a dramatic rise in accusations of witchcraft. In Bamberg between 1612 and 1630, in a succession of witchcraft trials, there were more than a thousand victims. The witchcraft craze died down after 1631 when the invading Swedish army became more of a direct threat.

The economic effects of the war included some disruption to agriculture which caused rising prices in the 1620s and 1630s. The impact of the war on farming was short-lived in that the land recovered. However the shortage of workers led to a strengthening of the feudal system as nobles exploited their legal powers to keep the peasant workers on the land. Trade and industry was inevitable damaged by the war, although some industries prospered, including the armaments industry, brewing and rope-making. Even the richest families suffered from the requisitioning by the armies. The war led to debts and increased taxation which gave the governments more power and so made the rulers more secure in the years after the war.

The overall picture now is one of quite rapid recovery after 1650 for many regions. The experience of the war was varied both in time and by region. The armies of the 1630s were much more vicious in their treatment of the local populations and areas such as Pomerania in the north saw the biggest fall in population. However, the extreme destruction of Magdeburg was the exception rather than the rule.

Task Two

ATL: Thinking and research skills

In groups investigate further the impact of the war on the people of the German lands. Consider the following areas:

  • Loss of population, migration, disease and death.
  • Economic effects – agriculture, industry and trade.
  • Social effects – witchcraft craze in the 1620s, for example at Bamberg.

Task Three

ATL: Thinking and self-management skills

Create a mind map such as the one below and add information to show the key effects of The Thirty Years' War and the Treaty of Westphalia.

Use the information on this page to complete the mind map, the video above by Professor Wilson and your own research.

6. How far did the Treaty resolve the issues that had caused the war?

Task One

ATL: Thinking skills

1. In pairs, consider the issues that had caused or extended the Thirty Years’ War and decide how far these problems had been solved by 1648:

  • The Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation.
  • The ambitions of the Emperor Ferdinand II, who wanted to increase the power of the Emperor with the Empire.
  • Maximilian of Bavaria who wanted to be an Elector.
  • The Baltic rivalries between Denmark and Sweden, and Sweden and Poland.
  • French fear of the ‘Spanish Road’.
  • The Dutch Revolt against Spain

2. Overall, what do you consider to be the successes and failures of the Treaty of Westphalia?

3. Refer back to Wedgewood's analysis at the top of this page: to what extent do you agree with this verdict of the outcome of the war?

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