Table of Contents

Germany During the Reformation

The Empire after the Thirty Years War

Germany was at peace for the balance of the century. This was not because Westphalia was so brilliant a settlement as because of the general exhaustion of all the participants. Peace, at any rate, has degrees. Many German knights hired out as mercenaries and fought in foreign wars. Sweden attacked Bremen twice (1652 and 1666). There were peasant revolts suppressed by force. There were small, localized conflicts.

Religious war had ended, though. Austria, Bohemia and the Upper Palatinate were Catholic. Lutheranism dominated in the north, while the Calvinist Reformed church filled in the gaps.

Disorder persisted for some years. Mercenaries had little or no life to return to, and some roamed the countryside as bandits. Thousands of homeless drifted between occasional work and occasional banditry.

It took a few years to restore law and order. The mercenary armies were slowly paid off. Swedish troops did not withdraw until 1650 and even then they remained in Pomerania.

The word heard repeatedly with regard to the German economy at this time is decline. This is measured, most fundamentally, in the sheer loss of population, but it is manifested also in tax figures and in production. The losses varied dramatically. This town suffered less than that one, one region more than another. As with every other aspect of Germany, one must speak of specific places at specific times, resisting the temptation to extrapolate to the Empire in general.

Still, numbers do indicate how seriously the war affected Germany. The price of oats and rye fell by two-thirds and more from its 1618 level (at Leipzig, Augsburg, Speyer, and Frankfurt). Population losses in parts of Brandenburg, an area heavily affected, were so great that as many as 50%-60% of the farms were deserted. Berlin lost 20%, Potsdam and Spandau 40%, and the town of Brandenburg over 60%. In the town of Stendal, in western Brandenburg, 2,980 children were born between 1600 and 1610. In teh period 1660-1670, that number fell to 969. In the duchy of Württemberg, a census in 1652 showed over 41,000 houses and barns destroyed. The same census showed a loss of 58,340 citizens from the towns of the region. In Augsburg, a hundred people paid the highest tax rate in 1617; in 1661 only twenty did. The number paying the second-highest rate fell from 143 to 36.

Economic catastrophe of course had social consequences. In examining these, one key point is important to keep clearly in mind: the Thirty Years' War did not create new types of social change, but rather it accelerated and aggravated changes that were already discernible before the war.

In general, a distinction may be drawn between northeastern, southern, and western Germany. With plenty of local variations, the nobility in the northeast were strengthene, in the south were impoverished, and in the west held about steady. The peasants in the west and south gained more freedoms, while those in the northeast were reduced to serfdom. The towns of the west recovered quickly, in the south slowly, and in the northeast not at all.

The Bavarian nobility was hit hard. They had never gone into trade nor had they become involved directly with the management of their estates. Instead, they relied almost exclusively on dues and rents from their villages. This source of income, already inadequate in 1618, fell sharply because of the war. The nobility borrowed heavily. Some sold lands, or various incomes from their lands, falling into a disastrous downward spiral. Especially from the 1640s onward, the Catholic Church in Bavaria bought up these lands (as did merchant speculators and court officials), leading to bitter complaints in the Estates.

The peasants had a stronger hand. They had suffered great losses, but the survivors were desperately needed by the nobles to farm the land, so the peasants were able to negotiate better terms for themselves in the form of lightened dues and lower rents.

In the north, by contrast, the peasants lost ground. In Brandenburg, Pomerania, and Mecklenburg, the nobles were supported by the Elector in their move to demand more and more work from their peasants. Here, too, there were fewer peasants, but here the solution was to demand more of them and to make good on the demand by law and by force. In particular, more labor services were demanded, reducing the once-free peasantry to the status of serfs. Here it is worth reminding the reader that this development had been going on long before the Thirty Years War, but after 1648 the change is much more pronounced.

Many reading this probably think of these conditions as being medieval: the peasant was required to gain his lord's consent for marriage; they were bound to the land and could not leave without permission; their children could be forced to be servants or laborers; their very bodies belonged to the lord, who could buy and sell them on the market; the lord administered justice for the village, from which there was no appeal. These conditions were not medieval, however. In the Middle Ages, the peasants of Brandenburg had been free. The shift began in the 15th century and was accelerated by the Thirty Years War. Their unfree condition persisted up to the beginning of the 19th century.

Bohemia and Moravia followed the Brandeburg model, but the peasants of Lower Saxony remained free, as they did in Silesia. If there's a pattern, it's not territorial. Rather, where noble estates were small and scattered, there the peasants tended to remain free and even improved their position. Where the nobles controlled large, contiguous estates, and especially where they were supported by the prince, there the peasants were reduced to serfdom. The exact why and how varied so greatly that one can only refer to specific studies. The reader should not picture two modes--complete freedom here, utter serfdom there--but instead should see a vast expanse of shades, like viewing farmlands from a distance. Labor services, for example, might vary from twelve days a year (Bavaria) to six days a week (Neumark in Brandenburg), or even simply whenever the lord demanded it (Bohemia) regardless of the consequences for the farmer's own crop. Conditions could and did vary even within estates.

The nobles were also hard-pressed. Those who lived off their estates were caught in a difficult dilemma: income was falling while expenses were rising. We have already seen why income declined; with basic foodstuffs cheaper, why were expenses increasing?

One factor was that the great princes--the Electors, the dukes and margraves--were largely successful in extracting more and more money from the nobility, mainly by removing many exemptions previously enjoyed. A second factor was the increasing magnificence of court life, even at very minor courts. This was partly due to the enormous influence of Versailles and the court of Louis XIV; everyone wanted to imitate what they saw there. Partly, though, it was the result of a kind of competition. Nobles had to have a court, had to send their sons to foreign schools and foreign courts, had to entertain other nobles in suitable style. Increasingly, with each passing decade, the German nobility had no other occupation that that of being noble and living nobly.

Two career paths were open: they could follow a military life, entering the service of other lords. Or they could go to the court of the Emperor or an Elector, becoming an administrator. Both were taken in great numbers, especially by the lesser nobility, or by second and third sons. Daughters became a valuable commodity: an eldest to marry into connections, a younger to marry into money. Managing a noble dynasty in hard times required skill, patience, and luck, and sooner or later one or the other was bound to run short. Landless nobles, lacking everything except a title, appeared in increasing numbers in the later 17th century.

German urban life suffered perhaps most of all. The south German towns, once among the richest in Europe, crashed finally and completely after 1648, and never recovered their position. The Hansa towns in the north, also in long decline, were completely dominated by the Dutch.

Again, some numbers will illustrate the extent of the decline. In Munich in 1618 there were 148 cloth-makers; in 1649 there were 56. The number of hatters fell from 23 to 9. Nor did these numbers reverse in later decades. The princes, desperate for income, imposed more and more tolls at every point, making a revival of trade impossible. Moreover, a number of formerly-free cities were reduced, sometimes by force, to obedience to a prince, who promptly taxed them into ruin. This may sound foolish and short-sighted, but for the prince himself it was a question of ruining the rich burghers, or ruining himself. That, at least, is the way most of them understood the situation.

There were a few economic bright spots. The porcelain industry at Meissen began in the later 17th century. Silesia became a producer of linen. Hamburg began to emerge as a great European port. The bright spots were few, however, and only throw the general decline into sharper relief.

Everyone noticed. Foreigners saw the decline. They remarked upon the drunkeness and ostentation of the nobility, the ineffectuality of the political system. The Germans themselves bewailed their woes in innumerable statements, official and unofficial. Many blamed the war.

Constitutional Developments

The Emperor came out of the war in a somewhat stronger position. While it is true that the Electors were stronger than ever, the Emperor was able to focus more on the Habsburg lands and on dynastic aims. Moreover, the relative stability of the period 1548-1803 allowed the imperial family to accumulate gains.

The Imperial Diet became almost completely irrelevant. It was comprised of three houses: the Electors, the Princes, and the Free Imperial Cities.

The Estates were comprised mainly of the 360 landed, titled lords in the Empire, in addition to a handful of delegates representing the Free Imperial Knights (about 1,500 of these). Not every Estate had direct representation.

The first house was the Electors: eight in all, but only seven at a Diet because Bohemia had never had a seat. In 1692 the Emperor made Hanover into an electorate. The house was divided into two Colleges, one Catholic and one Evangelical. Religious orientation shifted over the years: in 1685 the Palatine Elector became Catholic, and in 1697 the Elector of Saxony converted as well. But Hanover was Lutheran, so there were always at least two Protestants. The others were Catholic, normally led by the Elector of Mainz. All Electors voted individually on all matters except those that touched religion. In those cases, they voted by College, and unanimity was required. This effectively meant the Diet never touch religion.

The second house was the Princes, divided into two Benches: sixty-three secular seats and thirty-seven ecclesiastical seats. Catholics held a majority here, too.

The third house was the Free Imperial Cities: thirty-four Protestant and thirteen Catholic. This house had no influence after 1653, when a Diet decreed that this house could vote only after the two other houses had reached agreement.

Since the Diet had no budget and no executive power, it could do little except serve as a mouthpiece for the princes. Increasingly, they found they didn't even need the mouthpiece, and it became little more than a forum for airing grievances.

The Diet of 1663 never recessed. For a variety of reasons, mostly trivial, it turned into a permanent session. It became another court, another source of offices and titles, mostly empty.

The Aulic Council (Reichshofrataudio gif) gained in influence and was sometimes effective. It served as a kind of Supreme Court for the Empire, hearing appeals from other courts (it did not, however, judge the constitutionality of laws). It was entirely under the control of the Emperor, who appointed its judges. Its authority could be enforced if necessary by Imperial troops. Its authority was undercut because some princes gained the "right of non-appeal" (privilegia de non appellando)--that is, the right to prevent any appeal from their princely courts to the Aulic Council.

There was another Imperial law court, inherited from the Middle Ages, that served somewhat the same purpose, but whose effectiveness--never good--declined almost to zero. This was the Imperial High Court (Reichskammergerichtaudio gif). Its membership was controlled by the Diet. It was notoriously slow, with cases stretches across entire generations.

The Empire had a standing army, voted by the Diet after 1653. It served mainly against the Turks and on the Rhine. There was also an Imperial Chancery. Beyond this there wasn't much of an Imperial government. Most of the organs, even such things as the Imperial Privy Council, were devoted to the administration of the Habsburg hereditary lands.

The Palatinate of the Rhine

It was already divided into Upper and Lower. Charles Lewis (Frederick's son) returned to the Lower in 1649 and found it devastated. He did his best to rebuild, but even by 1673 the taxable wealth was only a quarter of what it had been in 1618. In 1674 a new war with France led to more destruction, as bad as anything seen in teh Thirty Years War. The Elector died childless in 1685. The Jülich-Berg line took over and Louis XIV laid claim by reason of his brother's marriage into that family. This resulted in yet another war, and this time the French aimed at deliberate destruction. Heidelberg lost both its castle and its university to artillery. The French were driven out, but the new Elector was John William, a Catholic. The Palatinate had long been a Calvinist stronghold; many emigrated, taking with them skills and wealth. The Palatinate never recovered and was never again politically important.


Maximilian I of Bavaria was an absolutist prince and is as important to Bavarian history as Frederick I is for Prussia. He turned a somewhat ramshackle duchy into a reasonably efficient state. He broke the power of the Bavarian Estates and successfully brought Bavaria back to Catholicism. He created a court at Munich that fostered the arts. The Bavarian Diet met only twice from 1600 to 1800: once in 1622 and once in 1669. Maximilian was succeeded by Ferdinand Maria, who was succeeded by Maximilian Emmanuel (1679-1726). They were all of the Wittelsbach family.


Saxony in 1650 was still rich and populous, ruled by the House of Wettin. The Estates here retained their privileges, in no small part because the Electors got deeply involved in Poland. This involvement was expensive, forcing the Electors to grant concessions in exchange for cash. In 1661 the Saxon Diet was granted the right to assemble on its own, and the Elector was essentially required to be Lutheran (their grants of credit could be annulled, should he convert). In 1697, Frederick Augustus I, in order to gain the Polish crown, converted to Roman Catholicism. Control of the Saxon Church thereupon passed to the Privy Council. But the involvement with Poland prevented the Saxon Electors from following the example of Brandenburg.

Hanover was a duchy raised to the dignity of an electorate in 1692. The Elector George Lewis succeeded in 1705. Nine years later, he became King of England.