The Thirty Years´ War – Part 1

 

Southern Germany, September, 2018:

When we arrived at the outskirts of Ladbergen after a long day on our bikes, we got lost. It was a warm day, 30 degrees Celsius, and we were tired.

We had booked a hotel for two nights but couldn’t find it.

We stopped at an Aldi, went inside, bought some supplies, packed them in our bike bags and then asked around for directions. As usual, the Germans went out of their way to help us.  

The hotel was on a side street, off the busy main road, at the end of town. It was a medieval era building which had been tastefully renovated. We parked our bikes and went inside to sign in.

There was a woman standing behind a bar. The ceiling was low and supported by heavy beams. It was dark. The bar was no longer used. There was a polished wooden counter and taps and behind it, large ceramic tankards sitting on shelves.

There was a restaurant next to the bar, but this was also closed.

The hotel was half museum and you could hear voices from the past, in the days when the bar and restaurant were busy.

Initially I was pleased to be in a place with so much character, until we went to our room, that is.

It was up a flight of wooden stairs. It was small, basic, with a creaking wooden floorboards. The lighting was poor. We’d booked the place for two nights because we needed a rest day after a series of long days on the bikes, but I wondered about that decision after settling into our room.

We unpacked our stuff.

Whilst I had a cold shower, Anya went to the office to ask about breakfast, which was included in the price of the room.

She was gone a while.

When she came back, I was lying on the bed, passing in and out of sleep. I was just so damn tired. Every muscle in my body ached.

She appeared before me like an apparition. She was full of enthusiasm.  

‘Near the door to the bar and restaurant there’s an alcove. It’s easy to walk passed without seeing it. There was a door there once but it’s been closed off. In the alcove is a plaque on a wall, made from ceramic tiles. There are few sentences in German. It says that in 1645, the leaders of the armies fighting the 30 years’ war first met here to discuss peace terms. Just imagine it! This building was here almost 400 years ago! In the old sketches on the tiles, it looks exactly the same!’

This sparked my interest. I knew then what I was going to do on our rest day, after a long sleep.

Sleep in, have breakfast, and then take a look at the alcove.

 

 

One thing led to another. I studied the plaque in the alcove in the morning and by midday I was immersed in the Thirty Years War. There was lot involved.

It was interesting and depressing. That’s the problem with history. You go out there looking for information, facts, and end up feeling, well, kind of depressed.

 

 

1618: the last great religious war in Europe begins.

The cause?

The Vatican. A newly installed Pope named Ferdinand. A religious fanatic.

He is determined to impose Catholicism on the Protestants by force of arms: terror and mass murder no problem.

Whatever it takes.

Europe is roughly divided between Catholics in the south and Protestants in the North.

Protestantism had begun with the German priest Luther. His criticism of Catholicism was the start of a revolution within the medieval Christian world. Priests could not determine one’s entry into heaven; that was for the individual to decide. The entire priesthood, along with the monasteries, the clerical lands and over decorated Cathedrals were profane. Latin was no longer to be the language of God.

Protestantism spread quickly in the north of Europe. But it did not become the dominant Christian creed. There was a patchwork of Catholics and Protestants living in co-existence. This co-existence was formerly recognised by the Treaty of Augsburg.

Live and let live.

Until the ascension of Fascist Ferdinand.

 

He was determined to crush the Protestant states in the north of Europe. In Bohemia, in today Czech republic, the German Lutherans rose in rebellion against Ferdinand’s Catholic imperialism and were brutally crushed. The word was out: this was a pope who was prepared to do anything to exterminate the Protestants.

What Ferdinand did was trigger off a long and terrible maelstrom.

 

The northern Protestant states, banded together. At the same time, a welter of national rivalries – the great problem of Europe – was unleashed.

Spain, aiming to crush the Prostestants in The Netherlands, swung behind the Pope’s campaign. It had been waging a campaign there for the last 50 years. Without success. It had a problem: it was trying to wage war in a water land in which its troops were unfamiliar and were being systematically defeated in an ongoing guerrilla style campaign. Now, egged by the Pope, they were going to take the gloves off. Austria, a Catholic country, also aligned itself to the Catholic campaign.

But the besides the water, the Dutch protestants had another formidable advantage over the Spanish: business sense. The seeds of a future greatness were in the offing. Amsterdam and its sister cities were already thriving trading cities with deep pockets.  

The French – Catholics – alarmed at the policy of the Austrians and the Spanish, supported the Dutch protestants. They were joined by the English and the Danes.

Subsidized by the Dutch Protestants and French Catholics, Sweden, a Protestant nation and a formidable military power, entered the conflict. Saxony, the largest province in Germany and Protestant, joined this alliance.

There it was: an unholy mess!

Thirty years of savagery in the name of God!

 

 

Both sides employed mercenaries – they would change sides depending on who was paying them the most.

As usual, the civilians got the worst of it.

Like in Syria today.

It’s almost impossible to know how many people died. No one was keeping reliable statistics then. Murder, disease, starvation and rape – were widespread. Became normal. 

 

 

By 1645, the belligerents were exhausted – and on the Catholic side, bankrupted.

They began talking about terms, although military operations continued in hopes of improving their bargaining positions.

 And where did they meet?

 In a small town called Ladbergen.

 In 1648, finally, a treaty was concluded. .

 Thirty years of utter barbarity had been unleashed and nothing had been gained, much had been lost.

The suffering had been immense and, most of it endured by the Germans.

 

In the evening, when the sun had set and it was cooler, we ventured outside. There were strange and conflicting images in my mind.

During the Second World War, Ladberg was bombed flat. Only two buildings survived: the hotel – and the church.  

How strange, how perverse it was!

The building where the warring parties in the Thirty Years War had sat down together for the first time and discussed the idea of a truce, had somehow survived the devastation of the Second World War. 

Almost as if its role in securing a lasting peace was preserved for posterity.

But after a visit to the other historic survivor, the church, the strange coincidence of the survival of the hotel receded before another, different insight: the peace concluded by those men in 1648 was, in reality, only a truce.

In the longer term, there was no lasting peace.

In reality, the Thirty Years´ war, that dark cataclysmic event, was a forerunner for the horrific wars waged 3 centuries later.

As twilight descended, the threads of cause and effect became ever clearer.

With the creeping darkness, the ghosts of terrible wars appeared from behind the tombstones.

The First World War, the Second…..the Holocaust….

 

The Thirty Years War Part 2

 

On the second evening of our stay in Ladbergen, we went to visit the church.

We didn’t have far to go; it was on the opposite side of the road to our hotel and  perhaps 200 metres away.

It was a Protestant church. 

In the last light of a warm September day, as Anya and I circumnavigated its stone walls, it occurred to me that it must have been humiliating for the Catholics to have had to travel to this small Protestant town to discuss the terms of a peace treaty. They knew that they had lost the Thirty Years’ War: they had failed to eradicate Protestantism from Northern Europe. 

But was even worse, they had set the scene for the rise of a powerful new Protestant nation in the form of The Netherlands.  Catholic Spain had waged a cruel and brutal campaign in that water land and been defeated. After 1648, when the final peace treaty was concluded, The Netherlands entered a period of greatness, the so-called ´Dutch Golden Age´, when it became the world’s foremost economic and naval power. 

Peace however brought no benefits to the provinces comprising Germany. They had borne the brunt of the Thirty Years War, endured the worst excesses of the hate, the violence, the epidemics, the hunger, the mass deaths. And afterwards, there was no recovery, no ‘Golden Age’; poverty, starvation and disease lingered for decades. Millions of people emigrated. Germans flocked to The Netherlands – including almost half the population of Ladbergen. The Germans became Europe’s refugees – ironical in view of recent events with the mass migration of Syrian refugees to Germany.

Beyond this grim physical reality, was another, deeper, emotional one: in the memories the German people, the 30 years’ war was a time of terrible disaster, rivalled only by the latter stages of the Second World War.

Appropriate, given the links between the two events.

 

On two sides of the church were gravestones.

There weren’t many gravestones and none of them had anything interesting to say: just the usual stuff about resting in peace and god and heaven.

Nevertheless, there were a few of the gravestones which literally stopped me in my tracks.

It wasn’t the words in epitaphs that caught my attention, it was the numbers: the dates of birth and death. There were gravestones of people who had been born in the early years of the 20th century and died late in the 1990’s or early 2000’s.

I made a quick tally of the events which had occurred during the lives of those people – of the history which had unfolded during their lives:   

The First World War and the horrors of trench warfare; mass starvation during the last year of that war, followed by the chaos of defeat, the Great Depression (which hit Germany harder than anywhere else), the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, the Second World War, blitz bombing, defeat, the country in ruins and the shocking revelation of the gassing of 6 million Jews (2 million of them children); the post war reconstruction and the division of Germany into East and West; the miraculous years of recovery and then, in 1990 the fall of the Berlin Wall and the creation of new, united Germany – followed by the personal computer, the video and CD player, the age of the internet, the mobile phone and so on.

The simplest thing in the world, the statement of birth and death on a marble slab, was enough to amplify the short but tragic history of the German nation.

And ironically, not far from the gravestones, I came to a very different kind of monument: one which served as a reminder of the birth of that nation: it was an old four- sided stone column, with a few sentences engraved on one side.

The stone was weathered, pitted, but the script was still legible: it was a tribute to ‘our brothers’ who died in 1871.

1871: the birth of a new nation called Deutschland.

 

Normally Anya and I never ate ice cream.

But this was our last night in Ladbergen. The evening was warm and we knew that on the following day we had a long ride in front of us. Besides, a rare indulgence is often the most enjoyable one. Which was certainly true about this particular indulgence.

The Italian ice cream parlour was on the same side of the road as our hotel. Hence, our hotel, the church and the ice cream parlour formed a triangle, its sides no longer than 200 metres (probably less, I suspect).

 

 

I have never seen a people so enamoured of Italian ice cream as the Germans. It’s something that I noted in my diary during previous bike rides in Germany.

Outside the Italian ice cream parlour were tables and chairs on a brick work pavement. They were all occupied. Echoes of people chatting and laughing filled the air.

We bought two small containers of ice cream. The man behind the counter pointed us in the direction of a place over the road where we could sit. We walked over there. it was odd that we hadn’t seen this area before: it was next to the church grounds.

There were three bench seats arranged in a semi-circle around a pond. The perimeter of the pond was a low wall topped by glazed cement tiles. At the end facing the bench seats, water flowed over a low edge of the wall into an iron grid recessed into the ground; the water was then circulated back into the pond. The sound of the water splashing into the grid was welcome on a warm day. There were trees surrounding the area, enough to provide shade yet not block out the light entirely.

On the bench seats were parents and grandparents and children eating Italian ice cream.

After a while, we began watching the kids and their reaction to the water. Some of them were fascinated by it and tried to jump in – whilst being restrained by an adult – or they dabbled their hands in the overflow. But other kids didn’t want to go near the water, just watch it from afar.  

People stayed a while and left. Others turned up. Some people appeared on bikes with their children seated behind them and stopped and chatted.

It was a delightful scene.

Sometimes one of the ultimate travel experiences is just sit somewhere and watch people.

 

 My thoughts drifted to the old stone column in the church yard.

After all, it wasn’t far from where we were sitting, surrounded by people and children eating ice cream.

1871

The German war against France.

Long ago, after reading the works the French novelists Guy de Maupassant and Emile Zola, I realised that this war was very important but had never received the attention it deserved, overshadowed as it was by the First and Second World Wars.

1871: Germany united under the authoritarian rule of Count Otto von Bismarck. A Prussian nationalist, he was a late convert to the cause of German unification. The drive for unification came from below, from the people. In turn, this desire had deeper historical origins. In the aftermath of the 30 years’ war and the decades of poverty afterwards, the call for the unification of Germany became ever more clamorous. A united Germany would never see a repeat of the 30 years ‘war, never have its lands invaded by foreign armies and its people murdered and humiliated.

Bringing the various provinces together was no small task. A shared language and culture was not in itself enough. There were immense political obstacles. There was also another very basic issue: would the German people be united under a democracy or a dictatorship? In 1848, the spectre of unification had loomed large when all over Germany, people had rallied behind the ideals of liberal democracy: of voting for their leaders, of free speech and social equality. The liberal democratic fervour was accompanied by a call for unification. What the vested elites had failed to accomplish would be realised by the people.  But the revolution of 1848 was eventually crushed by the powers that be

And then Bismarck. Prussian in heart and soul.

Prussia: since medieval times, a militarised state, a kind of Sparta in Northern Europe.

The ethos of ancient Athens, the birth place of democracy defeated, and Sparta prevails.  

Bismarck´s means of pulling the provinces of Germany together into one nation?

War.

France was an obvious choice, given the ongoing dispute over the areas of Alsace and Lorraine.

A war against France would rally the German people like never before. His army, led by Prussian officers and generals, was far more disciplined and modern than the French. He played his game carefully. The French fell into the trap.

War broke out the French army was decimated. Bismarck’s army surrounded Paris.

A new nation had suddenly appeared on the continent. Of all the possible Germanys which could have emerged from the cauldron of history, this was the most ominous: a Germany united on the basis of Prussian militarism and nationalism born out of war.

Another Germany might have appeared, a democratic Germany. But it didn’t. The promise of 1848 came and went.

Instead, the stage was set for a disastrous chain of cause and effect: the thirty years war, the German-French war, the First World War and the Second.

 

 A graveyard for German soldiers killed during the First and Second World Wars – in Flanders, Belgium. 

 

Sitting next to the pond that evening, I was a silent witness to a mundane and yet heartening scene: parents and their children sitting around eating Italian ice cream; the air filled with the sounds of water and chatter and laughter.

I had a feeling that this was as far as we could go, never mind all the big ideas about Utopia, a just society, a fair world and so on: a world where parents and grandparents and children could sit around in the evening.    

In safety.

Nothing to worry about.

How distant the memories of two devastating wars!

How many people in Ladbergen had seen the stone column in the church yard?

‘Our brothers’. 1871’

Very few, if any.

 

As the shadows grew longer and the air grew cooler, my thoughts drifted to our hotel and what had taken place there in 1645: a peace treaty which brought no lasting peace.

The air seemed to be filled with metaphors that evening.

It had taken the German people over 3 centuries to travel from the hotel, to the church and finally, to the Italian ice cream parlour: a tiny distance measured in footsteps, an enormous distance measured in years, wars and sufferings.

Finally they had arrived and we were all better off for it.