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 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….