Mapping a Pivotal Era

The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) launched a foundation for the modern age. It reshuffled the societal deck and provided an environment to furthered civil rights. But its complexity gives today’s world balance a clarity by comparison. Historians will debate the era’s political and religious complexity forever, and students will always be frustrated trying to understand who was on which side and why.

We are aghast at the mess of conflicting positions and allegiances in today’s world. We bemoan the blight of “fake news” and propaganda. We march for our rights and vote with our consciences. We think the present is more of a mess than the past, which seemed simple by comparison.

How little we forget! Each conflict provides a lesson in what not to do again, should we wish to observe and see the patterns. If conflict subsides, we become complacent and think that unethical people have crawled into their holes, and will leave good people alone. Wishful thinking is shockingly powerful!

The reason why I am such a student of history is to enrich my understanding of cultural momentum. And, I have found a story to tell that exemplifies both what I have learned and that symbolizes Europe’s evolution. By portraying the ten ironworking families who built Züscher-Hammer, three hundred years of change are represented by real experiences.

So to understand the causes and effects of the Thirty Years War is the best place to start. It furthered the momentum to end feudalism (begun with the Peasant’s War of 1524 and received its final blow from the French Revolution of the late 1700s). Although branded a “religious” war, The Thirty Years War defined the separation of church and state, as well as communities for tolerance. It elevated peasants to land-owners and provided a new canvas upon which to reconstruct communities. Conflict continued throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, providing a foundation for grass-roots freedom.

Most Americans think that our form of government and Constitution began with the Founding Fathers—as influenced by some English visionaries. The profound effects of two hundred years earned from continuous strife is little known by most students of history and genealogists. Progressiveness was built on more blood and sacrifice than we can ever know. Nonetheless, those who fought to achieve what we have today should not be forgotten. Rather, they should be honored. Their experience should give us perspective and show us the values they earned to unite us.

It is scholars that named the Thirty Years War. Rather than a defined period, it was a patchwork of many smaller wars that spiraled around the continent for 300 years (during which our American ancestors had enough and left to seek freedom and opportunity.) Focusing on the very center of Europe, the conflicts arrived in Southwest Germany in waves. Surprisingly, unlike most political conflicts in the Rhineland, it was not the French that were the first to cause this trouble. It was not even from the local population, as was the Peasant’s Revolution.

The rich and productive mountains of the Rhineland generally profited from being a cross-roads. But at times of war, having a good location and resources creates a target. During the 1620’s and 30’s, from the North came Swedish army, led by Ernst of Mansfeld (aligned with Frederick of the Palatinate and Gustavus Aldolphus King of Sweden), that swept through the region, engaging in many battles against the Imperial Army of the Holy Roman Empire with the Habsburg alliance of Austria Spain. Both sides destroyed what they were fighting over. In the paths of their armies, the Rhineland and Baden were reduced to embers. 50-80% of the population perished. It took until the 1960s to exceed the early 1600 population numbers.

Stage for Conflict: Draft 1
This is my first attempt to map the Rhineland (The Lower Palatinate) for the progression of the Thirty Years War. The research is not precise, so I hope to perfect this drawing. One of my sources says: “Due to severe dynastic and religious strife during the 17th Century, boundaries were often subjected to sudden, major displacement. The extremely fragmented nature of Germany was another factor accounting for confusion over political borders. For clarity, boundaries depicted are very general and simplified; there has been no attempt to trace them precisely.”

For the ten ironworking families that I am portraying in the “Ore and Origin” series, the worst year must have been 1635. Mansfeld had taken command of the Swedish Army after the recent death in battle of Gustavus Adolphus. He had defeated Count Tilly, and was engaging Wallenstein of the Austrians. The defending Holy Roman Empire forces were led by Johann von Werth (originally from Wallonia and aligned with the Spanish, thus switching sides which was too bad because he lost and was captured). It was at this point that the French joined the war, aligning with Mansfeld and Bernard of Saxe-Wiemar (his family was on various sides at various times). The German forces were vastly outnumbered, and the Swedish-led coalition conquered the Rhine Valley between 1635 and 1637. (Please see separated map sketch at “Creating a Map to Clarify Change.”)

The history portray the idealogical cause for the violence based on religious disagreements, but those seem an excuse for economic aggression. There we no “human rights” for this population, whose homes were at best looted, and at worst, burned to the ground. The local population were lucky to escape with their lives. And, they were lucky to survive the next decades of this new explosive pattern. Yet, as tragic as the war was for the region, it opened the door for the American experiment, ignited the industrial revolution, and brought together diverse families to build and blend. It identified the soul of beliefs that unite us today.

“The War allowed, for the first time in European history, a country to obtain prominence because of trade, economics, and politics rather than because it was the center of a religious hierarchy.”

1635 is the best place to begin the story of the ironworkers from the Rhine Valley. Züsch was burned to the ground, and no adult males survived. A small number of women and children were joined by immigrants from other regions who converged to blend in generations of records. Theirs is a tale of commitment, sacrifice, long-term vision, unsung heroes, and participants in forming the American society. We are the recipients of their progress and the objects of their goals.

Progression of Rhineland Invasion keyed to map illustration:

• red—1618-1630

1622 Ernst of Mansfeld joined with the Swedes and marched south through Wallonia through the Rhineland.

Ernst of Mansfeld defeated Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly  of the Imperial forces (union of Holy Roman Empire and Austria) at Wiesloch, defeated by Albrecht von Wallenstein at Dessau.

• green—1630-1635

1631 Gustavus Adolphus, King of Swedes, marched east of the Rhine, victorious in the Battle of Breitenfeld.

1632 Gustavus Aldolphus victorious over Wallenstein, but killed, in the Battle of Lützen.

1632 Phillip-Christoper von Sötern, the prince-bishop of Trier, became a French ally.

1634 Wallenstein assassination ordered by Emperor Ferdinand (HRE).

1634 the Swedes defeated by Spanish Philip IV’s brother Cardinal Infante Ferdinand III at Nördlingen.

• purple—1635-1648

1635 France joined the war by declaring war on Spain. They helped the Swedes recover from the defeat at Nördlingen. (Spanish power was on the decline due to defeats further north.) These unions left Emperor Ferdinand III (ruled 1637-57) alone to fight France who invaded Luxembourg and Swedish forces Ernst of Mansfeld, along with Bernard of Saxe-Wiemar, who prevailed in the Rhineland, Alsace, Lorraine, Baden (Upper Rhine and Moselle Rivers), plundered from Lorraine to Hesse. They defeated and captured Johann von Worth who also had destroyed villages for resources.


Liane Sebastian, illustrator, writer, editor, designer, content creator