Post-376: On “electoral tipping points”: 1618 (the trigger for the Thirty Years War) and the present

New Year’s Day 2020.

For reasons I don’t know, I began to re-read the classic history of the Thirty Years War by C. V. Wedgwood. In it I was reminded of a political point about that war I had forgotten, and one similar to one the US may be, today, at the cusp of.

The crisis began in 1618 because of an electoral tipping point.

There are fairly direct parallels between the Thirty Years War origin and the US institutions of the electoral college system and the nine-member Supreme Court system (see below) and fears about the ‘flipping’ thereof.

The Holy Roman Empire, a nominal political arrangement encompassing most of central Europe for most of the second millennium AD and ruled (in theory if not practice) by an emperor of the Hapsburg Dynasty for much of that time, had seven “electors” (Kurfürsten). These were seven seats which held the right to cast one vote for emperor when the need arose.

The power was in the seat itself, not the man. That is, theoretically a single man could have two votes if he titularly occupied two seats. In any case, these seven seats would in theory be occupied by the leading men of the empire for stability’s sake (must have been the idea; the US Senate in original form was similar).

The Leading States of the Holy Roman Empire: Electors and otherwise

Tradition and law pegged the seven elector seats to specific positions: Three were Catholic bishops (of Mainz, Cologne, and Treves) and four were secular kings, or equivalents thereto, within the empire (Bohemia, the Palatinate, Saxony, and Brandenburg).

Besides the four secular rulers with ‘elector’ rights, Wedgwood identifies an additional seven to right major rulers/states. The four electors and their states, together with the seven non-elector heads of leading states, and their ruling courts were, collectively, dominant in the political affairs of ‘Germany;’ Germany at the time being subsumed politically within the Holy Roman Empire but existing in a cultural sense. Though there were 300 states of more than trivial size, it was really eleven or so that mattered, along with the constant threat of foreign intervention, including the Hapsburg Dynasty’s Spanish branch.

The other seven leading states of the Holy Roman Empire were: The Dukes of [1] Bavaria, [2] Württemberg, [3] Brunswick, [4] Mecklenburg, [5] Pomerania, [6] the Magrave of Baden, and [7] the Landgrave of Hesse. In the Holy Roman Empire context in the early 17th century, these, plus the four electors, were the big players. There were hundreds of other minor players with nominal political sovereignty, and dozens of wealthy trading free cities of great economic importance but lesser political importance, and a few thousand noble families.

This complicated political system was always problematic, but by the mid and late 16th century, the astute political observer would have rightly concluded that the ‘Empire,’ as constituted, was very likely doomed, in that by the 1550s or so most of the inhabitants and their sovereigns were Protestant, but law and tradition kept power tied to the Catholic church and the Catholic ruling family, the Hapsburg (which remained Catholic up until its final end, Nov. 1918, with the dissolution of the monarchy at Vienna).

This political-religious split, one with overtones of what we would call something like nationalism, and the ambition by key actors to resolve it by force, was the major background cause of the Thirty Year War, and such is generally understood by most if they have any knowledge on the war. The “electoral tipping point” cause, or trigger, being more subtle, is easier to miss.

Most of the eleven important secular political rulers (the four secular political rulers who had the prestige of holding an elector seat, plus the seven non-elector major rulers, as listed above) were Protestants, roughly following Germany’s 50-25-25 Lutheran-OtherProtestant-Catholic division, a religious divide that was a fact on the ground from the mid-late 16th century to the 20th century.

(50-25-25 Lutheran-OtherProtestant-Catholic for ‘Germany’ and adjacent peoples is a very rough approximate split, the precise numbers partly depending on who we mean by Germans, what we mean by Germany; perhaps it’s best to say the split moved within ranges, mostly about as follows: 45–60% Lutheran [from 16th century Q2], 15–25% Calvinist [by about 16th century Q4], 20–35% Catholic, and maybe 1–3% Anabaptist and other ‘extreme’ new religions.

The numbers shifted approximately within those ranges from the mid-late 16th century into the 20th century, moving up or down according to the political, cultural, economic, and/or military situation of a given time, with a slight haze always over the numbers over the subjective nature of deciding who to count as a ‘German’ and who not.

A little post-script is that there was a politically directed effort to unite Lutherans and Calvinists [the latter called Reformierten in German] by the mid-19th century, and the distinction afterwards became blurred. The US’ Lutheran Church Missouri Synod [LCMS] has a very specific Mayflower-like origin story: A core group of loyal, strong-Lutheran central-German dissidents distrustful of the merger plan relocated to Missouri in the 1840s; conservative-German arrivals over the next few generations coalesced around the LCMS, giving it the character it retains today.)

The pre-war political situation of the 1600s and 1610s, and the war itself, is only understandable through knowing which important rulers were which religion, sort of like needing to know which states in the 1930s–1945 were which ruled by forces from which ideology.

The Secular Electors: Religio-political Split

four [of the electors] were secular kings, or equivalents thereto, within the empire (of Bohemia, the Palatinate, Saxony, and Brandenburg) .

The elector of Saxony [Sachsen, or Kursachsen to distinguish its from the many places which used the prestigious name ‘Saxony’ in their names] was probably the strongest Lutheran prince of the eleven, being the first major German ruler to adopt the Augsburg [i.e., Lutheran] Confession in 1530;

The elector of Brandenburg was also a Lutheran in the century after the Luther Reformation; while several of the Brandenburg electors were Calvinists in the 17th and 18th centuries, the population was always strongly Lutheran (see anecdote below) and the ruling family, the Hohenzollerns, eventually reverted to Lutheranism; Brandenburg at this time was quite similar, in most ways, to neighboring Saxony to the south except for being a good deal poorer, with a laughably minor and insignificant capital at a place called Berlin, hardly more than a fishing village at the time;

The elector of the Palatinate [Pfalz] was a Calvinist and his subjects much more Calvinist in orientation than the German-wide average; the story goes that a studious Palatinate king, Frederick III, had become personally interested in the new doctrine of Calvinism in the 1550s, and had undertaken intense theological study in 1559 and 1560, even commissioning theological debates for the purpose. By 1561, this king of the Palatinate, one of “Germany’s” leading states, had converted to Calvinism, and the tradition remained strong in the Palatinate for centuries to come;

(On the “Palatine Germans.” The name is recognizable to students of colonial-era US history as many of the early Germans in North America were from this background. The Pennsylvania-German, Amish, and Mennonite ethnocultural strains important in the US are also primarily Calvinist or other non-Lutheran, dissident-Protestant; pre-1840s German stock in the USA may have been around 30-60-10 Lutheran-Calvinist-Catholic, subsuming the Anabaptist dissidents in with the middle category; this was significantly more Calvinist than the Germans in Europe as a whole, which, as I say above, years of reading suggest to me were at something more like 50-25-25 Lutheran-Calvinist-Catholic.)

This means the sum total of the Holy Roman Empire “electoral college” of the time was: three committed-Protestant electors, all three being secular rulers, by the mid-1610s two of whom were Calvinists and the three together balancing out the three Catholic electors, the conservative, Hapsburg-loyalist, Papal-loyalist bishops who held elector seats according to the ancient laws and traditions of the Holy Roman Empire (as Wedgwood points out, this entity was called The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation by its own rulers and subjects; which of those nouns one stressed — Holy, Empire, or German — would be a shorthand for the political-religious division of the time).

The Seventh Elector

With three firm Protestants and three firm Catholics, the seventh elector was the deciding vote, one might say. This state of affairs had already existed for at least seventy-five years before 1618.

The seventh elector was the King of Bohemia, a piece of useful information that should make it clear why the Thirty Years War began with the Bohemia spark. (The cute story of the so-called Defenestration of Prague one often hears — you know the one, where Bohemian radicals [Lutherans, in fact] grab a pair of agents of the emperor and toss them out a second-story window — happened in this political context in 1618. I suppose there are many who have literally believed that the Thirty Years War began because of outrage over the act of tossing of the two out that window. Wedgwood glosses over the story.)

Wedgwood characterizes the King of Bohemia as a longtime Hapsburg man, or more precisely stated, a series of Hapsburg men rotating through, which is to say the seat was reliably loyal to the imperial ruling dynasty.

A complication is that the King of Bohemia’s subject population was, by the 1610s, on the main Lutheran, especially the middle and noble classes. Despite never having had a Lutheran king, Bohemians had embraced the Lutheran religion steadily; How? I would propose a century of exposure to vigorous Lutheran influence from the north, but they certainly also drew directly from the Hussite tradition (John Hus, active in the early 15th century in Bohemia, had been a kind of pre-Luther Lutheran figure, of whom Luther himself claimed to be a direct successor). The mismatch between the king and his people, in terms of political-religious loyalty and identity, was an uneasy one, in Bohemia as elsewhere.

The short version of 1618 is that the Lutheran nobility in Bohemia arranged for a new king and chose a Protestant. There were lots of other things going on in Europe worth considering as structural causes, but this specific Bohemian succession, the flipping of the all-important seventh elector seat, was the spark for the conflict we call the Thirty Years War. One king succeeding another in some relatively small kingdom might be seen as a minor thing, really, to an observer distant in time or space; such a dismissive view is one that is very likely ignorant that the King of Bohemia an Elector and that otherwise the split was an even 3–3.

With the seventh elector seat now in the hands of a committed Protestant king with solid popular support, Hapsburg control of the imperial throne was under real threat.

And so war came, at first to crush the “rebels” in Bohemia, which they did.

As often happens with wars, especially those with any hint of a moral-crusading element, radicals were energized. A hardline-Catholic element, backed fully by the Hapsburg family, arguably even directed by it, pushed for a kind of general crusade against the Protestant states of the empire.

Calvinists, Lutherans, and Catholics had been engaged in mutual street-fighting-like actions, regular cases of mob-like violence against each other, for years, as in these anecdotes from Wedgwood:

In Brandenburg the Elector declared that he would rather burn his only University than allow one Calvinist doctrine to appear in it. Nevertheless his successor became a Calvinist and introduced a pastor at Berlin, whereat the Lutheran mob broke into the newcomer’s house and plundered it so effectively that he had to preach on the following Good Friday in a bright green undergarment, which was all that the rioters had left him.

That incident occurred some time between 1613 and 1618. The Elector of Brandenburg who became a Calvinist was Johann Sigismund (1572–1619, reigned 1608–1619), who is said to have converted to Calvinism in 1606 but kept it a secret until 1613. The core areas of Brandenburg retained a large Lutheran majority.

a Protestant pastor and a Catholic priest came to blows in the streets of Frankfort on the Main, and Calvinist services in Styria were frequently interrupted by Jesuits disguised among the congregation […]

In 1609 a riot between Catholics and Protestants at Donauwörth, a free city on the Danube, kept the Empire for some months on the edge of disaster […]

The war meant the most “militant” and “uncompromising” (Wedgwood’s words) of the Catholics, which included but was not limited to the Austrian Hapsburg Ferdinand II (1578–1637; reigned as Holy Roman Emperor, Aug. 1619 to death), were able to take control of the reigns of power and dictate the empire’s war policy, a war that viewed broadly was against most of the empire’s own nominal subjects.

Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor and Thirty Years War pusher

Effectively, the people prosecuting the war were a kind of street-fighter element with noble titles. The mercenaries (both sides) employed were, from our perspective today, terribly behaved and often shockingly undisciplined. Political theorists call this the pre-Westphalian era in which the state did not have a monopoly” on violence.

Wedgwood suggests a defacto four-way political-religious split existed as of the 1610s, between Calvinists, Lutherans, moderate Catholics, and militant Catholics, and Wedgwood suggests the possibility that the middle two categories could have formed a “center bloc,” and offers some evidence that the energy and desire were there. The radicalization of the war prevented this. The fact that key figures like Ferdinand II and the group around Frederick V of the Palatinate were in the extreme categories (extreme Catholic and militant Calvinist, respectively) undermined it from the beginning.

At times Wedgwood blames the individual weaknesses of key figures for the war. (I suspect some of the war-origins reflections, Wedgwood writing in the mid-1930s, were influenced by the 1920s-era debates over 1914 war guilt; what could have prevented the 1914 calamity in Europe? A great question to approach for 1618, an even more destructive war.)

A mixed picture is offered up of the Elector of Saxony, a man known as “Beer George.” An honest-if-naive family man and committed Lutheran who attended church services three times a week and paid attention to the sermons, John George I of Saxony even more frequently drank beer to the point of drunkenness (hence his nickname of Beer George) and feasted for hours on end.

Posterity has not been kind to John George and his advisers. […] Had he been different, he might have found a via media for his country that would have saved her from disaster. It is one of the major tragedies of German history that John George was not a great man.

Leader of one of the most powerful states involved in the whole affair, the classic criticism is that “Beer George” kept flip-flopping on his war policy, switching to and from neutrality at critical points.

John George I of Saxony
(Nickname, “Beer George”)
Thirty Years War figure

(Note: Based on my genealogical investigations, my best-guess is that 30% of my mother’s ancestors [60% of her father’s ancestors] were subjects of the Electorate of Saxony at this time and therefore Thirty Years War-era subjects of “Beer George.” My further best-guess is another 10% of my mother’s ancestors were in adjacent, minor states, statelets, or fiefdoms which had a strong degree of cultural affinity with Saxony; these were subject to some other sovereign than Beer George but were probably under the Elector’s influence to varying degrees.)

Wedgewood offers a much harsher appraisal of Maximilian of Bavaria, Duke of Bavaria, then much smaller than present-day Bavaria but still one of the empire’s leading states and political driving forces; Maximilian was a member of the hardline-Catholic camp that took control of the imperial war effort by the early 1620s.

[L]ike John George, … the Duke of Bavaria failed his country [referring to ‘Germany,’ not the state of Bavaria], but Maximilian always with the more shameless egoism.

Never was man more anxious that others should sacrifice their gains for the general good; never did man stand more jealously, more fatally by his own.

The widening of the war in the early 1620s was, naturally, alarming to onlookers near and far, and triggered a series of interventions by Protestant powers not necessarily directly involved in the specific dispute-of-the-moment (as well as an intervention by France, under the direction of Richelieu, to block the Hapsburgs).

The stand-out of the interventions was the dazzlingly successful Swedish intervention under Gustavus Adolphus in the early 1630s. (Of the historical personages I have come to admire, Gustavus Adolphus has ranked among the foremost since I was a late teenager; Swedes call him their greatest king; Estonians, I recall, likewise idolize him; streets and squares in Protestant Germany bear his name to the present).

Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden

On for thirty years (to 1648) it went, and not after taking a third of Germans and adjacent peoples down with it (that is, dead) in one of the world’s by-then-most-advanced regions, the trigger had been the ‘flipping’ of a single electoral seat from the Catholic-Hapsburg bloc to the Protestant bloc. An electoral tipping point.


Thirty Years War parallels with the present-day USA

The fascination of the Thirty Years War, for me, is partly in how complex a puzzle it is to unravel, but also partly because of how it feels like a parallel world. There are many distinct elements of the world we are familiar with, of the present and recent history, but in very different circumstances. Like an alternative reality.

Successors to the states involved all exist today, sometimes in nation-state form but usually in either subnational form or an intangible form of political-cultural currents within either of the former; all the religions involved still exist today.

Similar personality types to those who prosecuted the war (or were along for the ride) can be found in our era, perhaps more distinguished by wardrobe and hair style differences than psychology, adjusted according to per-capita income.

The ca.1610s division of ‘Germany’/Europe into mutually suspicious, competing ideological-political blocs at risk of war, unless excellent statesmanship existed to hold it back (which failed in 1618), is clearly reminiscent of Cold War of the 20th century, moreso even than the 1914 crisis which is also comparable in some ways. Another easy parallel in Europe is the 1930s and the political streetfighting (both metaphorical and real) that defined that era.

But as for the 2020s. The specific war trigger, the “elector[al] tipping point” part of the Thirty Years War story, I find relevant to the present-day US.

All the talk I hear now about the US being on the verge of a US electoral(-college) tipping point is very similar. If, in the 2020s, Texas and several other firmly red states do ‘flip’ (as my home state of Virginia has, following a few decades of steady in-migration), it means one party is locked in, one locked out of, the US presidency, indefinitely. (Something similar was perceived by many in 1860–61, with bad results.)

The moral-crusading element that drove much of the Thirty Years War is also here today, with no better example than the drive, by one side, to tear down statues and place names and humiliate their opponents.

(A small but tangible example of this is the disgraceful five of local school board, and their angry, unneeded, unasked-for, politicical-sandbox drive to rename my high school because it has in its name the most famous Arlingtonian in history. They shoved through the change against overwhelming local opposition which ran 4- or 5-to-1 among core stakeholders, effectively imposed it from above, not meeting any local need. Why did they do it? They convinced themselves they were doing God’s work, effectively. They were moral crusaders; We must crush our opponents, who are of the Devil; no compromise; everything a political sandbox for that end. There are always people like that, but I perceive they became more energized in the late 2010s.)

Here is how Wedgwood describes what the imperial forces did in Bohemia in the 1620s once they’d conquered the country:

No measures which could serve to discourage the national…spirit of the Bohemians were neglected. On John Hus’s Day, hitherto a national holiday, the churches were closed; the statue of George of Podiebrad in the Prague market-place was destroyed, and the sculptured chalice, the Bohemian symbol of reform, was erased from the facades of innumerable churches […]

The University of Prague was given to the Jesuits in 1623 […]

Civil and economic persecution fastened upon the Protestants like a vice […]

The bringing of Bohemia into line with the rest of Catholic Europe entailed therefore the eradication of age-old tradition and a direct attack on Czech nationality itself.

That characterization of the treatment of occupied Bohemia was written in the (mid-)1930s about the 1620s, but it reminds me very much of the 2010s-era “tear down the statues” and related moves. Moral crusading.


Another analogy with US politics that occurs to me, and a more direct one in many ways than the presidential electoral college, is the US Supreme Court. It has nine, rather than the Holy Roman Empire electoral college’s seven, seats. The Supreme Court is definitely subject to the same kinds of considerations, strategizing, and fears (fearmongering?) by politics-enthusiasts. You’ll easily hear enthusiasts propose scenarios like, “What if two liberal justices die and are replaced by ultra-conservatives”? Very similar thinking to that which prevailed in 1618.

I was in the US in Sept. 2018 and recall the intense wave of (ostensible) anger and rage over the yearbook scribblings and possible underage alcohol consumption by a person not one person in a fifty people had hitherto heard of, Brett Kavanaugh. Talking about what he was doing thirty-five years earlier in high school became the main news for some time; a big circus atmosphere.

A Martian observer who caught only glimpses of the (now-forgotten?) Kavanaugh affair, and the bizarre anger it elicited, might be forgiven for being truly puzzled; the Martian observer might well dismiss Americans, over the whole thing, as a people subject to histrionics, as irrational. (Almost as irrational as starting a thirty-year-long war because two men were tossed out a window!, the common, garbled understanding of the Thirty Years War trigger.) The Martian making such a judgement fails in his analysis if he does not have the vital piece of information that Kavanaugh was up for one the nine seats in a body that has supreme authority in the US, and enthusiasts pushed for, and got, the whirlwind of anger and wall-to-wall coverage of what the slang words used by eighteen-year-old idiots at his high school in the early 1980s meant. A small manifestation of the ‘(electoral) flipping’ scenario.


Sorry, if you’ve read this far, but I have some more to say; maybe the below will be of more interest if you don’t like the above.

A postscript on the 1618 crisis in central Europe: Prussia and New England Puritans backstage.

Sometimes the minor thing happening in the background ends up being the most important in the long-run, and two good examples are to be had here.

As the crisis in Bohemia was going on in the late 1610s, as the imperial armies were getting ready to invade and as the locals were frantically raising an army (Wedgwood offers a characteristically mixed but fair portrait of General Mansfeld, a key figure of the Protestant-Bohemia side; he fought well in the field but had a habit of making side-negotiations with the imperial side to buy off, neutralize his army), a small territorial development happened:

A distant fief of the Polish crown passed into the hands of the north-central German state of Brandenburg, a large backwater with little going on.

The distant territory on the Baltic was called Prussia [Preußen]. With this handover (still nominally subject to the Polish king at this time), Brandenburg finally got a decent city, Königsberg (among other claims to fame it was later the lifelong home of Kant, active primarily 1750s–1790s).

Wedgewood, who had a narrative set in the 1610s to adhere to, mentions only in passing the acquisition by Brandenburg of ‘Prussia,’ actually what we would later think of as “East Prussia.” These kinds of dynastic-territorial weavings-in-and-out are not, generally, worth much attention, and the latest merger or split involving one particular royal house’s titular holdings, in this case those of Hohenzollern dynasty at Brandenburg with its fishing-village capital at Berlin, does not qualify on its own merits. It qualifies by the shadow the future casts on the past, but not its own merits at the time.

What was impossible to foresee, in 1618, is that within 125 years (by the mid-18th century, the time of Frederick the Great), the new state of “Prussia” would be among the very first order of states.

The acquisition of Prussia was so important to ‘Brandenburg’ that it took the name Prussia for its entire state, which continued to grow in size up to the time of Bismarck. This is the state that eventually united most of ‘Germany.’ Among the parts of greater Germany that were not united were the Hapsburg lands in what we call “Austria;” Chancellor Bismarck did not want them, a position traceable in general terms to the attitudes prevailing in the Thirty Years War era.

In any case, I doubt many paid much attention to the acquisition of Prussia at the time by Brandenburg, one of, if not the, weakest of the eleven primary political entities of Germany.

Prussia by the 18th century was not just one of the foremost states of central Europe but really of the entire world, a leader in the arts and sciences, in education and literacy, in philosophy and high culture, in military affairs, in medicine, and in much else still; a general position Germany has not yielded up to the present.

Another case of a similar but even more dramatic upward arc, on an even longer but still-clearly-identifiable timeline, is the Puritan colonization of New England, which set the stage for the rise of the US, which some data suggests was the foremost single world power by the 1890s (not exercised in any consistent way until the 1940s).

It was during the campaign against Bohemia in 1619–20, the first campaign of the Thirty Years War, the Mayflower set sail (Sept. 1620) for an unknown fate in North America (arrived at Plymouth Rock, mid-Dec. 1620; the great battle outside Prague at White Mountain was Nov. 1620).

By the end of the Thirty Years War, New England was well on its way (if only firmly secure by the late 1670s, following the end of the last major Indian war in New England). Needless to say, it’s fair to say that few, if any, contemporary political observers in Europe paid attention to the beginning of Puritan colonization of some then-unnamed corner of the North American coast with rocky, poor soil.

The rise of the US to first-tier power status took 250 to 300 years following the 1618 crisis in central Europe. The rise of Prussia took 100 to 150 years. Both ascents are traceable, in direct trajectory, to background-noise developments going on early in the Thirty Years War.


A personal postscript: The Czech “Augsburg Confession” guy, 2019.

In Korea in 2019, I met someone from the Czech Republic (or “Czechia” as their government prefers; this man, I asked him specifically, still preferred the “Czech Republic”). The Czech Republic contains within in it the historical Bohemia, the place at the center of the Thirty Years War ‘trigger’ story I was fascinated enough by to write this post. The b.1980s Czech man was thin, well-dressed, mild by temperament but not shy, good-enough if not confident at conversational English, dark hair, a face of the central-European Slavic sort (but maybe I think so only because he revealed his nationality). He worked for some kind of air conditioning manufacturer and was on a business trip.

The thing I want to say about this man, whose name I do not recall, is: He was a Lutheran, or so he told me. He added that they don’t use the word “Lutheran.” He said his church and others there use the term “[such-and-such church] of the Augsburg Confession.” An elaborate synonym for Lutheran. I suggested as much to him and he agreed.

As far as I know, following the defeat in 1620, the Lutheran-majority population in Bohemia (the core of the present-day Czech Repbulic) was subject to a severe re-Catholicization effort by the imperial victors and agents of the Hapsburgs and the Jesuits they sent in for the task. And as far as I know, among the ethnic-Czechs of recent generations we find a large Catholic majority. But here was a Czech who somehow ended up back where it all started, so to speak.

I talked to this Czech for only a few minutes, and only once. He was in Korea for only a week on business. It was really as two ships passing in the night.

It occurs to me that he and I were born about 370 years after the Thirty Years War crisis began, but figures not unlike the two of us were probably easy to find in the 1610s in Europe. Updated for circumstances, yes, but fundamentally not dissimilar.


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