Thirty Years’ War in Brandenburg-Prussia (1618-1648) | History of Prussia #5


Welcome to House of History. Last week we
looked at the first of the Hohenzollerns and the complex marriage and inheritance politics
that led to a territory that somewhat resembled what would one day be known as Prussia. As
these inheritance claims came to fruition the Thirty Years’ War broke out, one of
the bloodiest wars in European history. For Brandenburg, without any natural borders and
with remote territories, it was a disaster. Demographic records show that during the entire
war, about half of its population died, with some territories losing up to 80 percent of
its population! It is an interesting time for Brandenburg-Prussia
because during this time we will see the destruction and economic standstill of Brandenburg in
part due to its ineffective and weak ruler, Georg Wilhelm, while at the same time the
war gave rise to his son, one of the strongest and most important rulers the territories
have ever had. Welcome to the complete history of Prussia. -intro- Brandenburg-Prussia in 1618 Uniting the geographically dispersed territories
of Jülich-Cleves, the Duchy of Prussia and Margraviate of Brandenburg under one ruler
in personal union skyrocketed the potential of the Hohenzollern clan. As you can see on
this map, their territories were not merely a German principality anymore. Whereas Brandenburg
was a fief of the Holy Roman Empire, the Duchy of Prussia was a fief of the Polish King.
Hohenzollern territories now bordered Poland and Russia in the East and the Netherlands
in the West. Johann Sigismund could not enjoy this potential for too long, however. He drank
and ate himself to an early grave and passed away in December 1619. He was succeeded as
Elector of Brandenburg and Duke of Prussia by his 25-year-old son, Georg Wilhelm. Now,
the new Elector wasn’t a man with a strategic eye, foresight or determination. Poor timing
had it that it was just then what would become the Thirty Years’ War broke out. Brandenburg
entered this conflict utterly unprepared. When in May 1618 in Protestant Bohemia 2 Catholic
representatives of the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II were thrown out of a
window, the so-called Third Defenestration of Prague, it marked the beginning of a conflict
that would lead to an incredibly bloody and devastating war. The Catholic Emperor and
Protestant forces both within the Holy Roman Empire and external powers such as Denmark,
Sweden, Spain, the Dutch Republic and France fought the subsequent war mostly within the
territories of the Empire. International power struggles such as control of the Baltics and
the traditional rivalry between Bourbon France and the Habsburgs were also fought within
the German lands. Now, just to describe Brandenburg’s precarious
situation, imagine the following. To its south were hereditary lands of the Habsburg Bohemian
Crown, Lusatia and Silesia. To its west was Electoral Saxony, a traditional ally of the
Emperor. Then, directly to its north the Protestant Baltic powers, Denmark and Sweden could march
over its undefended borders. Our Elector didn’t have the financial or military means to defend
his new territories and as such pursued a policy of staunch neutrality. Unfortunately,
Georg Wilhelm’s father had aligned Brandenburg with the Calvinist Dutch to secure the Jülich
Cleve succession a decade earlier. At Georg Wilhelm’s court the Catholic count Adam
von Schwarzenberg, his primary advisor, persuaded the Elector to align himself with the Catholic
Emperor. Meanwhile, the 2 most prominent privy councillors supported the Protestant cause.
Georg Wilhelm’s priority wasn’t the war, but attempt to have the Polish king acknowledge
his claim to the duchy of Prussia. After all, formally, the Polish King was still the feudal
overlord of the Duchy. Unfortunately for the Elector, his mother pursued a policy of her
own. She married her daughter to the King of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus. The Elector
was very opposed, considering the Polish Crown was at war with Sweden. The Polish King Sigismund
suspected a Hohenzollern conspiracy, putting Georg Wilhelm in a difficult position. Now,
as you can probably tell, the Elector was pushed between forces that he had no control
over. History was incredibly hard on him, something he himself already realized early
during his reign: ‘It pains me greatly,’ he wrote in July 1626, ‘That my lands have
been wasted in this way and that I have been so disregarded and mocked. The whole world
must take me for a cowardly weakling.’ And unfortunately for him, in 1626 the worst was
yet to come. The Palatinate So, the Elector had managed to keep Brandenburg
out of the conflict between Poland and Sweden at the outset of the war. He pursued the same
policy with regard to the Protestant insurgency in Bohemia. Considering Bohemia’s Elector,
Frederick V of the Palatinate, the ‘Winter King’ led the insurgency and was his brother-in-law,
the Elector gave his moral support. But when the Winter King went to war, the Elector stayed
out of the conflict. In November 1620 the Battle of White Mountain
between Catholic Imperial and Bohemian forces was fought. The Catholic forces emerged victoriously
and all those that supported the ‘rebels’ were deprived of their properties.
Six years later Georg Wilhelm’s other sister was married off to Bethlen Gabor, a Transylvanian
Calvinist Prince who had a track record of wars against House Habsburg. Yet, even though
the two sisters were married to the enemies of the Habsburgs, Georg Wilhelm did all he
could to assure his loyalty to the Catholic Emperor, steering clear of the anti-imperial
alliance closed two years earlier between Denmark and England.
Due to its stubborn neutrality, Brandenburg drifted into isolation as the war was waging
on, both around its territory but occasionally within its borders, at its periphery. Brandenburg’s
neighbour, John Georg of Saxony was negotiating with the Catholic parties. In the North-west,
the Elector’s possessions were occupied by imperial troops under Count Tilly after
he emerged victorious from the Battle of Stadtlohn. Meanwhile, the opposition to the House of
Habsburg, namely France, England and the Scandinavian states, started planning a coalition. The
Elector only played a marginal role on the fringes of these negotiations, being a pawn
for the great powers waging war in the Empire. He figured he had to collect funds to raise
an army, albeit a small one, to protect his territories. Unfortunately for him, that was
easier said than done when an entire empire is burning and with troops quartering in its
economic hubs, running them to a standstill. Neutrality Eventually, the Elector managed to cling on
to his neutrality by recruiting a force of 3000 soldiers in an attempt to prevent the
Danish commander Count of Mansfeld from crossing the Altmark and Priegnitz in early 1626. Well,
this failed miserably. Mansfeld’s forces won and Mayhem broke out, churches were plundered,
towns were razed, villages torched and inhabitants slaughtered. These Danish forces now quartered
in Brandenburg as if it was their own, although it was a short-lived occupation.
Because in April 1626 at the Battle of Dessau Bridge, Imperial forces under Albrecht von
Wallenstein defeated the Protestant forces of Mansfeld. In August that year, the Imperial
forces under Count Tilly decisively pushed forces under Danish King Christian back at
the Battle of Lutter. The Danes retreated, leaving a trail of destruction. The Imperial
forces advanced, destroying everything the Danes had not already. Furthermore, they seized
Magdeburg and Halberstadt for their troops to quarter. These were crucial economic hotspots
of Brandenburg. Now, as this was happening King Gustavus Adolphus
landed in Ducal Prussia. He closed the territory off from the sea and quartered his troops
there, operating against Poland, disregarding the Elector’s claim over the Duchy. Furthermore,
the Neumark was plundered by Cossack mercenaries and Mecklenburg was bestowed to the imperial
commander Count Wallenstein as punishment for its Duke’s support to the Danes.
It became very clear Brandenburg’s life expectancy was evaporating rapidly if the
Elector didn’t act. As such, his arm was twisted in joining the Catholic-Imperial camp.
He abandoned his policy of staunch neutrality by signing the Treaty of Königsberg after
the defeat of Mansveld. From now on, he had to accept imperial garrisons to quarter on
his territories. If anything the burden on Brandenburg increased, for commander Wallenstein
was notorious for extracting provisions, lodgings and payment for his troops from the local
population. Brandenburg was in ruins. Switching sides By the late 1620s, the Catholic forces seemed
to reach their zenith of power. Our Elector didn’t notice any of it, however. As a matter
of fact, the Emperor seemed to completely disregard his interests, even though they
formally were allies. In 1629 Emperor Ferdinand II issued the Edict of Restitution, reclaiming
all ecclesial buildings Catholics had possessed in 1552. This would have disastrous results
for Brandenburg, where many of these buildings had come under Protestant control.
And then, in 1630, Sweden dramatically entered the war on the Protestant side. Ten years
before, much to the Elector’s opposition, his mother had married his sister to King
Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, who was now invading the Holy Roman Empire. The Swedish King didn’t
have any allies within the Empire and figured his brother-in-law would make an ideal one.
Clinging on to his policy of neutrality, the Elector was hesitant. Considering the Swedish
King had waged wars against Russia, Poland and led conquests into the Baltic, which included
the occupation of the Elector’s Ducal Prussia (!) it is not too difficult to see why. Furthermore,
the Swedish King had even forced the elderly Duke of Mecklenburg to write him into his
inheritance for the duchy, directly undercutting the Elector’s agreement with its northern
neighbour! The Elector returned to his policy of neutrality
trying to form a neutral bloc with its neighbour, Saxony. As he was negotiating, the Swedish
forces clashed with imperial troops across the Neumark, routing the imperials. After
that strong victory, the Swedish King demanded an alliance. Although the Elector protested,
the Swedish King simply marched his troops towards Berlin. Intimidating the Elector,
the poor man saw no other way but to throw in his lot with the Swedes. One reason, besides
Swedish intimidation, for switching, was the fact that the Imperial forces had recently
sacked the Protestant city of Magdeburg with over 20.000 casualties as a result. The war
crime damaged the prestige of the Emperor beyond repair, especially in The Elector’s
eyes. His uncle happened to be the administrator of the city. From June 1631, the Elector reluctantly
agreed to Swedish troops quartering within his territories and he paid a monthly contribution
to the Swedes. The Indecisive Elector Right as the Elector had switched to support
the Swedes, the balance of power once again shifted. The Swedish king died in a cavalry
melee at the Battle of Lützen in late 1632. After the Swedes suffered another crushing
defeat 2 years later at Nördlingen, Emperor Ferdinand decided to sway the Elector to sign
a peace treaty. The Peace of Prague offered amnesty, but no toleration of Calvinism. Meanwhile,
in the background, the Swedes were still pestering the Elector for a treaty. He once again decided
to try his luck at the Imperial side, in May 1635, together with Saxony, Bavaria and several
other German territories. Imperial troops were dispatched to Brandenburg to “safeguard”
the Mark, the Elector was promised Pomerania after the war and given the title Generalissimus.
Ironic, considering his military ineptitude. You won’t be surprised by now: as the Elector
was raising 25000 troops to support the imperial side, once again the balance of power shifted.
At the battle of Wittstock in October 1636, the Swedes defeated a Saxon army and once
again became the powerhouse of the region. To sum up the last several years: our poor
Elector attempted to drive the Swedes out of his territories all the while failing to
claim the Duchy of Pomerania. During these last years, Brandenburg was ravished
and plundered by all sides that participated in the war. Even the Elector’s own mercenaries
razed the Mark, as he was unable to pay them. After the Swedes invaded Brandenburg in late
1637, the Elector, by now a broken man, was forced to flee to the relative safety of Ducal
Prussia to the east. He settled in Königsberg, where on 1 December 1940 Georg Wilhelm, Margrave
and Elector of Brandenburg, Duke of Prussia, passed away. His Margraviate of Brandenburg
was described by contemporaries as “being at the point of dissolution”. With many
territories, including economic hubs, losing upwards of 80 percent of their population,
this isn’t too difficult to imagine. Perhaps the final days of the short-lived realm of
Brandenburg-Prussia had arrived, with its history rapidly fading in obscurity. A New Elector Rises After Georg Wilhelm passed away, he was succeeded
by his 20-year-old son, Frederick Wilhelm. And this new elector was the complete opposite
of his father. Both contemporary sources and historiography describe his reign as a model
of a ruler, dedicated to his office. A “potent icon within the Hohenzollern tradition”
if you will. A man that future generations would certainly aspire to model themselves
after. After his father’s death, he did not return
to the burning and looted Brandenburg until March 1643. A letter from his Viceroy, Albrecht
II certainly gives a vivid account of the situation Brandenburg was in: “The country
is in such a miserable and impoverished condition (…) and the cart driven so deep into the
mud, that it cannot be extricated without the special help of the Almighty.” According
to a contemporary privy councillor it was only a matter of time until Poland would seize
Prussia. Pomerania was to stay under Swedish occupation and Kleve under Dutch control.
In short: Brandenburg was on the edge of the abyss. In order to restore the peace in his
territories, the new Elector figured a capable and disciplined military was required. It
became the central tenet of his reign that would last for 48 years. But before he had
that army, during the last phase of the war, he managed to play the international system
to the degree that he actually managed to emerge as a war profiteer from this devastating
conflict. So, with 8 more years of war upon his ascension to the throne, how did he do
it? Well, towards the end of the war, the French
wanted a German client state to support them in future conflicts. Due to French support,
the Elector managed to gain the eastern portion of Pomerania from the Swedes (a French ally).
Then, a French-Swedish alliance pressured the Holy Roman Emperor to compensate Brandenburg
for the lost portions of Pomerania by granting it lands from the former bishoprics of Halberstadt,
Minden and Magdeburg. After the peace of Westphalia in 1648, concluding this bloody conflict,
Brandenburg became bigger than neighbouring Saxony – it became the second-largest German
territory after that of the Habsburgs themselves. The new Elector had managed all this when
Brandenburg was still a plundered mess, with a military that was still in ruins. It was
all diplomacy. Aside from the territorial acquisitions, the Peace of Westphalia curtailed
the Emperor’s powers. It resulted in all prince-electors of the Empire becoming virtual
sovereigns within their territories. With all this new potential the new Elector,
28 years old by the end of the war, embarked on his new mission: to gain sovereignty over
Ducal Prussia from the Polish Crown. How he managed to achieve that, we will see next
week. But there is a reason why this young Frederick Wilhelm would enter the history
books as Prussia’s “Great Elector”. Thank you for watching this video. Make sure
you check out the playlist with the Complete History of Prussia on the screen. I would
also like to thank all my Patrons for their generous support. If you enjoy House of History
and want to support my work consider checking me on Patreon. For just 1$ a month you will
gain access to the exclusive Patreon series. Don’t forget to subscribe. See you next
time!

Comments 7

  • This week we look at one of the bloodiest conflicts in German history (and that really says something). From 1618 to 1648 the Thirty Years' War waged over the Holy Roman Empire. During the last 8 years of the war a new Elector emerged, a man that would pull Brandenburg-Prussia out of the mud.

    Timecodes

    1:11 Brandenburg-Prussia in 1618

    4:43 Early Years of the War

    6:43 Neutrality

    8:46 Switching Sides

    11:00 The Indecisive Elector

    13:08 A New Elector Rises

  • First!

  • This serie has been superb so far. Congrats Oscar.

  • If the Electors contribution was taken by the Swedes in the same way they got "contributions" from the major trade cities in Mecklenburg, then let´s call it was it really was. The Swedes extorted money by threatening violence all the while their hoodlooms roamed the countryside, murdering innocent people and torching villages, just as the imperials under the Habsburg banner did before them.

  • 80%?!?!

  • Thank you for this wonderful video on the History of Prussia. I really enjoy all the details regarding this great story. Keep up the good work.

  • feels like we are watching Empire civil war in Warhammer 😀

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *