Thirty Years of War

Ferdinand II, Counter-Reformation Emperor, 1578-1637by Robert Bireley

Cambridge University Press. 340p $99

The Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II was in many respects an exemplary figure: a conscientious, hard-working ruler, an earnest Catholic and a caring father and devoted husband. By his own testimony, he sought the conversion of his Protestant subjects, not because he hated them but because he was concerned for their souls. Yet posterity has not bestowed laurels on Ferdinand. In part this is because of his responsibility for the Thirty Years’ War, which he did not cause but helped to prolong. In part it is because, unlike his war-mongering rival Gustav Adolph of Sweden, Ferdinand did not project personal charisma. His life was devoted to religion and the interests of the house of Habsburg. Unfortunately, he is often remembered for his greatest mistake, the 1629 Edict of Restitution, restoring property to the Catholic Church that had been claimed by Protestant princes, and for the devastation wrought on Germany as a result.


Robert Bireley, S.J., is a leading authority on Counter-Reformation Catholicism and the author of many previous books, including a study of William Lamormaini, Ferdinand II’s Jesuit confessor. Bireley’s grasp of the religious politics and international diplomacy of this period in Central European history is unrivaled. His judgments on Ferdinand’s actions are sensitive and generally sympathetic, but not uncritical.

Educated by Jesuits and strongly influenced by his pious Catholic parents, Ferdinand was not likely to be well disposed toward the Bohemian Protestants over whom he ruled as king from 1617 onward. As Bireley points out, however, Ferdinand did little to provoke the uprising of Bohemian nobles that erupted in the following year, setting off three decades of war within the Holy Roman Empire. After Ferdinand’s victory at the White Mountain in 1620, 27 leading Bohemian rebels were tried and executed. This was harsh punishment but limited in scope, in spite of the reputation of the tribunal that sentenced them as a Blutgericht, or blood court. Ferdinand became a hereditary monarch in Bohemia and began a campaign to reconvert his subjects to Catholicism, but he did not scrap the Bohemian constitution. Indeed, he showed the same scrupulous regard for constitutional niceties within his other domains after becoming Holy Roman Emperor in 1618.

In legal terms, Ferdinand was what might be called a “strict constructionist” rather than a would-be absolutist. This was what led him into the mistake of assuming that with his main enemies defeated, he could impose on the German princes a restrictive interpretation of the 1555 Peace of Augsburg, which had recognized Lutheranism within the empire. This mistake shaped the infamous Edict of Restitution, bluntly labeled by Bireley as “overreach.” By calling for the restoration of Catholic Church property that had been confiscated since 1555 by both Lutheran and Calvinist princes, the edict strengthened Protestant resistance to Ferdinand and encouraged a Swedish invasion.

Traumatized by the success of the Swedes, the emperor ordered the arrest of his chief general, the untrustworthy Wallenstein. The Privy Council’s decision to sanction the killing of Wallenstein was within the boundaries of the law but was interpreted by Ferdinand’s enemies as an assassination. Fortunately for him, the victory at Nördlingen in 1634 allowed the emperor to pursue peace, and he wisely sacrificed his position on church property in order to obtain the cooperation of Lutheran princes. The Peace of Prague might have ended the war but for the recalcitrance of Sweden and France, who for the next 14 years sought to establish their own permanent presence within the empire by force of arms. Ferdinand died in 1637, confident that Catholicism would be re-established at least within his hereditary Austrian and Bohemian lands, the core of the 18th-century Habsburg empire.

Ferdinand’s life makes a good story, with plenty of dramatic ups and downs. Bireley’s retelling of it, however, is aimed at an academic audience. While it includes some fine anecdotes about the emperor’s piety, most of them derived from Lamormaini, as well as interesting comments on subjects like court entertainments at Vienna or Ferdinand’s love of hunting, the emphasis here is on the gritty details of politics and diplomacy. The author guides the reader through a confusing morass of maneuvers, negotiations, pacts and treaties with clarity and precision but little levity.

Nonetheless, Bireley’s carefully documented analysis has many strengths. One of them lies in his appreciation of the differences among European Catholics in this period. There was no single Catholic position on any issue, including toleration, which in certain circumstances could be justified as “a lesser evil.” Ferdinand’s first Jesuit confessor, Martin Becan, took this view regarding Protestantism in Lower Austria. Lamormaini disagreed with Becan but did not always win the argument, in spite of the support of Duke Maximilian of Bavaria, who pressed Ferdinand to adopt a more aggressive stance regarding Protestants.

Maximilian’s influence was bad news for the Bohemians after the Bavarian army rescued the emperor in the crisis of 1618-20. The papacy, for its part, did not always endorse Ferdinand’s decisions and held off from expressing any view at all on the Edict of Restitution, arguing that it could not publicly sanction the Peace of Augsburg. Evidently, Counter-Reformation Catholicism was far from a monolithic force, no matter what its opponents thought. Those who dream of restoring a mythical unity within the current church would do well to heed the lessons of this book.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

Are conspiracy theorists just trying to maintain their empires and hawk merchandise? Am I a conspiracy theorist about conspiracy theorists?
Brandon SanchezMarch 19, 2019
Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman in ‘The Bells of St. Mary‘s’ (photo: Alamy)
Crosby was the most Catholic superstar the United States has ever seen.
John AndersonMarch 08, 2019
California governors Pat and Jerry Brown played pivotal roles in a startling array of events in the state's history.
Sean Dempsey, S.J.March 08, 2019
Gary Pomerantz's detailed exploration of Bob Cousy's career touches on the heroic moments and the bitter failures of the Boston Celtics, including a shameful history of racial prejudice.
Mary GibbonsMarch 06, 2019