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This Week in History

May 19-25, 1618:
Thirty Years' Religious War Begins With Defenestration of Prague

May 2013

Defenestration of Prague.

As all the "weapons of mass destruction" and other excuses for the war against Iraq, Libya, Iran and Syria melt away, and the Chickenhawks' agenda of expanded war in the region emerges more and more prominently, it is becoming increasingly obvious that we are facing a religious war. As Lyndon LaRouche and many others have emphasized, a religious war is the kind of war to be most avoided, because of its endless, fanatical quality.

Today, we do well to recall the famous "religious" war called the "Thirty Years' War," which was waged between 1618 and 1648 in Central Europe, a war whose horror led to the breakthrough called the Treaty of Westphalia, and the ecumenical efforts at statecraft epitomized by the German scientist and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. May 23, 1618 is the day to which start of that war can be dated. On that day occurred the famous "Defenestration of Prague."

Before describing that precipitating incident, let's set the stage. Throughout the course of the 16th Century, coming into 1618, Europe had been wracked by sporadic episodes of religious warfare, in which Protestants and Roman Catholics fought over territory and religious practices—as the oligarchical families of Venice manipulated both sides. But 1618 represented a turning point, in that the incoming Hapsburg Emperor Ferdinand II, a Jesuit-advised Roman Catholic, had let it be known that he intended to reverse the policy of toleration for certain Protestant enclaves; in specific, the largely Protestant kingdom of Bohemia. Rather than wait for this to happen, the Protestant Count Heinrich Matthias von Thurn staged a provocation. He and his henchmen signalled their rejection of the Emperor's position, by throwing two emissaries of his court out a window, 20 feet above the ground!

This is the incident that has been dubbed the "Defenestration [out the window] of Prague."

Dialogue was clearly coming to an end. While the emissaries survived (they landed in a wagon of dung), both sides immediately girded for war, and most of the kingdoms and duchies throughout Europe began to choose sides, most of them attempting to rally their troops—among whom many were mercenaries—under the banner of religion.

The slaughter was horrendous, as one atrocity by one side, provoked another atrocity by the other. Cities were besieged, razed, and sacked, often with no mercy shown to any of the residents, including women and children. Take the example of Magdeburg, a town in Saxony with "free city" status, which was technically neutral. In the spring of 1631, the Catholic League Army determined to take the town. An army of 30,000 besieged the city, which had approximately the same number of inhabitants, but only a small garrison of about 3,000 Swedes to defend it. Once the walls were breached, the attacking army went on a killing spree, and the city was torched. The attackers were seen throwing civilians into the flames, and impaling infants as they were clutched to their mothers' breasts. The most reliable estimate is that only 5,000 of the inhabitants survived—primarily merchants who offered booty, or those who took refuge in the cathedral.

This fanaticism was not restricted to one side; it inflamed combatants on both. Meanwhile, the countryside, which was ravaged in order to provide food and shelter for the massive armies, was turned into a virtual desert. In the end, the population of Europe—mostly in the region of Germany, and what is now Hungary, the Czech Republic, Austria, and Slovakia—was reduced by anywhere from one-third to one-half.

Why did the war go on so long? Weren't people tired of the endless barbarism? As the famous historian and poet Friedrich Schiller pointed out in his History of the Thirty Years' War, there were many points at which it could have been stopped, if the victorious army had been looking for a means of establishing peace. Yet those controlling the armies were not interested in establishing the basis for a better life for all people, but in wiping out all opposition. The mentality, as reported by Schiller, was epitomized by a statement from Emperor Ferdinand II: "Better a desert than a country full of heretics."

It is precisely this mentality of religious warfare which we can see on the horizon today, and which must be stopped.


The original article was published in the EIR Online’s Electronic Intelligence Weekly, as part of an ongoing series on history, with a special emphasis on American history. We are reprinting and updating these articles now to assist our readers in understanding of the American System of Economy.