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Guns and Faith: The Battle for Religious Clemency

Written by Ethan Perez

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Word Count: 1,291

How did the Thirty Years’ War, and more specifically, the Defenestration of Prague ignite conflict and, subsequently, transform the landscape of Europe?

   Mankind’s history is laced with stories of conflict, with simple disagreements acting as catalysts for deadly wars. In early human history, conflicts were often ignited by land disputes and the innate carnal rage of men. For thousands of years, conflicts would follow this simple but deadly template. The advent of major religions, however, changed the world greatly. Now man fought over philosophies – points of view. Indeed, world religions venerated the morals they seek to teach their followers, such as the importance of helping your fellow man. Quickly, though, humans strayed from this most noble path set out before them; the path of peace and morality. Charlemagne had spread the ideals of the Christian faith not through the peaceful conversion of pagan dissidents, but through war. The famous janissaries of the Ottoman Empire had spread the Islamic faith not by the zeal of their preachers and the insights of the Qur’an, but through ample use of gunpowder. The conversion of heathens was used as a justification for war – their selfless cause blessed by God. Warriors slew all who dared to resist the will of the God of the “one true faith.” These literal and intellectual battles did not end. As Persia and the Ottoman Empire grew, so did the urge to convert those of other sects. As Europe crawled out of the dark ages, driven by the new ideas of the Italian Renaissance, they prepared to face a split of their own: the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther, th rough the spread of paper pamphlets, put the reformists and the establishment at each other’s throats. The culmination of the growing religious tension in Europe arose in non other than the increasingly decentralized, Hapsburg-ruled Holy Roman Empire. Who Voltaire famously remarked, “…is neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.” The religiously androgynous Electorate of Bohemia, chock full of Protestants and Calvinists, fully revolted against their leaders. The beginning of this revolt, and subsequently the Thirty Year’s War, would be marked by the infamous Defenestration of Prague. This seemingly minor incident shook Europe, from Sweden to Spain, setting Europe, ripe with the fire of devotion, aflame. The hegemony of Austria as the most powerful Catholic country was given a trial by fire. How did the Thirty Years’ War, and more specifically, the Defenestration of Prague ignite conflict and, subsequently, transform the landscape of Europe?

       The Thirty Years’ War is often overlooked, except by scholars and those forced to study it. But it is a tragedy that it is often overlooked. It is a story of devotion, blood and politics. And it all started in Prague, capital of the Electorate of Bohemia (modern day Czech Republic). Since 1526, Bohemia was was considered one of the many territories under direct Hapsburg rule. This gave Hapsburg Austria control of an electorate, allowing the Hapsburgs to more easily ascend to the much coveted throne of the Holy Roman Empire. Unfortunately, the powerful Hapsburgs would get more than they bargained for. The hardline Catholic Hapsburgs found themselves navigating the complex religious and political landscape of Bohemia. Would it in fact be worth it? This is indeed a question that must be asked. Bohemia had been the home of Jan Hus – founder of the Hussite sect. Many Bohemians had anti-Catholic tendencies, and became members of the various Protestant and Calvinist sects. This divide widened as time went proceded. At one point, just 10% of Bohemians considered themselves Roman Catholic, though their overlords were Catholic. Fortunately for the religious dissidents, in July of 1609, Emperor Rudolf of Austria issued an edict, commonly referred to as the Letter of Majesty. This edict allowed all non-Catholics basic religious freedoms, and gave the Bohemian government more control over administration of religious affairs. This would serve to mollify the Bohemians, whom had been so recently subjugated. Soon, though, Rudolf would be removed from power. He was seen as unfit, and died shortly after. After which Matthias would be crowned, and would reign very shortly over a relatively peaceful Austria. Subsequently, the devoted Catholic Ferdinand came to power as Ferdinand II. His first act was to appoint government officials to help govern Bohemia. This was a sign of what was to come. Perhaps, another Jan Hus would decide to, once and for all, break free of the Austrian yolk. However, this time the people of Prague – the capital of Bohemia – would take the initiative. But the idea of a revolt was throwing people out windows – specifically Catholic people. 

     This incident is commonly called the Defenestration of Prague. Defenestration being a fancy word for throwing a person out a window. In reality, this was the first time, either. It had happened once more in July 1419. In 1419, an angry mob stormed the office of government official, and there were fatalities. Fortunately, nothing as large as the Thirty Year’s War was produced by the unrest. Though 200 years after, another defenestration would take place for similar reasons. On the 23rd of May, 1618, Bohemian officials would throw William Slavata and Jaroslav Martinic (Austrian officials), whom had been charged with “violation of the Letter of Majesty,” out of windows. This would become a point of real contention. Catholics believed that the officials’ lives were saved from certain death by the hands of angels. All others believed they survived the roughly four-story fall because of hay and fertilizer to break their fall. Either way, the clouds of war were gathering. Soon the fomentation of revolt would complete, and was significant enough the the Holy Roman Emperor and Archduke of Austria, Ferdinand II, was notified of this happening. As a fervent Catholic and eager to assert his authority over the unruly Bohemians, Ferdinand tightened his religious policy and redacted the generous Letter of Majesty issued by Rudolf in 1609. For Protestants, this was the beginning of a long journey for religious freedom. And as if the revocation of the Letter of Majesty were not enough, Ferdinand made his intentions perfectly clear by brutally executing those implicated in the July plot. Among the people executed were twenty-seven nobles. This was Ferdinand’s warning to heretics, and those who wanted to sully his authority.

      The Defenestration of Prague was not only an act of religious defiance, it was, more widely, an act of Czech defiance. Since 1526, the Czechs were ruled by Catholics – their freedoms and culture suppressed. Bohemians were not only forced to die for a distant Emperor in Vienna, they were forced to speak German. For many Czechs, the violation and subsequent redaction of the Letter of Majesty which so generously gave them freedom of religion, was the last straw. 

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