By Alex Richards
The Thirty Years War was, in percentage terms at least, the most destructive event in German history, depopulating vast swathes of the country and creating economic devastation that was still being felt in some areas when Napoleon rolled in a century and a half later.
It started in 1618 with the Second Defenestration of Prague- where two pro-Habsburg courtiers were thrown out of a window sparking a revolt of the Bohemian nobles against their Habsburg monarch Ferdinand, shortly to become Emperor Ferdinand II of the Holy Roman Empire. While the revolt itself was put down relatively quickly, by that point it had spread to incorporate the unresolved religious issues sparked by the reformation a century previously, dynastic rivalries within the House of Wittelsbach, military interventions by powers beyond the empire, the ongoing Dutch revolt against Spain and the personal ambitions of at least a dozen major figures and many more minor ones. The result is a complicated web of events and battles (including an entire side-conflict in Hesse that loosely intersected with everything else) where even Historians tend to get exhausted and sum up the last 10 years as 'fighting continued until everyone got too exhausted to carry on'. Finally, in 1648, the Peace of Westphalia saw the effective end of the HRE as a coherent entity, numerous territorial changes and the creation of the modern concept of 'Westphalian Sovereignty'- assuming the latter actually exists of course.
Needless to say the period is also replete with potential PoDs, some small scale, some large, and many of which had the potential to completely change the course of European history.
June 1619: Ferdinand II of Austria killed by the mob
A little over a year on from the Defenestration of Prague, the Bohemian Revolt had enjoyed a string of successes. The other territories traditionally associated with the Kingdom of Bohemia- Moravia, Silesia and Lusatia- had more or less willingly joined the revolt, the Habsburgs were in retreat and Heinrich Matthias, Count of Thurn led an army to the very walls of Vienna itself. Ferdinand II, not yet elected Holy Roman Emperor and having only just inherited the Archduchy of Austria from his cousin Matthias, was at this time in negotiation with the Austrian estates to have his inheritance confirmed. Contrary to what you might expect, there was a Lutheran majority among the Nobles and Burghers who comprised the Lower Austrian estates, with Vienna in particular being strongly Lutheran, and guaranteed protection of their religious rights were high on the list of demands.
According to the traditional tale, at some point some of the petitioners were part of a plot to depose Ferdinand, open the city's gates and hand Austria over to Count Thurn, with one even getting as far as touching Ferdinand's sleeve, before the timely arrival of a loyal cavalry guard dispersed the building mob and Ferdinand was able to secure his position. In reality, the possibility that this was all a pre-arranged show of force designed to split the hardcore radicals away from the more moderate majority seems to have more historic evidence- not least the fact that Ferdinand summoned the protestants shortly afterwards, apologised for the intrusion and had his rights confirmed in that session. Nonetheless, the traditional narrative offers an intriguing possibility, where the Protestant mob really does form and proceeds to press their demands violently, culminating in the death of Ferdinand II.
After Ferdinand: Who Inherits?
Assuming that only Ferdinand is killed by the mob, the question of who inherits is slightly complicated. His eldest son, the 13 year old Johann-Karl, would historically die in December of 1619- and the prospect of either house arrest or exile is unlikely to have assisted his health. The next heir, historically the Emperor Ferdinand III, was only 11 and their mother, Maria Anna of Bavaria, had died in 1616. As such, even assuming they escape capture and imprisonment by the Bohemians, the direct heirs of Ferdinand face an uncertain regency period in Graz, capital of Inner Austria (which would likely be beyond even the wildest hopes of Count Thurn despite the Lutheran majority), likely facing a divided court as pro-Spanish and pro-Bavarian factions vie for supremacy.
Effects on the Bohemian Revolt
With the army of the Count Thurn outside the city and their Archduke murdered at their own hands, the Lutherans of Vienna would have had little choice but to hitch their cart to the Bohemian Revolt whether there had been any plot to do so originally or not. A likely period of consolidation follows for the Bohemians- pockets of Catholic resistance remained in Moravia and Lower Austria would also need to be secured- either willingly or not. Most crucially however is the fact that with their monarch dead Bohemia is free to elect a new King of their own choosing without the candidate being a technical usurper. Of course any election is likely to be disputed by the Habsburgs, most likely backed by Maximilian I of Bavaria, but the legal argument for this would be far weaker and more susceptible to being forced to a fait accompli. There seems little reason to think Frederick V of the Palatinate wouldn't be elected king as he was historically, but his legitimacy here may well get more traction within the Empire immediately, especially as the Austrian Habsburgs would appear to be entering into a potentially terminal decline. At the same time, it's likely that Gabriel Bethlen, the Calvinist Prince of Transylvania is, as historically, elected King of Hungary and here successfully splits the whole Kingdom off from the Habsburgs with Ottoman support.
With Bohemia-Palatinate and Hungary both facing a residual Habsburg claim, there's a strong possibility here that an alliance can be formed to secure their mutual independence, initially with Ottoman backing, but after the immediate threat has passed this may prove to be unpalatable and assistance from the French or Dutch may be sought instead- though here Hungary's much more vulnerable position against the Ottomans may mean the breaking of that initial alliance with Bohemia-Palatinate.
With the Austrian Habsburgs dealt a potentially fatal blow, Catholic forces in apparent disarray in the Empire and Frederick V of the Palatinate near-undisputed King of Bohemia, the future of Europe could be about to launch down a very different path to that taken historically. It's to the medium and long term effects of this that I shall turn to in the next article.