The Thirty Years’ War and why it Matters to Our Bohemian/Czech Genealogy
To most folks, a war that started 396 years ago would be something relegated to their ‘useless facts I had to learn in some high school history class, but quickly forgot’ file. However to those of us who live, breathe, and love our Bohemian/Czech heritage and genealogy it is of tremendous importance. It is also something we need to keep in mind and, if you are like I was, enjoy learning even more about.
As a genealogical historian, I always focus on combining the effects of history with the study of ones’ genealogy. This intertwining is especially important when you are working on your Bohemian/Czech genealogy since Bohemia, now Czech Republic, has such a rich, but often unappreciated history.
While all I ever really learned in school about the Thirty Years’ War were the dates that I had to memorize (1618-1648), the history and stories behind this incredibly devastating war are fascinating. I don’t have space here to do the war’s history real justice, so I will simply say that the war began, as do far too many of our wars, with religion as its base as a war between the forces of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. The War at one time or another included almost every major power in Europe and more often than not Bohemia found itself at the center of the fighting.
In the 14th and 15th centuries, Bohemia had been an enlightened nation, which was centuries before the Age of Enlightenment. Plus the Bohemian people enjoyed a great many freedoms of education and religion not enjoyed elsewhere and thanks to its agricultural riches it was also the breadbasket of Europe. The Thirty Years’ War changed all that. The devastation throughout Bohemia, due in large part to the policy of bellum se ipsum alet, which translated from the Latin, is “the war will feed itself”. This means those fighting the wars were left to plunder the lands, destroy the people, and take whatever riches they could find for themselves. This led to incredible destruction all across Bohemia and, by some accounts, more than 8 million people perished.
A key battle for the Bohemian nation was early on in the Thirty Years’ War. This was the Bitva na Bílé hoře (Battle of White Mountain) and took place on November 8, 1620. (You can find a good, concise description of The Battle of White Mountain at http://www.radio.cz/en/section/czechs/the-battle-of-white-mountain.) On June 21, 1621, not long after the defeat of the Bohemian forces at White Mountain, twenty-seven Bohemian noblemen were brought to Prague’s Old Town Square and brutally executed. Should you visit Prague today you can see 27 white brick crosses in the ground that serve as a memorial to each of the 27 in the Square. At roughly the same time, a significant exodus of thousands of Bohemians began. This time also heralded the beginnings of an actual genocide against the Bohemian people as the Hapsburgs began the re-Catholicization of Bohemia. As Eleanor Ledbetter wrote in her 1919 pamphlet:
“But even then the struggle against Teutonic domination was an intense one, and by the end of the Thirty Years’ War, culture had succumbed to force, and the Bohemian people were crushed under the heel of the Hapsburg dynasty. The national leaders were all either executed or exiled, their rich and abundant literature was utterly destroyed, and the remnant of the people who were left for long years had not force enough to offer effective resistance to encroachment and suppression.”
So why is the Thirty Years’ War important to our genealogy efforts? First, the devastation of the War raged all across Bohemia. The resultant diaspora of multitudes within the educated and trained classes of Bohemians accompanied by the focused destruction by Hapsburgs of the culture, history, and people of Bohemia presents huge structural losses and changes within Bohemia. Towns were destroyed, forced conscription was commonplace, and there was wanton destruction of most anything of value, which included the holdings of every Bohemian who was not Roman Catholic.
There is a well written book, by Professor Will S. Monroe, Bohemia and the Čechs The history, people, institutions, and the geography of the kingdom, together with accounts of Moravia and Silesia that I have found very interesting and helpful. Published in 1910, this book, unfortunately, is all too often reviewed and/or listed as a ‘travel book’ when it is far from that. For example Thomas Čapek and Anna Vostrovský Čapek in their 1918 book Bohemian (Čech) Bibliography A finding list of writings in English relating to Bohemia and the Čechs had this to say: “It is profusely illustrated and contains an informative review of the literature, art, politics and the economic and social conditions of the people. Monroe knows his Bohemia from close personal association and not from books alone, and his Bohemia and the Čechs has achieved wider popularity than any of the accounts preceding it.”
In his book, when discussing issues surrounding the Thirty Years’ War, Monroe makes many observations, but the following was especially defining to me:
“He (Ferdinand II) had extirpated Protestantism in Styria and he soon made it clear that he proposed to do likewise in Bohemia. “His Jesuit advisors” notes Count Lützow, “openly declared that the present moment was a ‘golden opportunity for extirpating heretics.’” Pescheck states that Ferdinand had asserted, “Rather would he take a staff in the hand, gather his family around him and beg his bread from door to door, than tolerate a heretic in his dominions.” And he kept his vow. Not a vestige of Protestant religion was left in Bohemia at the close of a brief reign of eighteen years, although Protestants has constituted more than nine-tenths of the population when he became king of Bohemia in 1619.”
When you realize the extent and depth of all the destruction of the Thirty Years’ War, it is no surprise that it weighs heavily on our present day abilities to trace our deepest Bohemian roots. So when you get to this period in your family history and genealogy be prepared for some challenges!