Many people have come to believe that with the grand triumphs the Reformation experienced under the early Reformers, such as Luther, Zwingli and those who followed them, the darkness was dispelled which for centuries had held the world in its grip, and that the establishment of Protestantism was assured. Nothing, however, could be farther from the truth. A little more than a century after Luther nailed his ninety-five theses on the church door at Wittenberg, the counter-reformation very nearly destroyed all the progress of the previous one hundred years. Only the little country of Sweden stood in the way of the Jesuits and the ultimate triumph of Romanism on the Continent.
In 1618, Germany was considered a rich country. Under the influence of a long period of peace, its towns had enlarged and its villages increased in number. Wealth abounded in the cities, and even the country people lived in relative comfort and ease. Now, however, the fire started by the Reformation a century before had begun to grow dim. The spirit that had animated the Reformers was not to be found in the men who had taken their place. The Protestant movement, begun with such dedication and zeal, had, to a large extent, been replaced with apathy and indifference.
Already the iron hand of military violence, moved by the Jesuits, was crushing out Protestantism in Bohemia, Hungary, and Transylvania. Their nobles were dying on the scaffold; their ministers were shut up in prison or chained to the galleys; and their churches and schools lay in ruins. Confiscation and execution were the order of the day; and those who had not returned to the Catholic faith had disappeared from the land, either driven into exile or slaughtered by soldiers.
The vast ambition of Ferdinand II, emperor of the empire, was not satisfied with the extermination of the Protestant faith in his own dominions. His aim was nothing less than its overthrow in all of Germany. In the process, it was his aim to sweep away all the charters and constitutions which conferred independent rights on the German States, thereby subjecting both princes and people to himself.
In 1609, the Catholic League had been formed with the avowed purpose of counteracting the threat of Protestantism. The Protestants, however, met the zeal of the League with only faintheartedness and indifference. By 1627, under the leadership of Generals Tilly and Wallenstein, the League was everywhere triumphant. Germany lay beaten down and trampled. Its princes had been humiliated; its towns garrisoned with foreign troops; and an army of bandits, now increased in size to 100,000, were roaming the countryside turning its productive fields into a vast wilderness. As if these evils were not enough, another plan was underfoot to plunge Germany into an abyss of misery.
The League was now master of Germany. The Jesuits might survey the whole land and say that where Lutheranism once existed, it was now extinct; henceforth, Rome resumed her sway. The once powerful Protestant Churches of Poland, Bohemia, and Hungary were in ruins. The victorious arms of the League had been carried all the way to the Baltic Sea. Already Ferdinand and the Jesuits were contemplating the next conquest of arms to be Denmark and Sweden. But as they dreamed, reeling with success, retribution was to come sooner than Ferdinand had foreseen, and in a way he could not possibly have dreamed.
Just when the cause of Protestantism was, to all appearances, lost and it appeared that all the plans of the emperor and the Jesuits must surely succeed, all parties in this transaction appear as if they were smitten with a supernatural blindness for the occasion. In the moves that followed, the groundwork was laid for the overthrow of that which all desired to exalt.
Sensing the imminent triumph of the armies of the League, Ferdinand issued the Edict of Restitution. Under the terms of this edict, all property that had been taken from the Catholic Church since 1552 was now to be returned. In issuing this edict, Ferdinand alienated the Protestant princes, as many of them now held lands they must relinquish under the new law.
While they were able to use him, and as long as he depended upon the League, Ferdinand was useful to the Jesuits. But when he raised an army of his own and began to win victories, which, though they resulted in the spread of the Roman faith, placed even greater power in the hands of the emperor, the League decided that measures must be taken to curb his power. They determined to strip Ferdinand of his power, demanding that Ferdinand to not only reduce the size of his army, but that he dismisses Wallenstein. As a general, Wallenstein was of more value than an army. Wherever his standard was borne, he brought victory to the papal cause; and his bravery and skill were unsurpassed. What is even stranger, they chose as the time to urge these changes just when he was preparing on the northern shore of Germany to carry the triumphs of the Church to Scandinavia.
Maximilian of Bavaria summoned a meeting of the League at Heidelberg; and after discussing the matter, a demand was sent to the emperor that he should disarm—that is, dismiss Wallenstein and dissolve his army. The princes of Germany now came forward to urge the same demand on the emperor. To them the army of Wallenstein had become a terror and scourge. His army, numbering about 100,000, acting more like bandits than a trained military machine, roamed the countryside reaping the harvest of its fields, spoiling its cities, and torturing the inhabitants to force them to disclose their treasures. Whole villages disappeared in his line of march, their former inhabitants forced to find a home in the woods. It mattered not whether the princes favored Ferdinand, his army was making their position unendurable. The demand for redress was a point on which both Catholics and Protestants agreed.
For a time Ferdinand ignored the complaints and accusations, but the pressure increased. In June of 1630, a council of the princes was held at Ratisbon, and the demand for Wallenstein's dismissal was renewed. The idea of dismissing the general who had made him great was a most painful one for the emperor to contemplate. This time, however, the whole Electoral College joined the demand made by the princes of the League, the Protestant princes, and the ambassadors of France and Spain. Perhaps more important, however, along with the French ambassadors had come a friar, Father Joseph. The voice of a monk to Ferdinand, it is said, was as the voice of God; and Father Joseph has received credit as being the finishing touch that balanced the scale in favor of Wallenstein's dismissal. Ferdinand was, at this time, negotiating for the election of his son as King of the Romans, thereby assuring that he would succeed him in the empire. The monk suggested to Ferdinand that if he were to assure his son's choice as King of the Romans, it would be necessary to pacify the electors upon whose favor he must rely for his son's appointment. Father Joseph pointed out that once the object was gained, Wallenstein could always resume his position as general of the army. Ferdinand submitted, but it failed to gain him the desired end. Too late he awoke to the realization that he had been outwitted.
The hand of Providence had overruled in the affairs of men to fix the limits of oppression and had decreed a line beyond which it might not pass. From the remote regions of northern Europe, the Divine hand raised up a deliver from the place least likely. The champion who was to confront Rome was Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden.
When Gustavus father, Charles IX, died hi 1611, he left to Gustavus a kingdom at war with Denmark, Russia, and Poland. The Romanists sided with the King of Poland and Gustavus found himself fighting at the same time to save his throne and to preserve the cause of Protestantism in his country. Ending the war with Denmark and temporarily suspended fighting with Poland, Gustavus successfully continued the conflict with Russia. By 1617, Sweden controlled the whole Gulf of Finland. This last of the three contests was successfully completed in 1629, leaving Sweden in control of a large and important section of the Baltic coast.
In addition to inheriting a nation at war, Gustavus had the disorders of fifty years to correct. Mismanagement had resulted in stagnation and a lack of prosperity. With diligent effort, he managed to transform Sweden into one of the first administratively governed states in modern Europe. This, along with other reforms, contributed greatly to Sweden's strength. The power that it had acquired over the Baltic gave it an entrance to Germany. More over, through the experience already gained in conflict the officers and men had become veterans on the field of battle. The lessons they had learned would serve them well in the coming conflict.