When a young Augustinian monk, a teacher at the new University of Wittenberg, fixed his ’95 Theses’ to the door of his church one day in October 1517, he was certainly not aware that he was overthrowing a world order based upon the claim of a universal Church and a universal empire. In sincere faith he wanted to see a number of abuses that had developed in the practice of Roman, and even more German, Catholicism abolished and the moral power represented by the Pope restored. He inveighed especially against the selling of indulgences as practiced by Archbishop Albrecht of Magdeburg, a Brandenburg prince of the Church who had paid a heavy price for his dignity and tried to get it back by retail selling of the general indulgence granted for his Mayence prebend. Hot-headed and stubborn by nature, Luther refused to give in when asked to recant by his superiors and found support in several ruling Dukes, especially Frederick, Elector of Saxony. In the course of disputing with his adversaries Luther soon began to attack the Papal authority itself and thereby, unwittingly, became the idol and the figurehead of a revolutionary movement that was to split Germany in two and to cost millions of lives all over the western world.

The Dukes, amongst whom one or the other may have been seriously interested in religious matters, on the whole considered the new faith as an excellent shield for their own dynastic interests. Under the pretext of fighting for a purified or, as the case might be, for a ‘national Chirch, they were able to reduce the constitutional power of the Emperor still further and to establish the hereditary power of their own houses; as incidental benefits they might manage to swallow the lands of some minor opponent or some partisan of the Roman-Imperial cause. The idea of making the Scripture, formerly a sacred relic preserved and explained by a specially trained and often highly intellectual clergy, available for everybody, could not fail to appeal to the public mind; but its realisation was bound to impair and crudely over-simplify what fifteen centuries of high culture, tradition and profound knowledge of human nature had transformed into the highest code of ethics the world has known. It was to replace interpretation by bigotry, and the last, most precious remnants of the old Graeco-Roman tradition by German intolerance; and; though entitled to respect on account of its naive simplicity and burning faith, it was to strip the thin veneer of civilisation from the primitive, not to say savage, German nature.

Although Luther was no humanist and, in all his brave stubbornness, astonishingly inconsistent and sensitive to the praise of his social superiors, attacks such as are launched against him to this day as a coarse destroyer fighting his Church because of his own sensuality, arrogance and superstition are hardly supported by the facts. He was merely the powerful exponent of a widespread movement that existed before he nailed his Theses to the church door of Wittenburg. The Swiss Ulrich Zwingli, more radical and a better scholar than Luther; the Frenchman Jean Calvin, later of Geneva, founder of Puritanism; Philip Melanchthon, one of Luther’s collaborators; and, above all, Erasmus of Rotterdam, the leading intellectual figure of Western Europe – all these and many others had tilled the field where Luther’s seed was to bring forth so gigantic and so tragic a harvest. Some of Luther’s actions are, to this day, quoted as typical of his German character. After having called upon the German noblemen to rid themselves of the Roman Church and establish an independent German one, to permit their priests marriage and their children the knowledge of the Bible, he was summoned before an Imperial Diet t Worms, 17th April, 1521. Asked to recant his teachings, he exclaimed: ‘Here, I stand – I can do no otherwise – God help me – Amen.’ He did not know that he challenged the greatest and most powerful ruler that the Empire ever possessed, that the twenty-one-year-old youth in purple, Charles V, the Spanish Habsburg, in a last, glorious sanguinary twilight of the Universal Monarchy was to rule over a realm ‘on which the sun never set,’ embracing Germany, Austria, the Low Countries, Spain and the rich colonies in South and Central America from which gold and silver had been plundered in shiploads.

Charles, who for more than twenty years fought Francis I of France and with similarly varying success the electoral and other ruling princes of his own Empire, the Dukes of Saxony, the Landgrave of Hesse, the Margrave of Brandenburg and others, finally united in the League of Schmalkalde against the Catholic Emperor, was the victim of the short-sighted, typically German policy of the backers of Protestantism. For while they quarrelled with each other and with their legitimate overlord, not only the French but the Turks on repeated occasions allied to them menaced the very life of Germany. The Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent invaded Hungary, conquered Budapest and murdered hundreds of thousands of Christians. Then in 1529 he attacked Vienna and, although beaten back, was left undisturbed on the frontiers of the Empire because the idea of the nation had already given way to the smaller personal and dynastic interests of the various rulers. Though Luther published the Turks, he was mainly occupied with his translation of the Bible and missed a splendid opportunity to put himself forward as a patriotic German leader.

He missed another opportunity; that of leading the proletarian masses against their oppressors and directing their resentment into channels where it might have produced progress, civilisation and a national revival. While these masses, mainly belonging to be peasantry, looked up to him as their liberator, spiritual and temporal, Luther, mindful of his debt to the princes who had given him asylum and support, condemned their uprisings with all the coarseness and fieriness of his pen, as soon as they had begun to murder, to burn and to plunder the nobility. ‘kill the lot’ was the watchword he gave to the troops sent out to subdue these hordes who were filled with a fanatical belief in a new Messianic age, a new apostolic Church, a new social justice to be brought about by bloodshed. And kill the soldiery did, as did their badly armed and unorganised adversaries. At the end of the Peasant Wars, which lasted for over half a century, more than a thousand monasteries had been destroyed, more than a hundred thousand people killed, and tens of thousands of rebels beheaded, broken on the wheel, burned or tortured to death. No episode in history so nearly resembles the initial period of Russian Bolshevism as the German Peasant Wars of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, there is no parallel to Hitlerism so close as the Anabaptist ‘kingdom’ of Munster in Westphalia in 1534-35, a sort of communist or socialist state based upon religious fanaticism and the principle of the ‘Fuhrer.’

With all these troubles and excesses the period can also show impressive activity in may fields: commercial and financial enterprise such as that of the Augsburg houses of the Fuggers and the Welsers, who founded branches all over southern Europe and plantations in the West Indies and the Canaries, or the Ehingers of Ulm, who tried colonisation on a private plan in Venezuela; scientific progress arising from the many additions to the map made by the explorers and from the work of great astronomers like Copernicus and Kepler and of a medical school that developed the idea of the Italian Lanfranchi and the Greman Albertus Magnus; the growth of learning due to the spread of literature and especially the rediscovery of Plato. Though mainly of foreign origin, these intellectual movements were fostered by the great German Universities founded between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries at Heidelburg, Prague, Leipzig and elsewhere. Hand in hand with them a German art began to develop: painters like Albrecht Durer, Lucas Cranach and Hans Holbein, and great sculptors such as Peter Vischer, Veit Stoss and Tillmann Reimenschneider all belong to this age.

It is strange that while these achievements were contributing towards a higher standard of general knowledge and a more refined mode of living, cruelty, superstition and callousness towards human suffering reached a higher peak in the Germany of the Reformation period than perhaps at any time in history anywhere. The shameful chapter of the persecution of ‘witches’ and ‘sorcerers’ has already been mentioned. under the influence of a special ‘Law,’ Jacob Sprenger’s Malleus Malefica rum, published in 1489, it developed into a fine art and a public amusement that was to poison the mind of the nation for three centuries and cost the lives of tens of thousands of poor old women or students striving for deeper knowledge of the mysteries of nature. Legal torture, invented but hardly ever practiced in Italy, became the mainstay of a corrupt and stupid system of justice, and an astonishing inventiveness was shown by its officers in designing new and always more fiendish instruments. There were protests against both these cankers in the judicial system, but they went unheard and the barbarity of the tortures indiscriminately inflicted upon delinquents and innocent people under suspicion or denounced by their personal rivals or enemies undoubtedly contributed towards an ever rising tide of callous criminality. Even before the great wars that were to devastate all Germany and throw her into a state of barbarism and poverty unheard of in Christian times, mass murder and every sort of crime were rampant.

To what extent the schim, the splitting-up of the Germans in two religious camps – with numerous minor variations on the Protestant side – contributed to that moral decay, can only be guessed. After fierce fighting and numerous Diets to deal with the problem, the Augsburg Religious Peace of 1555 established territorial frontiers between the Protestant and the Catholic lands of Germany and enunciated the principle Cuius regio ejus religio, which compelled the subject to adopt the religion of his ruling prince and to change it with him, if for dynastic or other reasons he should choose to be ‘converted.’ Charles V, who had striven with varying success for internal peace and the consolidation of the old Roman Empire, retired gouty and disgusted after thirty-five years of war to his Spanish monastery of St. Juste and divided his vast empire between his son Philip and other members of the Habsburg family. In 1556 he was succeeded by his brother Ferdinand of Austria, subsequently the Emperor Ferdinand I, who with Jesuit assistance fostered the Counter-Reformation. Under his successors – Maximilian, ‘the last knight,’ a lovable patron of chivalry and the arts, and Rudolf II, a mystic who wasted his time in astrological and zoological hobbies- an increase in wealth and prosperity and a certain indifference with regard to the religious problem gave the country a chance of recovery. The Netherlands which, together with Spain, had become part of Charles V’s Spanish inheritance, put up a heroic struggle for their liberties and their faith; but they were no longer a part of the Empire and never returned to it – partly because they had developed a language and a national existence of their own by the time Luther stablized the written language of the Germans on the pattern of the Saxon Chancellery, which sounded strange to the low-German ear.

The armistice in Germany dulled her intellectual and artistic life. Dogmatism and asceticism, together with bad Latin, prevailed. It was a period of petty interests and petty conflicts. Just such a conflict – about the building of a Protestant church – was to unleash the Thirty Years’ War, perhaps the most horrible and devastating war in all history. Bohemian Protestant nobles, following an example set by their forefathers at the beginning of the Hussite revolt, threw two Imperial counsellors out of the windows of the palace at Prague – without harming them as they fell upon a dung-heap – when they got a negative reply to their petition. Several Imperial reprisals brought outside help for the Bohemians; a dissentient vote of Bohemia at the election of Ferdinand II in 1619 and the creation of a Catholic League against his opponents – that is how a small incident grew into the great conflagration. The Imperial general, Tilly, defeated his adversaries of the Protestant Union, including an anti-king, the Palatine Elector Frederick, son-in-law of James I of England, who subsequently permitted the enlistment of soldiers in that country to help his ambitious son-in-law at least to recover his own inheritance. He failed, although Denmark also allied herself with Frederick and James. Another Imperial general Count Wallenstein, together with Tilly, invaded Holstein and Denmark in 1627, and both, on the whole, held the upper hand in a realm impoverished and devastated by nearly a decade of war.

Ablunder on the part of the zealous Emperor, who restored to the Catholic Church two archbisoprics and more than a hundred bishoprics secularised since the Reformation, strengthened the Protestant side and brought Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden oito the struggle. He landed in Pomerania in July 1630 and made a treaty with the leadin French statesman, CardinalRichelieu, granting him subsidies. He won brilliant victories over the Imperial armies – though he could not prevent the capture and sack of magdeburg in 1631, in which more than 30.000 civilians perished – and might have crushed his adversaries completely, had not the Emperor, under duress, recalled Wallanstein and made him supreme commander. He had, in 1630, dismissed this gifted and ambitious general, who disapproved of the Edict of Restitution and demanded its repeal as a condition of his taking command. During the battle of Lutzen, in which the Swedes were victorious, Gustavus Adolphus was killed, and the war degenerated from a struggle which had in spite of everything a certain idealistic side into a more or less free fight in which everybody tried to snatch something for himself.

Wallenstein, who had meanwhile become extremely rich and had acquired the lands and title of a Duke of Friedland, seems to have dreamed of an empire of his own and was murdered in February 1634 by order of the frightened Emperor who afterwards had 3.000 masses said for the repose Wallenstein’s soul. The loss of the leading military figure on each side was the signal for the degeneration of the war into something that beggars description – although a famous contemporary author, Grimmelshausen, in his Simplicius Simplicissimus has attempted to describe it. The religious conflict which was at the root of the whole fractricidal war became a mere pretext. Protestant generals served in the Imperial army, the Protestant Elector of Brandenburg stood against his Swedish brother-in-law with the Catholic Emperor, while Richeliue took the Protestant Bernard of Weimar into his pay, consolidating the French position in Alsace with his help. An Imperial cavalry general, Jan de Werth, invaded France and threatened Paris – the fourth German invasion on a considerable scale, the first being that of the Franks in the fifth century, the second that of Otto II in 978, the third that of Charles V in 1544. But while the Dutch were building up their colonial empire and their international trade, while the English were beginning to found settlements in America and elsewhere, Germany lay powerless as her tribes, sects, rulers and groups tore at one another with bestial fury.

A soldiery grown brutish through years of privation, danger and licence, fighting not for any ideals or ideas but for whoever offered the best chance of loot, devoured like locusts such meagre products as industry and agriculture still yielded under war conditions. The civil population was left to starve or to die from plagues that began to ravage the country. Parents killed and ate their own children, man-hunters went in pursuit of human flesh for food. In order to extort what little gold, silver or other valuables still remained, the mercenaries on both sides – Swedish as well as Imperial- invented and applied the most terrible tortures: cutting off the soles of the feet and rubbing salt into the wounds, forcing liquid manure into people’s mouths, breaking limbs, cutting long strips of skin from men’s backs, and hacking off women’s breasts. Murder, rape, arson were everyday occurences, and what was left at the end of the great slaughter, after the 1648 Peace of Munster and Osnabruck had been brought about by sheer exhaustion, was hardly more than one-third of the population of 1618. those who survived were reduced to the standard of primitive savages in large parts of the country; flourishing cities and villages had been wiped off the map, and the works of civilisation had become unknown in wide areas. Debased by intermixture with the military rabble of all countries, having striven through long years for nothing but the preservation of their skins, townsfolk and peasants alike had become illiterate, stupid and brutal; the seats of learning and the once famous art-schools were deserted, the churches devastated and plundered, while religious intolerance and oppression were by no means diminished. Astonishingly enough however, the birth of the German theatre and the introduction of Italian opers into Germany were both due to the Thirty Years War.

Another innovation produced by what war was the standing army. The increasing unreliability of the mercenaries troops, which changed sides as soon as they got a better offer, induced Frederick William of Brandenburg, the ‘Great Elector,’ to dismiss all the forces that had been bound by oath to the Emperor and establish a small but faithful permanent army of his own. He thereby confirmed his independence and his absolute power and laid the foundation of Prussian predominance in Germany. His task was facilitated by the extreme weakness of most of his rivals, all of whom were licking the wounds that the great disaster had inflicted upon them. It was more than two hundred years before the figures of 1618 as regards the number of homesteads, heads of cattle, and yields of crops, were reached again. Only the Austrian crown-lands and the County of Hesse, where an active female ruler had managed to prevent the worst, fared somewhat better, while the Alps, especially Switzerland, had proved a comparatively safe asylum: Swiss independence as well as that of the Dutch Republic was finally acknowledged by the Peace Treaty.

That treaty marked the end of real Imperial authority and gave birth not only to the Brandenburg-Hohenzollern power but at the same time to a specifically Habsburg dominion, the future Austrian Empire, thus paving the way for a long-drawn rivalry between the two most powerful dynasties of Germany which was to end in another fractricidal war. It cost the Empire, too, a valuable piece of territory, Alsace, thereby bringing France to the shores of the Rhine; although Strassburg, the principal city of Alsace, was preserved for Germany as a Free City until, thirty-three years later, it was seized by Louis XIV in the midst of peace. The Holy Roman Empire – ‘neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire,’ as Voltaire later said of it – was on a sick-bed from which it never recovered, and a German Nation, a patriotic consciousness reaching further than the borders of the hundred-odd minor states with their parochial outlook, was not yet born.