The spark that set off the Thirty Years War came in 1618, when the Archbishop of Prague ordered a Protestant church destroyed. The Protestants rose up in revolt, but within two years the rebellion was stamped out by the Habsburg general, Count of Tilly. After Bohemia was defeated the Protestant king of Denmark invaded the empire but was defeated by the famous general Albrecht von Wallenstein. In 1630 Sweden entered the war. Gustavus Adolphus, the King of Sweden, (the Lion of the North) whose dream was to make the Baltic a 'Swedish Lake', was the champion of the Protestants. In two battles he defeated and then killed Tilly. Gustavus Adolphus was killed in his decisive victory over Wallenstein at Luetzen (1632), and Wallenstein himself was murdered by a suspicious emperor in 1634.

After 1635 the war lost its religious character and became purely political. Cardinal Richelieu, who was the real ruler of France, determined to arrest the growth of Habsburg power be interfering on the side of the Protestants. The French won a long series of victories, which gave new hope to the Protestants in Germany. But by that time Germany was devastated and its economy in ruins. The war ended in stalemate and diplomats gathered to patch up affairs in the Peace of Westpahlia (1648).

The Thirty Years War persuaded everybody that neither the Protestants nor the Catholics could be completely victorious and dreams of an empire, united under a Catholic Church had to be abandoned. The Peace of Westphalia recognized the sovereignity of the separate German princes. One German prince, the Hohenzollern Elector of Brandenburg, acquired so much territory as to become the greatest German power next to the weakened Emperor, a power that became the kingdom of Prussia in 1701. The Treaty also recognized the separation from the empire and the complete independence of Holland and Switzerland.

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