THE THIRTY YEARS WAR (1618 – 1648)

Its Importance to Three Generations of Fillbrunns

In many ways, the destruction in Germany during The Thirty Years War was the most devastating experienced by any European country up to the 20th century. It has been conservatively estimated that four million people – 20% of the German population – died of military actions, plagues, hunger or disease directly resulting from 30 long years of war.

Three generations of Fillbrunns lived during the horrifying Thirty Years War. One son of Peter Fillbrunn (who died about 1604) was Hans Fillbrunn, mayor of Neckarhausen during the first 16 years of the war. Hans died while in office about 1634. His son, Hans Valentine, served as Imperial Postmaster for the large Neckarhausen, Mannheim and Heidelberg areas. Like its regal title, this position was considered a great honor and Hans Valentine served until his death in 1640.

Hans Jakob Fillbrunn (1610 - circa 1664), Han’s younger son (and a direct ancestor of the Filbruns in the United States), had lost his wife. He married Hans Valentine’s widow, Apollonia, soon after his brother’s death. Hans Jakob also succeeded his brother as Imperial Postmaster. He added the title of mayor of Neckarhausen to his titles three years after the end of The Thirty Years War. Just four years before the war ended Hans Jakob’s and Apollonia’s son, Alexander, was born into a land that would remain beaten and barren for the first decades of his life.

But what was The Thirty Years War? What caused it and why did it last for those thirty agonizing years? How did it affect the German population, those in Neckharhausen and the three generations of our Fillbrunn ancestors?

The causes and battles of The Thirty Years War are well documented. However, we can only conjecture about the war’s effects on those who saw their land overrun and ravished and their villages turned into battlefields time after time. Three hundred and fifty years ago the daily lives of common folk – even of mayors and postmasters - were considered of little importance or interest. Little was recorded, so we can only guess at the incredible hardships they endured.

Here is a brief overview of that Great War followed by what life in Neckharhausen may have been like.

The Big Picture – Germany and Europe at War

The Reformation (the religious revolution in the 16th century that led to the freedom of dissent with the Catholic Church’s doctrines and, eventually, to Protestantism) had been underway since before the time of Peter Fillbrunn. Martin Luther challenged Catholic power and by 1555 the ruler of each German state – originally empowered by the Holy Roman Empire – was allowed to determine the religion, Catholic or Protestant, of his own area.

As a result, 70% of the German population was Protestant by 1570. The power of the Holy Roman Empire diminished as the strength of the independent princes grew, but the rivalry and disunity of the princes also grew. To make matters worse, Protestants split into two hostile groups, Lutheran and Calvinists.

With no strong central authority (such as that formerly exerted by the Holy Roman Empire) to put down anarchy, small domestic wars broke out in many places. What began as an opportunity for greater autonomy and freedom of religion turned into major disputes over territorial, dynastic and religious issues.

Germany became a threat to itself and to the balance of power in Europe. When France and Austria joined the internal German conflict in 1618, The Thirty Years War began. It was a general European war, fought mainly in Germany, as a struggle of German Protestant princes against those loyal to the Holy Roman Empire and their dominant ruling supporters, the Hapsburgs. At times it involved such other countries as Sweden, Denmark, England, Netherlands, Bohemia, Bavaria and even Spain, Portugal and Italy. What began as a war over religion quickly moved to one of territorial rights.

The first revolt began in Prague in May 1618, where two royal officers were hurled from a window by Protestant members of the Bohemian diet. Revolt also quickly appeared in Transylvania and Bohemia where the earliest battles were waged.

Following the “Bohemian Period”, battles in the 1620s centralized in Germany’s Palatinate where Neckarhausen is located. (See “The German Roots”.) The German war expanded into an international conflict when Denmark came into the fight in the mid-1620s. Next Sweden joined the war, followed by France in 1635. The war now involved most European countries. A general desire for peace led to the “Peace of Prague”. This agreement helped reconcile Catholics and Protestants and was accepted by almost all the German princes and free states. A general peace seemed to be forthcoming, but Cardinal Richelieu of France was unwilling to accept the provision that allowed the Hapsburgs to retain power. War was resumed.

By 1635 Germany was in economic ruin but still the battles continued. Peace negotiations were begun again in 1640 but so many countries and interests were involved that battles continued into 1648 when a general settlement, the Peace of Westphalia, finally marked the end of The Thirty Years War.

The result was the end of the Holy Roman Empire as an effective ruling entity, the decline of Hapsburg power, an important step towards religious tolerance and the beginning of the modern European state system. Another unfortunate result was the tremendous decrease in German population, the devastation of German agriculture and the ruin of German commerce and industry. The political settlements of the peace were to the disadvantage of Germany. The incredible sufferings of the German people during and after the war would be remembered for centuries.

The Local Picture – The Palatinate and Neckarhausen

Of course there were long periods of non-combat during The Thirty Years War since man and horse power, arms and supplies, all were limited and hard to move. Land campaigns had to be planned to take advantage of good weather as well as the availability of ripening crops and mature cattle in invaded countries.

In Germany’s thirty years of war there were 19 campaign years during which 38 towns were besieged, taken or changed hands. Especially hard hit was the Lower Palatinate, that area of south central Germany that lay on both sides of the Rhine River between the Main and Neckar Rivers. The path of many armies often led by the Neckar River and Neckarhausen.

As the war continued, hunger, cold, battle and plagues took a heavy toll of the Palantinate population. Entire areas were depopulated by military action, diseases brought by the invading armies or refugees fleeing to safer areas. Based on baptism and burial records, the average life expectancy in Europe during this period was only 30 years! None of the Fillbrunns living in Feudenheim survived the war.

Somehow Han’s Fillbrunn’s younger son, Hans Jakob, was more fortunate in Neckarhausen. During those devastating years of war, he and Apollonia even had children, two of whom survived. They endured. It is difficult to understand how, but fascinating to speculate.

Since campaigning armies went where there were well-established villages, roads and river transportation, Neckarhausen likely saw its share of troops – both friendly and enemy. The Fillbrunns were prominent in their small part of the Palantinate, serving for generations as mayor and Imperial Postmaster. Perhaps their political connections were as important to their survival as their physical stamina.

Enemy forces were highly destructive to the economy of the area through which they marched or on which they bivouacked. Huge quantities of grain, cattle and other supplies were needed to sustain armies and their many camp followers (who were usually families of the soldiers.) Little remained after an army had passed through. The resulting general destruction was incredible.

Unlike Neckarhausen, Magdeburg, in north central Germany, suffered the greatest destruction of any city. For a truly moving – and chilling – account, see “The Destruction of Magdeburg” as told by the Burgomeister.

In many cases, villages such as Neckarhausen, had not so much been destroyed as the people had moved to larger towns or more protective places. Peasants, who generally lived in small villages and not on the land they farmed, often disappeared into Germany’s vast forests when marauding armies appeared.

Famine only occasionally had much impact because resilient peasants and town folk always hid food. Municipal governments had as a duty the maintenance of a public granary. It is highly questionable whether Neckarhausen could protect such supplies from the hungry hordes moving over nearby lands. At least peasants had access to supplemental supplies such as berries, nuts and edible roots, as well as fish and wild game.

In any case, the year after an army passed through an area like a swarm of locust was usually the most difficult for the survival of its residents. Conversely, some historians suggest that areas untouched by battles or marching armies actually prospered by providing much-needed food and supplies to armies on the move as well as to their less-fortunate neighbors.

The incredible sufferings of the German population were remembered for centuries after the war. The Palatinate never really recovered from the complicated catastrophe that was The Thirty Years War. Instead of politically leading Germany as it had in earlier years, the Palatinate became a spoil, fought over by other states and countries for centuries after the war.

Whether or not they were near the sites of battles or troubled with marching armies, we can be sure that The Thirty Years War brought the Fillbrunns and their fellow Palantinate residents their share of misery, hunger and nearly a lifetime of war. Even the peace that followed brought little lasting relief.

A century or two later, emigration to the New World would become a significant alternative for many still-struggling Germans. Among those emigrating would be Johann Peter Fillbrunn (1797-1873), the first of his family name to journey to the United States and establish American roots for the Filbruns to come.

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