The German language, Cardinal Richelieu and the Thirty Years War

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Germany is one of the largest nations in Europe, both in size of territory and population. From the North Sea on its northern border to the Alps mountain range on its southern frontier, Germany is a diverse land that sits at the center of Europe. German is the native language of more than 80 million people in Germany as well as millions more in Austria and Switzerland.

For centuries, Germany stood at the center of knowledge and learning in science, literature mathematics and philosophy. A question that arises then is why did German not become the international language that English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese all did? While there are groups of German speakers in many parts of the world, and German is the most widely spoken mother tongue in the European Union, why didn't German, with a culture so rich and accomplished not spread to other parts of the world the way other languages did?

The answer to that question lies, in part, in a war that many Americans have never heard of and a man whose name they may have heard only through Alexandre Dumas' novel, "The Three Musketeers." To find out why German did not become the international language that English, French, Spanish, or Portuguese did, we must go back to a French Catholic prelate and the Thirty Years War.

Armand Jean du Plessis, otherwise known as Cardinal Richelieu, lived from 1585-1642 and was both a Catholic clergyman and a French statesman, bearing the title of First Minister of France. He lived at a time when European power struggles and wars surrounded and threatened to consume France. Many historians consider Richelieu to be the key figure in the Thirty Years War and perhaps the entire 17th century.

The Thirty Years War began in 1618 and dragged on for three terrible decades until the combatants made an exhausted peace at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The war was fought across broad sections of Europe, but over its dreadful duration was focused in what is now Germany. While not the sole reason, a major factor in the persistence and severity of the Thirty Years War was Cardinal Richelieu. Determined to break the political power and military threat of the Germanic Holy Roman Empire to France, Cardinal Richelieu supplied money and arms to different sides of the conflict with the goal of prolonging the fighting and bleeding France's enemies of blood and treasure. His policy was politically and strategically successful. The human consequences were horrifying.

Millions of Europeans perished during the war from combat, starvation, and disease, but it was Germany that suffered the most. One-third of the German population at that time is estimated to have died by the end that ghastly struggle.

The conflict had long-term political consequences as well, including the elevation of France to European political supremacy and a destroyed German-speaking Europe that turned inward for the next two centuries. During those two centuries, German-speaking Europe produced some of humanity's most sterling achievements in music, philosophy, and science. However, Germany's introversion and lack of unity also caused it to miss out on the first main wave of concerted European overseas colonization and with it, the expansion of its language in the same manner as English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.

If you ever find yourself wondering why English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese are all national languages in the Western Hemisphere, far from their mother countries, but German is not, a large part of the answer lies with 17th-century European history, Cardinal Richelieu, and the Thirty Years War.

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