Comenius was only 26 when it started; he was an old man by its end. Europe exploded into war and for 30 long years princes and generals jockeyed for position while the common folk saw their land laid waste. Historians estimate that half of Germany’s population was lost in the fighting. War followed Comenius as he moved throughout Europe. It served as a painful backdrop to his life. In some ways the war robbed Comenius of lasting fame; but it also gave his writings an edge of urgency—education would bring understanding, and understanding, peace.

1—The war began in Bohemia, Comenius’s homeland. Bohemians, mostly Protestant, were unhappy with Emperor Ferdinand II of Austria. They had enjoyed a measure of independence under Ferdinand’s predecessors, but this emperor was cracking down. A devout Catholic, Ferdinand had closed one Protestant church and destroyed another. As a staunch enforcer of the Counter-Reformation, he was determined to make all his lands thoroughly Catholic.

The violence began May 23, 1618, with the Defenestration of Prague— Bohemian rebels stormed the royal palace and threw Ferdinand’s governors out the window (they landed in a manure pile and were not killed). The Protestant rebels elected Frederick V as their king.

But Ferdinand was a Hapsburg, part of the dynasty that had held thrones throughout Europe for nearly two centuries (mostly in Austria, Spain, and Germany, known then as the Holy Roman Empire). Ferdinand got help from his Spanish cousins and defeated the Protestants at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620. In typical Hapsburg fashion, Ferdinand was expanding his power. Not only did he reassert his control over Bohemia, but he was also named emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

2—King Christian IV of ...

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