The Thirty Years War inundated the German lands with the greatest wave of mortality to engulf them between the bubonic plague (“Black Death”) of the fourteenth century and World War II in the twentieth century. It left wide swaths of the Holy Roman Empire, town and village alike, in smoking ruins. Battle, famine, and plague killed millions, and uprooted and dispersed millions more. As we saw, the Empire’s population in 1648 was about 25 percent lower than in 1618. And while the worst seventeenth-century losses were surmounted between the 1720s and the 1760s, mid eighteenth-century war mowed down new victims. Multi-year harvest crises, accompanied by soaring mortality, occurred, with regional variations, in the early 1690s, around 1710, in the late 1730s, and again in the early 1770s. The subsequent years, down to 1815, witnessed brisk population growth, nourished by the spread of the hitherto little relished potato – a seventeenth-century gift of South America – as a staple garden crop and household food.
Recovery from war and famine – the one usually sporadic and localized, the other infrequent – usually gained momentum from falling marriage ages, reflecting opportunities for household formation opened to surviving youth by elders’ death. Familiar economic structures – farmsteads, artisan workshops, townhouses – were easily rebuilt, the technologies sustaining them, refined over the centuries, easily reinstated. The accustomed routines of agriculture, including restoring the livestock it required, depended mainly – apart from tool-making wood, harness leather, and blacksmith’s iron – on human labor and time.
Early modern European international trade benefited Germany mostly through the commerce of Hamburg and other German port cities, largely spared by the Thirty Years War’s ravages. Cottage-industrial networks supplied cheap flax-spun linens for export, including to overseas slave colonies. The Junker estates of the north and east sent grain and forest products abroad, while from southern Germany and Habsburg-ruled Bohemia various manufactures travelled to eastern and Danubian Europe. But most of Germany’s agricultural and industrial production circulated within the Empire’s large, if toll-burdened, domestic market.
The absolutist state, apart from the war-related manufactures it subsidized and protected, followed an import-substitution policy, seeking especially to raise up domestic luxury industries. Their products, it was hoped, would satisfy the propertied classes’ hearty appetite for prestigious foreign manufactures of fine textiles, furniture, glassware, and decorative artworks, especially from Latin lands and the Low Countries. Frederick the Great’s government strained to enable Prussian manufacturers to match Florence’s silk and nearby Dresden’s porcelain. It hectored the Prussian nobility (and wealthy Berlin Jews) to content themselves with these sometimes second-best goods, while acrid local tobacco was mandated in place of the expensive, bullion-draining imported original. Unsurprisingly, smuggling flourished across Germany’s myriad borders.
Efficiency gains occurred through the spread of merchant-organized cottage-industrial production and the rise of pre-industrial factories or “manufactories,” which emerged especially in textiles, as in the silkworks of Krefeld. They concentrated numerous workers outside the structures of the guild system (which favored an elaborate, disarticulated division of labor) in centralized workplaces, though without the benefit of the steam-driven machinery that distinguished the British Industrial Revolution. Throughout Europe, water power had long energized technologically sophisticated industrial processes in grain, lumber, and other kinds of milling.