Some of the great cities, such as those of the Hanse League and Nuremberg for instance, were indeed beginning to lose a little of their pre-eminence, as the carrying trade of the world was finding new paths, and slipping into the hands of the English and the Netherlanders. But they were still the channel of communication between the east and west of Europe; and the great development of the internal trade of Germany, its mines and its manufactures, was supplying to some extent the place of what was lost. It was also calling into existence all over the country smaller towns, which were centres of vigorous and active life; while the country regions were thickly dotted with villages, and towns and villages alike had their local organization for self-government, their churches, and schools. The standard of comfort was substantially a high one, in food, in dress, and in furniture. Of course various articles of foreign production which are common now, and the lack of which we should sorely feel, were wholly unknown then; but, on the other hand, there was far more artistic effort and beauty bestowed on the houses themselves, and on their internal ornamentation and furniture, than in later times. Many of the churches were beautiful specimens of Gothic architecture, and even in country places they were generally handsome stone buildings, often possessing rich altar furniture, painted windows, and a peal of bells -- forms of decoration in which the Germans took great delight, and for which their skill was famous all over Europe. The quick-witted townspeople were accustomed greatly to despise their rural neighbours, and no doubt the difference of manners in those days of infrequent communication was far more marked than it is now; but the peasant had no reason to be ashamed of his lot. During the previous century a change had gradually taken place, which leaving certain feudal dues and rights to the lords, had in most parts of Germany practically transformed the peasant into the proprietor of his land. Agriculture was practised with great skill and care, the crops seem to have been large, the culture of wool and of the vine was carried to a greater extent even than now, and the number of animals of all kinds, but especially horses, proved by old parish records to have existed on the land, is very surprising. The houses were usually of clay, but were plentifully furnished with linen, bedding, pewter, and such wooden furniture as is now eagerly bought up by connoisseurs, while the warm and abundant clothing of the people was a common subject of remark among travellers. Mentally, too, the country was full of life; education was carefully promoted, and just before the war broke out an association was formed, called "The Fruit-bearing Society," which aimed at fulfilling towards the German literature and language the functions of the Academy Della Crusca towards the Italian, and which counted among its members men of all ranks from the highest downward, and all the best writers of the day.
Over such a country swept to and fro the pitiless ever-recurring tempest of war, for the lifetime of a whole generation; and when the great peace rejoicings took place at last in 1650,  it was a changed land which witnessed them. It is calculated by German writers who have been investigating recently the official records still left of the state of the country before and after the war, that over a considerable extent of it, four-fifths of the population and much more than four-fifths of the property were destroyed,  and taken as a whole, at least a half of both throughout Germany must have disappeared; while it is only within the last thirty or forty years that Germany at large has attained the same point, either as to population, trade, or the productiveness of the soil, at which it stood early in the seventeenth century. Two hundred years have been necessary merely to recover lost ground!
Looked at broadly the conflict was a defensive war on the part of the Protestant against the Roman Catholic religion. During its earlier years the advantage inclined on the whole to the Imperial side; then came the "Lion of the North," Gustavus Adolphus, and swept back the tide of victory, and after his death it is hard to say which party had the advantage. Had either been strong enough to win a decided success, the war might have been sooner at an end; but the opponents were nearly matched, and the Evangelical party, princes and people alike, felt that they could not yield -- for them it was a struggle of life and death. If the Imperialists had triumphed, despotism and Romanism under the Jesuits would have settled down over the whole land, as they did on the Austrian dominions.
Such a war brought with it many evils besides itself; terrible disturbances of trade and currency, which perhaps most affected the cities; bands of marauders who infested country regions where the use of locks and bolts had been almost forgotten. Evangelical territories which fell into the hands of the Imperialists had to suffer a religious persecution, which cost many their lives, and drove hundreds of thousands into exile, so that the difficulties of the fortified cities of the north were much increased by the numbers of homeless fugitives who sought shelter there. Towards the close of the war came scarcity of food, and pestilences, one of which, in 1637, was of frightful severity, such as had not been known for a hundred years. But the worst was the actual devastation of the war itself. Gustavus Adolphus succeeded in introducing a higher discipline and tone into his army, and preventing the plundering and cruelties which were practised by the troops generally, but after his death no one else had the same power. As a rule, the soldiers plundered wherever they went, not only taking what they wanted, but often wantonly destroying what they could not carry off; the churches were robbed and battered down because they afforded a refuge to the poor villagers, and the bells were stolen to make guns; if a peasant was suspected of secreting any treasure, he was cruelly tortured; girls and lads were constantly carried away by force. In many parts of Germany spots are still pointed out where the peasantry made hiding-places for themselves in the woods, while their few possessions were concealed in graveyards, even in the very coffins of the dead. The towns suffered under forced contributions and the quartering of large bodies of troops, and sometimes had to endure the utmost horrors of siege and storm. Leipsic was besieged five, and Magdeburg six times. Towards the end of the war we are told of once flourishing towns reduced to forty inhabitants, who with their own hands unroofed their houses to avoid the taxation to which dwelling-houses were still liable, and dwelt in thatched hovels in the streets; and of villages wholly depopulated, or where a scanty remnant crept back to the familiar fields and cowered in clay huts without windows, lest the firelight should serve as a beacon to attract their enemies.
When we read such a tale of disasters it seems wonderful that society should have survived, or the country recovered at all. We have to remember that after all there were intervals of rest, and some districts suffered less than others, were perhaps only once or twice visited by the armies. And certainly the immediate effect of the war on the mental activity of Germany was stimulating; it was not until the stillness of the peace had fully set in that the exhaustion which it had produced in this direction, as well as others, made itself felt. While the contest was going on, the call for exertion, the consciousness of fighting in a great cause, the enthusiasm excited all over evangelical Germany by the lofty character and splendid genius of Gustavus Adolphus, quickened men's love of their religion and their fatherland. This was especially true of the clergy at that time. Whether Romanist or Evangelical, the parish priests seem to have deserved well of their country by the way in which they stood by their flocks, comforting them in trouble, and encouraging the little community to re-organize itself and struggle on afresh after each new disaster. But the Evangelical clergy showed themselves particularly courageous in this way, for they were usually marked out for plunder and cruel ill-treatment by the Imperialist troops; yet when their churches were destroyed they assembled the people for prayer in the woods or on the hill-sides; when the school was broken up, they taught the children as long as it was possible to collect any; they obtained help for their people through the ecclesiastical organization from the more favoured regions; and they were the medium through which the higher intelligence of the country, and the sentiment of a common nationality and faith, penetrated to the mass of the people. Their influence is acknowledged to have been one of the most valuable in keeping society together, and preventing culture from dying out, even by those German writers who lament the character of pedantry and stiffness which they impressed on literature and thought. And so it came about that this period of suffering was one of literary and intellectual activity in many ways; and that once more especially a great outburst of religious song took place, in which the clergy bore the greatest share, but which was by no means confined to them. A very large proportion of the most famous hymns and hymn-writers of Germany belong to this century, and the only difficulty is to select from the number of its names.
The Order of the Palm
Many of them were also members of the Fruit-bearing Society, which from its motto and badge -- a palm-tree with the words "all for use" -- is also known as the Order of the Palm. It was founded in 1617 by Ludwig, Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen, and, though meant for serious work, had its fanciful side in its imitation of an order of chivalry. Its head was always to be a German prince; no one was to be admitted to membership except persons of some distinction, either by birth or literary achievements or both, and of unblemished character; all its members were bound to promote in every possible way the purity and refinement of the German language and the enrichment of its literature, and to cultivate whatever was essentially national in language and manners. A very large number of the noble classes, among whom a high standard of cultivation was then common, joined it, as well as the principal writers of the time; and it certainly did good service in furnishing a centre for national feeling and for common action, as well as in its own proper department.