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When the (in terms of religion) liberal Emperor Maximilian II. died in the year 1576, his country was predominantly Lutheran. After his death the Counter-Reformation started, which is strongly connected with Melchior Klesl. He was the son of a Lutheran master baker from Vienna, who had turned Catholic while visiting a Jesuit school. Later he persecuted Protestants in Austria himself. A major step which would shape the policy of Recatholisation for the next 50 years was made at the Munich Conference in October 1579. There, delegates of Inner Austria, Bavaria, Tyrol and Salzburg silently met to discuss how to fight back Protestantism.

Now, Melchior Klesl (who was proclaimed Bishop in Vienna in 1602 and shortly later was even became Cardinal) began the persecution of Austria´s Protestants. He organised the removal of Lutheran priests, ordered Protestant books to be burned and closed their churches. In 1584 he put a Catholic priest back into office at the city of Krems (Lower Austria), in 1586 Jesuits arrived in town and when the citizens stood up against them in 1588, he successfully sent troops and punished the city. Already then, many Protestants left the country - the first Exulanten/Exiles.  In Lower Austria´s Waldviertel a man called Ulrich Hackl earned himself bad reputation, too. Similar to Melchior Klesl he also had his roots in a Protestant family in Vienna, but had converted to Catholicism again. During his time as abbot of the cloister at Zwettl between 1586 and 1607, he was one of the most successful supporters of the Counter-Reformation.

It was a turbulent time then. Besides the inner-christian conflicts there was further unrest among the people. Mainly the rural population - and this was the majority of the Austrians - did not have enough to live on. That is why they were openly in favour of what Luther had prayed. As a fact, it was simply the common peoples´poverty and the social injustice that were the grounds on which Protestantism grew.

The burning of Protestant books.


The Jesuits were the order with which the Catholic authorities - not only in Austria - tried to fiercely fight Protestantism. With clear targets and utterly devoted to the Pope they became a symbol of a relentless battle against Luther´s supporters. They were founded by the Spaniard Ignacio of Loyola, who much influenced his organisation. Loyola was an army officer first, but after a war injury his military career could not be continued. Mystical experinces in the following period of life convinced him to devote his life to the Lord. Since 1528 he studied in Paris, France, where he made his M.A.. In Paris he also gathered friends around him and on 15. August 1534 (Maria´s arrival in heaven) they took a vow on Montmatre. However the planned pilgrimage to Jerusalem did not materialise. At year enbd 1537 instead, the group went to Rome and offered to Pope Paul III.´s to be at his disposal. The Pope granted the Jesuits their secret status, which lasted until 1762.  Ignacio was elected to be their leader and led the order from Rome until his death in 1556.

Furthermore the foundation of the order was part and expression of a Catholic movement for renewal, exepecting an internal reformation of the church and a closer relationship to Jesus Christ. The members of the Jesuits were demanded to follow the doctrine of the bible aswell as the roman-catholic church  strictly. Due to the fact that the Jesuits extremely followed the Pope and were well organised, the order grew rapidly and started to become active in many countries.

The Jesuits´ main working area were schools and universities, naturally also in Austria. Already in 1570 Archduke Charles, brother of Emperor Maximilians II., had called them into the country. As mentioned before, the most fanatical persecutors of the Lutherans had themselves been Protestants in the past. Influenced by the Jesuits, they had become Catholics again. An already stated example was Melchior Klesl, son of a Protestant master baker from Vienna. Another infamous ex-Protestant was Adam Graf Herberstorff, the initiator of the “Hausham blood trial” in Upper Austria. In this trial he ordered the murder of 16 Protestant men without handing them over to a proper court. Herberstorff himself once had to emmigrate from Styria due to his Lutheran belief but had found back to Catholicism - thanks to the Jesuits.

The Jesuits were also very successful in celebrating Catholic ceremonies and supported Catholic splendor. The ceremonies were financially well equipped (what the Protestanst regarded as unbiblical) and they supported baroque architecture and baroque theatre. Jesuit priests were father confessors and pastors of kings and princes. That is why they gained certain political influence and hence often spread fear among the local population. Therefore the order of the Jesuits was regularly and openly accused of conspiracy.

The Jesuit as devil: Protestant soldier stabs a Jesuit to death who had creeped up on a Protestant maid in disguise (a 17. century engraving).


In 1619 the loyal Catholic Ferdinand II. (emperor until 1637) took over the reign. After he came into office, he set up reformation commissions which - guarded by soldiers - travelled through the country. They closed and destroyed Protestant churches, burned Lutheran books and banished the evangelic priests. Protestants county councils and judges were replaced by Catholics. Sometimes even Protestant cemetaries were vandalised.

Now everybody knew that the new sovereign would concentrate on the Re-Catholisation of his countries. During the 30 years war, another mandate of  Ferdinand II, was published. This was in no way the last mandate of this kind but one with the strongtst impact. It declared that all Protestant teachers and pastors in Lower Austria had to leave until 28.11.1627. Shortly afterwards, Ferdinand II. gave out another general mandate which determined that within 6 weeks all vacant postions had to be replaced by a Catholic priest. This seemingly was the end of Protestant life in Lower Austria. Furthermore, the Protestant nobility could no longer have influence on their subjects´ belief. Now only the Emperor had the right to decide on his people´s religion.

One could now imagine that the expulsion of all Lutheran pastors and teachers led to a standstill of Protestant life in Lower Austria. But none of this happened: Thanks to the local families´religious life at home, the parishes continued to secretly exist. Only for funerals and weddings one had to go Catholic ceremonies. This is the reason why so many emigrants had conserved their religion even after having been robbed of their priests and teachers for 30 or 40 years. When they exiled to Franconia, they were naturally regarded as Protestants who could immediately take part in the religious life upon arrival. When the Catholic priests replaced the Proestant pastors, the local population carefully watched their behaviour. Quite frequently disputes between the new priest and the Lutheran came up. Nevertheless one should not forget that peaceful transitions from Protestant priests to Catholics were not worth reporting. It is nevertheless no surprise that between 1630 and 1654 Catholic priests often complained about their parishes and that the people still refused to take part in Catholic ceremonies and would just not return back to Catholicism.

In 1648 the 30 year´s war was finally terminated and the “Peace Treaty of Westphalia” put Europe into new structures. Central Europe was destroyed to a great amount. Around 17 million people had lived there when the 30 years war started in 1618. When the war came to an end in 1648, only 8 million had survived.

As far as Austria was concerned, the peace did not bring the desired religious freedom. On the contrary: The Re-Catholisation that had slowed down during the war was now reinforced again.

Do not be bound together with unbelievers ...
Therefore come out from their midst and be seperate ... says the Lord
(2. Corinthian 6, Verse 14 and 17)

Without pastors and under extreme religious conditions, it became obvious that those wanting to keep their belief were sooner or later forced to emigrate. Lower Austria had already become home for quite a few people who had made the decision to exile before. They had left their homes in Styria or Upper Austria after the general mandate of 1627 and had  left for Lower Austria where Lutheran life was still tolerated. They had hoped to bide their time in the Wooded Quarter until things had calmed down a bit at home. A proof that quite a few people had done so can be seen from a reformation patent of 23. August 1638, where the ruler forbade the further immigration of Protestants from Upper Austria. Now these unhappy people where forced to leave their homes again and to move on as “Exulanten/Exiles”..

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