Things were not so bad as 70+ years ago when C.V. Wedgwood wrote her book on the Thirty Years War because of a almost complete dearth of English accounts.2 It was and remained the the only even remotely comprehensive account in English for quite some time. In fact the book under review may be in fact the account that supersedes it at last. There are are of course other accounts but they are in comparison brief, sketchy and tend to provide great detail on some aspects of the war but none or barely any at all on other aspects.
This account is first of all fairly long with c. 850 pages of text it provides much more detailed coverage of the war especially military events of the last phases of the war than Wedgwood's account. In fact the general tendency is for accounts in most languages to neglect the last 13 years of the war, after France openly declared war on the Habsburgs.
The book has a fairly long section, (265 pages) devoted to giving the background to the conflict, which the author feels was rooted in not just the confessional struggle between Catholics and Protestants, but disputes within the Habsburg family and the debate over the actual powers and prerogatives of the Empire \ Emperors.
The Habsburgs were not simply lords of the lands they controlled they were also Emperors of what was called the Holy Roman Empire. Usually dismissed by modern historians as a collection of independent principalities under the nominal rule of the Habsburg Emperors. The author here of the book under review makes the case that it did have some institutions (like the Reichstag) a system of courts, etc., that functioned with a fair degree of efficiency.
The most telling indication of that efficiency on some level was the peace that existed in much of the Empire. War was basically confined to the peripheries of the empire. This peace had lasted since c. 1552 C.E. The conflict had arisen from the confessional dispute between Catholics and Protestants. Despite the virulent nature of this dispute the compromises worked out then had proven to be successful and the great majority of the Empire had enjoyed 2 generations of peace.
When the crackup happened the results were terrible. Blindly the protagonists blundered into a hellish conflict that that they all seemed incapable of ending.
The Empire in 1618 was not just German it had French, Danish, Czech, Italian speakers also. When the empire plunged into its long night of war it dragged the surrounding countries into it has they sought to take advantage of the internal problems of the Empire. What they generally got was being enmeshed in a costly horrible struggle they could not easily get out of.
The war had a long list of colourful characters such as, Archduchess Isabella of Belgium, Maximilian of Bavaria, Oxenstierna and Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, General Wallenstein, Emperors Ferdinand II and III, Cardinal Richelieu, Count Olivares of Spain. They all got tangled in this interminable war.
In some respects this book as a revisionistic cast. For example it does not engage in the usual writhing about the genius of the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus, or the usual gasping, awestruck hero worship of the 'Lion of the North'.3 For example going against over a century of conventional opinion the author does not characterize the battle of Lutzen, 1632, during which Gustavus got himself killed, as a great Swedish victory; but correctly describes it has a draw.4 The simple fact is that Gustavus' wars and foreign policy got Sweden involved in several costly wasteful wars that Sweden could ill afford and were well beyond her strength; all in pursuit of grandiose, unrealistic religious and political goals. Only Sweden's ability to plunder Germany for men and money combined with massive French assistance enabled Sweden to carry on at all. Sweden as a great power was an illusion built on bluff and the weakness of her neighbours. Gustavus saddled Sweden with this status that cost Sweden much until the illusion was finally burst at Poltava in 1709.
Within a few years of Sweden entering the war more than two thirds of the soldiers, and usually more than three quarters were non Swedes \ Finns. In fact most were Germans, including the officers. Most of cost of paying for the war was borne by exploiting and pillaging Germany. Even so Sweden was impoverished and suffered heavy losses during the war.5
Aside from the above mentioned fairly detailed descriptions of the last c. 13 years (1635-1648) of the war which are usually covered briefly this book provides fairly detailed coverage of the policies and plans of perhaps the most important personality of the war and probably its most important figure; the french politician, statesman Cardinal Richelieu. Generally known today through bad film adaptions of Alexandre Dumas Musketeers tales as a cardboard villain he was in fact a stunningly capable, cold-blooded practitioner of realistic policy.
It was mainly through Cardinal Richelieu that the forces keeping the anti-Habsburg coalition kept going. In most respects almost from the beginning the struggle was between Bourbon and Habsburg for hegemony in Europe. Cardinal Richelieu was terrified at the prospect of the establishment of effective Habsburg rule over the Empire which would lead in his estimation to Habsburg hegemony in Europe.
In this respect when in 1635 open war between Bourbon and Habsburg finally started, only then did the real point of dispute of the war come into the open. It is of interest that only the at first covert and then open intervention of Catholic France prevent the Protestant powers from defeat. But then Cardinal Richelieu was never one to allow religion to interfere with what he perceived to be the true interests of France.
The confessional aspects of the struggle were in many respects mere window dressing; although useful for propaganda. Although the war ended with significant Protestant retreat in much of central Europe; it also froze the confessional divide and lead to the re-establishment of of toleration in much of the Empire with the exception of most of the Habsburg hereditary lands were Catholicism was imposed by force.
It is of interest that by 1635 the Habsburgs had largely given up their efforts to impose a one sided confessional and constitutional solution on the Empire. That was the year of the Peace of Prague. It was the interference of foreign powers France, Sweden and Spain that prolonged the war for another 13 years. In the end the peace finally agreed to (Wesphalia 1648) was not much different from Prague although France and Sweden got more and the Emperor less.6
In fact one of the myths that this book dispels is the story that the Empire was made impotent and the Emperors weak. In fact this is a exaggeration and the Habsburgs quickly regained a great deal of influence very quickly.7 In fact the idea that the Habsburgs experienced a comprehensive defeat is a myth. The Habsburgs lost but they were not crushed and the peace was in many respects a compromise by enemies who were mutually exhausted.
In the section describing the aftermath, Wilson rightly questions the myth of the all destructive fury of the war. The nonsense about two thirds dying etc. He points out how some areas were devastated repeatedly and other areas escaped u nharmed. How one area might be ravaged and then escape any more devastation and so forth. Still the picture is sombre after all it appears that over all the population of the Empire fell by 15-20%. Some areas suffered much worst like Bohemia and Moravia. That is a frightening picture and much worst than the decline during the Second World War.8
People died not so much of direct violence, although that killed a large number, but of disease, plague and hunger. The devastation, anarchy produced by the fighting, the breakdown of order produced mass death.9 In fact in some places peasant guerrillas emerged that attacked the soldiers of both sides in a desperate effort to achieve some security.10
The negotiations in Westphalia took years and the paroxysms throughout the Empire of joy that greeted the signing of the peace in 1648 are some of the most extraordinary events in European history. Even more remarkable was the rapid economic \ demographic recovery after the war and a long period of peace in most of the Empire.11The war left an indelible cultural memory of horror in Central Europe which as inspired works of art to this day.12 Only in the first half of the 20th century did horrors on the scale of the Thirty Years War return to Europe.
For a glimpse into a war all too few English speaking people know about I heartily recommend this book.
1. Wilson, Peter H., The Thirty Years War, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MASS., 2009.
2. Wedgwood, C. V., The Thirty Years War, NYRB Classics, New York, 2005, (original pub. 1938).
3. Wilson, pp. 459-511.
4. IBID, pp. 510-511.
5. IBID, pp. 791, gives c. 110,000 Swedish \ Finnish dead during the war. For a country of c. 1.2 million this is quite terrible. Wilson, same page, gives a figure of at least 400,000 for Germans and others who died in Swedish service.
6. IBID, pp. 758-773.
7. IBID, pp. 773-776.
8. IBID, pp. 786-795. Bohemia's population declined from 1,400,000 to 1,000,000, a decline of 29%, Moravia's population declined from 650,000 to 450,000, a decline of 31%. From Wilson, p. 788.
10. IBID, pp. 532-534.
11. IBID. pp, 805-806.
12. For Example Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children.