Book review: The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy

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Review The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy

The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy is the greatest work of historian Peter H. Wilson. In more than 850 pages he tells us the story of the devastaiting Thirty Years’ War that devastated Germany, caused the decline of Habsburg Spain and the rise of France as the predominant European power and consolidated the split between Catholics and Protestants.

This is what editorials say about the book:

“Among continental Europeans, the Thirty Years War is etched in memory…A definitive account has been needed, and now Peter Wilson, one of Britain’s leading historians of Germany, has provided it. The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy is a history of prodigious erudition that manages to corral the byzantine complexity of the Thirty Years War into a coherent narrative. It also offers a bracingly novel interpretation. Historians typically portray the Thirty Years War as the last and goriest of Europe’s religious wars–a final bonfire of the zealots before the cooler age of enlightened statecraft. Mr. Wilson severely qualifies this conventional wisdom. It turns out that the quintessential war of religion was scarcely one at all…Wilson’s masterful account of the Thirty Years War is a reminder that war, and peace, are almost never the offspring of conviction alone.”- Jeffrey Collins, Wall Street Journal

“Peter Wilson’s book is a major work, the first new history of the Thirty Years’ War in a generation. It is a fascinating, brilliantly written attempt to explain a compelling series of events, which tore the heart out of Europe.” – The Times

“[It] succeeds brilliantly. It is huge both in its scene-setting and its unfolding narrative detail…It is to Wilson’s credit that he can both offer the reader a detailed account of this terrible and complicated war and step back to give due summaries. His scholarship seems to me remarkable, his prose light and lovely, his judgments fair. This is a heavyweight book, no doubt. Sometimes, though, the very best of them have to be.” – Paul Kennedy, Sunday Times

This is what buyers on Amazon say:

“This book is 851 pages long in the paperback edition. That said, it’s well-written and not at all a difficult read. If you want a complete history of the Thirty Years War in English that moves with ease and facility between detailed, blow-by-blow accounts of battles (with great battlefield maps!) and larger macro developments across Europe, this is your best option. If you are new to the Thirty Years War and/or want a shorter, even more readable account, consider CV Wedgwood’s classic narrative history The Thirty Years War. That book is about half the length of this one (and gives shorter shrift to the second half of the war).” – Nick Kapur

I purchased this book on September 15th, and it has taken me this long to digest the contents (while reading other books.) Make no mistake, the Thirty Years War was extremely complex, and reading about it will be necessarily slow to allow the reader to fully comprehend the subject. This work is extraordinary in that it starts well before 1618 to address the causes of the war, and ends well after 1648 with three chapters addressing the impact of the two treaties ending the war (Osnabrueck and Muenster, together called the Treaty of Westphalia,) the costs of the war, and the general population’s experiences and adaptations.

This is only the third general book on the war I have read in English, the other two being Wedgwood, “The Thirty Years War” and Parker, “The Thirty Years War”, although I have read a number of books in German on the subject including Schiller and Jessen. There are also books more limited in scope that I could recommend like “Wallenstein” by Golo Mann. But so far, this work seems to me to be the gold standard.

It is impossible today to depict the utter devastation visited on the German population during this war, and the author frankly doesn’t try. The book is primarily concerned with the political and military maneuvering that allowed the war to break out and continue for so long. Even in Chapter 22, “The Human and Material Cost”, the focus is on the macro level. The discussion of populations deaths in Germany have ranged from fifteen to eighty-three (5/6ths) percent, although the author, after much discussion, adopts twenty percent in one place and thirty in another. Certainly the populations of many towns were extirpated, and killings by soldiers of civilians and vice-versa was endemic outside of the formal battles. Regardless of the true percentage which most authorities agree was around 40%, the effect on the civilian population was unbelievable, and a country with a promising middle class was reduced to desolation and want. Only in the last chapter does the author touch upon the subject, and then only lightly. As late as 1980, Germans rated the Thirty Years War as the most devastating event in their country’s history, World Wars I and II notwithstanding. Throughout the conflict foreign armies or armies of a competing religion passed through communities and regions looting, murdering, raping, and burning at every opportunity.

I found the author’s attempt to downplay religion most interesting although it was impossible for me to agree with his analysis. Many writers have cast the war as Protestant versus Roman Catholic, and indeed, armies were generally made up almost exclusively of adherents of one religion or the other. Certainly religious issues were paramount when soldiers murdered civilians, and it must be remembered that this was an age in which people died over the number of sacrements or the reality of transubstantiation. As the author points out, princes (most notably a number of Protestant princes) converted from one religion to the other for political purposes (politicians are always venal and opportunistic), but the general population tended to fight for their religion to the last extremity. I don’t mean to argue the point with the author, but this was essentially the only point where I felt he was in error.

The maps of the various battles are useful, but my volume lacked an overall map of the area of conflict. Actually, several are needed to reflect the situation at various times (consider a single map showing World War II.) Supposedly there was to be a map of Europe in 1618 in the end papers, but it was not present — instead there was s chart of the Habsburg Family Tree. This deficiency of area maps seems to be common in works on the Thirty Years War, but perhaps the next edition will add them.

This book is split into three parts, “Beginnings,” “Conflict” and “Aftermath.” The “Beginnings” contains eight chapters of the evolution towards the war and spans 268 pages. I found this part to be the best, not the least since it is usually skated over in other works. The “Conflict” part is somewhat mind-numbing (480 pages with 12 chapters) and most recommended for those interested in the military campaigns of Ferdinand, Wallenstein, Tilly, Gustavus Adolphus and the lesser lights. This is where one can become bogged down with the constant campaigning, shifting alliances, and ever-changing conditions. The analysis in the third part, “Aftermath” (90 pages) must be read carefully to understand the impact of the war of subsequent history. All parts are valuable but may appeal to different readers.

This is a very scholarly work, and the notes (73 pages) are extremely valuable. There is no bibliography or list of references, and the reader must use the notes for guidance.

I highly recommend this work to everyone interested in early modern times or the seventeenth century in Europe. In addition, this is an awesome reference work for one to be able to refer back to some incident or issue in the Thirty Years War. This conflict did not become fully resolved until Bismarck’s consolidation of Germany late in the 19th century, so its impact was far-reaching and important.” – Arkansaw Traveler

Summary of reviews: most are positives, but there are some that signal the fact that it’s a very dense book full of details that can make the reading difficult and too scholarly. Make sure you are really interested in the topic before you buy the book, but if you are this is the best one-volume English book about the conflict!

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