Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Thirty Years War by Peter H. Wilson

This is a very long narrative ( 850 pages) of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) in Europe, composed by a history professor at Hull University. The point is to provide a comprehensive background for the 16th and 17th century institutions, economies, ethnic and religious diversities of the people involved in the conflict, in the provision of which the various causes and consequences are examined and balanced, principally for the benefit of other historians whose narrow focus on particular events and personalities during this epoch period tend to distort their over-all perspectives and conclusions about the war. Frankly, though it would be nice to have this book in my personal library as a point of reference to dip into as the occasion arose, there is no way I could read this book from cover to cover over the course of even a few weeks and retain all the benefits of the knowledge it has to offer or could be applied in a practical way. Never-the-less, he makes several points in the introduction which are worth saving.

Historiographically ( henceforth in the author's own words), the late 18th and early 19th century Romantic interpretation of the war established three elements that still shape writing today. One is the Gothic preoccupation with death, decline and destruction, with Germany usually presented as the helpless victim of foreign aggression. Atrocity stories were culled from folk tales and contemporary fiction, notably The Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus by Grimmelshausen, which was rediscovered by the Romantic poets as the first authentic German novel and reissued in numerous 'improved' editions in the early nineteenth century.

The reappearance of these tales in historical novels and paintings, as well as school history lessons, reinforced folk memory and family tradition, not only in Germany but in other countries affected by the fighting. The Thirty Years War became a benchmark to measure all later wars. The inhabitants of eastern France interpreted each subsequent invasion in the light of the stories told about the Swedes and Croats who devastated their region in the 1630s. Soldiers fighting in the trenches along the eastern front of the First World War believed they were experiencing horrors not seen in centuries.

In his radio broadcast on 4 May 1945, Hitler's architect and armaments minister, Albert Speer, announced ' the destruction that had been inflicted on Germany can only be compared to that of the Thirty Years War. The decimation of our people through hunger and deprivation must not be allowed to reach the proportion of that epoch.' For this reason, he went on, Hitler's successor, Admiral Donitz, had given the order to lay down arms. Public opinion survey's carried out in the 1960s revealed that German's placed the Thirty Years War as their country's greatest disaster ahead of both world wars, the Holocaust and the Black Death.

The impact of TV undoubtedly shifted this perception in the later twentieth century, especially through the dissemination of photographic images of more recent carnage. Nonetheless, even in the twenty-first century, German authors could assert that 'never before and also never since, not even during the horrors of the bombing during the Second World War, was the land so devastated and the people so tortured' as between 1618 and 1648.

The second feature established by nineteenth century historiography is the air of tragic inevitability. This is already apparent in Schiller's Wallenstein, which presents its central figure as an idealistic hero seeking peace but doomed to be murdered by his closest associates; the sense of unstoppable decent into chaos that emerged in writing after the Napoleonic Wars. The long term failure of the European economy to peacefully transition from feudalism to capitalism was thought to have begun in “The General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century, exploding into violent revolts and international conflict across Europe after 1600.

Disagreements over interpretations of the events of the War in the Austrian Empire produced the third and probably the most influential element in 19th century German writing. Two competing narratives emerged, each associated with one of the possible future Germanys- the “greater” and the “Lesser” German alternatives each with clear religious associations that were transposed onto the dispute over the country's past. The assumption that the Thirty Years War has been a religious conflict seemed so self evident it was scarcely questioned.

The Thirty Years War, continues the author, was an extremely complex event. The problems of interpretation derive from attempts to simplify it by overemphasizing one facet to the detriment of others. Religion, for example, certainly provided a powerful focus of identity, but it had to compete with political, social, linguistic, gender and other distinctions. Most contemporary observers spoke of Imperial, Bavarian, Swedish, or Bohemian troops, not Catholic or Protestant, which are anachronistic labels used for convenience since the nineteenth century to simplify accounts. The war was religious only to the extent that faith guided all early modern public policy and private behavior but there is a need to distinguish between militant and moderate believers.

All believers were convinced their version of Christianity offered the only true path to salvation and the sole correct guide to justice, politics and daily life. Moderates, however, were more pragmatic, regarding the desired reunification of all Christians within a single church as a general, distant goal. Militants saw this goal within their grasp and were not only prepared to use force rather than persuasion but also felt personally summoned by God to do so. They interpreted the Bible in providential, apocalyptic terms, relating current events directly to the text. For them, the conflict was a holy war; a cosmic showdown between good and evil in which the ends justified almost any means.

During the Thirty Years War militants remained in the minority, largely experiencing the war as observers or victims of defeat and displacement. Nonetheless, then as now, militancy proves especially dangerous when combined with political power. It creates a delusional sense in those who rule of being chosen by God for a divine purpose and reward. It encourages the conviction that their norms alone are absolute, their form of government is automatically superior to all the others and their faith is the only really true religion. Such fundamentalists demonize 'the other'' as evil in the psychological equivalent of declaring war, cutting off the possibility of dialogue or compromise. They no longer feel obliged to treat opponents as human beings. Problems to which they have contributed are blamed entirely upon the enemy.

Such self-confidence is inherently dangerous to themselves as well as their enemies. The belief in divine assistance encourages fundamentalists to take risks, convinced that the mounting odds are merely part of God's plan to test their faith. They remain convinced that ultimate victory is theirs by right. This can stiffen resolve and motivate stubborn resistance, but it is poorly suited to achieving military success. Fundamentalists have no real knowledge of their opponents, whom they make no effort to understand. These beliefs certainly shaped key decisions, including the Defenestration and the elector Palatine's decision to join the Revolt. Militants' influence was at times disproportionate to their numbers, but this does not mean we should interpret the conflict through their eyes nor regard the war itself as inevitable.


  1. “The Thirty Years War; Europe's Tragedy” by Peter H. Wilson; The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2009

  2. The United States started World War III by invading Afghanistan and Iraq. Now our global reputation is ruined and it will be years before this Holy War will be over. Take a look at this: