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The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy by Peter H. Wilson

Posted By Ed Voves On December 16, 2009 @ 10:52 am In History,Military,Non-Fiction Reviews | No Comments

The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy
by Peter H. Wilson
Belknap-Harvard University Press, 997 pp.
CLR Rating:

War Without End, Amen

Warfare is a poisoned chalice from which humanity has drunk deeply and repeatedly, generation after generation, since ancient times. Seldom, however, has this self-destructive ritual been performed with so little purpose, for so small a degree of potential political gain and at such an appalling cost in lives and suffering as occurred during the Thirty Years War, 1618 – 1648.

The Thirty Years War is the subject of a monumental new book by British scholar, Peter Wilson. The focus and dimensions of this impressive, at times exhausting, study is underscored by its subtitle, “Europe’s Tragedy.”

What began as a squabble over church property in the city of Prague between agents of the Catholic Habsburg emperor and radical Protestant agitators spread like the plague across the continent of Europe, incorporating related conflicts like the struggle between Spain and the Dutch Republic over Flanders in present-day Belgium. Opportunistic belligerents like France and Sweden entered the fray, eager to make political gains at the expense of the Habsburg domains. Thousands of volunteers and mercenaries from Great Britain, Hungary and Cossacks from the steppes of Russia joined the rival armies. The political and economic effects were felt as far away as the Spanish silver mines in Mexico and Peru. Thousands of conscripted Indians and African slaves labored and died to extract the precious metal needed to purchase the muskets and cannon, swords and pikes that were being used with such reckless abandon in civilized Europe.

In some respects, the Thirty Years War resembles the Great War of 1914-1918. Political friction in Central Europe sparked a rush to arms that dragged in nations and peoples whose best interests lay in peace not war. With the focus of Europe’s economic activity shifting toward the Atlantic Ocean and the East Indian trade zones, the small states of Central Europe needed to integrate their economies to stay competitive. The last thing that petty states like Bohemia, Saxony, Bavaria and the Rhineland needed to do was throw away lives and treasure in futile warfare. But fight they did – for thirty years.

Wilson, whose grasp of 17th century politics and diplomacy is most impressive, makes two significant contributions toward understanding the origin of the Thirty Years War. First, the Holy Roman Empire, which unified the German and Slavic states of Central Europe under Habsburg rule, was a much more effective political force than is generally realized. Differing in organization from a modern nation state, the Empire was an elective monarchy which kept order and cohesion among the component dukedoms, electorates and free city-states.

The Holy Roman Empire also maintained religious peace among its Protestant and Catholic subjects, again with a surprising degree of success. Although sectarian extremists were at work in the first decades of the 17th century, most of the Empire’s Protestant and Catholic subjects lived in harmony, often side-by-side in small towns and governing councils. Contradicting the long historical tradition that has characterized the Thirty Years War as Europe’s “last religious war,” Wilson charts a different course to Armageddon. Political motives, veiled with Baroque-era religiosity, and a meltdown of the Empire’s intricate, though effective, system of laws and procedures, ignited three decades of slaughter.

The rot started at the top as the long, bizarre reign of Emperor Rudolf II (1576-1612) drew to its close. Living in regal isolation in his palace in Prague, Rudolf dabbled in alchemy and astrology. In 1593, the increasingly unstable monarch went to war against the Ottoman Turks to drive them from Hungary. The Protestant states loyally supplied men and money for the Turkish campaign, which ended badly. Other members of the House of Habsburg became alarmed at the growing influence of Protestant nobles and officials, which boded ill for the continued election of their Catholic dynasty to the imperial throne. In 1612, Rudolf’s brother Matthias launched a coup against Rudolf and reasserted a more authoritarian rule. Matthias and his cousin and designated successor, Ferdinand, began a concerted campaign to exclude Protestants from government posts and regain church property lost to Protestant control.

The Protestant states, especially those dominated by Calvinist evangelicals, as opposed to the more moderate Lutherans of Saxony, ranged themselves against the Habsburg court. After years of escalating tension, Protestant rebels in Bohemia tossed three Imperial officials out of the window of Hradschin Castle in Prague in 1618. This act of defiance was actually a moment of comic absurdity. Instead of falling to their deaths, the hapless trio landed in a ditch full of horse manure, the castle’s parade ground having been tidied up the day before. A chase scene ensued, with the three bespattered bureaucrats escaping to inform their Habsburg masters that Bohemia had risen in revolt.

The Protestant rebels made a fatal mistake by offering the crown of Bohemia to the Elector Frederick, ruler of the Palatinate, a small, but strategically located, state on the Rhine. Frederick, a Romantic before his time, was married to Elizabeth Stuart, the vivacious daughter of King James I of England and Scotland. Believing that his father-in-law would support him, Frederick accepted the Bohemian crown.

At this point, in 1619, the farce ended and the tragedy began. Matthias died, leaving Ferdinand in control of a bankrupt empire on the brink of dissolution. Ferdinand was made of sterner stuff than his predecessors. He appealed for support to the diehard Catholic leader of Bavaria, Duke Maximilian, and to his Spanish Habsburg relatives for money, munitions and men. Ferdinand’s forces routed the Protestant army outside Prague, sending Frederick and his queen into a life of exile. The war might well have ended there, but in fact the carnage had just started.

By the time the fighting ended in stalemate in 1648, the fatalities in the domains of the Holy Roman Empire alone numbered 5 million, or 20 percent of the Empire’s prewar population. This is a low estimate and does not included the tens of thousands of deaths in the related war between the Spanish and the Dutch in Flanders or the casualties suffered by the Danish, Swedish and French armies or the “volunteer” forces from England and Scotland or the mercenaries who came from all points of the compass to throw away their lives for wages that were seldom paid. The final death count may well have reached 8 million. Whatever the exact figure, the Thirty Years War, based on the population numbers involved, was the most destructive war in European history.

Most of the fatalities of the war were produced by disease and starvation caused by the general breakdown of civil society. With little in the way of funds to meet their troops’ payroll, the rival armies made war pay by looting and extortion. These marauding campaigns were practiced on a vast scale, leaving empty bellies and ravaged cities and farms everywhere in the wake of the rapacious, ill-disciplined armies. The course of the military campaigns, ably described in Wilson’s narrative, need not be summarized here, except to say that bloodbaths like the horrible sack of Magdeburg or the corpse-strewn Battle of Lutzen lingered in the folk memory of Europe until the “total wars” of the Twentieth Century supplied new, up-to-date versions of human self-destruction.

If the true cause of the war was political factionalism rather than religious extremism, why could a negotiated settlement not have been brokered to restore order? Repeated efforts to do so were in fact made and often came close to succeeding. Yet each time a settlement came within reach, one of the combatants would launch a new gambit to achieve additional gains at the conference table or the battlefield.

With victory within his grasp in 1629, the Emperor Ferdinand stirred up further contention by insisting that church lands in Germany be restored to Catholic control, even in areas like Saxony that had not supported the Bohemian revolt in 1618-1619. Many of his councilors and even his ally, Phillip IV of Spain, urged a more conciliatory approach. Ferdinand rejected this sane course and the war lurched on.

Not to be outdone in bellicosity, Gustavus Adolphus, the war-loving King of Sweden, invaded Germany and attacked Ferdinand’s over-stretched forces in 1630. Gustavus was backed by financial subsidies from the crafty Cardinal Richelieu of France, who saw an opportunity to use Protestant troops to strike at the Habsburg rulers of both the Holy Roman Empire and Spain. The motives of Gustavus were no less Machiavellian. Thinly disguised as a crusade to save the “Liberties of Germany,” his campaign was actually motivated to pass the rising costs of his burgeoning military forces onto the shoulders of the German people, Protestant and Catholic alike, rather than risk unpopular taxes in Sweden. “It is better to tie the goat to the neighbor’s gate,” explained a Swedish politician, “than to one’s own.”

Wilson recounts this somber story of war without glory, brilliantly balancing first-hand accounts of the battles and court intrigue with insightful analysis of the long-term effects of the war. It should be noted, however, that Wilson was preceded in the difficult task of chronicling this senseless war by a similar book that in fact set the gold standard for 20th century historical research and writing. C.V. Wedgwood, a young English woman, published her account of the Thirty Years War in 1938, as Europe was gearing-up for the Second World War. Well aware of the deteriorating political situation, Wedgwood wrote movingly of the plight of innocent civilians and conscripted soldiers, whose lives were sacrificed to satisfy the heedless ambition of their rulers. She concluded her book, perhaps the finest single volume history ever written in English, with the timeless warning that “war only breeds war.”

It detracts nothing from the abundant quality of Wilson’s more detailed study, to reflect for a moment on Wedgwood’s earlier account. The statesmen and generals of the 1930′s ignored her warning, but it is just as timely now, as testified by even a brief survey of the vast expenditures on weapons and the dangerous flashpoints in the contemporary world.

Wilson’s book is likewise a moving testament against the futility of war. He writes in the spirit of Wedgwood, urging his readers to remember that “the voices of the seventeenth century still speak to us.”

It is time that we listened.


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