The Thirty Years War was a tragic, devastating series of conflicts between 1618 and 1648. Its death toll was between 5,000,000 and 8,000,000 lives in an area of central Europe (the Holy Roman Empire), which contained a population of 26,000,000. Many of the casualties were not among natives to the Empire. All major European countries became involved for their own gain, and contributed soldiers to the war. The outpouring of violence and greed was only compounded by hypocrisy among the combative parties: Protestants and Catholics both claimed to have been advancing their interpretation of a myth about a non-violent Jesus. The effects of human suffering, opportunistic religious hypocrisy and material destruction, created catastrophic harm which stunted progress in Western Civilization on several fronts.
This period and subject present the problem of an unwieldy mass of information. One must consider the motivations and actions of political, cultural, religious and military entities across Europe. In addition, the personalities and goals of key monarchs, aristocrats and generals, must be taken into account. Finally, all of these factors are not just contained within a daunting 30 year period, involving three generations of continent-wide players. They also involve influences that began with the Reformation of the 14th Century, and contain ramifications for centuries following the conflict. As a result of this scope, it is possible to have as many interpretations as there are historians, each selecting a focus that contributes to, (or confuses), a vast puzzle.
Peter H. Wilson is a diligent, intelligent historian who has funneled a vast swath of information into a 900 page book. He divided his book into three parts. The first part explains the war’s origins, and conditions affecting the Holy Roman Empire, from the 15th Century up until 1618. Part Two is a chronological study of the war period (1618 – 1648). The third part “examines the war’s political, economic, social and cultural impact and longer-term significance.” (Wilson, p. xxii).
This historian presents a traditional focus, in that he studies the political leaders: monarchs, generals, political ministers and territorial princes. Given the breadth and depth of this conflict, it is important to narrow one’s view, unless one is planning to make a life’s work of this topic, producing a couple dozen volumes. In contrast with Wilson’s perspective on leadership, a historian of Howard Zinn’s persuasion would examine the history of the Empire’s common citizens. A historian of Barbara Tuchman’s persuasion would include more cultural elements, some iconoclastic individuals and sub-cultures of obscure variety. The difference between Wilson, versus Tuchman or Zinn, is that the latter two were always careful to point-out that their view did not encompass the entirety of the subject. Wilson is not so careful.
For example, a major contention of this author’s is that the Thirty Years War “was not primarily a religious war.” (Wilson, p. 9). Repeatedly, Wilson illustrates that leaders, used the conflict to gain power, land, wealth, titles and advantage over others. Often a Catholic or Protestant leader would use a religious rationalization as propaganda for their aggression. But the historian presents cogent reasons concerning why these declarations of faith were a smokescreen for the leader’s greed. It is a fine catalog of individuals’ motivations that have nothing to do with their branch of Christianity. And so Wilson comes to the universal conclusion that the war was not primarily religious. Of course, a mature reader understands that the power players of any period care mainly about power. Even today, we see that Saddam Hussein’s former Ba’athist generals who are now leading ISIS care little about Jihad, but will use fundamentalist justifications for their actions. However, while the desires of political leaders were a major factor in the conflict, they were not the only factor. A historian whose project centered on the influences of clergy and sects of each branch of Christianity might reach a different conclusion about the role religion played. A researcher studying local populations of one or another faith, who observed civilians massacring communities of an opposing confession, prosecuting “witches,” talking about the war as a divine punishment, might also conclude that religion was more important. A scholar whose examination began with the Reformation might see the Thirty Years War as a logical conclusion to that event, thereby making religion central. A conflict this prolonged, this complex and this multi-cultural, defies universal statements created from the examination of one element.
The last chapter, “Experiencing War,” is a complete departure from the rest of the book. Up until that point, the focus was on the leaders. The last section is a grab bag of issues not covered in the narrative of the first two sections. It includes personal testimonies of commoners, the impact of print media, military-civil relations, and a number of other matters having less to do with leadership. Its presence is incongruous. It appears as if the author was conscious of omissions made necessary to maintain focus upon the chronology of leaders’ motives and actions. A more appropriate final chapter would have articulated patterns, or narrower conclusions, about the individuals in power.
The Thirty Years War. Europe’s Tragedy is a useful, highly informative illustration of motives and actions by those in power during the conflict. If it is a reader’s goal to examine this puzzle piece of the war, Wilson’s book is a fine choice. Of course this leaves a lot of research on the shoulders of a bookworm who aspires to a more whole or general understanding of this period. But we are, after all, non-fiction readers. It is one of our pleasures, compulsions and goals, to accumulate knowledge. This is just another opportunity.
Wilson, Peter H. The Thirty Years War. Europe’s Tragedy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009.