Book Review: The Thirty Year’s War: Europe’s Tragedy

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

This book is a thorough volume in dealing with the Thirty Year’s War, a conflict which has always interested me but where the historiography tends to be heavily slanted towards those figures who were most notable in the first half of the conflict like Gustavus Adolphus, Tilly, Wallenstein, and Mansfield.  That is not to say that this book is perfect, because there is an underlying attitude that the author seems to have that the conservative approach of many people at the time, both leaders and commonfolk, is a bad thing.  And that general tone is something that I find quite irritating, even if the author does a good job at being honest and fair-minded when it comes to an evaluation of the complex behavior and motivations and personalities involved in the war and its context.  This is a book with very comprehensive aims that it largely succeeds at in not only looking at the war itself but also what led to war, what nations around the Holy Roman Empire were involved in the war and in related conflicts which nonetheless remained separate (including the Dutch War of Independence and an Ottoman war with Venice), and in the way the war was viewed by contemporaries and in retrospect.

This book is a hefty work at more than 850 pages of text in three parts and more than 20 chapters that comprehensively covers the Thirty Year’s War in a single, albeit weighty, volume.  The book begins with a list of illustrations, maps and battle plans, tables, notes on form, the Habsburg family tree from 1500 to 1665, a note on currencies, and a preface that all take up more than twenty pages.  After that the author spends eight chapters setting the context for the Thirty Year’s War, with chapters introducing the war (1), discussing the problem of religion in the Holy Roman Empire (2), what was going on in the house of Austria (3), the Turkish War and its consequences (4), the Spanish Peace and the Dutch Revolt (5), the struggles between Denmark, Sweden, and Poland-Lithuania over Baltic dominance (6), the Holy Roman Emperors from Rudolf to Matthias from 1582-1612 (7), and various matters occurring in and around the Holy Roman Empire just before the outbreak of war (8).  After this the author takes twelve chapters to cover the course of the conflict itself, with chapters on the Bohemian War from 1618-1620 (9), Ferdinand’s triumph from 1621-1624 (10), the struggle between Olivares and Richelieu (11), Denmark’s war against the Emperor from 1625-1629 (12), the threat of European general war from 1628-1630 (13), the invasion of Gustavus Adolphus from 1630-1632 (14), the continuance of the war without Gustavus in 1633-1634 (15), the entry of France into the war for the liberty of Germany in 1635-1636 (16), the high tide of Habsburg success from 1637-1640 (17), the resurgence of France and Sweden from 1641-1643 (18), the rising pressure to negotiate from 1644-1645 (19), and the question of war or peace from 1646-1648, when peace was made at Westphalia (20).  After that the author closes the book with three chapters that look at the aftermath of the war, including the Westphalian settlement itself (21), the human and material cost of the war (22), and the experience of the war (23), after which there are abbreviations and notes and an index.

There are several genuine achievements that this book manages to have.  For one, the author is able to convey a sense of the entire war, not biasing the coverage to the period before 1634, but also including more obscure battles and the small war as well as the logistical concerns that forced armies in certain places and directions and the complex diplomacy involved in the war and peacemaking.  The author manages to avoid exaggerated claims and provides a powerful sense of nuance and complexity to his coverage of the war, examining tactical, strategic, logistical, and diplomatic matters with considerable skill and showing a special interest in the constitutional framework of the Holy Roman Empire, no mean feat in itself.  The context that the author provides with regards to internal conflicts in Spain as well as the colonial war between the Dutch and Spain that supplemented the Dutch revolt in Europe and the role of outsiders like Poland, the Ottoman Empire, England, and Transylvania and also the role of family politics throughout the Holy Roman Empire and even the role of the Swiss and Savoyards in the war are all quite fascinating as well.  Even if the author feels it necessary to apologize for the conservatism of the place and time, which I would not feel it necessary to feel guilty about, there is a lot to appreciate about this book from a historical perspective.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, International Relations, Military History and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Book Review: The Thirty Year’s War: Europe’s Tragedy

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    This book sounds like the “go to” text when it comes to the overall history of the 30-years war. It was wrong that my classroom study of European History blithely glided over the battles that summed up this period of time. This string of battles most probably shaped the modern identities, attitudes, and thinking of Europe–and the separate nations that comprise it. When we see the present, we must dig into the past to understand why.

    • Oh yes, this book was a very long one, but it is the only book I have ever read on the Thirty Years’ War that covers the period after 1635 in depth, and that alone makes it an essential text for studying the period.

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