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DISCUSSION A New Paradigm for Studying the Thirty Years War
Europe’s Tragedy: A History of the Thirty Years War. By Peter H. Wilson. London: Allen Lane. 2009. xxii + 997 pp. £35 (hardback).
Downloaded from http://gh.oxfordjournals.org/ at Chulalongkorn University on July 25, 2013
Peter H. Wilson’s new book on the Thirty Years War is sure to make an impact on the field commensurate with its prodigious size. Europe’s Tragedy is the first major general history of the war in English since Geoffrey Parker led a group of prominent historians in producing the now paradigmatic The Thirty Years’ War in 1984.1 Along with Tryntje Helfferich’s recent—and desperately needed—collection of translated primary-source documents, Europe’s Tragedy promises to transform the way the war is taught at Anglophone universities.2 Wilson’s publisher’s reference to ‘future editions of this book’ (p. xi) lacks the air of unfounded optimism such presumption would carry in most works of early modern history. The meta-question that frames the book is methodological: how does one write an accessible general history of a phenomenon of such immense scope and complexity, with an impossibly unwieldy multilingual primary source base and an intimidating body of specialist literature?3 How does one make the Thirty Years War comprehensible to students without raising the ire of professionals? Parker and his co-authors adopted an approach that can be characterized as compression: call together a team of experts and have each boil down his complicated subject of focus to its concise essentials, with the individual contributions melded together into an approachable—if abbreviated— whole. Wilson diverges from this path sharply, choosing instead a strategy we can describe as expansion. This argues that the war and its significance can only be understood by slowly, carefully and patiently unpacking the various layers of its causes, course and effects. Indeed, the portion of Europe’s Tragedy that deals with the background to the war runs to 266 pages, longer than the combined body chapters of Parker’s work. Wilson pays lavish attention to imperial politics and the imperial constitution in particular, stretching back well into the sixteenth century, giving this first section of the book the flavour of a general history of the early modern Empire, while also delving in less but still significant detail into the histories of Spain, France, the Netherlands, the
1 Parker wrote The Thirty Years’ War in conjunction with Simon Adams, Gerhard Benecke, Richard J. Bonney, John H. Elliot, R.J.W. Evans, Christopher R. Friedrichs, Bodo Nischan, E. Ladewig Petersen, and Michael Roberts. Routledge issued a revised 2nd edn in 1997. 2 Tryntje Helfferich (ed.), The Thirty Years War: A Documentary History (Indianapolis and Cambridge, 2009). Wilson’s own The Thirty Years War: A Sourcebook was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2010. 3 Wilson notes (p. xxi) that over 4000 titles have been written on the Peace of Westphalia alone.
© The Author 2011. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the German History Society. All rights reserved. doi:10.1093/gerhis/ghq150
conflict (Part 2) and consequences (Part 3). namely that the Thirty Years War. regarding the war in the Empire as a distinct entity rather than a branch of a larger European struggle—a theme taken up in the next paragraph of this review—and with Heinz Schilling on larger interpretative issues of early modern history and the relationship of the war to processes of modernization. His broad and deep familiarity with the literature is in fact one of the work’s greatest assets. The book is equipped with maps. Wilson’s mastery of national historiographies in languages other than German is not quite up to the same level of comprehensiveness.oxfordjournals. should lack a bibliography. however. arguing convincingly that the tortured path to peace. xxi). Wilson. A strength of Parker’s approach is that his team of experts could draw upon their own original research in dealing with their comparatively discrete subjects. although it came to involve most of the European powers to various extents. on the other hand. It remains commonplace. An Empire-centric reading of the war is not original with Wilson. Europe’s Tragedy is divided into three main parts following the traditional structure of background (Part 1). is in perfect keeping with one of the book’s fundamental and most contentious claims. 1618–1648 (Basingstoke. and his ability to stay current with the most recent historiography on the war and the Empire while completing a 1000-page manuscript is most impressive. That the centre of gravity of Wilson’s reading lies in the Empire. 2013 . although the naming of his historiographical opponents is mainly carried out in the notes. The first of these is the aforementioned insistence that the Thirty Years War be understood through the lens of the Holy Roman Empire and not as part of a larger European crisis. and will serve as a starting point for others approaching the topic. and experts in the histories of these lands can find openings to raise objections to some of his characterizations. though it is lamentable that a work that engages such a mighty body of literature. Asch’s succinct The Thirty Years War: The Holy Roman Empire and Europe. Those familiar with Wilson’s previous work will not be surprised that his analysis displays theoretical awareness mixed with healthy scepticism towards the blind or excessive application of theory. 1997). and English-language readers have a useful example available in Ronald G. and that his account assigns explanatory value both to structural factors and (especially) to individual agency. is by necessity dependent on secondary sources for a larger portion of his material. to situate the origins of the war and its early stages within a specifically Imperial 4 Of particular note are Wilson’s disagreements with Parker et al. and the nature of that peace. cannot be understood without considering the events that continued to unfold after 1635. a ‘struggle over the political and religious order’ of the Empire (p. a Habsburg family tree and an extensive and useful index. tables. As the book progresses he is also careful to give equal treatment to the latter stages of the war that often receive short shrift in other works.org/ at Chulalongkorn University on July 25. Frequent chapter and section divisions within each of these parts are welcome aids as readers navigate through the complexities of the material. illustrations.Discussion 103 Balkans and the Baltic (especially Scandinavian) states. This claim. will be returned to below. Downloaded from http://gh. and its ramifications. in fact. Wilson is also unafraid to stake out clear—and sometimes polemical—positions on any of a number of scholarly debates.4 Part 1 provides a rich overview of Imperial and European developments leading up to the war and lays the foundation for the book’s big claims. was in its course and nature a Central European rather than general European event.
. 622). and in particular on the potent combination of a crisis in Habsburg leadership that began under Rudolf II and had not been completely reversed by 1618. and to the resolution they eventually found at Westphalia. Crucially.oxfordjournals. While noting the pervasiveness of matters of faith in all aspects of early modern life and freely conceding that confessional tension was one of many contributing factors to the conflict. Wilson notes the durability of imperial political culture that preserved wide measures of order even as the war ground on (p. Rather. and sometimes went to great lengths to ensure that they remained so. xiii.104 Discussion framework. Wilson argues that the overall 5 See Sutherland’s ‘The Origins of the Thirty Years War and the Structure of European Politics’. 778). 2013 . p. English Historical Review. Wilson does not reorient the discussion of the war around the imperial constitution in order to make the frequently-abused political structure of the Empire a scapegoat for its darkest hour. pp. as Sweden’s King Gustav Adolf famously declared in 1628. 107 (1992). with unresolved constitutional issues from the Peace of Augsburg (1555) that granted Lutherans legal equality but failed to give them representation in proportionate numbers in the Reichstag and other imperial institutions while leaving out Calvinists completely.5 What distinguishes Wilson’s account is his insistence that the war in the Empire—although admittedly involving foreign powers— remained a distinct entity throughout the entirety of its long course and did not. 587–625.org/ at Chulalongkorn University on July 25. Westphalia revitalized rather than emaciated the Empire (p. and argues that it was the resilience of the imperial constitution itself that allowed the Empire to survive the war and provided the framework for its eventual settlement.6 Wilson argues forcefully that the main participants in the Thirty Years War and the parallel Dutch–Spanish and Franco–Spanish wars conceived of their struggles as separate if affiliated conflicts. and the Emperor’s own influence enjoyed a rapid recovery. 6 Cited in Parker et al. Wilson concentrates here on the imperial constitution. Treating the various wars as connected but separate allows Wilson to focus more sharply than most scholars on the internal factors within the Empire that contributed not only to the outbreak of hostilities in 1618. but also to the course those hostilities followed over the next three decades. while the Spanish never viewed the war in the Empire as more than a sidelight to their main conflict with the Dutch. The war by no means signalled the demise of the Holy Roman Empire as has often been claimed. fuse together and become a single conflict with all of the other wars raging on the continent. Downloaded from http://gh. Wilson’s emphasis on constitutional issues feeds into his second main claim that the war cannot be characterized as a religious war. vibrant and functional political system that continued to hold the allegiance of the majority of its inhabitants despite confessional disagreements and the ravages of war. despite the efforts of scholars such as Nicola Sutherland to subsume the conflict from its beginnings under a longue durée struggle for European hegemony between the Habsburgs and their opponents. and as most subsequent historians have concurred. The Emperor and the Dutch in particular were careful to avoid becoming fully ensnared in each other’s struggles. Europe’s Tragedy is in fact an eloquent contribution to the growing body of scholarship that rehabilitates the early modern Empire as a robust. he argues throughout the book that imperial structures must stand at the centre of any understanding of the war precisely because they remained so vital throughout the early modern period.
economic. which includes discussions of the war’s main military figures. he claims. Montecuccoli. 566). with the greatest killers having been disease and famine rather than deliberate human action. and that those examining the war need to recognize ‘the primacy of politics over religion’ (p. effective forces as the war progressed. no matter how gruesome that may have been. and so on). and then the Swedes. and in fact that the later years of the war saw the emergence of a new generation of commanders (Turenne. rests as much on wartime propaganda and the king’s ‘firm place on later staff college curricula’ (p. whose credentials as a military innovator he challenges and whose military reputation. electoral Palatinate involvement in the Bohemian Revolt. Wilson deals with these matters in Part 3. Although it became far more difficult to raise large. Melander. The book’s final main claim explains the title’s description of the war as ‘tragedy’. spread and long duration of the conflict were all utterly avoidable. Jesuit influence on the drafting of the Edict of Restitution. providing a balanced and relatively standard account of how the impact of the war varied by region and economic sector. 622–4). Wilson’s distaste for the radicalized minority who did view the war as ‘a cosmic showdown between good and evil in which the ends justified almost any means’ (p. campaigns and battles. A more unexpected sense of tragedy. Bernhard of Weimar. The last sentence of the entire book warns ‘of the dangers of entrusting power to those who feel summoned by God to war’ (p. 851). On one level.) Wilson makes clear throughout the book his scepticism towards the claims of those following Michael Roberts’s ‘military revolution thesis’ that first the Dutch. Those interested in the operational aspects of the conflict will be pleased with his consistent provision of specific army size and casualty figures. 511) as it does on merit.org/ at Chulalongkorn University on July 25. Wilson is similarly critical of arguments for military effectiveness based in a technological determinism that ‘sees [military] change dictated by weaponry’ (p. and these religious militants on both sides of the confessional divide emerge as the real villains of the story in those periodic moments where they were able to influence policy (the Defenestration of Prague. He places far higher value instead on the ability to field sufficient numbers of disciplined. enjoyed systemic tactical superiority over their Catholic opponents through their adoption of linear tactics and other theoretical innovations. preferably veteran. labelling the war as tragic clearly refers to the staggering loss of life (Wilson places the death toll at around eight million) and the material destruction that the war brought in its wake. Wallenstein.Discussion 105 ‘confessional character’ of the war was never more than ‘superficial’ (p. those looking for a fundamentally new interpretation of the military history of the war will not find it in Europe’s Tragedy. pp. for example) usually on Downloaded from http://gh. 453) in the motivations of most of the war’s main actors. He is especially critical of the hagiography surrounding Gustav Adolf. Wrangel. 623). emerges from Wilson’s repeated insistence that the outbreak. as factors that led to success on the early modern battlefield. 10) is palpable. Mercy. Wilson’s acumen as a military historian appears in Part 2. Condé. confessional. Gustav Adolf. and on the effectiveness of command. Piccolomini) who were at least as skilful as the more celebrated figures of the earlier period (Tilly. troops. environmental. Wilson argues that the quality of command itself remained high.oxfordjournals. While each of these points has substance. an argument running directly counter to a great deal of scholarship that attributes the conflict to irresistible structural forces (social. Königsmarck. 2013 . however. as well as maps of most of the main engagements to take place in the Empire (maps of battles taking place elsewhere in Europe are conspicuously absent.
and so on. but achieved the opposite’ (p. was based on a series of unfortunate miscalculations that brought unanticipated and unwelcome consequences to nearly all involved. surprisingly little attention is given to describing the negotiations themselves (other than mentioning their existence and results) or exploring their mechanics. and claim (as the dust jacket does) that ‘[a]t its end a recognizably modern Europe had been created. with great battles giving way to marauding bands of starving soldiers spreading plague. Wilson’s own discussion fails at times to live up to the claims he himself has set out. one wonders whether a book that has gone so far to demonstrate that. Wilson’s discussion of Danish entry into the war (pp. 385–91) —which comes across as both sudden and flat—loses sight of his well-placed reprimand of scholars who ‘race ahead’ (p. the real possibility of peace between Sweden and the Emperor following the Peace of Prague in 1635 (p. 167). The expansion of the war. famine and murder’. 6) to German historians of the early nineteenth century. Similarly. Europe’s Tragedy is a work of erudition and thoughtfulness. would mitigate the very sense of tragic non-inevitability Wilson has laboured to construct. Eric Hobsbawm. Furthermore. 554). a general peace that was on the brink of realization in 1627 (p. the ‘grave error’ of the Edict of Restitution (1629) that was ‘intended to facilitate peace. but at a terrible price’? On a more substantive level. 314). 418). first out of Bohemia to other parts of the Empire. at its root. In addition. whereas Wilson himself states that armies in the later stages of the war ‘remained firmly controlled and directed’. with military ‘operations continu[ing] to support political objectives’ and with the relationship between war and diplomatic activity strengthened rather than weakened as the conflict lurched towards its conclusion (p. and compares 1618 to the European ‘powder keg’ of 1914. states that into 1618 ‘there was nothing to suggest a major war was inevitable’ (p. in a work that provocatively posits the ongoing and complex negotiations for peace that stretched throughout the war as one of the great untold stories overlooked by scholars bent upon giving the conflict a false sense of inevitability. 2013 . For instance. Downloaded from http://gh. senselessness and indeed tragedy that permeates the book. as we have seen. Laying so much of the responsibility for the war and its long duration on the unintended consequences of human choice adds to the sense of melancholy.oxfordjournals. with an emphasis on structural issues added in the mid-twentieth century by proponents of the ‘General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century’ theory such as Hugh Trevor-Roper. 424) to a point of action rather than patiently unearthing the complicated 7 Wilson traces the origins of the view of the war as an event of ‘tragic inevitability’ (p. The dust jacket (and accompanying press release issued by Penguin) speaks of ‘fighting [that] rapidly spiralled out of control.7 Wilson. 624). 446). a claim that. This stands in contrast to sensationalist decisions made in the way the book is packaged that undermine some of the points Wilson has so carefully made.org/ at Chulalongkorn University on July 25. and Theodore Rabb. in contrast.106 Discussion a European (or even global) scale. The dust jacket goes on to state that the ‘tangle’ of political and religious motives made the war ‘impossible to stop’. Wilson stresses the frequent opportunities for settlement that existed throughout the length of the war and could have ended the suffering far sooner had they been seized: a ‘not unrealistic’ chance for peace in early 1621 in the wake of the Battle of White Mountain (p. and then through the involvement of foreign powers. the war was the Empire’s rather than Europe’s event should grant Europe (through its choice of title) an equal share in its tragedy.
Wilson’s work will invite the criticism of some of its readers—perhaps especially those in Germany— for its stubborn refusal to subsume its analysis under a singular explanatory framework (the focus on the imperial constitution serves more as a unifying factor to tie the strands of the argument together than as grand theory. These occasional slips stand out as atypical in a book that on the whole will contribute greatly to what this reviewer sees as an emergent direction in the study of the Thirty Years War—and indeed of early modern Germany as a whole—that eschews grand explanatory models in favour of embracing complexity and messiness. unnuanced conclusions of other scholars that are frequently—and rightly—the object of Wilson’s criticism. on occasion Europe’s Tragedy takes recourse to tendentious reasoning. which leave unmentioned the myriad factors that could have changed in the intervening decade. 597) that Sweden’s willingness to conclude peace without satisfying the claims of the Palatinate and the Bohemian exiles in 1648 proves that its earlier insistence that the Emperor negotiate on these matters in 1638 must have been ‘simply a ruse’. 600–2)? Finally. for example in the statement (p. and should serve as a call for future researchers to embark on the hard work involved in exploring the intricacies of a war—and of the Empire that stood at its heart—that defy simple characterization.oxfordjournals. nature and consequences of the war is a strength rather than a weakness.edu Downloaded from http://gh. That the book’s conclusions do not easily translate into singular pronouncements on the causes. University of Alabama dlriches@ua. nuance and meaning. Arguments such as this. In other places Wilson appears willing to smooth over detail in order to make his points.) The importance of the book lies precisely in its qualification of overly-smooth explanations of the war through the patient excavation of complicated. does his aforementioned insistence that military activity remained centrally directed and tied to political objectives throughout the later stages of the war mesh with his own discussion of the ‘partisan leaders who played an increasingly important role as the rapid escalation of the conflict left numerous isolated garrisons scattered across the Empire’ and were ‘often difficult to control’ and motivated at least in part by their own agendas (pp. How. for example.org/ at Chulalongkorn University on July 25. frustrating or even apparently contradictory levels of detail.Discussion 107 prehistory without which the event cannot properly be interpreted. 2013 . resemble the hasty.
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