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Response to Review no. 866

I would like to thank Ronald Asch for his thoughtful and informed review. Being compared to Moriz Ritter certainly puts me in good company, and I (or rather my great grandchildren) will be pleased if my book is also still in print after more than a century. The review raises three issues which I would like to discuss: the European dimension of the war; its impact on the imperial constitution and state development; and the question of experience.

The word ‘tragedy’ appears deliberately in the title to reflect one of three key arguments. The war was a tragedy, not in the classical Greek sense, but in its modern meaning implying a disaster which should not have happened. The war was not pre-programmed in some supposed flaw in the imperial constitution, or the ambiguities of the Peace of Augsburg of 1555 which attempted to defuse the tensions of the first half of the 16th century. Indeed, this peace gave the Empire relative tranquillity compared to the civil wars which raged France, the Netherlands and, to a lesser extent, other countries like Sweden in the second half of the 16th century.

As Ronald Asch notes, the presentation of this conflict as a struggle over the Empire’s political and religious order is another of my arguments, setting the book apart from earlier works like that by Geoffrey Parker which have subsumed events in Germany within a wider European struggle. However, while the Thirty Years War was a distinct conflict, it was not unrelated to events elsewhere in Europe. The place of ‘Europe’ in the title reflects how external intervention not only prolonged and intensified the war in the Empire, but had often dire consequences for those powers which became embroiled in imperial politics. This argument is important, because while I offer a more ‘German’ interpretation, I have no intention of resurrecting the older nationalist perspective which saw Germany as innocent victim of foreign aggression.

Thirdly, the war was not primarily a religious conflict. This is perhaps the most controversial part of my argument as it departs from a long-established tradition of seeing the Thirty Years War as the culmination of an age of European religious (or as more recent scholarship has it ‘confessional’) wars. I do not dispute that the war had a confessional edge. Indeed, religious fervour undoubtedly made matters much worse, for instance contributing to mutual suspicions which long frustrated peace making. Moreover, there were many who regarded it as a religious or even holy war. There were occasions when such individuals influenced critical decisions, such as Elector Frederick V’s fateful acceptance of the Bohemian crown in 1619, or Emperor Ferdinand II’s ill-judged Edict of Restitution which divided opinion in the Empire on the eve of Sweden’s invasion. However, it is hard to find many instances where militants instigated or perpetrated violence. The contradictory combination of the ‘religious war’ argument with the cliché of mercenaries supposedly without higher ideals by many authors shows the danger of seeking simple explanations for the war’s violence and destruction.

Ronald Asch rightly notes I have avoided the overly celebratory tone of some recent commentaries on the Peace of Westphalia as the Empire’s fundamental law. The Empire remained flawed, in the sense it did not function in practice as it was supposed to do in theory. Moreover, even that theory remained contested, with several diverging interpretations of both what kind of a polity it was meant to be, and how it should function. This discrepancy between theory and practice was not remarkable in the European context. If I have avoided a clear statement on the war’s impact on imperial politics, it is because I do not see this as singular or fixed. First, the imperial constitution continued to evolve, both during and after the war. For instance, the Empire’s assembly (the imperial diet) already underwent significant change during the 1640s through the participation of the princes and imperial cities, as the ‘imperial Estates’, in the peace process.

Second, while the war certainly impacted in many areas, as I have tried to show in chapter 21, this cannot be assessed in simple terms. The emperor’s position was weakened, for example, with new restrictions imposed on imperial prerogatives at the peace. However, the full impact of these changes was not felt immediately, as the constitution remained flexible, open to interpretation depending on circumstances. In other respects, the emperor emerged stronger through significant improvements in his position as hereditary ruler of the extensive Habsburg lands. This is one of the areas where I have addressed wider questions about ‘state-building’, arguing the major changes occurred more through the reordering of the Habsburgs’ relations with their aristocracy, than through institutional reform. The war plunged most German territorial governments into crisis, severely testing the institutions developed over the past century or more. There were some institutional changes, but their significance is outweighed by the importance of new ways of justifying more unilateral, unfettered decisions on the basis of ‘necessity’. Over time, this contributed to greater autonomy of the larger territories within the imperial framework. However, their relationship to the Empire cannot be summarised in simple statements, given the considerable variation in their size and location. Furthermore, as I have argued, the influence of foreign powers also changed after 1648. Sweden initially emerged far stronger than France, gaining more territory and formal rights within the Empire, yet became increasingly dependent on the imperial framework to defend these gains by the later 17th century.

The question of experience is an important one. To an extent, this aspect did suffer from pressures of space, though by no means is it treated as an afterthought. Detailed coverage of events was necessary both to offer a fuller account, especially of the neglected second half of the war, but also for methodological reasons. While longer term structural factors do have a place in my account, I have stressed contingency in my explanation of why the war started when it did, and why participants repeatedly failed to end it when they wished. There is an additional methodological aspect. Recent work on experience and on aspects like fear, witchcraft and commemoration, have widened our understanding of previously neglected areas. However, there is a danger than such studies may become detached from the wider framework of events, particularly when the available interpretations of these often rest on out-dated or insupportable perspectives.

While direct discussion of what might loosely be termed ‘cultural’ aspects is confined to a single chapter, I have sought to integrate insights from recent work throughout the book. The role of contemporary perception is a constant theme, playing a significant part in my explanation of events, for instance through mutual misunderstanding, as well as the desire of the main protagonists to present their actions as legitimate. Everyday experience is important too, as this is the real reason why the war became the benchmark to measure subsequent conflicts. This is why I have dealt with assessments of the material and demographic impact; not just Steinberg’s ultra-revisionist assessment, but the older, equally discredited claims of Gustav Freytag that Germany lost three-quarters of its population. It is certainly useful to refine our quantitative assessments, but the absolute level of physical destruction often tells us less than how that damage was perceived. It is here that the war had its most lasting legacy as a conflict considered without parallel in European experience.