Peter H. Wilson
London, Allen Lane, 2009, ISBN: 9780674036345; 1040pp.; Price: £19.99
Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies
Date accessed: 29 September, 2022
Peter Wilson’s monumental history of the Thirty Years War is a work which impresses the reader both by the author’s unrivalled command of detail and by the balanced account he gives of the main events and episodes of the war. Not perhaps since the days of Moriz Ritter’s German History in the Age of the Counter Reformation and the Thirty Years War (1) – written in the late 19th century and still in many ways unsurpassed in its judicious assessment of the principal forces shaping the course of the war – has any historian written such a detailed scholarly book on the war; and then, of course, Ritter never finished his study which ends in 1635. Geoffrey Parker’s Thirty Years War (2), in comparison, is really a book written by nine different authors although Parker himself wrote about two thirds himself. Thus Wilson’s work is an impressive achievement by any standards. As opposed to Parker, Wilson focuses on events in Central Europe – the Thirty Years War is for him primarily a German war. This makes the title slightly misleading, it should perhaps rather be ‘Germany’s tragedy’ instead of ‘Europe’s’, but Wilson is certainly right in looking at matters in this way; any other perspective tends to dissolve the coherence of the narrative as the dates 1618 and 1648 only make sense as the starting and the closing point of events if one looks primarily at the Holy Roman Empire and not at Spain or France. Wilson neglects no major issue, dealing with the Edict of Restitution and Wallenstein’s complicated personality as much as the with the appeals to German patriotism after 1635 or the peace negotiations in Osnabrück and Münster, but he is perhaps most convincing when he writes about military matters, that is both about battles and about logistics. His explanation of the way Wallenstein paid his vast army is much more subtle and nuanced than most other accounts of war finance and the role of the military entrepreneur. He rightly points out that Wallenstein never ceased to rely on taxation raised in the imperial hereditary lands as much as on contributions in areas under occupation. Thus Wilson rejects the idea that warfare after 1618 was largely privatized at least as far as the imperial army and its commanders were concerned. ‘Plunder could not make war pay and restricted the size of armies’ as Wilson writes (p. 405). He is equally justified in stating: ‘The real core was credit not extortion’ (p. 399). This meant however that princes and commanders-in-chief often owed huge amounts of money to their colonels as well as to inferior officers and ordinary soldiers, so that it became almost impossible to disband armies, as this required enormous sums to pay off the various creditors among the military (p. 400). This was in fact one of the reasons why it was so difficult to end the war in the 1640s.
Also particularly valuable are the earlier introductory chapters in which Wilson sets the scene for the conflict. In eight sections he explains how the Holy Roman Empire worked and where its failings lay, and deals with the impact of the Turkish menace on Central Europe, with the Pax Hispanica and with the growing crisis of the Habsburg monarchy before 1618. His concise account of confessionalization and its limits is particularly instructive and incorporates all relevant recent research. Equally important are brief subchapters on Sweden, Denmark and Poland before 1618. The latter two countries are often seen as only minor players or even – in the case of Poland – as largely irrelevant for the events in central Europe. However in around 1610 Denmark was still more powerful and far richer than Sweden – a rather backwards country then – and the Vasa kings ruling the vast kingdom of Poland-Lithuania could with some justification look down on their cousins in Stockholm. Swedish fears of an alliance between the Emperor and the Poles became a major factor in shaping Swedish policy after 1629.
Later Wilson deals in greater detail with Swedish policy in the 1630s. He rightly dismisses the suggestion that Gustavus Adolphus wanted to create a new universal monarchy, as a sort of Protestant Charles V and at the same time as a successor to the Goths and Vandals – the legendary forbears of the Swedes – who had in late antiquity conquered Rom. Nevertheless he points out that the Swedish nework of clients and allies in Germany created after 1630 presented a possible basis for a future Swedish hegemony in Central Europe itself with Gustavus Adolphus as a possible protestant Emperor. In discussing such points Wilson’s study is as judicious in its assessments as Moriz Ritter’s once was. Wilson’s attempt to do justice to both and in fact to all sides is a prominent feature of this major study. But he does pay a price for this endeavour to always get the balance right and to give a hearing to both sides of an argument among modern historians as much as among the contemporary participants of the war. In the end the war almost appears at times as a remarkably un-dramatic series of events, despite the fact that Wilson paints a vivid picture of the destruction caused by warfare. Nevertheless even here he feels obliged to discuss Sigfrid Steinberg’s thesis, that the population of the Empire did not decline at all between 1618 and 1648; surely an interpretation which has been refuted long ago and can now be considered as obsolete and so it remains surprising that Steinberg is one of the very few modern historians to get an entry in the index. Other historians such as Johannes Burkhardt or Geoffrey Parker who have both published widely on this period are not mentioned by name and their work is not explicitly discussed as such.
Moreover Wilson shows a certain tendency at times not to commit himself too clearly to any position which may seem controversial when issues arise which have been the subject of prolonged debate among historians. He rightly rejects the old interpretation that the Peace of Westphalia weakened the constitution of the Empire mortally and was responsible for the fact that Germany did not become a modern nation state at the same time as France or England. Neither does he subscribe to Johannes Burkhardt’s somewhat extreme opposite view that the peace treaties were a sort of modern constitution which transformed the Empire into a well balanced and almost indestructible political system, giving Germany the best constitution it ever had before the Grundgesetz of 1949. But nevertheless Wilson’s own position remains in the end somewhat vague on this issue. Clearly Wilson does not like his war and the politics of the war to be too dramatic and in this he clearly differs from his publishers who have printed on the cover of the book a quotation from one of Gustavus Adolphus’s letters: ‘This is a fight between God and the Devil. If His Grace is with God, he must join me, if he is for the Devil, he must fight me. There is no third way.’ This was the stark choice the Swedish king offered to German princes who hesitated, whether to stay neutral or join the King’s forces. Now Wilson is undoubtedly right in pointing out that a lot of this was mere propaganda and that Gustavus had intervened in Germany not so much to save Protestantism but – inter alia – in order to strengthen his country’s position in its struggle with Poland and Denmark, both habitual rivals and enemies, and to pre-empt a possible attack by an imperial fleet in the future. Nevertheless the rhetoric of religious and in fact, Holy War was – at least until the mid 1630s – one of the languages which often dominated appeals to potential allies and to the population in general. It would be difficult to deny that this sort of justification for military and political actions gained a momentum of its own. As late as 1648, when many of the religious conflicts of the late 1620s had receded there was still a lot of mileage in appealing to religious allegiances, although in the end the moderates managed to marginalize the militants who still believed like the Superior General of the Jesuits, Vincenzo de Carafa, that ‘“a peace that will enslave souls is worse than any war and the ruin of souls is more to be avoided than that of bodies”’ (pp. 720–2). In 1648 Carafa was an increasingly isolated hardliner, but in the earlier stages of the conflict militants like the Jesuit were able to shape the perception of political events by many ordinary people as well as by princes and their councillors to a considerable extent. One should not forget that confessors giving advice to Catholic princes or Protestant court preachers addressing their rulers from the pulpit could exert a lot of influence.
But clearly the rhetoric and the discourse of warfare is not what Wilson is primarily interested in. Whereas many early modernists these days see cultural history as a necessary framework for any kind of story or analysis, Wilson tends to see the subjective experience of the war and the way contemporaries perceived the conflict in churches, in inns and or in town halls – or were taught to perceive it by sermons, cheap prints and pamphlets – as something which did not in itself greatly effect the course of events as such, and this course of events is what matters for him.
Wilson does provide the reader with a chapter on ‘experiencing the war’. It is however the last chapter of the book, clearly more a sort of afterthought and rather brief as well. Only a page and a half are dedicated to witchcraft and its persecution despite the fact that in many parts of Germany the witch crazes were at their absolute height in the early 1630s. Equally there are a few paragraphs on fear and commemoration – recently a major topic in German writings on this period – but clearly these are not issues which greatly interest Wilson. To some extent the present reviewer can sympathize with this approach. Words and symbols are indeed not everything. Soldiers, even when they are mercenaries, may be persuaded by fanatical preachers that there is nothing more glorious for them than to die in a religious or in fact holy war but even so they may not win a battle if they have neither powder and bullets for their muskets nor boots to walk in. History is more than the history of discourse. Nevertheless the drama, the excitement and the terror of the Thirty Years War which become so tangible when we look at broadsheets and pamphlets of the period or read diaries written at the time, are certainly not among the most prominent elements in Wilson’s account of the War. However, had he given more space to such sources it would probably have been much more difficult to write a coherent narrative history of the entire war, and that is what he most admirably has managed to do. One notices certainly that Wilson is at his best when dealing with issues of German and Scandinavian history. France, which played such a prominent role in the war after 1635, is given much shorter shrift and Richelieu is clearly not one of Wilson’s heroes, although he is not much given to hero worship anyhow. Also the effect of warfare on state building or – the other way round – warfare as a cause for administrative and political disintegration (as in the case of Spain) are not discussed in any detail or systematically (apart from some observations on pages 807–12) but only briefly mentioned. But this book is not designed to give an analysis of a limited number of structural changes between 1618–48 – it wants to provide the reader with a straightforward and comprehensive story of the war itself while at the same time incorporating the insights of economic, administrative and ecclesiastical history etc. And this objective Wilson undoubtedly achieves most convincingly. His work will remain the definitive account of the war for a long time to come, at least in English, and as it is well written and reads easily the book certainly has a chance to find a wide readership despite its considerable length and enormous weight. Perhaps one should add though, as a warning, that the latter may possibly render it difficult if not impossible to handle for readers who are physically less than fit.
- Moriz Ritter, Deutsche geschichte im zeitalter der gegen-reformation und des Dreiβssigjährigen krieges (1555-1648) (3 vols., Stuttgart, 1889-1908).Back to (1)
- Geoffrey Parker, The Thirty Years War (London, 1984).Back to (2)
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.