So what better time to discuss a war in which all the major players and their grandchildren have long since passed into the boneyard? That's right, it's the Thirty Years War! The biggest and bloodiest war fought on European soil that you hardly ever hear about because Americans get all their history from the Brits and Brits don't care when Continentals die horribly.
Specifically, we're gonna talk about The Thirty Years War by Peter H. Wilson, a tremendous tome that tries to cover every last detail from the Defenestration of Prague to the Peace of Westphalia. At near 900 pages - not counting the copious citations - it's a daunting brick that consumed my whole summer and then some, riding crowded New York buses back and forth across Brooklyn.
|I had a hardcover too, for menacing small children...|
The Thirty Years War, like the best histories, begins some many many years before the subject itself, so that Wilson can provide the full context. Starting from the disagreements and peacemaking between the Holy Roman Empire and the rising Protestant movement, Wilson shows how longstanding political grievances and demands for self-determination interacted with the paranoia over the very real threat of the Ottomans, making for a very twitchy and easily riled Europe. By the time war finally arrives, Wilson has spent enough time painting the scene that the reader understands not only the stated reasons of the waring sides but also the broader economic realities driving them - from the debasement of Spanish currency to the struggle over federalism in the empire.
All of which could be gleaned from obsessive readings of Wikipedia. What makes The Thirty Years War stand out is Wilson as an author - he takes this massive lump of data and fashions it into an engaging and highly entertaining narrative. He retells the Defenestration of Prague with a skill that makes the events feel immediate, makes the terror of the defenestrated Catholics all the more real, makes you feel the same absurd glee they did when they somehow survived the landing.
He turns it into a narrative, is what I'm saying. Rather than a dry recitation of events, Wilson goes to great lengths to present the people involved in an engaging manner. The conflict between Olivares and Richelieu, Wallenstein's very modern rise to the head of society through mercantilism, these people and their actions - though hundreds of years gone - are presented by Wilson as vital and real. And all fleshed out through details from the gristly meat eaten by soldiers on campaign to an accessible and brief digression on how swiftly warfare evolved from medieval to modern through the course of the war.
Where it stumbles though is in the attempts to counter the popular wisdom. Wilson tries too hard to paint the conflict as not really being about religion, but about personal rivalries and petty politics and other comfortable, familiar grievances. Its a strictly modern interpretation of a time and place as rigorously sectarian as modern Syria.
Not that Wilson would draw such a modern parallel. For starters, Syria wasn't a thing when he was writing this a couple years back and he's ultimately too good to indulge in the sort of partisan flackery that makes up most of this blog. And despite his attempts, it still comes across just how much Protestant and Catholic rivalries drove the fighting - which where deeply wedded to both national and political identities. People feared Gustavus was going to march straight through to Rome and he may have been considering doing just that before he was struck by that musket ball.
Speaking of, the legend of Gustavus is somewhat diminished in this telling. King Gustav II Adolph of Sweden, a hero to the Protestant cause and a revolutionary figure in the development of modern warfare, and Wilson appears reluctant to even mention him. He argues that the Swedes were hardly revolutionary in their tactics - a mix of smaller, more mobile guns alongside traditional pikemen - except that he goes on to show just how revolutionary they really were by handily defeating the Catholic tercios at Breitenfeld. So then her argues that their formations were less conscious decision and more desperate reaction to the ferocious Poles and Cossacks they usually fought - begging the question,"So what?"
Finally, the middle of the book devolves into a long slog. Historical figures come and go, winning a battle here and there before dying of gout, but leaving little impression. This isn't Wilson's fault though as post-Wallenstein the war does get pretty boring. The bombastic super conflict devolves into a lot of low simmering gang fights. Really this is more proof of Wilson's integrity as a historian - even though he writes a great narrative and the earlier chapters present an environment in which a war looks inevitable, he never tries to fit the madness of the Thirty Years War into some coherent and predestined event. As the later chapters show - just like the later years of the war - so much of the conflict and indeed all of human history is the haphazard and chaotic collisions of movements and forces beyond any individual's or nation's control. In fact, the way Wilson presents the Peace of Westphalia, one is left with the impression that all the major actors were just too tired to continue.
Wilson closes with an examination with the long term impact of this long term war. He shows how the diplomatic relations and rule of law that grew from the ashes out of expediency came to underpin modern international politics. Though again he doesn't argue that this was a natural outcome, merely what occurred. It's refreshing as the common assumption is that A naturally leads to B and how could it be any other way? Wilson, for all his attempts to recast the narrative, has enough intellectual integrity not to try and spin the Thirty Years War into a narrative for his pet causes. He reports the facts, and makes them into a great story.