The Thirty Years War

by Steve Hartshorne on October 16, 2012

For the last year I’ve been reading The Thirty Years War by C.V. Wedgwood, and this book has changed everything I thought I knew about European history. I began reading, put it aside when it boggled my  mind, and took it up again when I had assimilated what I had learned. Then, several times more I went back to the beginning and started over.

It’s not that Dame Wedgwood is difficult to read, it’s just that she is describing a situation that is so complex it takes a lot of assimilating. The text itself moves along beautifully, like a well-stoked freight train. She reminds me of Barbara Tuchman, and that’s the highest compliment I can pay to a writer of history.

I was reading along about the insurrection in Bohemia and the crowd grabbed these guys and started carrying them across the room toward the windows and I thought, “Here it is. The defenestration of Prague!” Some Protestants threw some Catholics out the window and they were saved, depending on whom you talk to, either by God Almighty or by a conveniently located dung heap.

The Thirty Years War is taught in schools as a conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Germany, but boy is that an oversimplification. For one thing, the Lutherans and the Calvinists, both Protestants, detested each other more than the Catholics. And the Catholics were divided by the rivalry between the Jesuits and the Capuchins, and on top of that there’s the ancestral hatred between the Hapsburgs of Spain and Austria and the Bourbons of France.

Underlying all of this is the need for Spain to send troops and gold from Italy over the Alps to Belgium to support their war against the Dutch, a route which passes though the famous Val Telline, bordered by the Swiss, who support the Dutch, the Republic of Venice, ditto, and the Duchy of Savoy, which could go either way.

Alan Mason of Deskarati discovered Wedgood’s book in his research on the Spanish Gold Route by which gold from the Americas reached Imperial troops in Belgium.

“The centre of Europe was convulsed by this war which dragged on and on over thirty years. Initially, it only involved the Germans and Czechs within the “Holy Roman Empire” but, like a whirlpool, it gradually sucked in more and more of the small German principalities. Eventually, the Swedes, the Spanish, the French, the Hungarians, and Poles were all engaged in this conflict, together with the Germans.

“All the ordinary people, particularly the Germans, suffered appallingly, in ways which are too horrifying to record here. I found Wedgwood’s book, and the background reading that I did, was so deeply upsetting that I did not want to return to this issue ever again.”

Not me. I want to learn all about it.

Wedgwood introduces us to all the principle players in the conflict, Ferdinand of Styria, Maximillian of Bavaria, John George of Saxony, and the ill-advised Elector of Palatine. Then there’s Wallenstein, the Dick Cheney of his day, the original war profiteer, who plundered Bohemia for personal gain and established a state devoted to war, and Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden, who won the Battle of Lutzen, but died.

Wegwood describes the personalities of all these men, because their timidity, vanity, and ambition is all part of an incredibly complex tableau of destruction.

I love books that demolish everything I thought I knew.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Keith Simpson October 16, 2012 at 8:46 am

You have whetted my appetite. My book like that is 1491 (and soon 1493) by Charles Mann.

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