The Thirty Years War by C.V. Wedgwood

As their dates of publication recede into the past, books of history increasingly become artifacts of what they chronicle. They illuminate two periods: the one about which they are written, and the one in which they are written. With academic or more specialist works, this process is faster and more conscious; monographs are written in dialog with other histories in a particular field, which moves along through the years. Works written for a more general audience can reflect scholarly consensus at the time, or an author’s iconoclastic perspective, or topics that are of wider concern at the time of publication.

Nearly 80 years have passed since C.V. Wedgwood wrote her classic history, The Thirty Years War. The current day is as distant from Wedgwood’s Germany and Central Europe as hers was from when Austria and Prussia were still contending for mastery in the German lands, when Bismarck was Chancellor to the Prussian king and not yet to the German emperor. Looking back, those nineteenth-century struggles have far more in common with their counterparts two hundred years previous than the conflagration that consumed Europe so soon after Wedgwood’s book appeared.

And yet both had proximate causes in a struggle for Bohemia that served as a proxy for rulership in Germany and dominance in Europe. It’s arguable that the devastation visited on some regions by the Thirty Years War was as thorough as that wreaked by the Second World War. Reading passages from the early sections of Wedgwood’s book, it’s difficult not to think of the time when she was writing, when Hitler led Germany but had not yet led it to war. The first chapter, after all, is titled, “Germany and Europe,” and on the second page of her text, she writes, “The probability of war was a commonplace among the well-informed who doubted only the immediate cause and scope of the conflict; the material and moral antagonisms which divided political life were clear.” (p. 13)

Shortly thereafter, she sketches both how political decline contributed to the outbreak of the war, and poses a longer-term question about Germany and Europe.

Pursuing the shadow of a universal power the German rulers forfeited the chance of a national one. German feudalism, instead of becoming absorbed in the centralized state, disintegrated utterly. Custom and the weakness of the central government increased the self-reliance of each small unit at the expense of the whole until one Emperor declared with blasphemous humour that he was indeed a ‘King of Kings.’
Foreign rulers held fiefs within the Empire—the King of Denmark was Duke of Holstein, and the great and scattered estates which made up that whole section of the Empire known as the Burgundian Circle were virtually independent under the King of Spain. Direct vassals of the Emperor, such as the Elector of Brandenburg, held lands outside the Empire and independent of imperial authority. The system had long ceased to conform to any known definition of the state. (pp. 35–36)

The passage assumes a movement toward centralized nation-states that may have been a common assumption for a historian in 1930s Britain but isn’t well supported by the record across Europe as a whole. (Or indeed within the United Kingdom itself.) Nevertheless, it points to one of the long-term themes of German political history: who will govern these many lands, long divided among a plenitude of rulers, and how will these lands in the middle of Europe relate to their neighbors?

Fighting to answer some of these questions began with a revolt in Bohemia, where religious questions that had been simmering since the time of Jan Hus overlapped with concerns about succession, local rule, economic interests, and the balance among electors to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire all led toward rebellion and war.

In speed, efficiency and moderation the revolt [in Prague] might serve as a model, but under a smooth surface the new state concealed disastrous elements. The pressure which had forced the various parties to combine could not last and, as the immediate crisis lessened, the united front resolved into its component parts. Was it a revolt purely for religious liberty, or for national freedom, or for the rights of the subject against the sovereign? The truth was that nobody knew, and each party was prepared to sacrifice the interests of the other to further its own. (p. 80)

That last sentence does more than most to explain the fighting that followed over many years and iterations. None of the coalitions that arose was strong enough to settle the issues decisively on the battlefield; none of the principal parties was so weak or illegitimate that it could be routed entirely. The existence of the war drew in ambitious powers or rulers; the ties of various forms of Christianity gave justification to intervention. Dynastic state-building that had long been the European norm encouraged attempts at territorial aggrandizement, which in turn led to more fighting, switching sides, and pursuit of goals long after they had ceased to be attainable.

Another passage about the early phase of the war chillingly echoes the 1930s:

The time was fast approaching when [Maximilian, Duke of Bavaria] would regret that he had sacrificed the constitution of Germany to the ambition of Bavaria and made way for the unimpeded rule of violence. He, who of all men had been most jealous lest imperial power should increase, had lent his hand to the destruction of the constitution which he had championed. (p. 158)

With that, Wedgwood shows one of the variations of tragedy in which 1618-48 had so many to offer. Along with naked ambition, there are rulers who are too weak to take advantage of a crucial moment; others act too slowly, and so a key moment for peace or for victory is lost; still others act with too great a confidence in their invulnerability, choosing not to see how little control there is in battle of who lives, who dies. Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden, Protestant conqueror, [“He thinks the ship cannot sink that carries him,” Sir Thomas Roe had said (p. 319)] perished at the Battle of Lützen in 1632, giving imperial, Catholic forces reason to think they might achieve total victory, helping the conflict to last another 16 years.

Wedgwood also shows the varieties of tragedy and suffering that befell ordinary people, too. Armies marched across fields, taking or destroying crops as they went. A battle in an area could mean famine for those who lived and farmed there, but an army encamped could be just as bad or worse, for the men would be fed by any means necessary. And she is unsparing about the regard the princes had for their peoples:

No German ruler perished homeless in the winter’s cold, nor was found dead with grass in his mouth, nor saw his wife and daughters ravished; few, significantly few, caught the pest. Secure in the formalities of their lives, in the food and drink at their tables, they could afford to think in terms of politics and not of human sufferings. (pp. 252–53)

The book itself is clear and, at just over 500 pages, as concise as can be expected. She writes with the verve of the journalist she sometimes worked as; she drew on original sources across a wide range of languages. One of its particular virtues is that it keeps the wider European context in sight. Spanish silver flowing into the Netherlands meant as much for the course of fighting in Germany as did choices made in Electoral palaces in Saxony or Brandenburg. Papal policy toward the Habsburgs affected the flow of subsidies, and court politics in France shaped the later stages of the war. Germany was the stage, but the lines were often written elsewhere. Wedgwood shows these connections, and makes the complex ongoing development of fighting and politics understandable to the reader.

As to the war as a whole, she makes her verdict clear in a preface written 20 years later, across the caesura of the Second World War.

Many of my generation who grew up under the shadow of the First World War had a sincere, if mistaken, conviction that all wars were unnecessary and useless. I no longer think that all wars are unnecessary; but some are, and I still think the Thirty Years War was one of these. It need not have happened and it settled nothing worth settling. … Several statesmen of genius outside German from time to time dominate the course of the war; no statesman of genius inside Germany appeared to put a stop to it. The dismal course of the conflict, dragging on from one decade to the next and from one deadlock to the next, seems to me an object lesson on the dangers and disasters which can arise when men of narrow hearts and little minds are in high places. (p. 8)

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  1. […] The Robbers is not subtle. For a modern reader, accustomed to characters who show their feelings and intentions rather than declaim them from center-stage, it can be a bit off-putting. No wonder Verdi adapted the play into an opera. Wikipedia tells me that there are two recent translations into English, one that leans toward imitation of the original language, and one that leans toward adapting archaic idioms into contemporary language. Both are legitimate approaches to translating a play, but I have not read either. Next up from Schiller are two volumes of plays about Wallenstein, a general in the Thirty Years War. […]

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