David's Reviews > The Thirty Years War

The Thirty Years War by Cicely Veronica Wedgwood
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May 17, 12

bookshelves: nyrb
Read from May 01 to 17, 2012

1. What is the Thirty Years War?

This is admittedly a half-baked and unfair question—but it's a necessary one too, if only to get one's foot in the door. It's a bit like asking, What is World War I? In response, we can certainly list the belligerent nations, we can outline the (ostensible) military and political goals, we describe the significant events and battles, and we can offer up some (partially speculative, partially causal) analysis of how the war affected and determined that which followed it, but does this compilation of fact and critical analysis satisfactorily answer the question? Or does it merely lead to other, more complex questions which nag at us until we arrive some overly simplified, discrete 'essence' of the conflict, predominantly ideological in nature, which tidies up the practical messes that arise out of a long-lasting, far-reaching war?

But to hell with postmodernist qualms. I'll stick my toe in the cold waters of the provisional and attempt an answer. Keep in mind that I only became conscious of the Thirty Years War (as anything but a name) earlier this year, so I lay no claims to authority. I am a student. This is the yield of my studies, however incomplete:

The Thirty Years War (1618 to 1648) began as an internal crisis and civil war within the Holy Roman Empire and ended in an international war fought largely on German soil. In the early 1600s, the Holy Roman Empire was an odd agglomeration of royal domains, electorates, free cities, duchies, landgraves and other territorial units in Central Europe, centered in present-day Germany and Austria but incorporating portions of other modern nations, such as eastern France and the Czech Republic, as well. I say that the HRE (Holy Roman Empire) is odd for many reasons—chief among them (1) that it did not incorporate Rome, (2) that although its leadership fought on behalf of Roman Catholicism, the Pope was actually against the ruling family, thus problematizing the adjective 'Holy,' (3) that the Emperor was elected by the prince-electors of the Empire, some of whom were Protestant, ambivalent about the integrity of the Empire, and openly antagonistic toward the imperial authority, (4) and that the Emperor could claim only very limited power in that he was bound to certain decisions of a 'Diet' (or congress of the prince-electors) and his military forces were relatively weak, ineffectual, and therefore unable to enforce imperial decrees. (In fact, some of the princes of the Empire had stronger armies at their disposal than the Emperor did.) Obviously, you can tell from this cursory description of the HRE in 1618 that it is a heterogenous, decentralized entity ripe for conflict.

It is also difficult, from the vantage of modernity, to discuss the HRE in that it fails to conform to any of our notions of nationhood (or even Empire, really). It's just this giant mish-mash of indistinct, variable territories governed not with respect to national integrity, but only with regard to the self- aggrandizing and often mercenary interest of their respective rulers. Maximilian, the Duke of Bavaria, for instance, had his own dynastic and territorial interests at heart when he switched sides during the war. His land was ravaged, his people were brutalized and on the verge of revolt, but he thought only of his own political and territorial preservation; after all, he wanted to accumulate as much land as possible—even scorched, ruined land—to leave to his heirs. There was no Bavarian national feeling in the way that we might understand it today.

Against the volatile background, we need only the match to light the tinder. And that match was a Protestant German prince's attempt to 'usurp' the throne of Bohemia after the Emperor already laid claim to it himself (in circumstances too complicated to go into here). The Emperor's partisans were thrown out of a castle window in Prague, and this touched off a civil war within the Empire in which (for the most part) the Protestant princes fought the Emperor and the Catholic princes.

It's worth noting that the Holy Roman Emperors during the war were Ferdinand II and, later, Ferdinand III, who were members of the House of Habsburg, which also (but separately and distinct from the HRE) ruled Spain. Naturally other European powers were extremely threatened by the power of the Habsburgs—the Bourbon dynasty of France most especially, since it was hemmed in on both sides by the Habsburgs. Thus, the civil war in time blossomed into a greater European war, which in various intervals involved France, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, the (Dutch) United Provinces, and the Spanish Netherlands. (Did I leave out anyone? Oh, yeah. Maybe some Italian duchies were involved for short periods.)

In the end, although Sweden played a significant role in the war, it seemed to culminate in a dynastic battle between the Habsburgs (and their allies) and the Bourbons (and their allies) that, some suggest, marked a shift in European conflict, generally speaking, from religious warfare to proto-nationalist warfare. Needless to say, between the foreign powers and the German territories, there are too many reversals of fortune and changes of sides to retell here, but suffice it to say that it did not end well for the Habsburgs. The war effectively marked the end of a Spain as a major world power, Emperor Ferdinand III was forced to cede parts of the HRE to French and Swedish authority, and some electorate lands were returned to their previous Protestant rulers. Although the HRE was surely already in decline, the Thirty Years War gave it another swift kick in the ass. Besides the territorial loss, much of the empire was utterly wasted, plague and famine ravaged entire populations, and the various armies horribly abused the locals as they passed through: burning their towns, raping their women, stealing their food and valuables, and killing them indiscriminately. (Often the armies were as abusive to the people of their own lands as they were to their adversaries.) Cannibalism and disease were widespread. To say the least, it was not a fun time to be a German.

2. What about the book?

Well, I went through this looong-ass discussion of what the war is so that you might be able to tell whether it sounds interesting to you. If the above portion of this review makes you want to know more (and—trust me—there's a lot more to know), then pick up C.V. Wedgwood's The Thirty Years War. At over five hundred pages (in the NYRB edition), it is certainly thorough, especially during the first twenty years of the war, but it is also quite accomplished as a narrative. I don't know whether you've noticed this or not, but most historians are unfortunately not good writers. While they're bursting with facts, interpretations, and insight, they are unable to put them together in a clear or interesting fashion. Often they bog us down with too much detail, trying to show off with all their research; at other times, they assume that the reader already has a thorough knowledge of the background—which is probably the worst trait of all in a historical writer. If I were already well-versed in history, I probably wouldn't need your stinkin' book to begin with.

To be fair, Wedgwood is sometimes guilty of assuming you already know stuff that you might not know. That's also why I provided a general overview of the war (and the HRE) above—for dummies like me who might, for instance, have a difficult time grasping the structure of the HRE. At other times, she is fond of printing short quotations in their original Latin or French without an English translation. I hate that. I mean, really, really hate that. Why do you assume I know the same languages as you, C.V.? (She does offer German translations, however. Why is this? We're supposed to know Latin and French but not German? Give me a list of the prerequisites before I start, okay?) Anyway, don't let this worry you because the untranslated quotes are inconsequential. You don't need them to make sense of the history. (I also fault NYRB here. When you reprint these books, you should correct the oversights. Add editorial footnotes, you idiots.)

Another gripe with Wedgwood: She's a British intellectual. No, this isn't a fault, per se... but how do you imagine that a 1930s British intellectual, born to privilege, would talk? If you answered, 'With a stick up her ass,' you are correct. While she moves the narrative along nicely, her diction is starchy and unpersonable. It's like Queen Elizabeth wrote a book. Maybe this won't bother English people as much, but sometimes in my fantasies I sought her out so that I could remove the long steel pole from her sphincter.

Another quibble (again with NYRB)... There are two maps toward the beginning of the book. Unless you are well-versed in Central European geography of the 1600s, you will often refer to these maps. There's only one (BIG) problem: a great deal of the center of both maps is lost in the binding! It certainly doesn't help that a lot of the action happens in these lost territories. How can any non-moronic book publishing company want to reprint these 'classics' and yet not correct these major problems? I don't care if you just copied the old typesetting, NYRB; you need to REDO the maps because they are stupid and nonfunctional as they are. So I advise all readers to look for maps of the HRE during the Thirty Years War online (there are many), print one, and tuck it into the front of your book for future reference. You have to do this extra work because the NYRB people are kind of idiots, I guess.

3. Hey! You've said a lot of bad stuff about this book! What's with the four stars?

Despite all that stuff, I really enjoyed reading it—and as I said before, it's very, very difficult to find well-written historical books about subjects you're interested in, so I have to grade a little on the curve. In fact, this book made me want to read more about the Holy Roman Empire. So I went to Amazon and discovered there's not much about the subject (specifically) in print. This branched off into quite a few other related topics I wanted to know about—but likewise there were few or no books available, and if a book was available, all of the reviewers seemed to hate it with the burning passion of a thousand suns.

So do you see what I mean? This book is great, relatively speaking. It's about an interesting subject, it's reasonably coherent, the pacing is just right, and it sparks interest in related topics. Therefore, it gets four stars. Mind you, I don't know that I would have wanted to spend a lot of time partying with C.V. Wedgwood. But some people you want to learn about the HRE from, and some people you want to get drunk and watch Birdemic: Shock and Terror with. If you ever meet someone who fulfills both needs, start worshiping them because it might be a messiah of some sort.
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Reading Progress

05/01/2012 page 125
23.0% "'This agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.' — Voltaire"
05/04/2012 page 195
36.0% "The Habsburgs versus... everybody?"
05/07/2012 page 260
48.0% "My new post-rock band will be called the Hanseatic League."
05/09/2012 page 320
59.0% "France accidentally makes alliances with both Sweden and Bavaria. Who happen to be fighting each other. Oops."
05/14/2012 page 375
69.0% "When you get right down to it, being the Holy Roman Emperor in the 1600s isn't much more prestigious than winning on The Bachelor."
05/16/2012 page 415
76.0% "Spoiler alert! Emperor Ferdinand II dies two-thirds of the way through the Thirty Years War at the age of 59. Back then, you could die from, like, a minor cold—a case of the sniffles."

Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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message 1: by David (last edited May 17, 2012 02:52PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

David I agree. They should print the original maps that the author intended, but NYRB should have 'fixed' them by separating the two halves of them enough so that an important section didn't get lost in the binding. It took me awhile to realize just how much of the HRE I was missing.

I don't know if 'dry' is the right word. Maybe the Queen Elizabeth comparison isn't fair. She just has a very British way of speaking, and I have a very American way of speaking. It sounds a little uptight to me, but I know some Anglophiles really go for that stuff.


message 2: by Greg (new)

Greg I have almost bought this book a few times, and then I thought I would never actually get around to reading it. I'm not sure if your review is making me want to give it a shot or not. Probably not, all the time I spend dumpster fucking doesn't leave that much time to read about wars from the 17th century.


David Well, Greggly, if it's a strictly either/or proposition, then I'd certainly stick with the dumpster fucking.


message 4: by Miriam (last edited Dec 19, 2012 04:06PM) (new)

Miriam I recently went to an exhibit on this war that focused on violence, health, and medicine (basically, things they could learn from examining a specific mass burial). Horrific, as I'm sure one would expect.

Here they're examining bones to see which ways people were hacked up:



And here are some common ailments (tooth decay, syphilis).




message 5: by Esteban (new)

Esteban del Mal Everything a review should be. Great work, David.


David Thanks, Esteban. Are you planning to read this?


message 7: by Esteban (new)

Esteban del Mal I am. I'm turning into one of those weirdos that haunts the history sections of bookstores.


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