DoctorM's Reviews > The Thirty Years War

The Thirty Years War by C.V. Wedgwood
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's review
May 17, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: history-favourites

A classic work, and one I'm thrilled is finally back in print. I first read Wedgwood's "Thirty Years War" when I was high school--- probably because I'd just seen a long-forgotten film called "The Last Valley" with Michael Caine as a mercenary captain in the later years of the war. Wedgwood's account of the war was my introduction to Central Europe in the early modern era, and an introduction to figures like Gustavus Adolphus and Richelieu and the doomed Wallenstein. It's a very British book--- her views of religion and politics are those of an Oxford-educated British liberal born in 1910 who was looking at the shadows closing in on Europe in the late 1930s. "The Thirty Years War" was first published in 1938, and Wedgwood's account of a central Europe devastated by a war where a few fanatics and a great many well-meaning but stubborn fools refused to allow peace to be made or reason to prevail was shaped by what was waiting in the wings. It's a very British book, and I don't say that as a criticism. The book is underlain by a sense of humane values--- the Oxford values of reason and moderation ---and Wedgwood is saddened and appalled but never surprised by what happens after 1618. Her account of the chaotic last decade of the war (or wars--- contemporaries saw what was happening as a series of overlapping wars, from the Pyrenees to Poland ---makes the point that here was the worst of all possible worlds. Every player--- Sweden, the Habsburgs, the French, the Spaniards, the German princes, the Dutch ---was willing to have a peace settlement...just as long as they could get one more (just one more!) advantage, however small, for their side. It's a finely written book, and the accounts of the great events--- the Defenestration of Prague, the flight of the hapless Winter King from Bohemia, the deaths of Wallenstein and Gustavus Adolphus ---are masterful. Seventy-five years on, there are academic works and specialist studies that have challenged Wedgwood's views about the social effects of the wars, but her work is still the best place to start for anyone who wonders why the Germanies remained fragmented until Bismarck's day or why a French cardinal and the Pope were the paymasters of a Swedish Lutheran warrior-king fighting the Habsburg emperor, the supposed champion of Catholicism. It's a fine read, and a classic. NYRB books has done a very good thing in reprinting it.
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DoctorM The maps in the NYRB edition are badly set. They weren't all that well done in the yellowed hardcover I first read. But that's a quibble--- there are easily available maps. Wedgwood's style is something I love--- mannered, dryly witty, very Oxbridge. So I must disagree with the reviewer who found it "starchy". I think it's a classic and worth a read. (Now: I did my doctorate on Habsburg Monarchy issues, so I may be pre-disposed to like the 30 Years War (contemporaries said "the German wars") anyway.

message 2: by David (last edited Jun 16, 2012 02:29PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

David But that's a quibble--- there are easily available maps.

It is a quibble, but if it's worth reprinting, it's worth reprinting well.

message 3: by [deleted user] (new)

Her book on the Highland Clearances was very good--hadn't know of this one but I'll look for it.

DoctorM Her books on the English Civil War are also very good.

John wrote: "Her book on the Highland Clearances was very good--hadn't know of this one but I'll look for it."

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