Review of The Thirty Years’ War

April 15, 2010

THE THIRTY YEARS’ WAR. Second Edition. Edited by Geoffrey Parker. London: Routledge, 1997. Pp. xlv + 316.

The Thirty Years’ War is a no-nonsense, blow-by-blow account of the war which embroiled Europe from 1618 to 1648. The account manages to be concise (only 169 pages narrate the history of war) without sacrificing detail. The detail, however, is concentrated on the military and diplomatic maneuvers of the war. The first chapter on the background to the war is not sufficient for the average reader and there is also little commentary throughout the book. More background about the key players is needed, especially since some, like the Holy Roman Empire and Bohemia, are unfamiliar to modern readers. Novices of European history may want to leave this book to those already familiar with the war. These latter readers will appreciate the fast pace of the narrative. The volume is improved with a chronology, four maps, several tables and illustrations, 24 pages of bibliographical essays, and a 35-page index.

The Thirty Years’ War started as a Bohemian revolt against the Holy Roman Emperor but ended as a major European war. Midway through the volume, there is a helpful division of the complicated war into three key stages. The first was the involvement of an imperial elector, Frederick V of the Palatinate, and Spain in 1619, only a year after Bohemia’s revolt. At this stage, the revolt became first a civil war and then a foreign war. The second was the Swedish invasion of Pomerania in 1630, which turned back the initial imperial success. The third was the peace of Prague in 1635, which only ended the conflict between the emperor and the leading Protestant states. The war continued between the Empire and Sweden and France.

The reader can discern some causes of the war’s spread throughout Europe. First, the Holy Roman Empire controlled so much of central Europe that its internal affairs had to be the concern of other European powers. An independence movement within the Empire could have major geopolitical implications. Other powers often decided to become involved in hopes of shaping a favorable outcome, rather than risking an unfavorable one by remaining on the sidelines. Second, at least one European power was almost automatically involved in imperial affairs. Spain’s royal family and the Habsburgs of Austria were branches of the same family. Spain also had its own European empire, including the southern Netherlands and northern Italy which both bordered the Empire. Spain often diverted resources from these possessions to assist the Empire. This presented the Dutch and Italians with an opportunity to regain their territory. Third, other European powers were not only tempted to enter the conflict for their own reasons; just as often they were invited. Even without Spanish assistance, the Protestant German states were not a match for Vienna. They needed allies. Recruiting allies became a tit-for-tat game. The Empire recruited Spain and the papacy, so the Protestant states recruited Sweden and France. Thus the conflict expanded into ever wider circles.

There is also the question of the length of the war. Although the warring parties often wanted peace sooner rather than later because of the great expense of maintaining an army, they sometimes put off peace, hoping that one more victory would give them the advantage at the negotiating table. Even in the closing days of the war, while thousands of delegates were meeting at the peace conference in Munster, Sweden was still waging war against the Empire in order to force more concessions from Vienna.

Was the Thirty Years’ War essentially a war of religion between Catholics and Protestants? The evidence is mixed. First, the Bohemians revolted against the emperor because he installed his Catholic son as their king against their preference for a Protestant. They feared this would mean the end of Protestantism in Bohemia. They therefore decided that some measure of independence from Vienna was necessary to guarantee their religious freedom. The other Protestant states of the Empire, like Brandenburg and Saxony, soon adopted this view. It is therefore difficult to determine whether the war was about religion itself or imperial subsidiarity, for which religion was a test case. Second, both a Catholic League and a Protestant Union existed among the warring states of the Empire during the course of the war. However, the very fact that the Catholic League was distinct from the imperial government reveals that the imperial agenda was not perfectly aligned with the promotion of the Catholic faith. The Protestant Union, meanwhile, was less cohesive than its counterpart. It always struggled to find stable leadership, inside the Empire or out (the king of England turned down their offer). Third, both political and religious divisions existed within the Protestant camp for most of the war. As a general rule, the Lutherans were politically conservative. At least the most important Lutheran, the Elector of Saxony, was loath to directly confront the Emperor. The Calvinists, by comparison, were political radicals. Most of them, like Frederick V, wanted to overthrow the yoke of their Catholic ruler. The Calvinists spent considerable time convincing the Lutherans to join them in a frontal attack on the emperor. Meanwhile, Lutheran and Calvinist clergy and theologians spent more time condemning one another than condemning Catholics. Fourth, there was also a warring party which was never solidly in the Catholic or Protestant camp: France. France was a powerful kingdom in the heart of Europe but it was surrounded by the Hapsburg family: Spain to the west and the Holy Roman Empire to the east. French foreign policy, ironically led by a cardinal, supported Protestant neighbors against Spain and the Empire. Finally, a case for a primarily religious war can only be made before the peace of Prague which reconciled the Lutherans and even many of the Calvinists to the Emperor. From then until the end of the war, Sweden and France fought on German soil for their own purely political motives. Talk about the right to Protestant worship of the German states was long forgotten.

France was not the only power which subordinated religious goals to nationalist ones. The papacy itself, under Urban VIII, indirectly weakened the Catholic cause by supporting Italian nationalism against Spain. During the war, Spain was sometimes compelled to defend its possessions in northern Italy rather than relieve the emperor against his Protestant enemies. (If this did not create Spain’s belief that it was a better champion of Catholicism than the pope, it at least reinforced it.) Therefore, although religion was clearly a significant factor in the war, it must be considered along with, and probably under, political factors. These political factors were mainly nationalist. France wanted to counterbalance the power of the Habsburgs and even regain sovereignty over territories on its border with the Empire. Italy wanted independence from Spain, which controlled not only some of its northern parts but even the kingdom of Naples in the south. The Dutch Republic in the Netherlands likewise wanted independence from Spain. Although the German states were not seeking outright independence, they did want greater autonomy. Because the Thirty Years’ War was fought during the early modern period, it may be considered a bridge between the politics of Christendom and the politics of nationalism. When the war began, it looked like the violent conclusion of the Reformation’s division of Christendom. When it ended, it looked like the birth pains of the modern nation-state.

If the Thirty Years’ War was at least in a secondary sense a war of religion, who won, Catholics or Protestants? In one sense, the Catholics lost and the Protestants won. Many in the Catholic party wanted the complete elimination of Protestantism. Virtually everyone in the Protestant camp, however, wanted only to preserve their religious freedom under their Catholic rulers. In another sense, it was a draw. If a handful of radicals on each side thought that God would give complete victory to the true religion, then neither side won. Northern Europe remained Protestant while southern Europe was saved for the Catholic Church.

The Thirty Years’ War devastated central Europe. Armies razed cities and consumed the countryside. Although there is a little information about the wars’ effect on civilian life throughout the volume, the final chapter is fortunately dedicated to this question. Over 200 years before General Sherman declared, “War is hell,” German civilians already knew it. An entire generation knew only war. Women and children, who could not join the armies, were most vulnerable to the raids on poorly protected towns and villages. As the armies destroyed or consumed the food supplies, there were reports of mass starvation and even cannibalism. It is difficult to find good which came out of the war. The Habsburg family both in Spain and Austria lost a great deal of prestige and entered a period of gradual decline. Power on the Continent shifted away from empires toward smaller political units. Unfortunately, the volume does not help the reader to see the lasting outcome of the war. Its account of the war ends with the peace conference and the final expenses of demobilization. Perhaps the authors wished to avoid the controversy which still surrounds the war which helped form modern Europe by focusing almost exclusively on narrating its battles and negotiations. If the reader is European, he is likely to have his own ideas about the causes and results of the Thirty Years’ War.