Europe’s Tragedy

David Parrott is impressed with an accessible yet scholarly new history of the Thirty Years’ War

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Reviewed by: David Parrott
Author: Peter H Wilson
Publisher: Allen Lane
Price (RRP): £35

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On 24 October 1648 delegates at the Westphalia negotiations swore to uphold the two treaties finally settling most of the issues that had engulfed Europe in uninterrupted war since 1618. For generations of English readers, knowledge of the Thirty Years’ War has been gained through the classic study by Veronica Wedgwood. Writing in 1938 as Europe was sliding into another conflagration which a previous ‘war to end wars’ had failed to prevent, Wedgwood’s tone was understandably bitter. The Thirty Years’ War was “an unmitigated catastrophe… the outstanding example in European history of meaningless conflict”. Her grim verdict has endured, and with it the association of the war with the First World War, not least because few historians have possessed the historical and linguistic breadth to undertake the task of writing a new history of it.

Stepping up to this challenge, Peter Wilson offers a large-scale, compelling account of the origins of the war, its progressive enlargement despite repeated attempts to bring the conflict under control, and the sequence of military and diplomatic initiatives with which it was finally ended. Attractively and clearly written, his book is also profoundly scholarly: it makes use of historical writing in half a dozen European languages and integrates decades of studies on every aspect of the war. This total immersion in the subject, and its heroic yet accessible approach, ensure that the book will become for many years the definitive English-language account of the war. So how does this new study modify previous accounts?

Perhaps most importantly Wilson is an enemy of historical inevitability. The first 300 pages of this book, far from being a countdown to inexorable catastrophe, are largely about why the war should not have occurred. Against the familiar line that a chaotic and enfeebled Holy Roman empire of German principalities, cities and micro-territories was already long past its sell-by date in 1618, Wilson offers a feisty defence of imperial institutions and of their remarkable success during the later 16th century in solving problems of territorial inheritance, religious rights and political rivalries.

He emphasises that key political actors within the empire, far from being disillusioned, were actively working to pursue damage-limitation and to accommodate new and divergent interests. While a proto-national state like France was torn apart by religious and civil war, the empire enjoyed peace and prosperity and could have continued to do so. And not just before the war, but in its aftermath, the empire continued to be an effective political system for resolving conflicting interests and political or religious tensions.

Far from being inevitable, the outbreak and the protracted war required the obsessive and fanatical determination of a few men (and at least one woman, the odious Amalia Elizabeth of Hesse-Kassel), prepared to gamble peace against lunatic odds in pursuit of a heady mixture of radical religious utopianism and political self-interest. Although they were all too successful in provoking and continuing the war, there is a more encouraging message here than that offered back in 1938. The war was not a struggle fought between uncompromising ideological and political power blocs until one or the other was annihilated. Wilson reminds us that on all sides and among all the belligerents there were moderates, usually in the majority, whose strongest impulse was to negotiate, compromise and work towards peace.

The book is no less sceptical of the traditional, apocalyptic interpretation of the armies fighting as huge, unwieldy agents of destruction, outside the control of any state and running riot across Europe in a self-perpetuating orgy of plunder. Such assumptions have fuelled a view that the opening decade of the conflict unleashed a spasm of uncontrolled violence that ran its terrible course to an exhausted conclusion in 1648. Wilson argues that this myth was largely a product of contemporary and later propaganda, and that its chief consequence has been to detract from the importance of the second half of the war as a complex and significant period of military and political history, which stands comparison with any of the more familiar landmarks of the earlier war years.

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Dr David Parrott is lecturer in modern history at the University of Oxford