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The Thirty Years War by C. V. Wedgwood

The Thirty Years War (1938)

by C. V. Wedgwood

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Before I started this, the sum total of my knowledge on the Thirty Years War did not extend much further than being able to guess its duration. In my defence, it turns out that the causes and motivations of this conflict were rather baffling even at the time – indeed even to those involved. One of the most startling facts in here is the revelation that, when all sides met in 1645 to discuss terms for peace, it took them nearly twelve months of debate just to agree on what exactly the previous quarter-century of fighting had been all about. National integrity? Religious freedom? Self-aggrandisement? Dynastic feuding? Why, yes…to all of the above.

The very geography is confused. ‘Germany’ at the time meant the Holy Roman Empire – summed up most memorably by Voltaire as being neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire – which in 1618 comprised a patchwork of semi-independent Central European margraviates, duchies and principalities of varying religions and allegiances. Its boundaries were not clear. It claimed to include, for instance, the Swiss Confederation, which had actually been functionally independent for a long time – while the King of Bohemia, which was nominally a separate state, retained his voting privileges within the Empire. ‘The system,’ as Wedgwood puts it, ‘had long ceased to conform to any known definition of a state.’

Across this politically hazy landscape strides an assortment of politically weak figures – spies and diplomats, acquisitive landgravines, petty princelings and mercenary warlords, most of them not so much prosecuting the war as merely failing to stop it. The most obvious tension is the three-way religious split between Lutherans, Calvinists and Catholics. But the underlying dynastic struggle cut across denominations: what was in fact being realised was the long-running power play between the Bourbons and the Habsburgs. Like a proto-Vietnam, Germany was used by the superpowers of France and Spain to further their war against each other. This is why, despite the religious motivations of many of the local leaders, Catholic France was happy to ally with Protestant Sweden if it meant taking the Habsburgs down a peg or two.

The super-armies that resulted from these opportunistic alliances were beyond the control of any state. The idea of a national standing army was then in its infancy – indeed it's one of the concepts that the Thirty Years War has been said to have brought about – and most soldiers were mercenaries, coming from a whole range of different countries and of dubious loyalty even at the best of times. They roamed around, switching sides now and again depending on who paid better, laying waste vast swathes of the country. The cumulative impact was tremendous: crops were trampled, villages were destroyed, all food and money was funnelled into driving the mass of soldiery, and German peasants were stuck with plague, famine and near-constant starvation.

At Calw the pastor saw a woman gnawing the raw flesh of a dead horse on which a hungry dog and some ravens were also feeding. In Alsace the bodies of criminals were torn from the gallows and devoured; in Zweibrücken a woman confessed to having eaten her child. Acorns, goats' skins, grass, were all cooked in Alsace; cats, dogs, and rats were sold in the market at Worms. In Fulda and Coburg and near Frankfort and the great refugee camp, men went in terror of being killed and eaten by those maddened by hunger. Near Worms hands and feet were found half cooked in a gipsies' cauldron. Not far from Wertheim human bones were discovered in a pit, fresh, fleshless, sucked to the marrow.

Out of the maelstrom, a new kind of Europe emerged – one dominated less by dynasties and religions than by the growing idea of the nation state. Not just borders, but motivations seemed to have shifted. Wedgwood warns that this idea can be overstated, but she states it well:

A new emotional urge had to be found to fill the place of spiritual conviction; national feeling welled up to fill the gap. […] The terms Protestant and Catholic gradually lose their vigour; the terms German, Frenchman, Swede, assume a gathering menace.

CV Wedgwood sounds like an interesting character and I rather love her old-school, no-nonsense, technically excellent prose style. If nothing else this book is a masterpiece of historical synthesis, drawing on and citing innumerable primary sources in English, French, German and others. Still, to me at least it's not so essential as a narrative that I wouldn't be prepared to give it up in favour of a more modern treatment that benefits from more recent research.

But lots to explore here, and plenty of astonishing anecdotes and characters to be uncovered. Personally, I liked Christian of Brunswick, who had to have an arm amputated after a nasty injury. He went through with the amputation publicly, to a fanfare of trumpets, and promptly had a medal struck with the inscription Altera restat ["I've still got the other one"]! ( )
1 vote Widsith | Mar 24, 2015 |
Read in August, 2013

The Thirty Years War by Cicely Veronica Wedgwood. Narrated by Charlton Griffin

nonfic> hist> central european war> prossies versus catlicks

The second defenestration of Prague. (The First Defenestration of Prague involved the killing of seven members of the city council by a crowd of radical Czech Hussites on 30 July 1419.)

Starting 1618, central europe errupted into a series of politico-religious conflicts that near bankrupted all of the (many) contestants, and the body count, according to wiki was, can you guess?: (view spoiler)

Utter lunacy.

Dense pedant-friendly text that covers all pretty well, yet some writers have a knack of drawing in a reader, so am left with the feeling that Tuchman, Massie and Fraser would have done a slightly better job. but we will never know.
  mimal | Aug 26, 2013 |
  saintmarysaccden | Aug 2, 2013 |
This book is excellent narrative history writing and I know next to nothing about this era so I am going through it a second time. This was written in the 1930's and the author has a very literary as opposed to journalistic writing style. She does an excellent job of taking some of the main actors in the events all through the thirty year span of the book. Ferdinard III is the head of the Austrian Hapsburgs. Her portrayal of him was so vivid and true to life it made it easier to remember.
This war was a world war of it's time. Spain, France, Austria and Sweden were some of the main combatants. They fought back and forth all over for Germany for the whole 30 years. At the end of the war German civilization was put back 200 years. There were numerous and sundry types of death and destruction. The battles were the least of it. Disease and the pillaging of the soldiers caused the greatest damage.
Soldiers killed each other and ravaged the civilian population. The descriptions of the destruction of the towns and countryside left me with more than one bad memory.
Through the thirty year span the reasons for the war changed. In the beginning it was primarily religion. The revolution of Protestant Prague against Catholic Austria began the conflict. Sweden invades Germany and Spain fights against Holland from Spain and the Spanish Netherlands. There were very few parts of Central and Western Europe that are not fighting at some point in time.
The author provides a very insightful analysis of the effects of the war on the countries involved and the area where the fighting took place. My understanding is that the war brought the end of medieval times and replaced the power of the churches with the beginning of nation states.
Excellent book and fascinating times. Change and destruction went hand in hand in a very significant era of European history. ( )
1 vote wildbill | Aug 19, 2012 |
Jolly good ( )
  Eyejaybee | Jun 26, 2010 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
C. V. Wedgwoodprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Grafton, AnthonyForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0416320201, Paperback)

Europe in 1618 was riven between Protestants and Catholics, Bourbon and Hapsburg--as well as empires, kingdoms, and countless principalities. After angry Protestants tossed three representatives of the Holy Roman Empire out the window of the royal castle in Prague, world war spread from Bohemia with relentless abandon, drawing powers from Spain to Sweden into a nightmarish world of famine, disease, and seemingly unstoppable destruction.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:31:43 -0400)

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