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The Thirty Years War (1938)
by C. V. Wedgwood
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Originally published: London: J. Cape, 1938. New pref. by Anthony Grafton. Includes bibliographical references and index.
If you are going to survey the most complex European War in one volume, Dame Cecily Veronica Wedgewood nailed it. At the end you know most of the major players, you know what they wanted, and you know how they fared.
War is hell, just imagine it lasting for an entire generation with armies crisscrossing the same ground again and again producing famine, depopulation, and disease all in the name of religion, nationalism, and then finally simple greed. C.V. Wedgwood’s The Thirty Years War covers nearly a half century of history from the causes that led to the conflict through its deadly progression and finally it’s aftereffects.
From the outset Wedgwood sets the German domestic and the continental political situations in focus by stating that everyone was expecting war but between Spain and the Dutch while the German economy was on the decline due to the rise of new trading patterns over the course of the last century. It was only with the succession of the Bohemian throne and the ultra-Catholic policies of the Ferdinand II after his election that started the war everyone knew was coming, sooner and further east than expected. The war began as a purely religious conflict that saw the Catholic German princes led by Emperor Ferdinand crush the Protestant opposition because many of the Protestants decided not to help one another until it was too late due to political conservatism that Ferdinand used to his advantage. It wasn’t until Gustavus Adolphus and the Swedes entered the conflict a decade later that the conflict turn slowly from religious to international and an extension of the Bourbon-Habsburg in which the former used first allies then their own troops to prevent the encirclement of France by both branches of the Habsburgs. The negotiations for the end of the war took nearly five years and would change as events in the field would change strategies until finally allied members of the Bourbon and Habsburgs would cut deals with the other side to quickly break deadlocks and achieve peace but how it took almost six years to stand down the armies to prevent chaos.
Wedgwood’s narrative historical style keeps the book a very lively read and makes the war’s progress advancing even when she’s relating how the continuous fighting was affecting the German population. She is very upfront with the men, and a few women, who influenced the conflict throughout it’s course from the great kings of Ferdinand II, Christian IV of Denmark, and Gustavus to the great princes Maximillian I of Bavaria, John George of Saxony, and Frederick Henry of Orange to the mercenary generals that gained in importance as the conflict continued like Albrecht von Wallenstein to finally the political masterminds of Richelieu and Mazarin. With such a large historical cast, Wedgwood’s writing keeps things simple and straight for the read thus allowing the conflict’s long drawn out nature to fully impact the reader and how it affected those out of power. And in describing the aftereffects, Wedgwood disarms many myths about the effects of the war that over three hundred years became considered fact.
The Thirty Years War by C.V. Wedgwood is an excellent narrative history of a conflict that saw the end of one kind of conflict and the beginnings of another with interesting personalities that fought and conducted policy around it while also showing the effects on the whole population. If you’re interested in seventeenth-century history or military history, this book is for you.
So many exquisite passages. Wedgwood pulls our attention in close, then back to the heights with the skill of the littérateur; she sets a scene, builds tension, interrogates conflicting motivations and evaluates consequences with a wry impartiality. She gives us political intrigue and psychological machinations worthy of Aeschylus or Plutarch or Shakespeare—the trampling of moral passions by raison d'état, betrayals and portents of divine vengeance. Fate unexpectedly separating men from their ambitions. Rats in the corn. Dispossessed Palatine princes, and mutinous mercenary armies cracking open crypts to lop off the ringed fingers of dead abbots. The wandering soothsayers of Saxony, and Lord High Chancellor Oxenstierna passing a sleepless night before the battle of Nördlingen. Calculation and cunning and the desperate defense of dynastic dominions and bishoprics. Fragile alliances founded on offerings of sisters and daughters, sweetened with bullion from Peruvian mines. Richelieu’s ruthlessness and the seven-year-old daughter of the Duke of Orleans bouncing about the Louvre singing all the most vulgar songs she could learn against the Cardinal. Plague and plunder. Priests tied under wagons to crawl on all fours until they dropped. The bodies of criminals torn from the gallows and devoured by starving villagers.
Wedgwood, writing in the late 1930s, makes no extravagant claims for The Lessons of History or The Glory of War. In comments following her account of the battle of Breitenfeld, she notes that some events have a moral effect quite apart from their practical importance. To the Protestants of Europe, both then and later, the victory of Gustavus at Breitenfeld in September 1631 looked like the liberation of Europe from the fear of Catholic-Hapsburg tyranny. In light of fact, however, the most perilous time for the Protestant Cause was yet to come, following the Swedish defeat at Nördlingen three years later—
…Yet this cannot affect the position of Breitenfeld in the history of Europe. Almost at once it became a symbol. The giant personality of the King, and his belief in himself, endowed his every action with miraculous significance, most of all this great battle, the first Protestant victory. And therefore it must take its place in the simplified tradition which is customarily called history, not because of what it achieved but because of what men thought it had achieved.
Here Wedgwood makes her keenest point—that the historian’s art does not uncover the past so much as it reveals how we think of the past.
This book was loved, without a doubt, despite the lack of causality, it was a narrative feast of how.
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Wikipedia in English (5)
This study of the Thirty Years War (1618 to 1648), was first published in 1938. Beginning as a conflict between Protestants and Catholics, the War gradually became transformed into a struggle to determine whether the Hapsburgs would gain control of all Germany.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)940.24 — History and Geography Europe Europe Early Modern 1453-1914 30 years war 1618-48
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An edition of this book was published by NYRB Classics.