The Thirty Years’ War 
by Geoffrey Parker.
Routledge, 340 pp., £20, January 1985, 0 7100 9788 3
Show More
Show More

Geoffrey Parker’s new book on the Thirty Years’ War is the first major study of the subject to appear in English for nearly half a century. To be more exact, it is now 47 years since the publication of a book on the war by C.V. Wedgwood, as she was then. That graceful and perceptive study – a remarkable achievement for a 28-year-old historian – remains an example of traditional narrative history at its formal best. The author delights in the kind of historical set-piece which had appealed to Gardiner, to Gibbon or to Clarendon. Each new character who comes onto the stage provides the occasion for a formal portrait. We hear of the florid complexions and the addiction to alcohol of John George of Saxony and Christian IV of Denmark, of the ‘mouse-coloured hair’ and shrill voice of the Elector Maximilian of Bavaria, of the habitual kneeling and hunting of the Emperor Ferdinand II, of the royal bearing of Gustav Adolf of Sweden, and the pathological sensitivity to noise of the imperial general Wallenstein. Major events, like the battles of Breitenfeld and Lützen, and striking incidents, such as the sack of Magdeburg and the so-called Defenestration of Prague, when three supporters of the Habsburgs were thrown from the palace windows, are recounted at length and in style. It is a long book, more than five hundred pages of it, and a leisurely one, with time for recounting anecdotes and for dwelling on the surface of events as well as on their significance. It is saved from superficiality by the author’s strong sense of the dramatic, and more especially of the tragic. Written in the shadow of Munich and the Anschluss, the book was designed to reveal the futility of war. ‘Morally subversive, economically destructive, socially degrading, confused in its causes, devious in its course, futile in its result’, the Thirty Years War was, she said, ‘the outstanding example in European history of meaningless conflict’. The participants ‘wanted peace and they fought for thirty years to be sure of it. They did not learn then, and have not since, that war breeds only war.’

Essentially a political history (despite some moving pages on the effects of the fighting on ordinary people), based for the most part on German sources (although there are references to French, Spanish and Swedish documents), Dame Veronica’s account of the war was scarcely challenged for a generation. Robert Ergang’s The Myth of the All-Destructive Fury of the Thirty Years’ War (1956) concentrated on the exaggerated accounts of its economic consequences. S.H. Steinberg’s The ‘Thirty Years’ War ‘and the Conflict for European Hegemony (1967), a somewhat perversely original essay, argued that there had never been a Thirty Years’ War at all and that it should be dissolved into the general European conflicts of the years 1600-1660.

A more serious rival to Wedgwood’s account is J.V. Polisensky’s book on the subject, which appeared in English in 1971 and deals with the war from two different points of view, the Czech and the social. Rejecting Dame Veronica’s study as a mere ‘portrait gallery of rulers, statesmen, diplomats and generals’, Polisensky interprets the war as a conflict between two cultures: the one Protestant, democratic and bourgeois on the Dutch model, and the other Catholic, absolutist and ‘feudal’ on the model of Spain, with Bohemia as the outstanding example of a society which wanted to follow the first model but was forced into the mould of the second. The economic and social consequences of the war are studied by Polisensky with special reference to the little town of Zlin in Moravia (a town which now rejoices, if that is the word, in the name of Gottwaldov). In this way a bold general interpretation is joined to a precise local study. It is the join between the two which is problematic.

There was thus some reason for a publisher to approach Geoffrey Parker a few years ago and invite him to produce a new account of the war. The resulting volume is as obviously a product of the 1980s as Dame Veronica’s was of the 1930s. One is leisurely and literary, a book for the general reader; the other brisk, highly professional, and aimed at the academic market. The last thirty years’ worth of published research on different aspects of the war is daunting in its sheer mass and in any case largely impenetrable to all but polyglots, since serious contributions have been made by scholars from Czechoslovakia and Hungary, Denmark and Sweden, Spain and the Netherlands, as well as from the Germanies, France and England. Having come to the conclusion that the task was ‘greater than any individual scholar could ever cope with alone’, Parker proceeded, in a characteristically energetic and enterprising manner, to recruit a team of nine collaborators (not to mention research assistants). The team is a strong one, including as it does Bonney on France, Elliott on Spain, Evans on Central Europe, Petersen on Denmark, Roberts on Sweden, and so on. These contributions, which amount to about 40 per cent of the whole, are signed, but they are fitted so neatly into the grand design that the result is a book and not just a collection of essays by various hands.

The organisation is simple but effective. Four central chronological chapters are sandwiched between two general surveys of Europe before 1618 and of ‘the war in myth, legend and history’. We hear in turn of ‘the indecisive war, 1618-1629’ presented first from the Protestant and then from the Catholic point of view; of the ‘total war’ of the 1630s; and finally of the ‘coundown to peace’ of the 1640s. A comparison of the book with its predecessors shows gains on a number of fronts, together with a few losses. Parker is rightly concerned to treat the war as a European phenomenon. If he does not fill in the background to the Bohemian revolt of 1618 in any detail – for this the reader will have to return to Polisensky – he is prepared to cast his net wide enough to include the Swedish invasion of Poland (1621), the War of the Mantuan Succession (1628) and even the Russo-Polish War of Smolensk (1632-4), as well as producing a useful diagram showing which states were involved in the war at which times.

Despite the lack of room for more than the briefest description of even the most decisive battles, Parker’s volume is, as one might have expected from him and his collaborator Roberts, particularly strong on the military side. The section of the final chapter devoted to armies offers a balanced summary of the main features of the so-called ‘military revolution’ of the period, the innovations in drill, discipline, firepower and so on (a subject over which Parker and Roberts have exchanged a few salvoes in their time). No less important is the awareness of military factors which is expressed in the narrative itself.

As political history, the volume is almost equally successful. On the origins of the war, the most interesting suggestion, to my mind, is the idea that we need to take a long view and see Europe between the 1520s and the 1640s as an unstable system in which ‘confessional and political advantage seldom totally coincided.’ In the third chapter, the onward march of the narrative comes to a temporary halt so that three contributors can make their analysis of ‘the practice of absolutism’, the Habsburg system of government and the policies of the Emperor Ferdinand II. The concluding section is a direct assault on the conventional view of the futility of the war. Far from failing to solve problems, so Parker argues, ‘the war in fact settled the affairs of Germany in such a way that neither religion nor Habsburg imperialism ever produced another major conflict there.’ But at what a price!

Rather less successful is the treatment of the religious aspect of the war, which does not seem to interest Parker very much. It is interesting to learn that Wallenstein once tried to persuade the city of Magdeburg that ‘this is not a war of religion in any way,’ but such incidental comments are no real substitute for a sustained discussion of the place of religion in the long and bitter conflict. It is doubtless a little simple-minded to ask (as so many examination questions have done over the years), ‘Was the Thirty Years’ War a religious war or not?’ but it is surely impossible to understand what happened, at least in the 1620s, without taking religious ideals, convictions and hatreds more seriously than anyone takes them (or helps the reader to take them) in this volume. It might also be worth asking the question, for whom the war was religious: whether or not ordinary people took the religious element in the struggle more seriously than many of their rulers did, and whether or not they were as intensely involved in this struggle as some had been in the religious wars in France.

We do not in fact hear the voices of the people very often in these pages. The crowd bursts onto the stage only once, with the revolt of the peasants of Upper Austria in 1626. They carried black flags bearing a skull and the words ‘It must be,’ because, as Wedgwood remarks, they knew that ‘the revolt would probably mean death for its leaders, whether they won or lost.’ However, neither she nor Gerhard Benecke, in the brief space allotted to him in the Parker volume, tells us whether the revolt was primarily a Protestant protest against the policies of a Catholic duke, or whether it expressed other kinds of grievance. Occasionally one catches a glimpse of a face in the crowd, or hears the sound of an individual voice. In her book, Wedgwood quoted from one of the German peasant diaries which survive from this period, and deserve further study in themselves – that of Hartich Sierk of North Ditmarsh: ‘God send that there may be an end at last; God send that there may be peace again. God in Heaven send us peace.’ Parker himself refers more than once to the war memoirs of an English mercenary, Captain Sydnam Poyntz (there seems to have been no equivalent of Rifleman Harris in this war, not even in the ranks of the Swedes, despite the literacy campaign conducted by the Church in that country). In the few pages which are all he has been allocated to deal with the vast subject of ‘the war and German society’, Christopher Friedrichs mentions the diary of Hans Heberle, a shoemaker from a village near Ulm, but he hasn’t the space for quotations, or indeed anything more than a summary of the problems involved in assessing the damage done by thirty years of fighting, killing and looting. For the social history of the war the reader must look elsewhere, to Polisensky’s micro-history of Zlin or to Hubert Langer’s lively survey, The Thirty Years’ War (1978), which ranges from the business of raising armies to the image of the war in newspapers and in the arts. Ultimately, Parker seems to agree with Wedgwood that the history of the war is fundamentally the history of those individuals who were in a position to take decisions. The challenge to which he does not respond is that of revealing the cultural and social factors which were at work at this level too – of seeing the social in the political.

All the same, the book which the team has produced is the best as well as the most up-to-date introduction to the war and indeed to the period in which it occurred, incorporating as it does so much new research. Given the lack of studies in English on King Christian IV of Denmark, an able ruler and an interesting personality – condemned, it seems, to play second fiddle for all eternity to his more glamorous rival Gustav Adolf – the pages by E. Ladewig Petersen on the king’s policies and his legendary ‘ten barrels of gold’ are particularly welcome.

The volume is well turned out, with a useful chronology, maps, tables, an excellent index, 24 well-chosen illustrations, and a bibliographical essay which refers to contributions in nine languages. It makes an obvious starting-point for future research, and given the high level of competence and the pan-European viewpoint, is bound to be translated into a number of European languages. Even the spelling of names is generally satisfactory, though it does seem odd to refer to ‘Bratislava’ as a city in ‘Hungary’, to allow ‘Bethlen Gabor’ to be succeeded by ‘George Rakoczi’, or, given the principle of using ‘the form generally preferred by the particular place’, to write ‘Zengg’ and ‘Elbing’ rather than ‘Senj’ and ‘Elblag’. The style, as in other collaborative works, is somewhat impersonal; even Michael Roberts, the one writer who is in the same class as C.V. Wedgwood, is not quite his usual epigrammatic self on this occasion. Although the book is always clear and often vigorous, I can’t help missing Wedgwood’s imaginative power, her ability to move the reader, her sense of tragedy.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences