Book reviews / History

Book review: The Thirty Years War – Europe’s Tragedy

This was such a good but incredibly long read, 851 pages of very small print. Really needed the old spectacles to tackle this book.

For those of you not familiar with the Thirty Years War (aka, the most interesting war), it took place for 1618-1648 and involved almost all of Europe, though mainly what was Central Europe of the time, or the Holy Roman Empire (not quite Germany, but including lots of what would become Germany).


I was obsessed with the Thirty Years War when I was in university, it was just so interesting. I was so lost in being interested in the period that I didn’t realise that I had volunteered to do my ‘seminar’ (we all had to lead a class on a topic) on the exact area that my professor studied (how the war was financed). BUT IT WAS SO INTERESTING!

In some / many ways, this book has an alternative interpretation of the main causes of the war then I was used to. For example, the common interpretation about the causes of the war was that it was a consequence of not quite settling the outstanding religious questions in the Peace of Augsburg (1555). But we also know it was partly political, because otherwise would France have funded protestant countries to continue wars against post Catholic Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor himself.

It has been almost 20 years (blood hell…) since my undergraduate years, so of course interpretations will have changed because of new research. And Wilson makes very persuasive arguments about the nature of the conflict being primarily motivated by dynastic gain and politics. But religion did have its place, especially in those moments where there were radical leaders (both Protestant and Catholic) who tipped events towards war (or continuing war) rather than peace. I found all the court records from the Holy Roman Empire really interesting, especially showing how much it still functioned and dealt with complex issues right up to the outbreak of the war.

I was mostly engaged throughout the book, but sometimes the descriptions of battles just made my eyes glaze over. I think partly because there were just so many commanders at various times, and you couldn’t tell by their names which side they were on (for example, Sweden often had German commanders in their employment).

I just enjoyed the whole thing, it was so engaging for the length and given that I had already known the subject area reasonably well. I now want to read some more on the Early Modern Period again as it’s such a fascinating time. I did enjoy the digs at ahistorical interpretations (that were fairly common) about the changes in military organisation during the war as well. For example, Sweden was always cited as a more advanced form of military organisation as they had conscription. However, as Wilson points out, only poor countries who couldn’t afford professional soldiers recruited in this way. So interesting!

I’m not sure its for the faint of heart, but I would so recommend this book. It’s such a rich and interesting history and you’ll learn so much about the time period. I now want to buy his other books which is all documents in translation! Who doesn’t want full text versions of the many treaties and such made throughout 30 years of conflict?

I really would like to find a critical review of the book because I think it would be interesting to see where he’s at odds with other scholarship or if the historical research in the last two decades has reshaped our understanding of the war so fundementally.

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