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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

The Thirty Years War

The Thirty Years War - Cicely Veronica Wedgwood I read this book in preparation for a trip to Europe to trace the wandering route of by wife's ancestors. Both her and my ancestors benefited from the Thirty Years War. That's because the devastation caused by the war depopulation much of central Europe making farm land available to people from neighboring regions. Therefore in the mid 1600s following the end of the Thirty Years War, both our ancestors migrated out of the Swiss Canton of Bern into the neighboring Alsace region. Their Anabaptist religion made them unwelcome in Switzerland, but having some open farm land to settle on probably contributed to their willingness to move. In subsequent years my wife's ancestors and mine migrated in divergent directions, but I won't go into that here.

The Thirty Years' War occurred from 1618 to 1648 and involved most of the countries of Europe though most of the famine, disease, and devastation caused by the war occurred in Central Europe (i.e. modern day Germany).

Obviously, a war that lasts thirty years cannot be described in any meaningful detail in a review such as this. Wikipedia has a good summary of the war. So what follows are some things that caught my attention that in many cases varied from my understanding of the war prior to reading the book.

Was the war caused by the Reformation?
The Reformation had occurred nearly a hundred years earlier and the fighting between the German Lutherans and Catholics had ended with the 1526 Diet of Speyer which was later ratified as The Peace of Augsburg (1555). So the causal relationship between the Reformation and the Thirty Years War was indirect.

Was it a war between the Catholics and Protestants?
Broadly speaking it was, but both sides were divided by multiple interests and jealousies. The Catholics were divided between the Spanish/Holy Roman Emperor (Habsburg), the French (Bourbon), and various Catholic German states with the Pope usually working to prevent the Habsburg from becoming too powerful. The Protestants were divided between the Calvinist and Lutherans (Peace of Augsburg made no provisions for the Calvinists). Furthermore, the Protestant side was divided between hundreds of semi-independent German States, Sweden, Denmark, and Holland; All of which were very jealous of each other's power and were resistant to any person or state from their side becoming too powerful. It was common for soldiers doing the fighting (and sometimes their leaders) to switch sides whenever they were taken captive. In the last phase of the war it evolved into a proxy war between France and Spain, both of which were nominally Catholic. Religion was a factor in the war, but secluar interests were paramount.

Why was Spain involved in Germany?
I was surprised how much the conflict between Holland and Spain was involved in the war. I always thought the Dutch got their freedom from Spain in 1609 when fighting in the Dutch revolt ended. But the Dutch Revolt was ended with a truce that had an twelve year time limit. Everybody knew that Spain was planning to use this twelve year period (1609–1621) to better their military position in order to retake possession of the United Provinces (Netherlands). In order to assure future military success against the Dutch, Spain needed a military supply/trade route through the German states (generally along the Rhine River) that stretched from Northern Italy to the Low Countries. Spain and Austria (both Habsburg dynasties) therefore were very much concerned that countries in that region be either neutral or sympathetic to their interests. Meanwhile, the Dutch helped finance the Protestant cause in Germany in order to prevent this from happening.

The beginning of the Thirty Years' War is traditionally attributed to a very colorful event commonly referred to as The Second Defenestration of Prague. It happened on May 23, 1618 when four Catholic Lords Regents and their secretary were thrown out of a third floor window by leaders of the Bohemian Revolt. The fall was about 70 feet (21 meters). The men survived which Catholics attributed to the miracle of angels catching them. Protestants attributed their survival to their landing in a heap of horse manure. Modern historians think they were probably saved by their coats and uneven castle walls that slowed down their fall.

Negotiations for the end of the war dragged on for over three years while fighting continued. If the military position of the Emperor Ferdinand III had not been deteriorating the war would have gone on longer. The book has a long discussion at the end discussing the results of the war. Historians argue about the reported losses in population and material devastation. Apparently, some of the contemporaneous records have been shown to be exaggerations. Ironically, the position of the peasants improved after the war because the drop in population gave their labor increased economic importance and value.

The book includes the following summary of the war:
"The peace of Westphalia was like most peace treaties, a rearrangement of the European map ready for the next war. ... The war solved no problem, its effects both immediate and indirect were either negative or disastrous. Morally subversive, economically destructive, socially degrading, confused in its causes, devious in its course, futile in its results, it is the outstanding example in European history of meaningless conflict."
Indeed, it was like all wars.