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The Thirty Years’ War: Europe’s Tragedy

by Peter H. Wilson, Belknap Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2009, $35

For the avid reader of military history, the Thirty Years’ War has everything—European Realpolitik, religious conflict, dramatic characters, military innovation and violence enough to satisfy the most lurid imagination or touch the coldest heart. University of Hull history professor Peter H. Wilson’s volume is a superbly written, thorough introduction to the most violent, and arguably most confusing, conflict in European history.

Wilson sets out to make three points about the war: First, he seeks “to reconnect the different elements through their common relationship to the imperial constitution.” Second, he argues that though religion played a major role in participants’ lives, the conflict was not waged over religion. Third, he argues against the idea that the Thirty Years’ War was inevitable. The first 260 pages of the book limn the war’s political, diplomatic, military and confessional contexts. Wilson even provides a lucid description of the constitution of the Holy Roman Empire. After that, he narrates the course of the war, with a particular focus on military, political and diplomatic maneuvering, before closing with several chapters on the cost and consequences of the war.

Unlike many other historians of early modern European military affairs, Wilson has little interest in the debate over the so-called “military revolution.” Far from fitting into the technologically determinative military revolution narrative, Wilson argues, “It is more appropriate to see imperial ways of war as an amalgam of different experiences and ideas.”

He does just that, discussing two major influences on warfare at the time: fighting on the Turkish frontier and positional warfare in the Netherlands. He examines not just the technical or theoretical changes but looks at the networks of experienced officers that developed in the years before the outbreak of the war.

Wilson has little patience for the idea that Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus ranks as one of the great captains of history. Nor does he believe the monarch deserves high praise for his military innovations, arguing, “Such praise is the product of the teleological nature of most military history that searches the past for lessons and precedents for contemporary doctrine.” The author also appears less than impressed with the effects of linear tactics, criticizing Gustavus’ dull frontal attack at the 1632 Battle of Lützen and attributing French victory at Rocroi in 1643 to superior command and control at the regimental level rather than to tactical innovation.

Wilson centers on the broader narrative of the war, and though he includes information on other countries, the Holy Roman Empire remains his focus.


Originally published in the May 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here