Thursday, April 15, 2010

Book Review: The Thirty Years War Part 2

The Thirty Years War
Peter H. Wilson

After a bit of a delay, here is part two of my review.

An important concept I haven't taken up yet is the confessional aspect of the war. The pre-war background he sets is one of significant intermixing between confessions at the local levels, he does a good job giving evidence such as mixed marriage to show that most people took a pragmatic view towards religion and did not let it disrupt everyday life. There were of course fundamentalists that wished to bring about greater changes but this was a small minority with limited influence. In wilson's view, it is important to make a distinction between those he calls the moderates and the radicals. Throughout the war there would be those who would use their faith as a means of validating their attempts to gain greater influence and those who would seek compromise and peace across lines of faith. Alliances between belligerents of different faiths were the rule rather than the exception and the confessional nature of the war remained limited.

This is not to say that confession did not cause considerable tensions throughout. Part of this was tide to the 1555 Peace of Augsburg, which while quite successful, the period between 1555 and 1618 was unusually peaceful for the empire, did leave several unresolved issues. The peace worked by trying to set up a legal framework that both Lutherans and Catholics could co-exist in (Calvinists were not included). There were many ambiguities to this peace of course, it did not formally make a distinction between confessions to preserve at least in form the idea there remained a unified faith since there was still a belief that there was a unity between law and faith. Or as Wilson puts it "since there could be only one truth, there could be only one law." (41) Despite the relative success of the peace there were significant remaining tensions, mostly concerning ecclesiastical lands and property which would be continuing sources of tension and outright warfare over the course of the larger conflict.

Partially leading from this Confessional divide, though also containing Constitutional and political considerations, the war kicks off with a revolt in Bohemia led by a militant Protestant Bohemian aristocracy. While the course of the actual conflict is an interesting read for my purposes the interesting section is a discussion on why the revolt failed and a bit on early modern politics in general. Wilson discusses that while the Confederates had a slogan of Estates' rights this continued to represent a form of monarchy and they were unsuccessful in extending their revolt outside their social base. (310) The personal character of politics in the era also comes through strongly, their are personal conflicts between leaders, little attempt to set up organized institutions early in the revolt, and the concept of vassalage made it easy for individuals to change side by asking for forgiveness. (310) An essential feature is that the Bohemian Protestantism was not "the faith of historical progress" but a version of "aristocratic corporatism" resisting a centralized state. (310) The Catholicism of the Hapsburg's was similar in function to the role of religion in Protestant countries attempting centralization such as England. Regular taxation and methods of awards aside from land grants centralized power in the ruler's court, as distinct from the modern impersonal state, and it continued to be social capital (in the form of a stress on emotional concepts such as trust or honor) that was awarded, meaning that landless nobles were more respected than rich burghers. (311) Much of the system remained based on patronage and ideas of reciprocity which was not legally enforceable and unstable. (311) Still, this was movement towards something like a more modern state, though still with some distinct differences. Tensions were exacerbated by the shift in power and "confessional differences merely sharpened existing tensions between the horizontal solidarity of kinship and corporate ties among nobles and the vertical relationship between patron and clients." (312)

So, since I've summarized the starting situation of the Empire, what changes happen by the end. Wilson is careful to point out that the deterministic view of the development of warfare doesn't describe the actual progress of the war well. Descriptions of individual battles show that it was not differences in technique and weaponry that were decisive but a mixture of factors, such as better generalship or command an control. Armies also didn't follow the developmental path frequently described towards more modern forces, local conditions were heavily influential with forces moving towards cavalry due to the need for long range foraging. Which also shows that these were still far from paid, professional armies. Troops went through long periods without pay and lived off the land.

As for the political settlement, the Peace of Westphalia does hold up as a critical event, though like most modern assessments it is simply a landmark on a longer road and doesn't show a sharp break with the past in most respects. The Congress itself began in 1643 and would take 5 years to complete. It fell short of expectations at the time and its achievements were mixed but its ideals and methods have "influenced the theory and practice of international relations to the present." (671) There were several important developments including the erosion of medieval concept of hierarchy and ways for all participants to negotiate together without the use of a mediator establishing a precedent that extends to this day. The goals of the Congress were not met, it was to be a general peace but given that the 30 years war was a single one of several overlapping conflicts between the involved parties, and completely ignored a few contemporary conflicts (that the idea of Europe was not fully formed yet even a European peace proved elusive, the conflict in the British isles for instance was ignored) but the idea of "a 'Christian, general, and permanent peace' intended to establish lasting friendship across the continent" offered a "new charter for European relations." (753) This was of course a very significant step towards modern ideas about war and its resolution and the idea of international law.

Wilson also points out two ideas on the notion of the state that, while hardly unique, bear repeating. The first is the classic 'Westphalian state,' familiar to any student of international relations as a political body resting "on indivisible sovereignty that both excludes external agencies and does not share the exercise of internal governance with other domestic bodies. In addition it possesses well-demarcated, non-porous borders, and a common identity and culture among its inhabitants." (754) This obviously does not describe the political system at the time and is an ideal that has never been completely reached anywhere at any time. The second is that there is a growing consensus that this form of a state is not an endpoint, we're still developing. Wilson gives a good example of this by mentioning "One recent study of the European Union presents it not as a single, centralized Westphalian super-state, but as a 'neo-medieval empire,' with the process of integration remodelling the continent along lines not dissimilar to the Holy Roman Empire." (754) (I have to track this down sometime, sounds interesting)

In addition to its role as a milestone in the development of the modern idea of the state and its importance to international relations, the peace also led in the long term to taking religion out of politics, though this was hardly the intent at the time. The Empire remained Christian, though a form of toleration was extended. Rights were conceived of as being granted to corporate groups, not to individuals. While constitutional rights were granted to the three main confessions other groups had only a limited form of toleration and could generally only practice their religion within their own homes and not publicly. For the time, this was probably the most tolerant state in Europe. The path the Empire took likely represented an alternate path to the modern secular state than that followed by governments that were more successful in their push for centralization. This rooted "religious freedom in a web of corporate rights, and thus a conservative social order that saw the rule of law, not democracy, as the guarantee for stability." (762) Which of course had long-term implications distinct from what occurred in France or England.

Well, this review is finally done, its been a busy week sorry for taking so long. I'm afraid this reads rather more like a summary paper for a course than it does a proper review. Sorry for that, it's too long of a work and the threads I wanted to pull out too narrow to give a fully comprehensible view.

For this weekend, I'll be getting a start on Braudel's Civilization and Capitalism. It's fairly long so I don't expect to finish it by Sunday, I may instead throw up a review on one of a few shorter works I've been reading concurrently, it's 50-50 either way.


  1. A few comments:

    One thing I'm interested in following up on, and would be interested to hear any insight you might have on, is how Calvinism replaced Zwinglism as the leading Swiss Protestant confession. In particular, I wonder if francophone protestants were favored in the rebellion against the HRE. (Calvin was also a superior theologian in my opinion, which might explain it as well)

    A second thought, and a very modern one, probably- with Iraq and the Balkans and the decolonization of Africa in mind- I wonder if the ruling at Augsburg can't be seen as an error. As I understand it, the state religion became a political decision of the Landgraviate, binding on the people (but not very, it seems.) As a result, you can protestants in Bohemia and Catholics in Saxony as a convenient provocation for a jealous neighbor. Come to think of it, Sudetenland pre-WWII would be a better analog, even if a nationalist rather than a religious one.

    Another modern reaction: "Estates' rights" brings a smile.

  2. One more comment, actually. We need to get more people here. I remember the early days of DiA this way with post after post having "Doug Pascover" as the sole commenter. It feels a little nekkid.

  3. Doug,

    Can't help with Calvin and Zwingli. Switzerland is largely neutral throughout the war so Wilson doesn't go into a lot of detail on their religious tensions except in a few local conflicts along Swiss borders. The main Calvinist territory involved in the war is The Palatinate and they are more influential within the Empire in this period. Only knowledge I'd be able to look up from that is from Diarmaid MacCullough's book on the Reformation, which I quite liked but is my main book on the subject. I also have his new book on Christianity which I plan to read soon which might have more on it.

    Wilson is generally supportive of the Augsburg Peace. Of course, something more modern would be better but it is pretty good for a time period that regards religion and law as almost synonymous. The Peace of Augsburg does leave several things unsettled and there are several minor conflicts before the full outbreak of war that Augsburg's ambiguity leads to. Though the real problem is when the Hapsburg's centralization program begins to take on a Catholic image leading to further tensions. I think part of Wilson's argument is that with slightly different actions Augsburg left a framework where a more permanent settlement could have been reached through law, if a few different decisions had been made along the way. What he really has problems with is the Edict of Restitution that alienates a lot of the religious moderates. Once the moderates are alienated the chances for peace decline markedly.

  4. Yeah, I definitely need to get some more commenters. I'm waiting for a new big controversial topic to come up that I can start referring people back to my blog. Its taking too long for something really contentious to develop.