Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sunday Book Review : The Thirty Years War

The Thirty Year's War
Peter H. Wilson

I'll have to confess at the outset, I have a weakness for very long books. So clocking in at 851 pages of narration, not counting the preface, index, notes, etc. is already a strong point in this books favor. Although with a subject of this complexity the length was unavoidable. Aside from this, I felt that this was a great book. Wilson manages to communicate the complexity of the conflict without leaving the reader overwhelmed with the details. The background of the war and the events leading up to it are well described, answering some questions that I had about earlier accounts I've read such as why didn't the Turks intervene directly (though he shows how they did have influence on the conflict). The flow of the conflict is well described and the political interactions both within the empire and externally. Wilson also does a very good job arguing against earlier deterministic explanations by showing the complex nature of events. He rejects arguments that warfare was determined by linear technical progress and prevents convincing arguments about what is wrong with the deterministic explanation and the more complex nuances present at the time. He also shows that this linear movement of progress simply didn't happen clearly over the course of the conflict.

Enough for the general description. Wilson sets out three distinctions for his history against the standard interpretations. The first is to reconnect the elements of this conflict through their common arrangement to the imperial constitution (which may surprise some people, it is something that seems under emphasized today, there isn't anything necessarily modern or democratic about constitutional government) and to show this war was related to other conflicts but ultimately distinct, second that it was not a primarily religious war, and a third distinction that the war was not inevitable.

However, my primary interest isn't to summarize Wilson's argument (though I think it is important for anyone reading this to know his focus is different), but to instead look at the parts of the war that interest me, such as what role the war played in state formation and the formation of modern political ideas. The book begins with a discussion of the pre-war imperial constitution and the various political divisions within the empire. At the outset of the description he notes that classifying it has long baffled some philosophers, it is noted that one called it a "monstrosity," "neither a 'regular kingdom,' nor a republic." (12) The full description, while very interesting, are too complex to be described in full here, though a few details are worth noting. Wilson's description of the various settlements being "bound together within a complex legal and political web of rights, prerogatives and jurisdictions" is important to note since the complexity of authority in this period is a notable distinction from the modern. There were different sorts of authority and an individual could hold more than one type. Emperors were elected but though the title gave imperial authority it did not confer additional resources, the Emperor was expected to pay for maintaining imperial institutions and defense out of his own lands. Contributions were made to defense through imperial estates but these contributions were not as regular as modern taxation and territories did not contribute equally. Voting in the Reichstag was also unequal and was divided into three separate colleges of electors, princes, and cities. Voting was not even equal in all cases within the colleges with some votes being shared. Also it is notable that political systems were still shifting from personal dealings to the idea of an impersonal state.

[This will be continued tomorrow, focusing on a selection of most notable points that emerge in the book and concluding with a summary of what changes occurred at the end of the war as a result of the Peace of Westphalia]


  1. I look forward to this. I've been lately doing casual research on the politics around the Reformation and I find the organization of the HRE especially interesting. A constitutional federation of mainly hereditary rulers seems both familiar and strange. I look forward to part 2 or your review.

  2. Sounds like I'll have to get cracking on that review. Though tonight I'm exhausted from the yearly ritual of informing the IRS of all that information that already got sent to it by my employer, and paying off private companies for the privilege, so it will have to wait until tomorrow. I'll make sure to add a paragraph or two on what Wilson has to say about Confessionalism to make up for the delay.

    Though as a side note, something that surprised me was how much of the representation actually went to ecclesiastical estates and not just to the hereditary princes. They make up rather more of the HRE than I had thought before picking up this book. It's also interesting to read about how much authority overlaps, such as the King of Sweden defending the constitutional order of the HRE after the war as a minor German prince distinct from his position as King of Sweden. One of the more bizarre aspects of the pre-modern era was how normal it was for someone to have multiple different political identities, such as King as well as minor German prince, and to have to play by different rules in different settings.