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Europe's Tragedy: A New History of the Thirty Years War [Paperback]

Peter H. Wilson
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
RRP: 16.99
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Book Description

1 July 2010

Winner of the Society for Military History Distinguished Book Award 2011

The horrific series of conflicts known as the Thirty Years War (1618-48) tore the heart out of Europe, killing perhaps a quarter of all Germans and laying waste to whole areas of Central Europe to such a degree that many towns and regions never recovered. All the major European powers apart from Russia were heavily involved and, while each country started out with rational war aims, the fighting rapidly spiralled out of control, with great battles giving way to marauding bands of starving soldiers spreading plague and murder. The war was both a religious and a political one and it was this tangle of motives that made it impossible to stop. Whether motivated by idealism or cynicism, everyone drawn into the conflict was destroyed by it. At its end a recognizably modern Europe had been created but at a terrible price.

Peter Wilson's book is a major work, the first new history of the war in a generation, and a fascinating, brilliantly written attempt to explain a compelling series of events. Wilson's great strength is in allowing the reader to understand the tragedy of mixed motives that allowed rulers to gamble their countries' future with such horrifying results. The principal actors in the drama (Wallenstein, Ferdinand II, Gustavus Adolphus, Richelieu) are all here, but so is the experience of the ordinary soldiers and civilians, desperately trying to stay alive under impossible circumstances.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 1024 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin; 1st Penguin Edition edition (1 July 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0141006145
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141006147
  • Product Dimensions: 4.3 x 13.2 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 86,200 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


Peter Wilson is a brave man to undertake a new general survey of one of the most long-lasting, multi-dimensional and controversial wars of all time. It is a joy to report that, at least in this reviewer's opinion, Europe's Tragedy succeeds brilliantly ... His scholarship seems to me remarkable, his prose light and lovely, his judgments fair (Paul Kennedy Sunday Times)

An ambitious and accomplished account, abreast of modern scholarship, has been overdue, and EUROPE'S TRAGEDY supplies it all admirably (Blair Worden Literary Review)

A wonderfully comprehensive and detailed account (Tim Blanning Daily Telegraph)

Magisterial ... a wise, wide-seeking account, tenaciously researched (Lauro Martines The Times Literary Supplement)

A history of prodicious erudition ... a definitive account has been needed, and now Peter Wilson has provided it (Jeffrey Collins Wall Street Journal)

From the Publisher

Review from Paul Kennedy, Sunday Times:

`Peter Wilson is a brave man to undertake a new general survey of one of the most long-lasting, multi-dimensional and controversial wars of all time. It is a joy to report that, at least in this reviewer's opinion, Europe's Tragedy succeeds brilliantly ... His scholarship seems to me remarkable, his prose light and lovely, his judgments fair'

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
120 of 122 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not as Dry As I'd Feared it Would Be 26 Sep 2009
By Arch Stanton TOP 1000 REVIEWER
When I saw this book for sale I was afraid that it would be another REALLY long, dry history book written by somebody who doesn't know how to cut things out. Fortunately I was wrong. This book is pretty much the definitive history of the Thirty Years War. At 851 pages of text it is certainly a long book, but given the complexity of the source material I don't see how it could be otherwise. It has to make up for years with little printed research (At least in English) as well as include all the recent papers printed in other languages. As he points out in the introduction, any comprehensive book on the Thirty Years War requires knowledge of at least 14 different languages. For some reason the English speaking countries don't have much interest in the Thirty Years War. There is a very short list of books that cover it.

A lot has changed since the greatest previous book on the war came out in 1938. There has been a copious amount of new research that just wasn't available then. Also, having been written after World War I the perspective is rather different. In some ways that helped of course, since both wars were so tragically pointless. This book is rather different from that one. While Wedgwood's book relied almost entirely on the chroniclers of the time, this book includes a better look at the war's causes. In fact, the war itself doesn't start until page 269. Wedgwood's book kind of reminded me of Gibbons, at least in the way she arranges her information quite clearly to add force to her thesis. Basically her thesis is that the war was a stupid waste that was caused by stupidity and greed for power. Even though I think her thesis works better that Gibbons', it still left a lot out that wasn't essential to her main point.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
By rob crawford TOP 1000 REVIEWER
This book has occupied my free time for 6 weeks, solid. It is extremely dense, beautifully written, and succeeds in tying together the various strands of a war tragedy more complex than any save perhaps the fall of Rome or the world wars of the 20C. The 30 years war is one of those watersheds, when an old order gives way to new directions that take centuries to work themselves out. Wilson's brilliant synthesis is exactly what I had hoped to find.

The roots of the conflict, in my reading, sprung from 2 essential sources: 1) the decline of the feudal order in Central Europe that had operated under the umbrella of the Holy Roman Empire and 2) the simmering religious wars of protestant and catholic. These unfolded symbiotically, but it was really the conflict of the princes and kings - attempting to consolidate their own forms of power in the emerging nation state - that employed the confessional question to their own ends, however sincere they were in their beliefs.

The Habsburgs (in both Spain and central Europe) were essentially feudal lords. One of their most important powers was the ability to confer nobility and authority on allies that would then be sworn to serve them in certain capacities, such as warfare against external enemies such as the Turks or rival Christian kingdoms. They answered to a plethora of institutions that carried their own rights and privileges, the complexity of which is nothing short of extraordinary (i.e. regions, nations, free cities, duchies, each with their own historical perquisites in the hierarchy). Often, the emperors served as arbiters to resolve conflicts between their princes and lords, but they also oversaw the installation of certain administrators and other officials to support the superstructure and finances of the Empire.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Whew! 13 Aug 2010
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I read the other reviews before purchasing this book and noted the positive comments and the reservations. I cannot fault any of the comments readers submitted but would like to add a different emphasis - this was an exhausting read! The standard of research and scholarship is, as recognised by others, outstanding but I was overwhelmed by the, to me, bewildering amount of facts that included a cast of thousands,(seemingly), a geographical sweep that required the permanent presence of an atlas, factional alliances who's influence became submerged in my understanding by their sheer ubiqity and a detailed chronology that required constant checks to previous events to enable me to keep a faint grasp of context.
Don't be too put off by my exhaustion - but be prepared!
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Maps and things 3 July 2010
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is a detailed and fascinating book and it seems churlish to quibble but:

1. I agree about the maps - there should have been more and detailed maps but this isn't a fault confined to this historical work

2. I would have welcomed an appendix with a list and short account of the people involved. It's easy to get lost with the mass of Electors, Archdukes et al (many of them sharing similar names) and a reference appendix would certainly have helped me. We were given a family tree of the Hapsburgs (the main players)and no more.

I realise that implementing these suggestions would add to cost but, at least in my view, they would have added even greater value to what looks as if it's going to become a standard work for both the general reader (like me)and the serious student of the period.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Europe's Tragedy - Peter Wilson
An excellent book, the first I have ever been able to get through re the 30 years war. very readable.
Published 1 month ago by Dave
1.0 out of 5 stars Many parts of the book are underlined, very unprofessional
Although the status of book mentioned "good", I received a copy that was marked frequently during the first chapters. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Pieter VDM
3.0 out of 5 stars good general history
good general history but rambled on a little too much at time. I know it is trying to capture 30 years of history but a more concise account and better structure would be more... Read more
Published 4 months ago by C Murphy
5.0 out of 5 stars Extremely good overview of the period
Extremely well written. Drawbacks first - the book is very long, and the war does not even start until page 269, so if you aren't interested in the detail 17th century politics,... Read more
Published 4 months ago by Peter White
5.0 out of 5 stars Great history of Thirty Years War
The main strength of this book is that it is complete. All of the nations which took part in the Thirty Years War are covered in some detail. Read more
Published 7 months ago by Mr. Francis A. King
5.0 out of 5 stars I finished the book wanting even more
As a number of other reviewers have pointed out, this is a long book. However, it covers a lot of ground and I do not believe you could cut it down without losing context. Read more
Published 9 months ago by W Greenhalf
2.0 out of 5 stars Written by an accountant?
I was disappointed in this book for two reasons. I wanted to discover what the causes of the war were, also what the war was really like - that is from the perspectives of people... Read more
Published 18 months ago by Emlyn B Williams
4.0 out of 5 stars Not for the faint-hearted...
I like a serious read and did learn a lot from this book but it took me 3 months to finish - if I stopped for more than a couple of days, I had to go back to the start of the... Read more
Published 21 months ago by Constable Elbow
3.0 out of 5 stars Europe's Tragedy - A New History of the Thirty Years War
Peter Wilson's epic 'Europe's Tragedy - A New History of the Thirty Years War' is a truly remarkable tome, overflowing with the most tedious details of every aspect of a complex... Read more
Published on 6 Jun 2012 by Dave
2.0 out of 5 stars Exhausting
Weighty historical tomes are generally my thing. I read Wedgewood on the Thirty Years War many years ago and was greatly looking forward to this. Read more
Published on 29 April 2012 by Philadelphus
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