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. Unsurprisingly, many princes wanted to establish their independence, particular when it came to their confessional preferences. The Emperor could not order them to do things, but had to both entice and threaten them.
With these tensions brewing, circumstances aligned themselves in the early 17C to favor prolonged war. First, after a long period of existential threat, the Ottoman Empire withdrew to fight in the east, depriving Christendom of a unifying external pressure. Second, there was a weak HR Emperor, Rudolf II, who withdrew from his responsibilities as maintainer of peace while beginning to impose a policy of replacing local protestant administrators with loyal catholic outsiders, threatening the beliefs (and careers) of innumerable princes and nobles in their fifes. His successor was also weak and pursued a rigid policy of installing catholic notables. Third, the Habsburgs were entering a period of extreme financial indebtedness, depriving them of the resources needed to defend their territories and promote economic stability. Fourth, there was the rise of new powers, from the proto-absolutism in France to the military dynamism of Sweden's King, Adolphus, centrifugal forces that added to the chaos. Fifth, with a change in inheritance law, there were many disenfranchised princes trying to make their way as adventurers and courtiers. With the advancement of individuals such as Wallenstein, who achieved noble standing through opportunistic military exploits that no one completely controlled and whose motives were largely unfathomable, they added a dangerous mix of ambition and volatility.
Once the war had broken out in a spontaneous "defenestration" in Bohemia - some protestant locals threw 2 catholic appointees out a 2nd-story window - the HRE first convulsed into civil war and then was attacked by outsiders while weakened. As the theatres of war moved about inside the HRE, which was complexity itself, it took on a life of its own with occupiers wanting territories for their own ends (or seeking to extricate themselves while saving face) and princes hoping to achieve independence of control over their territory or liberty to pursue their faith. It just went on and on. The resulting devastation makes WWII look almost like a minor skirmish. Some regions - from violence, plague, and emigration - lost between 10% and 60% of their populations. Millions of lives and livelihoods were destroyed, up to 25% loss of lives overall.
The resolution of the conflict is perhaps the most fascinating. It signals the end of the feudal era and the beginnings of both absolutism and the nation state. Replacing the personal concerns and egos of princes, entire nation states entered negotiations roughly as equals with legitimate concerns and interests rather than as members of a feudal hierarchy of set-to obligations. In addition, religious toleration was finally established, after laborious negotiations of rights of minorities to gain legal sanction for their style of worship. In many ways, it was the start of the modern age.
I do have my criticisms of the book. It is very hard to keep the various Rudolphs, Ferdinands, Philips, and Maximilians straight, and there is not much about their personalities or stories about them, except in a few rare cases. The details of each military conflict were also of little interest to me and bogged me down, though that is personal.
All in all, this is a great read on a fundamental period. There is also a fascinating analysis of the historiography of the conflict, how it was seen through the ages and what is wrong with the assumptions behind each approach. In other words, nationalists, Nazis, protestants, etc., saw different meanings according to their agendas. Great food for the brain.