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The Thirty Years War: Europe's Tragedy Paperback – 2 Apr 2012

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Product details

  • Paperback: 996 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press; Reprint edition (2 April 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674062310
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674062313
  • Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 13.3 x 21.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 266,698 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Europe's Tragedy

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5 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Mrs. Jean K. Fraser on 23 Aug. 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
My husbands book ! He loved it - kept him quiet for ages. He had wanted to read it for ages - so very happy
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Amazon.com: 55 reviews
244 of 250 people found the following review helpful
Not as Dry As I'd Feared it Would Be. 26 Sept. 2009
By Arch Stanton - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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 naivety 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. In her defense, her book was only about half the size of this one. This book includes everything. I'm sure that even at this length it left many things but it feels complete. While most other books on this period are focused on the more exciting events, this book is evenly spread through time. The main focus of Thirty Years War books tends to be on the first part with the detail ending after the death of Gustavus Adolphus. Wedgwood is pretty blunt about this, saying that most of the rest of the war was just further mindless violence with few major battles. Obviously ignoring the second half of the war leads to a mistaken impression of the entire conflict.

I really appreciate the layout of this book. The chapters are long but they are divided into subsections every few pages which makes it easier to find a point to put it down. That's something that I wish more books would do. The divisions aren't forced either, so if you're on a boring topic a new one will come along shortly. The battles have pretty clear maps which show the layout of the opposing armies. They say a picture is worth a thousand words and in this case they're right. Even though the battle descriptions are fairly brief, I feel that I understand them better than I did reading Wedgwood's book. There are also full-color pictures of all the major players in the war and several of the more important events. If you have any interest in this war I would strongly recommend this book. It might be a difficult read because of it's length, but it's worth the trouble.
128 of 130 people found the following review helpful
Probably the Definitive Book in English 11 Oct. 2009
By David M. Dougherty - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I purchased this book on September 15th, and it has taken me this long to digest the contents (while reading other books.) Make no mistake, the Thirty Years War was extremely complex, and reading about it will be necessarily slow to allow the reader to fully comprehend the subject. This work is extraordinary in that it starts well before 1618 to address the causes of the war, and ends well after 1648 with three chapters addressing the impact of the two treaties ending the war (Osnabrueck and Muenster, together called the Treaty of Westphalia,) the costs of the war, and the general population's experiences and adaptations.

This is only the third general book on the war I have read in English, the other two being Wedgwood, "The Thirty Years War" and Parker, "The Thirty Years War", although I have read a number of books in German on the subject including Schiller and Jessen. There are also books more limited in scope that I could recommend like "Wallenstein" by Golo Mann. But so far, this work seems to me to be the gold standard.

It is impossible today to depict the utter devastation visited on the German population during this war, and the author frankly doesn't try. The book is primarily concerned with the political and military maneuvering that allowed the war to break out and continue for so long. Even in Chapter 22, "The Human and Material Cost", the focus is on the macro level. The discussion of populations deaths in Germany have ranged from fifteen to eighty-three (5/6ths) percent, although the author, after much discussion, adopts twenty percent in one place and thirty in another. Certainly the populations of many towns were extirpated, and killings by soldiers of civilians and vice-versa was endemic outside of the formal battles. Regardless of the true percentage which most authorities agree was around 40%, the effect on the civilian population was unbelievable, and a country with a promising middle class was reduced to desolation and want. Only in the last chapter does the author touch upon the subject, and then only lightly. As late as 1980, Germans rated the Thirty Years War as the most devastating event in their country's history, World Wars I and II notwithstanding. Throughout the conflict foreign armies or armies of a competing religion passed through communities and regions looting, murdering, raping, and burning at every opportunity.

I found the author's attempt to downplay religion most interesting although it was impossible for me to agree with his analysis. Many writers have cast the war as Protestant versus Roman Catholic, and indeed, armies were generally made up almost exclusively of adherents of one religion or the other. Certainly religious issues were paramount when soldiers murdered civilians, and it must be remembered that this was an age in which people died over the number of sacrements or the reality of transubstantiation. As the author points out, princes (most notably a number of Protestant princes) converted from one religion to the other for political purposes (politicians are always venal and opportunistic), but the general population tended to fight for their religion to the last extremity. I don't mean to argue the point with the author, but this was essentially the only point where I felt he was in error.

The maps of the various battles are useful, but my volume lacked an overall map of the area of conflict. Actually, several are needed to reflect the situation at various times (consider a single map showing World War II.) Supposedly there was to be a map of Europe in 1618 in the end papers, but it was not present -- instead there was s chart of the Habsburg Family Tree. This deficiency of area maps seems to be common in works on the Thirty Years War, but perhaps the next edition will add them.

This book is split into three parts, "Beginnings," "Conflict" and "Aftermath." The "Beginnings" contains eight chapters of the evolution towards the war and spans 268 pages. I found this part to be the best, not the least since it is usually skated over in other works. The "Conflict" part is somewhat mind-numbing (480 pages with 12 chapters) and most recommended for those interested in the military campaigns of Ferdinand, Wallenstein, Tilly, Gustavus Adolphus and the lesser lights. This is where one can become bogged down with the constant campaigning, shifting alliances, and ever-changing conditions. The analysis in the third part, "Aftermath" (90 pages) must be read carefully to understand the impact of the war of subsequent history. All parts are valuable but may appeal to different readers.

This is a very scholarly work, and the notes (73 pages) are extremely valuable. There is no bibliography or list of references, and the reader must use the notes for guidance.

I highly recommend this work to everyone interested in early modern times or the seventeenth century in Europe. In addition, this is an awesome reference work for one to be able to refer back to some incident or issue in the Thirty Years War. This conflict did not become fully resolved until Bismarck's consolidation of Germany late in the 19th century, so its impact was far-reaching and important.
72 of 78 people found the following review helpful
First Printing Flawed by Missing Map - Publisher Fix is Planned 3 Nov. 2009
By Severian - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I may amend this review later, but after waiting forever to get a copy of this (publisher is backordered), I've discovered that Harvard University Press has cleverly excluded a key feature from the first edition, mainly a "theater level" map of Central Europe in the period covered. If you happen to know where Westphalia. the River Weser, and Julich are, no problem, but the rest of us would appreciate being able to sort out the complex political and military events being described in the book by looking at an included map.

This is definitely a publishing screw-up; the general map is mentioned in the List of Maps in the contents, but is not present in the book. The publisher has the map available on its website, but the file is monstrously large and will not print correctly on either of my two printers. I guess you could use an atlas or keep walking back and forth between your computer monitor and reading chair, but considering the not insubstantial cost of this book, I do not find this state of affairs satisfactory.

Moreover, even if we did have the theater level map mentioned, the absence of smaller operational scale maps is a pretty grave omission. The gold standard in epic narrative history, Foote's Civil War, has various scales of maps every few pages so the armchair general can see exactly what is at stake and what each side was trying to accomplish in a given area. Wilson gives us numerous battle maps but that's it. Some intermediate scale maps (along with the large scale map that was supposed to have been included) would have been very welcome.

I've emailed the publisher and will amend this review if they provide any sort of meaningful customer service to resolve the issue. I am not sure if all copies have been affected by this glitch, but at least one other reviewer mentions the problem, so caveat emptor!

Update: The publisher has gratefully agreed to forward me a free copy of the updated printing of the book which will feature the missing map. The publisher stated that the missing map was the fault of the original UK publisher who failed to provide the relevant proof file. This is excellent customer service and is much appreciated.

I am upgrading my star rating to 5 of 5, after finishing the book. Wilson is an excellent writer who focuses on many aspects surrounding the 30 Years War that the earlier standard history of the period (by C.V. Wedgwood written in 1938) glossed over or ignored, i.e. the Hapsburg war with the Ottomans that was a sort of training ground for military leaders on both sides, military tactics and weapons features, etc. The result is a fuller and, for a modern reader, more understandable picture of the context and narrative of an immensely complex chain of events.

Wilson infers that Wedgwood was harsher on the Hapsburgs than history warranted because of her context (with 30s style appeasement and rise of Hitler making fear of autocrats a trait of the period she was writing) but in truth I did not feel Wedgwood was all that anti-Hapsburg. I guess though that ultimately Wilson is to be credited for his unbiased and fair-minded coverage of most parties in the war, even the more controversial ones like Sweden and Spain ... and of course, the Hapsburgs!

Compared to Wedgwood's study, Wilson combines a more "modern" style of analysis and narrative interspersed. His coverage of military events is more expert, complete with many battle maps and quite detailed and lively discussion of the battles. Wilson translates all his quotes (assuming less of his readers than CVW did back in 1938!) and also covers more background in greater detail making his work (somewhat) friendlier to those unfamiliar with the 17th Century as compared to Wedgwood. I would still not call this an introductory text, but it is easier going in terms of authorial assumption of reader knowledge.

Wilson's writing lacks a bit of the grace of Wedgwood, but his narratives are well done and the book is not dull. My only complaint is that even with properly updated endmap version, the text could have used many more "theatre maps" like in Foote's "Civil War" series. It is sometimes very hard to figure out why General A was trying to take City B, and a few more intermediate scale campaign maps may have made the theater maneuvers a bit more clear.

All in all, if you must own only one book on the 30 Years War, I would say this is the way to go, assuming you don't mind the length. But I am happy to own both this book and Wedgwood, as the two are complimentary to a large extent.
77 of 87 people found the following review helpful
not for the novice 31 May 2010
By JP - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
First, let me say Wilson clearly knows what he's talking about, and has written a highly detailed work. Second, I'll admit that reading a work like this in 30-minute bouts on the way to work in the morning probably doesn't make me Wilson's ideal reader--but how do you plan on reading it?

My main problem with this work is that, if you know nothing about the Thirty Years War when you crack it open, you will know only slightly more when you close it. The subject spans hundreds of people and places and (to his credit), Wilson covers more than just thirty years. Yet it seems Wilson failed to see the forest for the trees, and he fails to present the reader with a clear, comprehensible narrative. Perhaps the scope of this subject means a clear, comprehensible narrative is impossible, but there are a few things Wilson could have done to make it better.

I understand the version I read was missing a map or two as endpapers. Not Wilson's fault. But the work could have used about 50 extra maps. How am I supposed to know where Lower Saxony is in relation to East Frisia in relation to Bohemia, not to mention the hundreds of other cities, towns, bishoprics, rivers, mountains, and other locations that are discussed? Maybe Wilson expects me to know this stuff, but if you are an unitiated reader like me, you'll find the action in this book extremely hard to follow. You also won't understand the importance of certain events if you don't know how close or far away one place is to another.

Similarly, the cast of characters is huge. The only reference Wilson provides, however, is a Habsburg family tree. Thanks, but that doesn't cut it. I, and probably you, could have used a clear, alphabetized, cast of characters with a quick blurb on each one. Otherwise, there are simply too many people to keep straight. When they start to run together, everything just becomes a confusing blur.

Wilson's writing style also assumes the reader knows a good bit about the period before picking up this text. Figures at this time often have a few names (duke of one place, king of another, etc.), their names often come from a place, and something important may have happened at that place. When I read (I'm making this example up, but it is typical) that "Saxony approved of X", does that mean the person the Elector of Saxony, the populace of the region of Saxony, or some treaty of Saxony? Wilson doesn't feel the need to clarify.

Organizationally, the book suffers from the same sort of academic writing that assumes familiarity with the topic wich makes the book unfriendly to the novice reader. Wilson repeatedly tells the reader to (see chapter 10) or some other chapter when he comes to various topics that don't fit into his structure. I understand the Thirty Years War is wide-ranging, but Wilson should understand that someone reading this for fun isn't going to flip ahead and read the chapters out of order just because Wilson couldn't figure out a clear structure. That's the historian's job, not the reader's. If the reader needs to know something, fit it in when the reader needs to know it.

Similarly, Wilson has a few excellent chapters at the end of the book that recount the total devastation of 30 years of war, and its impact on the economy and populations, etc. This is very useful and illuminating. But why did I have to wait until the end to find out how bad the war was? For a few hundred pages Wilson's main account of fighting is limited to "5,000 men went there, 7,000 men went here." Wilson does not seem to have the ability to pick out the illuminating details that enliven the story. The battles are poorly described (and the maps aiding them are confusing), and the full impact of the war and its devastation is barely discussed until after the war is over. Learning about population declines, plague, and failed harvests would be good to know in real time, rather than a few hundred pages later.

Again, Wilson's expectations for his reader come out when he describes "famous" events, or argues against "common interpretations" of the Thirty Years War. Being told that a particular event is famous or that it has been interpreted a certain way is important, and it keys the reader into a fuller understanding of an event. But it should not be a shortcut for failing to describe or explain an event. Imagine if a book about the American Civil War said no more about Gettysburg other than it was famous, or that many have argued that it marked a turning point in the war. You'd probably want to know more. But I felt repeatedly like Wilson used "famous" as a cop-out--"I don't have to describe this event because you should alread know it," and that he gave short shrift to explaining the reasons for the common interpretations he wished to counter. You are expected to know this already.

Lastly, the writing style is rather dry, although I must say not offensively so. The book is nowhere near as exciting as the picture on the cover (yes, don't judge a book by the cover, but then again, the cover is exactly what the publisher wants you to judge the book by). The writing itself is fine, but it's just that the other problems noted above impact your ability to enjoy the writing. As noted above, battles are poorly described, and key characters often aren't described with the lively spark the would make them stand out. Wilson does have some well written sections, however, so I think the failures in his writing stem from the fact that he's not interested in writing a general history for the masses. Characters don't pop because there are so many, and Wilson doesn't feel the need to distinguish them or aid the reader in keeping them straight becuase you should already know who they are. Battles aren't exciting because Wilson spent an early chapter describing battle tactics and a later chapter describing the impact of the fighting, so you're left with a dry account of troop movements to suffice for the actual battle. The politics of the situation seems lifeless because, again, the lack of maps leads the reader to forget the geopolitical impact of decisions, and Wilson's failure to paint the characters means it's hard to follow their motivation or care about what happens (assuming you haven't confused characters or their allies).

If you enjoy reading history, and find it fun and entertaining and educational all at the same time, and know nothing about the Thirty Years War, this is not the book for you. You will go in thinking the war was a big can of worms, and you will come out thinking the same.
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Finally, a Book Worthy of the Grave Subject 5 Dec. 2009
By William Alexander - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Another reviewer in this thread has pointed out that a broad frame general history of The Thirty Years War - one of the most savage, brutal, and overlooked conflicts in Europe's bloody history - has not been attempted since 1938. While I was not aware that it had taken so very long, I am not surprised. Sadly, most people would not know what the conflict was or when, or are inclined to dismiss it as just another series of "Wars of Religion." I am pleased to say that this fine work rectifies those grave errors.

This large book is subdivided into three sections - origins, the war itself, and long term impact. This very easy to understand chronological division is made even simpler because the author, in a welcome flauting of many modern standards of historical writing, also makes liberal use of chapter subdivisions. This makes the book, even when discussing multiple strands of subject matter at once, both readable and user-friendly. That was very welcome. This was a frightfully convoluted chapter in an already complex period of European history, and Wilson and his editors do their level best to make it as easy to comprehend as possible without doing injustice to the subject matter by needless abridgement or "dumbing down" the source materials.

The sources are lengthly and meticulously detailed. This is one of those books where the endnotes are as interesting as the text itself, making the comprehensive whole superior work.

I also enjoyed the fact that while Wilson, in my opinion, did not downplay the religious elements of the conflict, neither did he see them as necessarily dominant. This was a fresh approach and one, I think, long overdue. He also does great justice to the horrific human costs of the war and what, especially, the protracted conflict did to a prostrate and screaming Germany both in the long and short term.

A fine, fine book. A must for the avid Europeanist.

Recommended without reservation.
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