on 18 November 2008
Wedgewood's history was written in 1938, when the German states were "reunified" under under Nazi rule into the "Third Reich", so she approaches the question of the 30-year civil war of the "First Reich", or Holy Roman Empire, from this perspective. She refers to the monument still standing on the battlefield of Breitenfeld, which commemorates the struggle for "freedom of belief", as a forgotten relic of a bygone age. However, she added the footnotes and the bibliographical endnote to this edition in the 1960s, so the references were updated to that time.
It still has a well-deserved reputation of being a solid factual account of the war, which was insanely complex as well as terrifyingly violent. As with most historians of her era, she concentrates on the narrative facts: who raised an army from where, where they marched it to, who they met, the battles they fought, and the results. However, its great strength is that she adds short but pithy character sketches of the main protagonists, which are good enough to be helpful, and opinionated enough to be intriguing. This prevents the story from getting bogged down, and holds the reader's interest well. At times she also goes into details of the collapse of civil society, and the horrific human consequences of the war, but perhaps not as much as a more modern author probably would have.
As with many popular works, she has a strong set of opinions, amounting really to a bias, but as with any popular work, this also helps to keep the reader's interest, whether you agree or disagree with her. For her, the Austrian and Imperial ruling family, the Habsburgs, can almost do no wrong. When Ferdinand II or Ferdinand III demand new rights and powers as the emperors of the the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, she describes them as taking the normal sorts of steps that political leaders did at the time, who were always seeking to enhance their own grandeur. Of course, she has a point, that we cannot so easily judge an historical political figure by the standards of our own day. Nevertheless, when anyone opposed to the Habsburgs resists, she describes them as rashly putting the unity of the German nation at risk. When anyone other than the Habsburgs seeks to enhance their own power within the empire, they are, for her, recklessly endangering the nation to further their personal ambition. Characters like Maximilian of Bavaria and Wallenstein, are, for her, acting wisely in the empire's best interests while they are fighting for the Habsburgs, but when they deviate from their alliance, they are succumbing to personal ambition and endangering the prospects of peace and Geman unity. After each great defeat for the Protestant cause, she describes their despair with gusto, and describes the elation of the Habsburgs and the Catholics with glee. When crucial battles go the other way, she often tends to mitigate the consequences.
Her spin on the events does not detract however from one's enjoyment, and it is the first account of the war I have read that lays out the sequence of events with such clarity and detail. In fact, her account is factual and detailed enough for a fair observer to be able to conclude at the end, despite all her spin, that the war was started primarily by the Austrian Habsburgs' determination to enhance their power by bluster, legal pressure, and if that failed, by sheer armed violence. The Austrian Habsburgs stood firmly in the way of any peace agreement, and succeeded at different times in alienating all their supporters, including their relatives in Spain, and even the Pope. The war only finally ended when the supply of funds from the Habsburgs' Spanish colonies dried up, and the Habsburg crown was bankrupt. Even so, her criticism of the unreasonableness of the Swedes, the other German princes, the Dutch, the French, and the free German cities, is not always misplaced.
As the book goes on, she gives brief descriptions of the famines, the plagues, the massacres, and the other terrifying consequences, showing the kind of pacifist sadness of the pity of war common to her era. The consequences of the Thirty Years War were so horrific that they need little embellishment to cause shock, and it almost staggers belief that a whole population of such a size could be brought to such a level of desperation and suffering. Alhtough she could have given more detail here, this kind of digression into social history was not conventional for a historian of her era, and there are many other books which cover that.
I'd found Schiller's history of the war hard to follow, and Wedgewood filled the gap quite nicely. One of the best parts of the book is the first few chapters, where she gives a lively description of the constitution of the Holy Roman Empire, and a description of the constitutions of the different states, the nature of the differing religious sects, and the personalities of the main protagonists. This is essential for understanding what comes next and why people acted as they did. Without this description, the entire story is hard to follow. The book is worth getting for this section alone, but the rest is also good.
on 3 May 2000
The nature of historical research usually means that works written over 60 years previous are often of limited value to the contemporary historian. However, the Thirty Years War has been so widely avoided by the English academic 'fraternity' that this work is still the best source of narrative upon the subject in English. That which it lacks in style it more than makes up for in sheer depth of content.
Certainly this work is dated and lacks any true historical analysis. Yet, to a certain extent, its naive style is somewhat endearing in its lack of academic trickery and hyperbole. Anyone who wants to know the 'who, what, when and where' of the Thirty Years War would be advised to read this. Anyone wanting to know why would do better with Asch or Parker, particularly as Wedgwood's inter-war tone seeps a form of hopeless pacificism into an oft bloody and complicated war. That she herself describes the event as 'meaningless' should illustrate this point. Mind you, at least she acknowledges the Imperio-centric nature of the conflict and does not slip to readily into the notion of the wars domination by external powers. That she does not see the war as run from Madrid is a miracle for an English author of this period.
My advice would be to buy this book if you are interested in the subject or if you need it for coursework. It sat on my shelf for years before I bothered to read more than a few chapters, such is its size. However, it is worth owning if only for its classical narrative style and depth. I doubt one could find a more comprehensive work - in this form - on the Thirty Years War. Just don't expect it to answer any exam questions for you!
on 5 December 2006
I agree with everything the first reviewer says about this book, but, I would also add, for a history book of this size, it's extremely readable, often quite humourous (where appopriate for such a devastating conflict). Strangely, I also bought it years ago and only read it recently.
I read many large works on history and the fascinating detail afforded by modern scholarship, is often spoilt by turgid, meandering, prose.
Not so with this book. Read it!
on 7 July 2014
Written in the late 1930s by the then very youthful Veronica Wedgood, this is probably still one of the best books to read about the 30 Years War. In my opinion, she got the balance exactly right, expanding sufficiently into all sorts of 'sidelines' (Bethlen Gabor and his invasions from Transsylvania, the Italian theater, the link with the Dutch 80 Years War) but still keeping the book well focused and compact. I very much liked her 'old-fashioned' (in the positive sense) writing style, including her moralistic (but mostly fair) judgements of the main decision makers. In line with pretty much any other book about this war, there is a bit of an imbalance in coverage between say the first 15 years (90% of the text) and the 'remaining' 15 years, but that is understandable and probably contributes to readability as the events in the final period do not lend themselves as well to a nice storyline.
Overall verdict: job very well done, highly recommended.
on 16 August 2012
This is a topic I really wanted to learn more about and I believe this is the 'classic' work (although it is now very old, fist published in 1938). In the end I was a little disappointed with the book.
The subject is ferociously complicated and the book obviously reflects that. There are are whole host of different countries involved (some that don't even exist now); the armies and leaders themselves are often not 'national', but mercenary; the conflicts are religious, political, dynastic and more; and what's more, everybody keeps seem to be changing sides depending on the fortunes of war and the resultant power balance. That being the case, I think the book would have been improved with devices to help the reader such as more and better maps, a timeline, a list of the 'dramatis personae' and pictures of the key characters. (There are no pictures.) Being able to refer to such things would have made following the text easier and thus more enjoyable.
Also, Wedgwood focuses mostly on the high power politics and there is less on the effects on the war on the ordinary people and their lives (and deaths). These things are referred too, but relatively little. It's top down history; perhaps that reflects the era in which it was written. There is also limited detail on the battles (even the famous ones like White Mountain) and again, better mapping would help. Another gripe: quotes that are given in foreign languages and not translated! I like my history, but I don't speak French, German or Latin!
One thing is clear from the book and that is how the nobility and royalty of Europe had only their aggrandisement and dynastic ambitions and certainly not the welfare of 'their' people at heart. Always looking towards prestige and advantage and more often than not wracked by conceit and greed; Wedgwood says at one of the later peace conferences it took six months just to work out the hierarchy of who was to sit where and who would enter the room in which order. A state of affairs in Europe that perhaps only the First World War did away with, and no better advert for democratic rule.
In short, there were enjoyable parts to the book, but it is heavy going. I would suggest if you are new to the topic (like me) you build up some basic background knowledge first before tackling this one. Maybe the Osprey Essential History would be a good starting place, although I haven't read it. Good luck!