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Cicely Veronica Wedgwood, The Thirty Years War; 480 pp (paperback); Penguin Books, Middlesex; 1957 (1938)

Oxford historian, Canetti translator and National Gallery trustee Veronica Wedgwood (1910-1997) is an icon of British historiography. Dame Wedgwood was the third woman to be appointed member of the Order of Merit on the strength of her biographies of (among others) Oliver Cromwell, Cardinal Richelieu and William the Silent, and most of all her immensely popular The Thirty Years War.

Bromide fibre print by Lucinda Douglas-Menzies, 1987

The book amply delivers on its introductory promise to demonstrate ‘the dangers and disasters which can arise when men of narrow hearts and little minds are in high places’. Wegdwood summarises her account by stating that the Thirty Years War ‘solved no problem’ and was ‘the outstanding example in European history of meaningless conflict.’ Of course other peoples’ wars sometimes appear meaningless to us although the people who risk life and limb to fight them have good reason to believe in their cause – a mistake we should bear in mind when speaking of wars remote in time as well as space.

Even so, the student of the era is bound to be impressed by the nightmarish trial imposed on Germany by the violent rifts between Protestants and Catholics, between Bourbon, Hapsburg and Vasa and between brilliant but cynical adventurers like Ernst von Mansfeld and Wallenstein.

Indeed one is struck time and again by the lack of compassion, foresight and leadership qualities among the German princes whilst the desastrous consequences of their over-arching ambitions and ill-considered plans were all too predictable.  Whatever the heroism, stubbornness or calculation of the protagonists may have achieved, the most common result of their exploits was rarely in doubt.

Though well-researched and beautifully written (according to the author historiography is a form of literature), the book is out-dated in several ways. Wedgwood is an ardent adherer to the ‘cult of diplomacy’ and her emphasis throughout is on the leading personalities of the day: the empty-headed Count Friedrich Wilhelm of the Palatine, the indefatigable and deeply religious Emperor Ferdinand II, the staunch but shortsighted ‘Lion of the North’ Gustavus II Adolphus, the mercurial Cardinal Richelieu, the impenetrable but lugubrious Duke Albrecht von Waldstejn and the egocentric Duke Maximilian of Bavaria. Since the publication of Wegdwood’s book, marxist and structuralist historians (notably the Brits Eric Hobsbawm and Rodney Hilton) have pointed out various underlying economic and social causes of the war. Even though the war marked the ascent of the Dutch republic, the refeudalisation of parts of Eastern Europe and the rise of absolutism in France and Austria, Wedgwood will have none of it and she certainly has no time for the bourgeoisie’s eternal rising, rising, rising:

In spite of that levelling of classes which some claim to be the effect of acute and prolonged emergency, the social hierarchy emerged from the war as rigid as before.

But in the end even she admits that

The peasanty in general emerged from the war in a stronger position with regard to the rest of society than any they had yet held.

Some of Wedgwood’s portraits are brilliant, succinct, evocative and commendably nonsentimental. Wedgwood may have been a writer and a woman of her time, but she had the heart and stomach of a Richelieu. Of the young and ambitious Elector Friedrich Wilhelm of Brandenburg she writes:

Born of the war generation, Frederick William had its opportunism, its unscrupulousness, its disregard for anything but practical considerations. [..] His internal policy was harsh, salutary, effective and impopular; his external policy created the Prussian state from the scattered nuclei his father had left him, and he must be judged by that creation.

Amen! However, other characterisations in the book are sorely amiss. Wedgwood dismisses the Transylvanian Prince Gabriel Bethlen Gábor as an unreliable provincial brute, a ‘swarthy little Tartar’ who led his ‘excitable subjects’ yearly into war in order to quell their tendency to internecine strife and internal revolt. A deplorable late-Victorian stereotype. Bethlen was a learned man and enlightened ruler who managed to avoid the excesses of many of his predecessors. He developed the industry in his lands, founded centers of learning and cultivated contacts with Britain, The Low Countries and the Protestant centres of Germany. His reasons for his anti-Hapsburg campaign (1919-1926) were well-founded; the Hapsburg Counter-Reformation threatened both Protestant possessions and liberties in Royal Hungary.

In any case, as Wedgwood duly establishes, the 1618 defenestration of two adherents of the Holy Roman Empire (and the secretary of one of them) by heated Protestant leaders of the Bohemian Estates in the Prague government castle, the Hradschin, hastened a confrontation that was widely expected anyway. The end of the Spanish-Dutch Twelve Years’ Truce in 1621 was bound to be a signal for conflict involving Spain, The Provinces, Venice, France, Denmark, Sweden and most of all Germany. War was in the air and, as Wedgwood states, even after centuries ‘the responsibility for the catastrophe is so diffuse as to defy any effort to localize it’.

Fenstersturz zu Prag 1618, Theatrum Europaeum (1633-1738)

The damage might and, according to Wedgwood, probably would have been contained, had the Calvinist Elector Palatine Friedrich V refused to accept the Crown offered to him by the Bohemian Estates. However, the charming but weak and emotionally unstable Friedrich took it with both hands, urged on by his hair-brained chancellor Christian von Anhalt who claimed to have forged an illusory ‘alliance’ of European powers in support of Friedrich and the Protestant cause. The frail constitutional balance of the Empire was now definitely upset, the religious cat was out of the bag and the tendency of the German princes to seek foreign allies made the internationalisation of the conflict inevitable.

Even so, at the end of the book the Duke of Bavaria gets most of the blame for destroying the rare opportunities for a peaceful settlement which presented themselves during the protracted conflict:

Judged by the provincial standard of the single state he ruled, he might pass for a great man; he extended its frontiers and became for a time the leading secular prince of Germany. Judged by the wider standard of the nation to which he belonged and the Empire to which he himself boasted his unfaltering loyalty, he must be either a dupe or a traitor – perhaps a little of both.

An alternative view would point to the religous intolerance and territorial ambitions of Ferdinand II and his Spanish allies and family members as the main cause, if any, of the conflagration.