'The lead-lined window that sparked it all is still there, of course: you can even open it, and peer down to the dry moat into which the three Catholic imperial counsellors were cast on May 23, 1618 by a group of enraged Bohemian Protestant gentry. The room itself is on the fourth floor of the great Hradschin Palace, which looks over the river to the city of Prague. All is peaceful now, but it wasn’t then; it was the epicentre of a storm that was to engulf much of Europe for the following three decades. The famous tossing-out-of-the-window (the Defenestration of Prague) sparked off the tinderbox of animosities that had been building up between the Catholic Hapsburg authorities and the Protestant gentry since Luther had pinned his theses on the church door at Wittenberg back in 1517. Confessional hatreds, usually exacerbated by dynastic rivalries, class antagonisms and linguistic differences, had already torn France in two in the late-16th century, driven the Dutch revolt and Spanish counter-assault, and were soon to engulf the British Isles in their own civil war. But nothing compared with the scale and bloodiness that raged across Germany and surrounding lands from 1618 until the peace of Westphalia in 1648, and are the subjects of this gargantuan book. There are four epic, hegemonic, system-altering wars in the long sweep of modern European history — in reverse order, the second world war, the first world war, the Napoleonic war and, before all of them, the thirty years’ war. In terms of proportionate bloodletting, the earliest may have been the worst of them all. A little chronology will be helpful here. Like the later three conflicts, the Thirty Years’ War started in a specific locale, and then spread and spread as more and more powers entered the fray. Originally, this was a conflict between the Holy Roman Emperor, the intensely Catholic Ferdinand II, and the independent-minded Protestant nobles in his Bohemian kingdom. But it was impossible for this not to spill over into the crowded German lands, where Catholic and Protestant rulers were arming themselves out of fear of what the other side might do. Bavaria (Catholic), Saxony (Protestant), the Palatinate (contested) all tumbled into war. Mercenaries from the poorer lands of Europe — Scotland, Ireland, Croatia — swarmed in for the killing and plunder. Protestant Denmark joined the fray in 1625. In July 1630 the greatest of Sweden’s kings, Gustavus Adolphus, landed in Pomerania and swept south. By the mid-1630s, Spain, already drained by 60 years of the Dutch war, committed itself hugely into the German mire; unsurprisingly, the French statesman Richelieu felt he had at last to commit his own troops. And so the war went on. Certain parts of the Rhineland and central Germany were torn apart by rampaging armies again and again, cities razed, churches burnt, animals slaughtered, crops destroyed and populations driven out in wintertime to starve in the woods — or be carried away by plague. “I would not believe a land could have been so despoiled had I not seen it with my own eyes,” reported the Swedish general Mortaigne when he passed through northern Germany late in the war. Marburg, which had been occupied 11 times, had lost half its population by 1648. When the enraged and hungry imperial troops finally sacked the hold-out Protestant city of Magdeburg in 1631, it is estimated that only 5,000 of its 30,000 inhabitants survived the slaughter. Mothers and infants were impaled and defiled. What was done to the men is not describable. The destruction of the city by out-of-control mercenaries was a holocaust, never perhaps to be repeated in such ferocity until the Nazi-SS extermination squads went into the cities of the Ukraine in 1941-42. You do not understand Thomas Hobbes’s contemporary plea for an absolute sovereign, a Leviathan, unless you first understand how. The total population of the German empire dropped from 21m to just over 13m. Try to add to that the losses among the Swedes, French, Dutch, Scots, Croats, Italians and Spanish, and what might the total losses be? Say, 20m Europeans. Given the significantly smaller population of Europe then, it seems safe to say that, proportionate to population, the tangled, awful 1618-48 slaughters took away a higher percentage than the second world war’s frightening 50m-60m dead. A recent poll in Germany on that country’s many catastrophes gave the Thirty Years’ War the “number one” vote, above 1914-18 and 1939-45. That itself makes one pause for thought. This dreadful conflict attracted its historians virtually as soon as the combatants marched home, and some of the greatest European scholars have tried their hand at describing its dramatic unfolding and analysing its meanings. This is not easy: the true historian of the conflict should have command of German, French, Dutch, Swedish, English, Spanish, Italian and, if possible, Czech, Polish and Danish. That scholar should also be well versed in theology, diplomacy, military science and architecture, topology and climate history, and have a deep knowledge of the vast historiography about modern international relations, if only because the very emergence of the so-called Westphalian states-system after the 1648 settlement has led to many works on the nature of power-politics, statecraft, finance and military effectiveness. Who then after 1648 was a ‘great power’? Actually a number of them. The chief feature of this lengthy conflict, from the perspective of the political scientist, was that the Hapsburg bid for mastery had been blunted; the possibility of a Hapsburg-Catholic unipolar Europe had collapsed into multipolarity. Both Spain and Austria remained in the club of leading nations, even after defeat. (Austria was stubborn enough to survive the war of the Austrian succession, plus five Napoleonic assaults, and then drag everyone into the First World War.) Sweden remained the “Lion of the North”, even after Gustavus’s death at Lützen in 1632, until Peter the Great’s Russia ended that pretension at the century’s end. The France of Louis XIV was clearly to be the new top dog, but it faced a strong and tough United Provinces. Meanwhile, the outlier powers, Great Britain and Russia, were each gathering enormous strength. The stage was being set for another 300 years of European-driven conflict among the top five or six dogs until April 1945, when American and Soviet troops met, appropriately for our review, on the Elbe, only miles from some of the bloodiest battles of the thirty years’ war, and demonstrated that the Eurocentric order was over.'
Tuesday, 27 September 2011
The Thirty Years' War (Paul Kennedy)
Jacques Callot, Les Misères et les Malheurs de la Guerre (1632). There are are some useful websites for the Thirty Years' War which provide really comprehensive information. You might as well like to follow up this link for the most fascinating of all the protagonists in that dreadful conflict, Albrecht von Wallenstein. This summer the Chichester Festival Theatre put on Schiller's play, Wallenstein. I copied and pasted the piece below from the Sunday Times, 19 July 2009. It is a splendid piece by the historian, Paul Kennedy, a rave review of Europe's Tragedy: A History of the Thirty Years' War by Peter H. Wilson. You can see the original here.