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The Thirty Years War: A Documentary History (review)

From: The Journal of Military History
Volume 73, Number 4, October 2009
pp. 1318-1319 | 10.1353/jmh.0.0385

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
The Thirty Years War: A Documentary History. Edited and translated by Tryntje Helfferich. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett Publishing, 2009. ISBN 978-0-87220-939-8. Map. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xxii, 332. $16.95.

The Thirty Years War (1618–48), Europe’s most destructive conflict prior to the twentieth century, is poorly served by English-speaking historians. This is all-too apparent to anyone who has tried to teach it to undergraduates who now rarely come equipped with the requisite language skills to read primary sources in the original. The last (and only) general collection of documents in English was a slim volume published in 1978 and long out of print. It is thus especially welcome that Tryntje Helfferich has taken on the daunting task of translating and editing a well-chosen set of 38 documents in an attractively priced volume. She rightly eschews the interpretation of the war as a general European conflagration in favour of presenting it as a struggle over the religious and political order within the Holy Roman Empire in which other powers intervened. This perspective is set out in a brief general introduction that also explains some of the key causes and that most baffling phenomenon, the imperial constitution. The role of religion is nicely judged and the hackneyed argument of an inevitable war is rightly rejected in favour of a more nuanced approach stressing both context and contingency.

The documents are grouped into four chronological sections, each with its own introduction, as well as separate paragraphs on each text. The first section covers the Bohemian Revolt and its aftermath in some depth, while the second follows from Denmark’s intervention in 1625 to Sweden’s defeat at Nördlingen in 1634. This part contains material illustrating Danish and Swedish motives, as well as key issues like the Upper Austrian rising, the restitution of Catholic church land and Saxon support for the emperor. The third part opens with the Peace of Prague (1635), and includes imperial, Transylvanian, Saxon, French and Hessian policy, as well as large parts of the Treaty of Osnabrück which formed part of the concluding Westphalian settlement. The fourth part has lengthy extracts from the remarkable soldier’s diary of Peter Hagendorf, as well as the well-known chronicle compiled by the cobbler Hans Heberle. In addition to these two last pieces, the war’s impact is covered by various texts dotted across the other three parts, including an interesting set of court martial papers and some representative diary extracts from civilians.

The reader actually gets more than the 38 texts listed in the contents, since some contain several shorter pieces from a variety of perspectives. There are also nine contemporary prints and one (rather indistinct) map of the Empire. The translation and editing are both admirable. The reader is given extensive footnotes identifying key figures and terms, while the texts are clear and accessible without losing the flavour of their original, often turgid but occasionally dramatic style. It is doubly welcome that some are rendered in full, or at least with only a few cuts so that students can work on the entire document, exploring those aspects important to contemporaries but often lost in the tiny morsels so often served up in undergraduate primers. [End Page 1318]

Of course, with a topic as vast as this, one will always want more. For example, there is little on the crisis between 1628 and 1631 when the war in the Empire really did risk merging with those elsewhere. Imperial policy receives short shrift for the middle period, other than the Edict of Restitution and the Peace of Prague. There is also little on military organisation or operations. Yet, most of the major and many of the minor issues are included, sometimes with new material direct from the archives as well as from more familiar sources. The book will be a great asset to anyone teaching the period.

Peter H. Wilson
University of Hull
Hull, United Kingdom