Many leading figures of the Thirty Years War have received masterful biographies. One thinks, for example, of John H. Elliott's The Count-Duke of Olivares: The Statesman in an Age of Decline (New Haven, 1986) and Dieter Albrecht's Maximilian I. von Bayern (Munich, 1998). Johann Franzl published a suitable biography of Emperor Ferdinand II (1578–1637) (Graz, 1978). But no modern biography has ever appeared of his son, Emperor Ferdinand III (1608–57), who finally concluded the Peace of Westphalia (1648), until the volume here under review by Lothar Höbelt, professor of history at the University of Vienna. One can welcome it as a qualified success. The author follows the chronological span of Ferdinand's life from his birth in Graz to his death in Vienna forty-nine years later. Yet perhaps because of a dearth of pertinent sources, we never come to know [End Page 143] Ferdinand's personality. He became emperor at his father's death in 1637 when the Habsburgs were riding high, only to see their fortunes soon begin to decline. The younger Ferdinand undertook no great programs or initiatives and was generally content to react to situations. A strength of the book is its treatment of the final phase of the Thirty Years War, from 1635 to 1648, and then the decade following the long conflict, periods that usually receive short shrift in standard works. Yet the book is overly long and in some sections difficult to follow, especially those dealing with the politics and military operations of the Thirty Years War.
Höbelt emphasizes Ferdinand III's allegiance to the Habsburg dynasty, "the first family of Europe," as it has been called. The emperor never set foot in Spain; indeed, he scarcely left the Habsburg lands apart from journeys to Regensburg for a diet. Yet, Höbelt contends convincingly, he stands out of all the Habsburg emperors as the most sympathetic to Spanish interests. The subtitle Friedenskaiser wider Willen expresses the reluctance with which he concluded the Peace of Westphalia because it required that he withdraw support from his Spanish relatives. Ferdinand III had married the daughter of Philip III, Maria Anna, in 1630, and his first major military venture, coordinated with the Spanish Cardinal-Infante, resulted in the pivotal victory at Nördlingen (1634). Ferdinand III showed much greater readiness to assist the Spaniards in Italy and the Netherlands than his father had. Höbelt sees Maximilian von Trautmannsdorf, Ferdinand's leading minister, as basically pro-Spanish despite his energetic advocacy of the Peace of Westphalia. The author follows closely the negotiations for Spanish marriages in the 1640s. Ferdinand's daughter, Marianne, went to Spain in 1649 to become the third wife of Philip IV, but his efforts failed at a Spanish marriage for his son, Ferdinand IV, who was crowned king of the Romans in 1654 but predeceased his father. He was likewise unsuccessful in arranging a match between his second son, Leopold, and Maria Teresa, the daughter of Philip IV. Some in Vienna in the 1650s even hoped for a return to the situation of Emperor Charles V. But Maria Teresa married the future King Louis XIV instead, with great consequence for European history.
Höbelt argues persuasively that Ferdinand did not really lose in the Empire as a result of Westphalia. The argument that he did lose can be made only if one attributes to him the desire to establish a form of absolutism there that neither he nor his father ever intended. The Peace re-established, more or less, the status quo ante.
The author underestimates the role of religion in the war, for example, at the Electoral Convention of Regensburg in 1630 and in the significance of the Peace of Prague (1635) as preparing the way for the religious concessions of the Peace of Westphalia. Höbelt alludes several times to references of Ferdinand to divine providence, but their importance is not clear. The "General Reformation" or Counter-Reformation campaign of the 1650s in the Habsburg lands Höbelt attributes more to the desire for discipline and order [End Page 144] than to concern for his subjects' salvation, and he questions its short-term effectiveness.
The lack of maps, apart from one of Hungary, as well as of adequate genealogical tables constitute a shortcoming of the book. Yet as a study of Ferdinand III, it stands out as a significant contribution to seventeenth-century European history.