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  • The Thirty Years War: Europe's Tragedy
  • Mark Charles Fissel
The Thirty Years War: Europe's Tragedy. By Peter H. Wilson. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009. 1040 pp. $35.00 (cloth); $22.50 (paper).

Undertaking a new narrative of the Thirty Years War is daunting enough, but Peter Wilson also dares swim against the prevailing tide of interpretation. The 1618-1648 war (or series of wars) is characterized as the final and bloodiest stage of the conflicts precipitated by the Reformation. Wilson opines that "the war was religious only to the extent that faith guided all early modern public policy and private behaviour" (p. 9), and he questions the inevitability of the last phase of the wars of religion, suggesting that political, dynastic, and legal remedies might have shortened or even averted altogether the Thirty Years War.

Wilson delves back to the 1555 Peace of Augsburg and examines [End Page 873] how Catholics and Protestants understood their places in the Holy Roman Empire, the starting point both for the war and for this book. Like Ronald Asch in his 1997 monograph on the Thirty Years War, Wilson emphasizes the political struggle over the relationship between religion and imperial law. The empire's constitution provides the fundamental context for understanding the multitude of conflicts in these three decades. Dynasticism and state rivalries tangentially shaped imperial religious policies, as well as the balance of power in Central Europe. Those essentially political factors fostered an imperial pragmatism that extended sufficient latitude for accommodating Catholicism and Protestantism within the political and geographical framework of the Empire. Such an assertion makes sense. Emperor Charles V and his successors fretted more about the cohesion of Habsburg territories than over liturgy and theology. Furthermore, the emperor was by no means subservient to the Papacy, as the 1527 Sack of Rome demonstrated. Early modern empires rarely could afford rigid and narrow orthodoxies. Similarly, the contemporaneous Ottoman Empire too handled pluralism more gracefully than those budding nation-states of Spain, France, Holland, and England, polities that harnessed confessional unity to reinforce political unity. Wilson concludes that the precedent and model of the Peace of Augsburg could (and should) have inspired a similar settlement circa 1618-1648. Why that did not happen is the subject of his narrative and analysis.

How does this book fit in the literature of the Thirty Years War? Eight chapters, arranged in tidy fashion under subheadings, provide background. Contextualization delays until chapter 9 the outbreak of the war and the commencement of Wilson's narrative. A preface of this length serves well because the explicit organizational structure leads the reader through the book's arguments before plunging into the thicket of detail. The reader arrives at the destination, the Defenestration of Prague on 23 May 1618, well informed. Pages 269 to 747 tell the story, again subdivided by headings. Part 3 then completes the book with analytical chapters. It digests recent, specialized studies in many languages. The clarity of its arguments, the lucidity of its prose, and the book's sheer detail make this one of the best treatments of the war. Wilson exhibits skill in paleography and diplomacy when writing on the 1630s (the extent of archival sources used must be gleaned from abbreviations and endnotes, due to the lack of a bibliography). The absence of the latter obscures Wilson's relationship to other books in the field, Ronald Asch's volume being a case in point. Furthermore, the index's inconsistency in citing authors and the somewhat nebulous treatment of historiography via a series of asides in a thousand-page [End Page 874] tome make pinpointing this book's historiographical pedigree problematic.

The author claims that the subject is "poor in general accounts" (p. xxi), a debatable if not false contention. The most reliable general account, one could argue, was produced by ten historians working under the editorial supervision of Geoffrey Parker. As specialists, the contributors made judicious use of primary sources, including archival material. Parker's team incorporated secondary works from a multiplicity of European languages and crafted bibliographical essays as well. However, Wilson chastises Parker for a deterministic view of the war and a disproportionate...