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  • Ferdinand II, Counter-Reformation Emperor, 1578–1637 by Robert Bireley
  • Howard Louthan
Ferdinand II, Counter-Reformation Emperor, 1578–1637. By Robert Bireley. (New York: Cambridge University Press. 2014. Pp. xii, 324. $99.00. ISBN 978-1-107-06715-8.)

It is in many respects very surprising that an English-language biography of Emperor Ferdinand II (1578–1637) has not appeared earlier. Although there have been relatively recent studies of his Habsburg predecessors (Ferdinand I and Maximilian II) and two German biographies of his lesser known son (Ferdinand III), the individual who was arguably the most significant prince of Counter-Reformation Central Europe has not received the attention he so obviously merits. It was Ferdinand and his ally Maximilian of Bavaria who were such critical figures in the first stages of the Thirty Years’ War. They were in large part responsible for the Catholic resurgence across Central Europe at a moment when it seemed possible that Protestantism [End Page 939] would permanently supplant its confessional rival. After several decades of vacillating leadership Ferdinand helped re-establish the Austrian branch of the dynasty and reaffirmed the family’s allegiance to Rome. In this well-written biography, Robert Bireley ably retells Ferdinand’s story: his efforts shoring up the family, prosecuting a war, and reviving Catholicism’s flagging fortunes. Bireley’s Ferdinand II is the culmination of a long and prolific career dedicated primarily to the study of early-modern religion and politics. He has written synthetic surveys (The Refashioning of Catholicism, 1450–1700 [Washington, DC 1999]) as well as more focused studies on Austria and the Thirty Years’ War (Religion & Politics in the Age of the Counter Reformation [Chapel Hill, NC, 1981]) and is thus well positioned to examine this critical Habsburg emperor both in the local setting and in the broader European context. This is no small feat, for Central Europe with its complicated political and religious landscape is difficult terrain to navigate. It is not easy to keep track of the family itself, for Ferdinand’s grandfather had fifteen children and subdivided his lands among his offspring. Fortunately, Bireley does include a genealogical overview of the Austrian Habsburgs along with a set of useful maps. More important, Bireley lucidly highlights the critical moments of Ferdinand’s life: years of formation in Graz and with the Jesuits at Ingolstadt, his reign as archduke of Inner Austria, his accession to the imperial throne and the crisis of the Bohemian revolt, his early success during the war and the implementation of the Edict of Restitution, the intervention of Gustav Adolph, and the road to an eventual peace settlement and the succession of his son. Bireley has built the study around archival research in Vienna, Munich, and Rome and has produced a portrait of the emperor that favors the political, religious, and diplomatic aspects of his reign. Although he pays less attention to cultural, economic, and social developments, he does provide some intriguing glimpses: a tour of Italy that fired the young Ferdinand’s confessional and cultural imagination, the baroque transformation of Graz with its new university and selected snapshots of daily life at the imperial court. There is at times an apologetic feel to the biography. Perhaps in response to an older Protestant historiography, Bireley repeatedly asserts that Ferdinand was a “moral” individual. Additionally, he draws links between Ferdinand’s policies and Josephinism—surely an observation that merits fuller discussion. It would have also been interesting had Bireley engaged more directly with recent scholarship on the Holy Roman Empire. The relationship of the Austrian lands to the broader German Reich has been a fraught question for generations and one that scholars such as Joachim Whaley, Georg Schmidt, and Barbara Stollberg-Rillinger have addressed with new insights. These may be questions for the next generation of historians. In the meantime, we can be grateful for the solid foundation that Bireley has laid for the study of the Austrian Habsburgs in the era of the Thirty Years’ War. [End Page 940]

Howard Louthan
University of Minnesota


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