Clio Reads

The Thirty Years War:

Europe's Tragedy

By Peter H. Wilson

Reviewed by E. D. Malpass

At last, a book to rival C. V. Wedgewood's great work on The Thirty Years War, first published at the start of her remarkable career in 1938. As a historian of the 17th century, particularly of the duel between England's Charles I and Parliament, Wedgewood still ranks among the best in the twentieth century. Wilson is now, however, an indispensable guide to a war that equaled World War I in wanton destruction. Wilson's Book Cover

The war began in Bohemia in 1618 with the raucous defenestration of Prague, always good for a laugh from undergraduates. Tradition maintains that haughty royal emissaries angered the local leaders to the point of being bodily tossed out of a nearby window. Unfortunately, it was a seventy foot fall. Amazingly unharmed, except for their dignity, they landed in a huge pile of manure, not really uncommon at markets and city halls in a century without artificial fertilizers for urban gardeners. Not surprisingly, the event led to royal ire and war. Out of such a silly incident came three decades of vicious fighting that turned into one of the greatest international struggles in world history. By 1648, when the Treaty of Westphalia was signed, almost every state in Europe, even tiny Transylvania, had become involved. The mighty Spanish empire had been devastatingly crippled, Germany was doomed to remain divided for over two more centuries and well over thirteen thousand Europeans were dead and the fighting would still drag on in desultory fashion for another twelve years.

Clearly, Peter Wilson chose a panoramic topic for this excellent study and does it full justice. The book is full of terrific military history, political and even social history. The author does thorough justice to the sweeping battles, the winners and the losers, the strategies and tactics. In particular, he encapsulates a virtual mini book within a book in his discussion of the legendary Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus (1594-1632). King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden

As with Gustavus Adolphus, the author gives due attention of innumerable fascinating figures, not surprisingly, since Wilson takes over 850 pages to cover the Thirty Years War. What is impressive is the consistent readability of the volume, although perhaps The Sunday Times exaggerates a bit in terming his prose "light and lovely." Nevertheless, the critics, from The Wall Street Journal and The Sunday Times to the trade journals, hailed it as "definitive," "monumental" or "prodigious," and then got serious about reviewing it favorably. Like Wedgewood, Wilson will be a classic for decades to come.

On a cold, misty morning, as dawn broke across the stubble of late harvest, the Battle of Lutzen, the most dramatic battle of the Thirty Years War in the Germanies, began. Hours later, as the mist thickened with gunpowder and the light faded into darkness, victorious and jubilant Protestant troops, discovered the price they had paid for success. Gustavus Adolphus "The Lion of the North," one of the greatest military commanders in history, was dead. His death would cost the Protestant movement dearly. It would pave the way for French domination of the war and, ultimately, it would prevent German unification for decades, indeed, centuries to come.

Gustavus Adolphus was born on December 9, 1594 in Stockholm Castle. His parents, Charles IX and Christina of Holstein-Gottorp, were loving but stern. Devoted to the Lutheran cause, they determined early that Gustavus Adolphus would be a leader in religious piety and intellectual endeavor. The young prince determined early that he would be a warrior King. By his teens, he spoke Swedish and German, read and wrote in Latin, Dutch, and Italian, and would as an adult learn Polish, Russian and Spanish. His parents involved him government and councils so thoroughly that, by sixteen, he was virtually co-regent with his sickly father.

Ascending the throne in his own right, Gustavus Adolphus concentrated his attention upon Scandinavian affairs, particularly a long quarrel with Denmark and control of the Baltic. His approach was, however, typically seventeenth century. Great kings made great wars. As a result, he fought battle after battle, ultimately conquering Livonia, but at an increasingly high cost financially and physically for the young king. By 1627, he had been twice seriously wounded and as one source put it delicately, "could never wear armour again." It was an expensive education in statecraft where he proved adroit at negotiating treaties, and in warfare where he made striking innovations.

By 1629, he had captured the imagination of Europe. His use of citizen soldiers as infantry, his huge deployment of singularly expensive muskets to his troops, his emphasis on drilling and training, his brilliant use of highly colored uniforms which allowed him to easily recognize in the heart of battle his own troops, all marked him out as a supreme war lord. He was also ready to take stage center in the greatest European drama of the century, The Thirty Years War in the Germanies. Thirty Year's Battle

The Thirty Years War had begun in 1618 as a small, local quarrel in Bohemia but quickly escalated, given the passions of the Reformation, into a great international conflict. By 1648, virtually every nation in Europe, including tiny Transylvania, the legendary home of Count Dracula, would be involved. It is estimated that half of the population of Germany, thirteen million people, would die of war, disease and famine, a figure only equaled by the holocaust in World War II.

An ardent Lutheran, Gustavus Adolphus watched the triumph of the Catholic imperial forces under General Von Wallenstein with growing concern through out the ensuing decade. In 1629, when the Protestant forces in the Germanies were at the point of capitulation, he suddenly and dramatically made his decision. Taking his four year old daughter and heiress, the future eccentric and exotic Queen Christina, to the meeting of the Swedish Estates, he commended her to his subjects, swearing that he entered his nation into the desperate struggle in the Germanies "out of no lust for war," but of necessity.

In actuality, he was telling a truth often misperceived by later historians. Although dedicated to his religion, he was equally dedicated to his nation. As a lengthy and eloquent correspondence with his chief advisor, Count Oxenstierna reveals, Gustavus Adolphus feared that a victorious German Emperor would not only trample on the Protestant faithful, but would pose an immediate and intolerable threat to Swedish interests in the Baltic. Thus, the cause in the Germanies appealed not only to the king's spiritual sentiments but also to his political instincts. Two years later he would be dead.

Leaving Sweden in the early summer of 1630, the king arrived in northern Germany with a well trained and disciplined army of 16,000 and quickly made it clear that he would wage a river campaign aimed at holding key ports offering access to the Baltic region. With in a few months he reduced the great medieval city of Magdeburg to ashes, secured an alliance with France's most Catholic Cardinal Richelieu, who for political reasons supported the Protestant cause and won the dazzling victory at Breitenfeld. Facing two magnificent commanders, General Von Wallenstein and General Tilly, Gustavus in two brief years proved as cunning and ingenious as any military genius in western history.

Cardinal Richelieu of France

On November 1, 1632, the king caught Von Wallenstein's army crossing the Rippach River and preparing to settle into winter quarters. The Swedish forces battered the imperial army to a virtual standstill. Five days later after constant maneuvering for position, the Battle of Lutzen began. Like Waterloo later, it was a cataclysmic struggle which by late afternoon was being fought in a deep haze of cannon and musket smoke, broken by the sparks and flares of gunpowder and, only occasionally, by glints of feeble sunlight. The only thing clear was that Gustavus Adolphus had won the greatest military engagement in the greatest war before the twentieth century. It quickly turned into a pyrrhic victory when Gustavus Adolphus, riding across the field to inspect the situation, encountered hostile fire. Fleeing back towards his own lines, he was shot off his horse. Whether he was murdered by a Catholic soldier in the resulting confusion or died of what the modern military ironically calls "friendly fire," has never been completely clear.

His death cost the Protestants their last best chance to win the war even though it forced France and Cardinal Richelieu to enter the war openly. For the Swedish nation, his death left a void that his young daughter could never fill. Her uneasy succession would lead eventually to her abdication as well as to her conversion to the Catholic Church. Finally, his death cost Europe a brilliant administrator, a cultural statesman, and a respected warrior, who like General George Marshall at the end of world War II, might have been able to end the last great war of the Reformation, negotiate a sound peace and rebuild a battered Europe.King Gustavus mounted


For serious scholars---Richard Brzezinski and Richard Hook, The Army of Gustavus Adolphus' is a two volume study of the Infantry and Cavalry under the Swedish King who virtually created the modern military from uniforms and basic training to ordinance.

C. A. LaCroix, Gustavus Adolphus: Hero of the Reformation reveals the sincerity and depth of a leader of the Protestant movement.

On the Hollywood side, novelist James Clavell of Rat Pack, The Great Escape and Shogun fame, wrote the script for The Last Valley, a surprisingly good film from 1971. It is set during the Thirty Years War. Michael Caine and Omar Scharif star in two top roles that easily overcome a low budget and five decades of wear and tear. It creaks only slightly and deserves a wonderful re-mastering to be better than new.

Why Don't They make a documentary about Gustavus Adolphus? Surely one of the ten major commanders in history deserves one. A documentary on the Thirty Years War would also sell for the class room and library set.


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