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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

“The Thirty Years War”, edited by Geoffrey Parker

368 pages, Routledge, ISBN-13: 978-0415154581

Another of my (many) Barnes & Noble overstock finds from the late 90’s, The Thirty Years War is a concise (though dry) introduction to the subject, due to the fact that its target audience is, I suspect, advanced undergraduates, graduate students and scholars specializing in other areas seeking an entry into the extensive literature on the Thirty Years’ War. It is not a comprehensive and detailed narrative history, and military history aficionados, in particular, will be disappointed because there is little coverage of campaigns and battles (although there is a good chapter analyzing the nature of warfare during the Thirty Years’ War). The book is devoted primarily to political history, diplomatic history, and the structural effects of the Thirty Years’ War on the European State System and the organization of individual states.

Of particular interest to the authors is the question of why the Thirty Years’ War lasted as long as it did. Wars were very common in Early Modern Europe both before and after this conflict, but usually of shorter duration. The answer(s) appear to be a combination of factors, including changes in military technology, the organizational immaturity of states that precluded decisive victory, the religious dimension of the war, and unwillingness of key actors to compromise. Often presented as a pointless and exhausting conflict, the Thirty Years’ War did produce lasting effects: for example, while the Austrian Habsburgs would never again try to impose hegemony on Germany, their grip on the core lands of Austria, Bohemia, and Hungary tightened. Another example is how the alliance between the Austrian and Spanish Habsburgs – ostensibly the same family but with quite differing goals and aspirations – was severed, allowing France to emerge as the preeminent continental European Power. One aspect that the authors make sure to highlight is the international, aspects of the Thirty Years’ War; implicit in the narrative is the fact that events all over the world – such as conflict between the Dutch and Spanish/Portuguese in South America – and Ottoman-Persian rivalries in the Near East had a huge impact on the conflict.

Do not let the complexity of the Thirty Years’ War scare you; it is a fascinating conflict, one that is essential to understanding European history, military evolution and the emergence of the modern state. If you’ve got the stomach to read two or more books on the subject, you will be richly rewarded, and taken in conjunction with other works, Parker’s book can add enormously to your understanding of a seminal event in world history.

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