Reviewed by John Gilmour in SBR 2015:1
Review Section: Non Fiction
It is easy to get lost in the intricacies of the Thirty Years War (henceforth ‘the War’). Even for those familiar with the period, navigating through a conflict that began in 1618 and dragged on until 1648 often relies on recollection of a few key events such as the Defenestration of Prague, the Battle of Lützen, and the Peace of Westphalia interspersed with assessments of a few of the notorious individuals involved such as Count Wallenstein, Gustav ll Adolf, and Ferdinand ll. To this can be added some views on religious strife, the brutality of 17th century warfare and its effect on the populations of Europe. Professor Harrison’s book guides us confidently through the numerous complexities of the War without losing us in needless detail. Unlike the War, which was spectacularly wasteful, Harrison squanders few words or pages in his masterly history of this great European disaster.
The conflict that is most comparable to the War in its blend of great power intrigue, complex local quarrels, territorial ambition, dynastic concerns, religious fanaticism and sheer barbarity is today’s in the Middle East. For example, those appalled at the treatment of ordinary people by the so-called ‘Islamic State’ fighters and the Baathist regime in Syria will find from this book that their European forebears practised similar atrocities throughout the War – also often using religion as an excuse.
The author departs somewhat from the straightforward chronological narrative that most historians have followed – for example C. V. Wedgewood and, recently, P.H. Wilson (more than sixty historians have published on the War in English alone) – adding fascinating thematic diversions into specific topics such as anti-Semitism. Also, we get not only a probing geopolitical and military analysis but are also exposed to the full impact of the War on daily life. Harrison makes frequent reference to the recollections of people who recorded their often distressing experiences. Indeed, the book’s title is taken from the memoirs of a miller’s daughter from a war-torn area near Nürnberg. These interludes are skilfully blended into the narrative of diplomatic manoeuvring and military engagements which carries the book along. However, more maps would provide greater understanding of roving armies and territorial disputes; for instance, P.H. Wilson’s book has 25 invaluable battle plans.
Another attractive feature is the author’s portrayals of the main dramatis personae that populate the period. There is indeed an abundance of vain, stupid, haughty, obsessive, ambitious, gifted, ruthless and greedy characters in this account and the author presents their essential characteristics in a memorably accessible and sometimes humorous way. This understanding is important to any appreciation of the dynamics of the War because these individual men (sometimes women, such as the redoubtable Amelie Elisabeth of Hesse-Kassel) singlehandedly took decisions which cost lives and sometimes kingdoms.
The War essentially concerned succession and territory rather than religion. The constant feuding over boundaries and dynastic issues between the small states and princelings of Europe was manipulated and overshadowed by the great powers such as the Hapsburgs and the Bourbons whose territorial ambitions were on the grand scale. The extent of European fragmentation is underlined by Harrison’s statistic that 194 states were represented in the eventual peace discussions that began in 1646.
This was the first global conflict; the warring nations of Europe took their fighting to lands that they coveted in Africa, America and Asia. So we learn, perhaps with surprise, that Angola, Brazil and Ceylon were conflict zones.
The relatively new technology of printing was also pressed into service to support propaganda by all sides in the conflict to portray their enemies as dastardly and their own aims as reasonable and legitimate. Art also reflected the conflict and Harrison uses Peter Paul Rubens’ The Consequences of War both to illustrate the book’s cover and exemplify the damage that the War caused. Illustrations from Jacques Callot’s Les Grandes misères de la guerre also are used to good effect throughout the book.
But Harrison’s main point is that away from the battlefield, the conflict was between the soldiers (often mercenaries) and the peasants and burghers in the territories that the huge, hungry, plundering armies traversed, occupied and laid waste. The memoirs and diaries reveal the brutality of seizure of goods and food, forced payments, compulsory occupation of homes and viciousness on a regular basis; subjected to assault, rape, torture and death, the citizenry found that no amount of compliance could provide protection from violence, destitution and starvation. Co-religionists behaved equally badly and even the worst perpetrators rarely faced justice. Swedish soldiers were no exception to this brutal behaviour. This was truly a peoples’ war in which the people suffered while their rulers selfishly minded their own interests.
Professor Harrison has produced an outstandingly readable book that delivers a clear account of the War, skilful assessment of its events, consequences and personalities, and valuable insights into the lives of those caught up in its mesh.