Thirty Years War was a distant mirror
By Kendall Wild | June 20,2012
The Thirty Years War was a complicated series of conflicts, made more complicated by the fact that its roots lay nearly a century in the past. Peter H. Wilson, professor of history at the University of Hull in England, has accomplished a monumental task of describing that background as well as the series of conflicts themselves.
It is not easy going. In the more than 900 pages of his work it was necessary to assume that a reader had some acquaintance with the period. Also there’s an assumption that the personal names will be familiar enough that they do not have to be connected always to their territories. So it takes some time to be able to realize that when “Johann Georg” is mentioned it means the ruler of Saxony. The same goes for “Georg Wilhelm” when events in his electorate of Brandenburg are under discussion.
There were two main motifs in the war — political and religious. Those two themes were often intertwined. Religion dominated when Lutheranism arose in the early 1500s, followed by the split to Calvinism. As it is today, religions had a hard time getting along with each other. In 1550, at Augsburg, Catholics and Lutherans agreed to let individual rulers decide the official religion of a political unit. Sometimes minorities were tolerated, at other times not. There again, the reader needs to be familiar with the background when “Augsburg” is mentioned without reference to the religious settlement of 1550.
The interchange of religion and politics is illustrated in the rise of the Dutch Republic. The Protestant Dutch sought independence from Spanish Catholic Flanders. Fighting went on for a good share of the second half of the 1500s until a truce was reached in 1609. That truce was due to expire at about the same time the Thirty Years War started, and the efforts to involve the Dutch in the wider conflict, and the efforts of the Dutch to avoid such involvement, are a recurring theme during the war years.
The author made a point often overlooked in some accounts that the military figures who became prominent in the Thirty Years War got their training in a war that took place two or three decades earlier between the Austrians and the Turks. Much of the Balkans and most of Hungary was controlled by the Turks in those days. Austrian efforts to expand, and Turkish counterattacks, brought forth a series of military efforts, alternating with truces, that gave future generals a chance to learn basic tactics.
Human nature was not much different in those days from what it is now. Once they made peace with Spanish Flanders, the Dutch sold arms to Spain even though those arms were obviously going to be used against the French — who had been allies of the Dutch during the fighting.
The long-lasting effects of the war showed up in a number of ways. A little-known aspect was in some credit acquired by an early military figure in the war, Christian of Anhalt. His descendants were still trying to collect on that debt 200 years later.
Poison gas shells were tried during the Thirty Years War, sometimes in the same territory they were used during World War I. In all, the war laid the groundwork for many later political and national developments.
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.