The Thirty Years War by S.H. Steinberg (1966)

S.H. Steinberg’s history of the Thirty Years War is one of the ‘Foundations of Modern History’ series. It’s admirably short (128 pages including references and index), quite old (published in 1966) and surprisingly opinionated. The preface claims that Steinberg ‘reorientates and reinterprets’ the familiar story.

Steinberg’s ‘reorientation’ makes four central claims:

1. that the phrase Thirty Years War is a misnomer, a ‘figment of collective imagination’ – the phrase doesn’t refer to one ‘thing’, but to a proliferation of separate but interacting conflicts across Europe

2. that the war was only an episode in the far larger and longer-running conflict between the dynastic houses of Bourbon (rulers of France) and Habsburg (rulers of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire) which stretched from 1609 to the end of the Franco-Spanish War in 1659

3. that the German part of this conflict was not a war of religion – as is so often claimed – but the result of constitutional issues within the Empire, namely the efforts of the Holy Roman Emperor to weld his hundreds of little states into a more homogenous unit and at the same time to quell the powers of the ‘Estates’ or local authorities within each one

4. and, lastly, Steinberg very strongly asserts that the war was no more nor less destructive than any other conflict of the same size, and that Germany was not (contrary to received opinion) destroyed or ravaged

Three chapters

Steinberg’s book is divided into three chapters:

Chapter One – Background and Problems

This 23-page section does a very good job indeed of placing the conflict in its full European context. Steinberg takes us on a whistlestop tour of all the European powers, explaining their recent history in the build-up to 1618, and their diplomatic and geopolitical aims and goals.

The nations are Spain, France, the Netherlands, Britain, Denmark, Sweden, Poland, Russia, Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and then, of course, the complicated situation of the Habsburg dynasty itself, divided into two branches – one ruling Spain, its colonies and European territories (most notably in Italy and the Netherlands); the other ruling Austria and holding overlordship over the seven big Electors and the hundreds of states within the Holy Roman Empire.

These 23 pages explained where each of these states was coming from, and what they were looking for, and therefore the potential flashpoints between them, much more clearly than Peter H. Wilson’s epic book on the same subject.

Moreover, and crucially, Steinberg has the ability to sum up key issues in a sentence, which is so lacking in Wilson’s account.

For example, Wilson explains the idea of the so-called ‘Spanish Road’ at great length. This is that, because of hostile French or British or Dutch fleets which might intercept them at sea, it was safer for Spain to send its troops to crush the Netherland revolt, first across the Med to north Italy, and then across the Alps and along a land route between France and the Empire. This land route became known as The Spanish Road.

But it is Steinberg who then gives the reader the vital insight that, the importance of keeping this route open dictated Spanish policy for the next fifty years i.e. every time a duchy or province or state through which the Spanish Road passed threatened to become anti-Spanish, the Spanish were compelled to intervene.

Grasping this basic geopolitical concern of Spain’s makes what at first appear to be all kind of random interventions in faraway states suddenly make sense.

Similarly, Steinberg sums up his discussion of the Netherland’s revolt against Spain by saying that, by the time a truce of 1609 was put in place, Spain had effectively lost the northern Netherlands. The conflict would resume and then continue until 1648, but Spain had lost – it just took them thirty years to realise the fact: and so all their policy based round the aim of retaining the territory was a waste of life and treasure.

In good history writing you need an explanation of the detail, for sure – but at some point you need the author to take a breath, step back from the detail and summarise where we are, what has happened, and what it means. Wilson almost never does that in his vast 850-page book, which is the central factor which makes it so very difficult to read.

Some of Steinberg’s opinions (summarised above) may be controversial or debatable – but his book has the immense virtue that he regularly stops and explains what the situation is, why something was important, why it was a turning point, and what was at stake.

Chapter two – The European War 1609-1660

There’s no denying it’s a very complicated story, and once war breaks out and numerous armies led by umpteen counts, margraves, dukes and archdukes start tramping across Germany and seizing countless towns, cities and territories, it becomes as hard to follow as Wilson’s account of the same material.

Which is precisely why what you could call Steinberg’s ‘pit-stops’ are so invaluable – the bits every two or three pages where he stops and explains what’s happened and where we are.

So, for example, he makes the context of the Bohemian Revolt of 1618 much clearer to me than Wilson does, and also much clearer why it never really stood a chance.

He is much more prepared to pass judgement on the key actors, and it is amazing how just a sentence or two of character description clarifies your understanding of whole swathes of the story. Thus he explains why the leaders of the Bohemian rebellion looked around for a prince to lead them, why the various other candidates were rejected and why they finally settled on Elector Frederick V of the Palatinate. So far so dry and factual. But the text comes to life when Steinberg laconically remarks ‘The Bohemians could not have made a more unfortunate choice‘ (p.38), before proceeding to explain why.

Thus he gives the reader has a key insight to build on, an incisive judgement which puts the couple of pages before and after it into perspective.

Wallenstein Steinberg’s account makes much clearer to me why the 1629 Edict of Restitution led to the sacking of the Emperor’s best general, Wallenstein, in the war up to that point.

Basically, the Edict handed over to the Emperor a broad range of powers, especially about religion, that the states and their parliaments, the ‘Estates’, had been trying to prevent him acquiring for decades. Persuading him to sack Wallenstein was a way for them to get revenge and also of removing the Emperor’s most feared ‘enforcer’. A way of weakening the Emperor’s power to actually carry out the Edict which almost all the states resented as an intrusion into their affairs.

Another reason is that, wherever he went, Wallenstein was very efficient at extracting ‘contributions’ to pay for his forces from the local authorities, whether the stateholder was Catholic or Protestant, for or against the Emperor – and this had alienated the rulers wherever he and the Imperial army went. Thus it was that, when the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II convened the Electors to award his son (also named Ferdinand) the title ‘King of Rome’ (a bit like the title of dauphin in France or Prince of Wales in Britain, indicating that the elected person is the chosen heir to the throne) the states made it plain they wouldn’t do so unless Wallenstein was sacked. Reluctantly, Ferdinand II had to give in.

Steinberg also explains much more thoroughly than Wilson the true extent of Wallenstein’s power, that he set up his own foundries and war industries in the territory he was awarded, was a genius of industrial organisation and logistics as well as military strategy. Somehow, in a much smaller space, Steinberg gives the reader a much better sense of the magnificence Wallenstein had risen to and why he was and remains to this day such a controversial figure. I didn’t get any of that from Wilson.

All of this background information makes it all the more dramatic when, deprived of its inspiring leader, the imperial army promptly suffered a string of military defeats and the Emperor was forced to restore Wallenstein as generalissimo of the Imperial army – and Wallenstein was not shy about making enormous demands before he agreed to return, demands which in Steinberg’s opinion, almost made him ‘co-emperor’.

But resentment against Wallenstein carried on growing on all fronts – he was, crucially, not interested in currying favour with courtiers and politicians at the Imperial Court – and so, despite winning more victories, Wallenstein was eventually murdered on the orders of the emperor in 1633.

All of these facts, all of these events, are present in Wilson’s account, but not presented so clearly or dramatically. Wilson doesn’t give any of the kinds of judgments and insights which Steinberg provides. It was only by reading Steinberg that for the first time I could see how Wallenstein’s life story could be made to form the basis of not just one, but a series of tragic plays, as the German playwright Schiller was to do in the 1790s.

Compare and contrast with Wilson’s immense but strangely flat and uninvolving account, in which Wallenstein’s murder is only briefly mentioned and no analysed or summarised at all. Instead, as with the deaths of all the other key players, Wilson just moves on with his flood of facts.

Whereas it is typical of Steinberg that he devotes time to reflecting on the impact of such a momentous event. He describes how the dead general’s lands and riches were divided up among the most senior of his fellow generals who had conspired against him, in a fairly standard, expectable way. But then goes on to make the breath-taking point which opens up the long vistas of historical consequences:

Down to 1918 a large part of the Austrian aristocracy lived on these rewards of their ancestors’ loyalty to the house of Habsburg. (p.66)

Wow. What a thought! What amazing vistas of insight and understanding that opens up. There is nothing comparably thought-provoking anywhere in Wilson’s account.

Ferdinand on the back foot Similarly, when on page 60, Steinberg halts the narrative of events to summarise that ‘The emperor was in a desperate position’ and then goes on to briefly explain why – it sheds light on all the developments leading up to this point, and helps you, the reader, understand much more what the Emperor’s options were and why he did what he did next. Wilson never says that kind of thing.

Death of Gustavus Wilson was particularly bad at handling the deaths of key figures, often throwing away the deaths of key players in a half-sentence or parenthesis. In complete contrast, Steinberg claims that the death of Gustavus Adolphus in battle in November 1632, just two years into the Swedish invasion of Germany, had drastic consequences:

As far as one man can influence the course of history, the death of Gustavus Adolphus marked a turning point in the history of Europe – it removed the main obstacle in the way of the ascendancy of Richelieu’s France. (p.62)

Just this one sentence provides immense food for thought, and helps you appreciate the really big picture, which is (in Steinberg’s view) that this era saw the steady rise of France and its ruling House of Bourbon, at the expense of the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs and that Gustavus Adolphus’s death in battle was a key turning point in that long struggle.

An end date of 1660 Steinberg gives credit to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia for achievements large and small, but doesn’t consider it the end of his story. He ploughs straight on into an account of the Fronde (1648-53), an aristocratic rebellion against the young king of France. Then he describes the machinations between French and Spanish which were eventually resolved at the Peace of the Pyrenees at the very end of 1659.

It is only this – not the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia – which sets the seal on the sequence of events because, in Steinberg’s opinion, it marks a decisive shift in the balance of power towards France:

The Peace of the Pyrenees fulfilled the highest hopes Henry IV had entertained half a century earlier. Spain was reduced to a second-class power, soon to become the pawn in the game of European politics which she had dominated for a century and a half. (p.88)

Steinberg describes the key elements of the two distinct treaties which made up the Peace of Westphalia – a subject treated in depth by Wilson – but also sheds a typically interesting sidelight, a stylish grace note, when he points out that it was the first international treaty not written in Latin — well, the treaties concerning the Emperor were in Latin, he and his Catholic advisers insisted on it — but all the other treaties and related documents were written in French, and French was to become the standard international language of diplomacy down to the Versailles Conference of 1919-20.

It is a fascinating cultural indicator of the eclipse of the late medieval world, the advent of the early modern era, and the Rise of France.

(There’s a fascinating footnote about Cromwell. Steinberg explains that Cromwell tried to do a deal with the Spanish, but demanded two concessions – freedom of religion for Englishmen on Spanish soil, and freedom of trade with the American colonies – both of which the Spanish rejected. And so Cromwell adopted an anti-Spanish policy, seized Jamaica, and gave his support to France. In his small way, Cromwell, also, contributed to the rise of France to European hegemony.)

Chapter Three – The Thirty Years War: Myth and Reality

That title made me smile – it’s very much the kind of book title we had in our school library 40 years ago. You could write a book about more or less any subject in the humanities by simply adding ‘The Man and the Myth’ or ‘Myth and Reality’ after the name of an eminent writer or a famous event, much as all you have to do nowadays is add buzzwords like ‘gender’, ‘race’ and ‘identity’ to an academic book title to get it to sell.

Anyway, Steinberg defends his view that the Thirty Years War was not the unmitigated disaster it is traditionally painted as. He says the experience of two world wars has taught us:

  1. not to believe atrocity stories, which are quickly cooked up by propaganda units on all sides
  2. to learn the meaning of true mass destruction, next to which the TYW is no better and no worse than the wars directly before or after it
  3. that post-war politicians often use the war as an excuse for the failure of postwar policies of economics etc i.e. they have a vested interest in exaggerating a war’s impact, and this is what the rulers of post-war German states did in the 1650s and 60s

Steinberg details how the conflicting sides hired propagandists and learnèd writers (e.g. the jurist Samuel Pufendorf) to put their cases, writers who were paid to distort the war’s causes and course even as it was taking place.

This propaganda often took an anti-Austria approach, notably by the later Prussian ruler Frederick the Great (reigned 1740-86) who wanted to emphasise:

  1. the wickedness of the Austrian Habsburgs
  2. the devastation which they were responsible for
  3. which he (Frederick) so wisely repaired

An endless cycle of ‘reinterpretations’

In the introduction Steinberg confidently claims that the conflict ‘misnamed’ the Thirty Years War was not a religious war between Protestants and Catholics, but derived from constitutional issues within the empire which had been germinating for the previous fifty years. This is his bold new interpretation which ‘reorientates and reinterprets’ the traditional story of the Thirty Years War, as well as his insistence that the war was not nearly as destructive as the ‘traditional’ view holds.

So it is quite amusing that these views – that the war was not a war of religion but a squabble about constitutional powers within the Empire, and was not as destructive as commonly thought – are the radical ‘reinterpretations’ put forward by Peter H. Wilson in his book, fifty years later.

In other words, despite over fifty years of historians attempting to ‘reorientate and reinterpret’ opinion about events, it seems as if some stubbornly resist their efforts. That views about historical events remain firmly entrenched.

So that historians may not be Oedipuses continually overthrowing their fathers, but Oedipuses condemned to overthrow the same father again and again, because each time he is slain, he just pops back up alive again.

To put it more plainly, the evidence of these two books is that historians appear to be condemned to combat ‘myths’ and ‘traditional’ interpretations which, despite all their efforts, never seem to go away. They are driving round and round in circles.

In 1966 Steinberg writes that the phrase ‘The Thirty Years War’ is a misnomer, a ‘figment of collective imagination’, should be done away with, abolished as wildly misleading.

Fifty years later, Peter H. Wilson publishes a vast history of the Thirty Years War with the title The Thirty Years War and delivers a lecture about the Thirty Years War. So much for abolishing this wild misnomer, this ‘figment of collective imagination’.

Conclusion: a historian’s opinion doesn’t change anything. To change the traditional names of events, and the traditional understanding of them, requires more than a couple of lectures and books. It requires huge social and cultural change. Historians reflect broader social trends, and don’t lead them.

Black lives matter

In this respect, it will be interesting to see whether, for example, the recent flurry of interest in the Black Lives Matter movement, with the accompanying burst of interest in the slave trade, makes much difference to academic history, or to the public perception of history.

It would be a fascinating study for a sociologist to assess attitudes across society – from academics through to the woman in the street – before, during and after the BLM protests, to try to establish how historical knowledge and perceptions change, if at all.

The evidence of these two books, written fifty years apart, is that historical knowledge doesn’t really change much — but maybe that’s because they’re both on a subject which most Anglophone readers don’t know or care much about so there’s not really any motivation or need for change.

Maybe on more hot-button topics, like race or women or empire, knowledge and attitudes have changed a lot. I’m not really in a position to judge.

It would be fascinating to read a paper or book on the subject ‘How perceptions of history change’, which identified specific historical eras or topics where the majority opinion has definitely shifted – and then to analyse why the shift has taken place – not looking narrowly at the professional historians and insiders, but at the broader social understanding of key historical events, what has changed (if anything) and why.


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