My current BART reading material is C.V. Wedgwood’s The Thirty Years War, which is excellent. Although I also enjoyed Across the Wide Missouri by Bernard DeVoto – in fact, am still enjoying it, for I put it down with a hundred pages left when The Thirty Years War arrived, and will be taking it up again in the next day or so – I was never tempted to forgo other activities once at home to keep reading Across the Wide Missouri, Pulitzer Prize notwithstanding. With The Thirty Years War it’s “Hmm, could cook dinner, or I could sit in my easy chair and find out what Richelieu is up to now.”
As I say, The Thirty Years War is excellent. It’s compelling, clear, and the language sparkles. Making sense out of the complex and ever-shifting realities of the Thirty Years War is a daunting endeavor, and Wedgwood succeeds admirably, delineating the larger arcs of the war and reporting in detail on the diplomatic twists and turns without ever losing clarity. Her assessments of the character, motivations, goals and mistakes of the leaders involved are insightful and even-handed but never force the reader to the author’s conclusion. She has taken a tangled mess and presented it in an understandable way without ever obscuring the war’s overall complexity.
I have known the general outlines of the Thirty Years War for a long time; 1618-1648, started when some guys got tossed out a window in The Defenestration of Prague, at one point the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus showed up and kicked ass until he got killed in battle, depopulated Germany to the tune of a third or perhaps half of its people. Was generally a Protestant vs. Catholic thing but wound up being various European powers of all religions fighting each other, in Germany. Officially: Not A Good Time.
Which is all, as it turns out, true, but with a lot more complexity. The religious issue, for instance, was actually Catholics versus Lutherans versus Calvinists, and the Lutherans in many cases distrusted the Calvinists more than they distrusted the Catholics, and some Lutheran kingdoms were run by Calvinists and some Catholic archbishops ruled over majority Lutheran territory etc etc.
And then there were the actual military logistics, if you can call them that. Basically, the political fortunes turned one way or another based on the movements of huge, polyglot and generally mercenary armies that sat on the land like festering storms, looting and pillaging and carrying disease. It was as bad for a country to have a “friendly” army stationed in it as it was to have an “enemy” army pass through; the soldiers ransacked and raped whoever they happened to be bivouacked near, and over the course of the war almost the entirety of Germany was depopulated, because of course a thoroughly-plundered area could no longer support an army, and thus the armies moved to other areas for their own support; there was only scant consideration paid to whether the new countryside actually belonged to an ally.
The various political leaders had only loose control over the commanders of the armies, and the commanders had only loose control over their men. Plague and starvation were common for the armies; they were in fact only marginally better off than the peasants and burghers and minor nobility and, well, everyone else, whom they murdered and whose scant food and wealth they appropriated.
Yeah, Not A Good Time.
As I observed, one of the excellent features of the book is that Wedgwood presents her own general opinion of the situation, but does not force it upon the reader. This left me free to observe my own subtle emotional reactions to the unfolding drama. Wedgwood, for instance, is not particularly aligned with either Catholic or Protestant, seeing the conflict more through the lens of German unity or disunity. Whereas I was, for no particular reason other than an early-acquired American and thus British view of history in general, was rooting for (inasmuch as one can in history) the Protestants from the start.
When Ferdinand (or rather, his armies) crushed the Bohemian uprising and ruthlessly eradicated the Protestants from Austria and Bohemia – ruthlessly and successfully, I might add, the more impressive given that they were a substantial majority in Bohemia and a large minority in Austria – I was definitely seeing him as a Bad Guy, and his subsequent military triumphs were defeats for the Good Guys. Despite German Protestants being generally as intolerant as the Catholics, certainly as eager to, say, burn witches, and in general a mixed bag of cowardice and self-interest.
And when Gustavus Adolphus entered the lists – to Wedgwood, he was a Swedish invader. Which is perfectly accurate. But to me, and to most (but not all) Protestant Germans at the time, he was a saviour coming to oust the tyrannical Catholic Emperor, who had heretofore defeated all comers. His triumph was a victory for the forces of Righteousness, his death in battle a year later was not just historical fact, it was a Damn Shame.
I will say this in defense of my like for Gustavus – he was superbly competent both as an administrator and as a military leader, and he permitted the free exercise of religion in the entirety of his territory. In a modern moral comparison with Ferdinand or Richelieu or any of the German Electors, I have no doubts that Gustavus would stand head and shoulders above them all. Which is not to claim that he was a saint, and the German Electors of the time were a remarkably mediocre crop of leaders. But Gustavus alone has no purges to his name.
But he was, in fact, a Swede invading Germany to garner money and territory and power for Sweden. So I found it amusing that I had this knee-jerk reaction to root for him.
It’s the same with the Byzantines, to flip to a totally different time period and corner of the globe. I always find myself quietly rooting for the Byzantines, despite my extensive knowledge of their unsparkling moral character and their self-destructive and stupid politics. That knowledge doesn’t reach down to that very bottom “pick a side” level. I just like the Byzantines. Because they were the Christians standing against the Muslim hordes, for one thing, and because they were aesthetically unique. So whenever I am reading something about the history of the area there’s always that small voice saying “Damn that Manzikert!”
And it’s the same thing with Gustavus Adolphus, dead on the field at thirty-seven. “Damn that Lutzen,” I say, and my intellect is amused at myself.
- Sun Ra
Columns by Sun Ra