Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Thirty Years War

Last week I reiterated my preference for histories written with an eye toward the personalities of its subjects, the odd details that bring historical figures to life. As a dilettante rather than a scholar, I know that I'll never be able to recall--let alone master--a large portion of the history I read, as I tend to flit like a butterfly across eras and locales, so from most histories what I hope to take away is a general sense of the sweep of events and the changing of cultures. That knowledge, however, is only interesting when wrapped up in--and anchored by--actual people who, memorably described, bring otherwise flat events to life.

When it comes to such a complicated event as the Thirty Years War, that sort of portraiture and description become indispensable. The war itself--which will probably be most familiar to non-historians as the war in which the Three Musketeers are involved--was so lengthy, widespread, and politically intricate that it almost defies explanation. But in The Thirty Years War (1938), C. V. Wedgwood (descendant of the potter and Lunar Man Josiah Wedgwood) does a masterly job of sorting out the causes and consequences of the war--while salting the narrative with fascinating details and stories.

The war, which began with one of the best-named historical events, the Defenestration of Prague of 1618, in which a group of Protestant leaders, worried about the consequences for religious freedom of the election of the Catholic Ferdinand as King of Bohemia, threw two Catholic governors of Prague out a window. (To everyone's surprise, they landed on a pile of dung and survived.) The war that ensued was at various points a religious war, a territorial war of nationalism cutting across religious lines, and an essentially causeless struggle between opposing armies of mercenaries. The number of nations and armies and prominent figures involved is mind-boggling: the list of belligerents includes the Holy Roman Empire, France, Spain, the Netherlands, England, Sweden, and a plethora of German princes, all in a welter of alliances that continually dissolved and re-formed along new lines. The eventual peace negotiations, which took nearly five years, give a hint at the underlying complexity of the war: it took six months for the parties to agree even to the order in which they would enter the room.

Despite all that, Wedgwood brings a surprising clarity to the conflict. She's very good at explaining the ins-and-outs of diplomacy, much of it secret, that continually determined the course of the war and the roster of participants, but she's at her most effective when tying the decisions of statesmen and generals to the suffering of peasants and conscripts. She never lets us forget that such losses, as always in war, were borne by those farthest from the seats of power:
[The price] may not have seemed to expensive to the princes, for it was not they who paid the price. Famine in Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel caused the Duke to notice that his table was less plentifully supplied than usual, and three bad wine harvests on the Lower Danube once prevented Ferdinand from sending his annual gift of tokay to John George of Saxony--such minute draughts blew in through palace windows from the hurricane without. Mortgaged lands, empty exchequers, noisy creditors, the discomforts of wounds and imprisonment, the loss of children in battle, these are all griefs which man can bear with comparative equanimity. The bitter mental sufferings which followed from mistaken policies, loss of prestige, the stings of conscience, and the blame of public opinion gave the German rulers cause to regret the war but seldom acted as an incentive to peace. No German ruler perished homeless in the winter's cold, nor was found dead with grass in his mouth, nor saw his wife and daughters ravished; few, significantly few, caught the pest. Secure in the formalities of their lives, in the food and drink at their table, they could afford to think in terms of politics and not of human sufferings.
That relative immunity to consequence, Wedgwood argues, was one of the primary reasons the war lasted as long as it did, but another, just as important, were the particular strengths and weaknesses of the leading players. Time and again, she asserts convincingly that, had the Emperor Ferdinand, or naive Prince Frederick, or General Wallenstein been just slightly different people, decades of suffering might have been averted. For example, of John George, the dithering, uncertain Elector of Saxony, she says, "he was one of those who, seeing both sides to every question, have not the courage to choose. When he did act his motives were wise, honest, and constructive, but he always acted too late."

That phrase should give you a sense of Wedgwood's deftness at sketching brief portraits, which is what will stay in my mind long after I've lost a lot of the details of alliances and battles. It quickly becomes obvious that Wedgwood loves her vast array of sources and the gems of inessential knowledge about the players she finds there. Her description of John George, for example, continues:
In spite of [his] claims to culture, John George had preserved the good old German custom of carousing in a manner that shocked men under French or Spanish influence, Frederick of the Palatinate and Ferdinand of Styria. John George, who scorned foreign delicacies, had been known to sit at table gorging homely foods and swilling native beer for seven hours on end, his sole approach at conversation to box his dwarf's ears, or pour the dregs of a tankard over a servant's head as a signal for more. He was not a confirmed drunkard; his brain when he was sober was perfectly clear, and he drank through habit and good fellowship rather than weakness. But he drank too much and too often. Later on it became the fashion to say whenever he made an inept political decision that he had been far gone at the time, and the dispatches of one ambassador at least are punctuated with such remarks as, "He began to be somewhat heated with wine," and "He seemed to me to be very drunk." It made diplomacy difficult.
But that's not the worst the Germans come in for from Wedgwood, who, however objective her intentions, was writing as the Nazis were sweeping across Europe:
Germany was in fact celebrated throughout Europe at this period for nothing so much as eating and d rinking. "Oxen," said the French, "stop drinking when they are no longer thirsty. Germans only begin then." Travellers from Spain and Italy were alike amazed at the immense appetites and lack of conversational talent in a country where the rich of all classes sat eating and drinking for hours to the deafening accompaniment of a brass band. The Germans did not deny the accusation. "We Germans," ran a national proverb, "pour money away through our stomachs." "Valete et inebriamini" a jovial prince was in the habit of closing his letter s to his friends. The Landgrave of Hesse founded a Temperance society but its first president died of drink; Lewis of Wurttember, surnamed the Pious, drank two challengers into stupor, and being himself still sober enough to give orders, had them sent home in a cart in company with a pig. The vice ran through all classes of society; young gentlemen in Berlin, reeling home in their cups, would break into the houses of peaceful burghers and hunt them into the street. At the weddings of peasants in Hesse more would be spent on food and drink than could be saved in a year, and the bridal party arrived at the Church more often drunk than sober. . . . This was not a reputation of which the intelligent German could be proud, yet there was a tendency among the simpler sort of patriots to glorify the national enjoyment of meat and wine. They had the authority of Tacitus that their ancestors had behaved in much the same way.
In fact, it's reasonable to say that the shadow of Nazi Germany hangs over much of the book; some scholars trace vicious strains of German nationalism to the decentralized German state left by the eventual peace, and while Wedgwood doesn't go quite that far, it's hard not to feel the presence of the Nazis throughout, even indirectly in statements such as this one:
Few men are so disinterested as to prefer to live in discomfort under a government which they hold to be right rather than in comfort under one which they hold to be wrong.

There's much more I could share from The Thirty Years War--it's as rich as any history I've read, and the New York Review of Books should be applauded for returning it to print (perhaps at the recommendation of Patrick Leigh Fermor, who in A Time of Gifts calls it "by far the best and most exciting book on the whole period"?). But I've taken enough of your time tonight, so I'll stop here; if I get really organized, maybe I'll arrange to run some more bits from The Thirty Years War while I'm on vacation.

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