If you’re looking for a readable pop history version of the Thirty Years War, do not read this book. I started this back in April, so it may very well have set a record for book that’s taken me the longest to read. In my life. Previously, my go-to Thirty Years War history was C.V. Wedgwood’s influential work, but I thought it might be a good idea to try something more up-to-date. As it turns out, I don’t need anything more up-to-date for my purposes.
Difficult as it was, it wasn’t a waste of time, since I gleaned a ton of useful information from it. In fact, it was packed with facts of all kinds, just not presented in a very readable form. Wilson takes a good 300 pages just to get to the beginning of the war. This isn’t entirely unreasonable, because the reasons for the war are highly complex and have their roots in the structures and institutions of the Holy Roman Empire and in the Reformation. For the American reader who is used to a more Anglo-centric version of history, the central European set-up is extremely bewildering. Unfortunately, Wilson does nothing to mitigate that. If anything, I was more confused by the political-religious situation after reading than before.
The next section deals with the war itself. All of the facts are there, often in great detail, but the way they are presented make the narrative very difficult to follow. To be fair, this has got to be one of the more confusing conflicts in the history of the world, and it didn’t help that everybody was named Christian, Frederick, George or Maximilian. A lot of the narrative of the actual conflict read something like
“General so-and-so took his cavalry over the creek at Someplace. Unfortunately, Count Some Guy was waiting for him in the bushes at the other creek at Someplace, with his reserves arrayed beyond Some River. Meanwhile, the Duke of Something was late, and force-marched his infantry through the Forest of Something, accidentally stumbling upon Count Some Other Guy who was wintering at Some Other Place while dying of the plague.”
I actually have a pretty good grasp of German geography and names. It’s not a foreign language to me, but I felt pretty foreign while reading this book. It didn’t help that maps often didn’t accompany the battle narratives, and if they did, they were very poorly drawn. Most looked like something I would concoct in MSPaint. I ended up using the Wikipedia page for the Thirty Years War, especially to keep all of the various commanders straight. Something similar integrated into this book would have been helpful.
The last section dealt with the aftermath of the war. It was all dealt with so dryly that it failed to make an impression on me. To be fair, Wilson here is trying to sort out myth and propaganda from reality, in addition to addressing all of the various theories that historians and politicians have touted over the years. I would probably have found this more interesting if I knew something about the historiography surrounding this conflict, but I don’t, and it’s unlikely that I ever shall.
That being said, this is an impressive work of history. Wilson’s knowledge of place and period is staggering, and so encyclopedic that it’s probably hard to translate for mere mortals. As a work of reference, I know I’ll be going back to it again and again, and that’s the context in which I would recommend this. If you’re looking for an engaging, readable, historically accurate account, go with Wedgwood’s version. If you’re a serious student of history well-acquainted with early modern European history and want to round out your collection, this might be for you.