Sun, 13 Feb 2005

The History of the Thirty Years War

— SjG @ 2:13 pm

Johann Cristoph Friedrich von Schiller (Translated by Rev. A. J. W. Morrison), c. 1793, as published in an e-book at

The Holy Roman Empire in the early 1600s comprised the Austro-Hungarian hegemony, and, to a varying extents, the numerous small princely holdings that make up what is now Germany and parts of Eastern Europe. The Reformation had been stirring things up for a little over a hundred years, and the religious makeup of the Empire was also quite heterogeneous (although individual states were not). This is the tinder which was consumed by the Thirty Years War, which, by some accounts, resulted in the reduction of Germany’s population by nearly 70%.

I am the first to admit ignorance of history. I was, for example, completely unaware of the Swedish conquest of Europe. I knew that the Thirty Years war had been a bad thing, but was ignorant of the extent to which it devastated the German states. Schiller tells how armies were raised by princes and generals who could not afford to pay the troops, expressly so the armies would plunder and terrorize the population in enemy lands. Yet any land occupied by an enemy army became enemy land, so peasants would bear the brunt of “friend” and foe alike. In many cases, friendly armies had to defend against the citizenry for whom they ostensibly fought. Furthermore, warfare was getting “modern,” with artillery and firearms. A battle between two armies could result in 15,000 deaths in a single day. Coupled with conscription of peasants, sieges against cities, and intentionaly laying waste to fields in order to starve an area and make it impassible to armies for want of supplies, it is a wonder that such brutal warfare could be sustained for as long as it was.

Schiller biases are reasonably clear, he he attempts to give an even-handed presentation. He’ll tell of an individual like Wallenstein or Frederick, and fill the retelling with harsh judgements and criticism, but will always have a short summary of their characters, where he will be full of mitigated praise (e.g., “The virtues of the ruler and of the hero, prudence, justice, firmness, and courage are strikingly prominent features in his character; but he wanted the gentler virtues of the man, which adorn the hero and make the ruler beloved.”) Schiller shows that religion and state were the excuses for the war, but greed, arrogance, ambition, and strategy were its true motivators.

Reading this book left me even more thankful to be living when and where I am, while being keenly aware that this is a very small and privileged bubble in time and region. World-wide, not enough has changed since the Thirty Years War.

Filed in:

One response to “The History of the Thirty Years War”

  1. Anonymous says:

    why you were reading this, i don’t know. However, let me add my bit of Schiller trivia: There is a bust of Schiller that was stolen from the Carleton College library many moons ago and it makes its appearance at many college events, usually under the arm of a student who yells, “Schiller!” (because, although he was locally famous, we couldn’t pick him out of a lineup) and then runs away. There is a picture somewhere in the Minneapolis Star Tribune archives of President Clinton holding the bust of Schiller. I dare you to find it.

    the peanut gallery

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.