Peter H. Wilson


On his book The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy

Cover Interview of April 22, 2010

In a nutshell

The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) was the most destructive conflict in European history prior to the twentieth-century world wars.  The War was a struggle over the political and religious order in the Holy Roman Empire, Europe’s second largest state (after Russia, which was then generally not considered part of Europe).  The Empire encompassed modern Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, parts of Denmark, France and Poland, and also held jurisdiction over northern Italy.

Around 1.8 million soldiers and at least 3.2 million civilians died in the Thirty Years War, reducing the Empire’s population by at least a fifth. This represents, proportionally, a far higher loss than that suffered in either world war.

The conflict left a deep imprint on European consciousness.  It was ranked ahead of the Nazi era and the Black Death by late twentieth-century Germans as their country’s greatest disaster.  Seminal works of German literature—notably Friedrich Schiller’s trilogy about the imperial general Wallenstein, and Grimmelshausen’s Simplicius Simplicissimus, the first German novel which later formed the basis for Bertolt Brecht’s play, Mother Courage—enduringly placed the Thirty Years War in the popular imagination. Only now, with the proliferation of modern media images of more recent carnage, the memory of the Thirty Years War is fading.

My book is the first full-length treatment of the conflict to appear for seventy years.  And it is also the first treatment to give equal coverage to the War’s second half.  My interpretation differs substantially from previous accounts which tend to see the War as inevitable.

The real tragedy of the conflict is that it could have been avoided, or at least shortened or contained.  That does not mean that the fighting ever was “meaningless” as depicted by C.V. Wedgwood in her justly famous study first published in 1938.  Real issues were at stake throughout.  It was the intractability of these issues, combined with the self-interest of all protagonists, which frustrated peace making for thirty years.