Peter H. Wilson


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

Cover Interview of April 23, 2010


I hope that my book makes such experience intelligible and relevant for readers today.

The early seventeenth century seems very distant. Much of it is irretrievably lost and we shall never be able to reconstruct it “as it actually happened,” as Leopold von Ranke and other empirical historians once thought possible about the past.  However, the seventeenth century was a formative period in Europe’s development and it has been woven into many of the basic assumptions used to understand today’s world.  These include an international order based on sovereign states, allegedly ushered in by the Peace of Westphalia which concluded the War in 1648.

The Peace of Westphalia is also associated with a shift to a more secular, tolerant society.  I indicate in the book that this view is not entirely correct. The peace still left the Empire “holy” in the sense of Christian—all other faiths were denied recognition.  Peace rested on defusing disputes by shifting them from contests over singular, absolute truth, and channeling them into arguments over particular rights which could be resolved through legal arbitration.

This suggests that religion should not be written out altogether. It shaped how the War was perceived both then, and subsequently. The most vocal commentators were clergy who were more willing to see God’s hand at work, for example hailing the invading Swedish king, Gustavus Adolphus, as a “Lion of the North” sent to liberate not to conquer.

More significantly, faith convinced several key players that they were justified in gambling their subjects’ lives to pursue their own risky agendas. And here, the experience of the seventeenth century offers a warning for our own times.

© 2010 Peter H. Wilson