Peter Wilson’s history of the Thirty Years War is in the end a popular, or at least, enthusiast history. But it is organized more as a series of essays with subchapters and sub-subchapters. This is appreciated as it lets him clearly organize his thoughts, but I don’t know that it actually works as well as it ought.

At an even higher level, the book is split into three parts, with nearly a third dedicated to the build up to the war, and and eighth on the aftermath. Wilson obviously lays a lot of groundwork, which is essential here. That said, I had problems. One part I appreciated, but don’t think was entirely successful was showing that the Holy Roman Empire had been through a number of crises in the previous half-century, and there was no reason to think that the troubles in 1618 would amount to anything more. What I really had trouble with is he constantly refers to the ‘constitution’ of the HRE, and changes to it, but never, ever, describes what he’s talking about. Is there a (or more likely, a set of) written document, or is it a set of unwritten, but accepted, agreements. Or is he merely trying to talk about ‘the things of which the HRE is constituted’, whatever that may be (presumably the various officials and assemblies)?

That still leaves the bulk of the book to the war itself, and Wilson never really goes through his various points, but does have a few he’s trying to make. Most notably, is confusion, on everyone’s part of just how connected a number of different conflicts going on really are. Part of Wilson’s trouble is I don’t entirely know what he thinks about it all. He seems to regard the Dutch Revolt as a separate conflict (regular enough), but because what happens there does have a lot to do with what’s happening inside the Empire, he ends up treating it in about as much detail as the rest. There another couple of rounds of struggle over who controls Italy, which is treated much more marginally.

There are various actors inside the struggle for parts of the Empire who aren’t necessarily working together while working against the same people. These are all linked enough to obviously be part of the same war, but there are separations that Wilson often doesn’t entirely explore. He hints at the idea that the initial Bohemian revolt could be separated out from the rest, but doesn’t follow up that theme. Much later, we basically have Sweden and France pursuing separate wars in central Europe that are tied together by an alliance that both are smart enough to spend effort maintaining.

We also have Spain’s efforts to maintain the “Spanish Road”, which really is a separate conflict, except that it involves all the same people. And France’s war with Spain, including involvement with the Catalonian revolt. These are also covered fairly well, though the war in Spain naturally gets less detail, though Wilson does spend a good amount of time on the climatic bits.

Among the orthodoxies of the TYW Wilson is trying to dispel is that it was a purely religious war. I think he’s fine enough there, though I think religious motivation is less separated out than he tries to present. He also goes into the religious background in the opening parts, which gave me a headache. That’s not just him though, I find that difficult going no matter who’s writing.

His final real idea is that the Peace of Westphalia set the stage for modern European diplomacy. Instead of every country being treated differently based on size, prestige, and power, various countries were treated as being of equal importance inside their own sphere. So, while two countries may wield different amounts of power, they were all accorded the same courtesies. This is a habit that has deepened over time, and informs how the United Nations works.

For me, Wilson’s real problem is not his fault. I read this just after finishing Jonathan Sumption’s history of the Hundred Years War, which weighs in at about the same page count per decade, and I found it much better. That said, I think this is a better book than C.V. Wedgewood’s history, and certainly the best one I know of on the subject.