In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Thirty Years War

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historiography
  • Primary Sources
  • The War in Context
  • Origins
  • The Religious Dimension
  • Political and Diplomatic
  • Historical Figures

Renaissance and Reformation The Thirty Years War
Wladyslaw Roczniak
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 June 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0127


The Thirty Years War, a multifaceted and multinational political and military conflict that raged over central Europe between 1618 and 1648 has often been considered, at least in the scope of misery and destruction it brought to those experiencing it, as a disaster comparable to, if not greater than, the two world wars and the Black Death. The suffering and heroism of both the combatants and the hapless victims of the fighting has burned itself into the national literatures and historical consciousness of that age and those ages that follow. While information on the extent of the material losses is sketchy, recent scholarship estimates human casualties to be in excess of millions, or about 15 to 20 percent of the prewar population of the region. Added to the sheer human dimension of the conflict are its social and political consequences—its beginning is usually associated with the start of perhaps the last religious war of the Reformation, and its end is often considered to be the first stepping stone in the development of the modern nation-state. As such, what began as a revolt of one constituent element of that burdensome and overcomplicated quasi-state called the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, and soon engulfed many of the premier European Houses and nations, has been pegged by many historians to be an event standing at the crossroads of modernity; an extremely violent outburst of premodern political and religious sentiment staring down the precipice of a political and diplomatic paradigm shift that altered the face of Europe and, by extension, of the world. Over the course of three and a half centuries following the conclusion of the conflict, the war has inspired a myriad of historical viewpoints and interpretations, with its causes and consequences, personalities, phases, and military actions analyzed and reanalyzed from a variety of political, national, and social standpoints. A full bibliography on the Peace of Westphalia, for instance—the treaty concluding the war—would list several thousand works alone, and that would be just one aspect of the whole production.

General Overviews

The general accounts of the Thirty Years War have collectively followed several established historiographical trends and traditions. The earliest 18th-century German Sturm und Drang movement, best represented by Schiller in The Thirty Years War—Complete, accentuated the almost Gothic surge of tragedy, pain, and suffering of the German nation, while also stressing the confessional nature of the conflict (mostly with a pro-Protestant slant) and the role of individuals involved. The British production of the early 20th century, exemplified by Wedgewood 2005 (originally published in 1938), picked up on that tradition and followed it. It was only in the second half of the 20th century that more nuanced accounts began to dominate, with the “international school,” here represented by Parker 1997, attempting to portray the Thirty Years War in the light of the additional European and colonial events, while Asch 1997 and Wilson 2009 attempted to ground the conflict more in its central European context and reimagine its dimensions away from a religious and into a more politics-oriented struggle. Also emphasizing politics and political structures, Burkhardt 1992 sees the war as a “state-building” exercise. Polišenský 1971 is a Marxist-oriented account focusing on the socioeconomic and structural aspects of the conflict, though its inclusion of Bohemian sources makes it definitely worthwhile. Finally, Arndt 2009 is a general account also stressing the social dimension.

  • Asch, Ronald G. The Thirty Years War: The Holy Roman Empire and Europe, 1618–1648. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1997.

    A nuanced and balanced account of the Thirty Years War that stresses policies, events, and developments in central Europe and especially within the Holy Roman Empire.

  • Arndt, Johannes. Der Dreißigjährige Krieg 1618–1648. Stuttgart: Reclam, 2009.

    A basic modern presentation of the Thirty Years War written with the general reader in mind that nevertheless delves deeply into the social dimension of the conflict as experienced by the common man, whether soldier or peasant.

  • Burkhardt, Johannes. Der Dreißigjährige Krieg. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1992.

    A thorough analysis of the structural conditions of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation and its constituent elements that turned the Thirty Years War into a “state-building war.” This isn’t necessarily a chronological account of the conflict but rather a thematic reimagining of the political structures that made the resulting conflict into one of premier importance in European history of statehood.

  • Parker, Geoffrey, ed. The Thirty Years’ War. 2d ed. London: Routledge, 1997.

    A concise and well-researched account of the totality of the struggle that stresses the political and diplomatic aspects, as well as structural ones. Particularly strong in placing the Thirty Years War in its international context and looks at events in the Middle East, Asia, and the European colonial rim to explain central European developments. Also comes with a strong, annotated bibliography.

  • Polišenský, J. V. The Thirty Years War. Translated by Robert Evans. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971.

    An important account of the war, written by one of the prominent central European scholars of the conflict, that utilizes heretofore unavailable in English Bohemian sources. Like most Eastern European research of the Cold War era, this one is heavy on the socioeconomic dimension as opposed to the political or the military.

  • Schiller, Friedrich. The Thirty Years War—Complete.

    A classic of the Sturm und Drang period of German literature, this romanticized 18th-century account of the Thirty Years War by Germany’s leading poet could be seen as more literature than history, but it forms an important historiographic expression of an early attempt to come to terms with the sheer scope and destruction of the conflict.

  • Wedgwood, C. V. The Thirty Years War. New York: New York Review, 2005.

    A classic study of the war, though now generally dated, first published in 1938, just in time for the beginning of another German-started catastrophe, that offers a personality-driven interpretation that is steeped in the Protestant-leaning Anglo-German historical literature of end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.

  • Wilson, Peter H. The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2009.

    A magisterial accounting of the entire scope and dimension of the titanic struggle that made up the Thirty Years War. Wilson’s book presents the war more in a political than a religious light, and sees the conflict as a freestanding event of intrinsic magnitude and importance rather than a part of more general economic or political events.

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