In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Thirty Years War, 1618–1648

  • Introduction
  • The Thirty Years War
  • Origins of the Thirty Years War
  • Early Seventeenth-Century Military Finance
  • Early Seventeenth-Century Military Supply and Logistics
  • Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Combat
  • Regionally Specific Studies of the Thirty Years War
  • Historical Figures
  • Daily Life and Ordinary People During the Thirty Years War
  • Primary Sources for the Thirty Years War
  • Cultural Responses to Seventeenth-Century Warfare

Military History Thirty Years War, 1618–1648
by
Lucian Staiano-Daniels
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0198

Introduction

Historians still debate what to call the conflict that convulsed Central Europe from 1618 to 1648. Although it is largely accepted that this is “The Thirty Years War,” and indeed some people called it that shortly after it was over, some historians use this phrase to denote other wars, beginning earlier or ending later. This Thirty Years War was one of the most destructive conflicts on earth. Although the fighting took place primarily in central Europe, this complex multifaceted struggle eventually sucked in people from Ireland to Muscovy west to east, and from Norway to Italy north to south. Compared to the population at the time, it may have been proportionally more deadly than any war in western or central Europe before or since. This is an excellent time for Thirty Years War research. Some tenacious misunderstandings about the way early-17th-century strategy and combat worked are being rooted out. Primary source research is being done. Sterile debates that occupied the entire 19th and early 20th centuries are now barely even remembered. A full bibliography would list hundreds of thousands of works over four hundred years; here are several.

The Thirty Years War

The Thirty Years War involved numerous agents within and outside the elaborate system of polities known as the Holy Roman Empire. This war catalyzed other disasters, like revolt or governmental collapse in Spain, Portugal, and some of Spain’s Italian possessions, as well as other wars, like one between Spain and France which lasted from 1635 to 1659. It incorporated smaller conflicts, like the dispute between Gustavus Adolphus and Sigismund Vasa. It is so multifarious and complex that some scholars believe the most rewarding way to discuss it is with groups of historians in edited collections like Parker 1997 or Asbach and Schröder 2014. However, the Thirty Years War was also a single defined conflict, and was thought of as such at the time: it began with a constitutional crisis within the Holy Roman Empire; continued when treaties were negotiated but people chose to restart, prolong, or enter the fighting; and ended when diplomats finally hammered out a legal peace. The legal aspects of this war have received attention lately, including the extent to which the political entities taking part can be called “states.” Wilson 2009 presents the war as a constitutional crisis within the Holy Roman Empire as well as a pan-European conflict, which is debated. Like Wilson, Asch 1997 and Schmidt 2018 present this conflict as a constitutional crisis, although Asch also stresses the religious aspect, which Wilson does not. Burkhardt 2018 analyzes this war as a result of early modern European political configurations: the state’s monopoly on legal lethal force had not yet coalesced. Croxton 2013 discusses the peace. One of the oldest treatments of this war still read today is the eloquent Wedgwood 2005.

  • Asbach, Olaf, and Peter Schröder, eds. The Ashgate Research Companion to the Thirty Years War. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2014.

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    This collected volume brings together leading scholars to synthesize the current field of Thirty Years War scholarship, including research not widely available in English, and work on understudied powers like the Ottoman Empire and the Papacy. A good starting point for the beginner.

  • Asch, Ronald. The Thirty Years War: The Holy Roman Empire and Europe, 1618–1648. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

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    Presents the Thirty Years War as both a constitutional conflict within the Holy Roman Empire and a religious conflict. This was in contrast to prevailing scholarship at the time, which argued that this war was a social and economic crisis for which high politics or religious tensions were merely a cover.

  • Burkhardt, Johannes. Der Krieg der Kriege: Eine neue Geschichte des Dreißigjährigen Krieges. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta Verlag, 2018.

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    Presents the war as a Europe-shaking apocalypse which was the result of the still incomplete monopoly on lethal force held by European political entities.

  • Croxton, Derek. Westphalia: The Last Christian Peace. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

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    Delineates the process leading up to the Treaty of Westphalia, which was almost as complex as the war itself. Argues that the traditional understanding of this peace settlement as the birth of the modern conception of sovereign nation states is incorrect: relationships among the political entities involved were still feudal, and the mental framework undergirding this peace was religious.

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

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    A collection of chapters written by a multinational team of historians. Although somewhat dry it is readable. Based on numerous secondary sources, and well researched for its time, containing a substantial annotated bibliography. Focuses on political and diplomatic history; contributes to the old debate about how destructive the war was.

  • Schmidt, Georg. Die Reiter der Apokalypse: Geschichte des Dreißigjährigen Krieges. Munich: Verlag CH Beck, 2018.

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    In contrast to Medick, claims that the individual sufferings of the war were only combined into a collective trauma in the 19th century, as part of an effort to legitimize Prussian nationalist claims. Stresses the mindsets of the people who experienced this conflict; claims that the last decade of the war saw a disenchantment in daily life.

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

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    Dated, biased in favor of Protestants, and in some places wrong—and vivid and beautifully written. Wedgwood turns this complex sprawl of events into something with a plot, which makes this book a good introduction. Written in 1938, the coming World War II hangs over it, but it may also be implicitly a meditation on World War I.

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

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    An anatomization of the entire conflict. Wilson is a legal historian at heart—half the book is the political background to the war itself, and a description of the complex, intricate Holy Roman Empire. Presents the war as an issue for Europe as a whole, not just Germany.

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