History Books » Military History

The best books on The Thirty Years War

recommended by Peter Wilson

The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy by Peter Wilson

The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy
by Peter Wilson


It was a war that devastated Europe and left more than one-fifth of the German population dead. The complex peace agreement that ended it, the Treaty of Westphalia, is still credited with establishing our modern state system. Peter Wilson, Chichele Professor of the History of War at Oxford University and author of the most recent general history of the war, Europe's Tragedy: A New History of the Thirty Years War, recommends books to read for a nuanced picture of Europe's cataclysmic 17th-century conflict.

Interview by Benedict King

The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy by Peter Wilson

The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy
by Peter Wilson


Before we get into your books, I wanted to ask: why was the Thirty Years War, which ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, significant? 

The Thirty Years War is important because it determined the political and religious balance in the Holy Roman Empire, Europe’s largest state. It did so in a way that actually stabilized the political order of Central Europe and provided for a European balance of power that lasted up until the period of the French Revolution.

It was also crucial as a factor in a longer-term shift towards an international order based more on sovereign national states, although that doesn’t happen overnight and it certainly isn’t a direct product of the Peace of Westphalia.

What’s more, the war is also important for what it’s come to symbolize, an all-destructive fury, a kind of benchmark by which later wars have been measured, particularly by the populations that have been affected by them.

It’s become a kind of paradigm or analogy that’s been used by political scientists and politicians and others to discuss ideas of either catastrophic warfare or international order.

A “Westphalian” solution has been mooted for the Middle East, I suppose because the divisions between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the region might resemble the religious divisions between Catholic and Protestant Christians in early modern Europe. What are the characteristics of the contemporary Middle East that would lend themselves to such a solution?

There are a group of people who think that the Peace of Westphalia might represent a possible framework for a solution because it was a compromise peace that attempted to include all the actors in the conflict. I certainly think that that would be advantageous if a peace settlement were attempted in the Middle East, but I’m sceptical as to whether it can directly provide a blueprint, mainly because the Westphalian settlement was based on the constitution of the Holy Roman Empire, which provided a framework. The different belligerents contested the interpretation of the constitution, but they didn’t contest the existence of the empire.

The problem in the Middle East is that there is no overarching framework that can provide that neutral moral high ground that all parties could subscribe to. I think that’s the crucial difference.

Let’s look at the books you’re recommending, as the first one is specifically on the Peace of Westphalia. It’s Westphalia: The Last Christian Peace 1643–48 by Derek Croxton. Tell me about it. 

The Peace of Westphalia is so complex that it takes at least five years to negotiate and the war continues while the negotiations are taking place. It’s an intricate puzzle that is slowly put together, interacting with military events. Just unravelling all of that is a challenge.

Then the peace has this kind of benchmark status, particularly in political science, but also I think in general public consciousness. It supposedly created the “Westphalian system,” the idea that the world is divided into sovereign national states that should all interact equally within a rules-based international order. So the peace has that longer-term importance.

“The popular perception of the war, despite all the academic writing, hasn’t actually shifted much since the beginning of the 19th century, which is of a national disaster and almost, in many respects, a greater calamity than the world wars”

What Derek Croxton does is present all of this in a very clear and lucid manner in a way that—whilst not undermining the importance of the peace—does voice very pertinent criticisms of the rather simple view that it somehow created this order. The choice of the title, The Last Christian Peace, is significant because in the classic paradigm, religion is taken out of politics and this, supposedly, enables a more peaceful domestic and international order.

You get these accusations that the Islamic world has not yet had its Westphalian moment and this is part of its problem. Croxton points out that Westphalia is actually explicitly a Christian peace. It’s not based on modern ideas, or on Western ideas of toleration. Religion is an important factor in the peace and indeed remains so in domestic and international affairs afterwards.

Your next book on the Thirty Years War is more of a memoir. It’s by Robert Monro and it’s called Monro: His Expedition with the Worthy Scots Regiment called Mac-Keyes.

This is a classic text from the Thirty Years War. The book also encapsulates so much about why the war is so complex. Monro was depicted by Walter Scott as the archetypal mercenary, as Dugald Dalgetty in A Legend of Montrose. He’s a Scotsman, but he serves the Danes and then the Swedes and he then returns to fight in the British civil wars.

In this book, he’s very explicit about his motives. He believes he’s serving the Stuart dynasty because the point of his intervention was to restore James I’s daughter and son-in-law to their position as the Electress and Elector Palatine. He sees himself as a professional soldier and he sees himself as a Protestant. The book is a succession of alternating chapters. One chapter recounts his own experiences and gives a very good insight into the life of an officer and the events of the war, and then the next chapter will be a reflection on ideas of duty which bring in these themes about military professionalism and dynastic and religious loyalties.

Was he sent by James I of England, or did he just volunteer?

England is one of the major powers that is not directly involved in the Thirty Years War, but they actually send as many troops to the continent as the Swedes do. They do so in a piecemeal fashion, usually by permitting another power to recruit or occasionally organizing an expedition that was sent in support of one of the belligerents, but without making Britain itself directly a belligerent. Monro goes out in one of these expeditionary forces in the mid-1620s.

Monro’s book is, I think rightly, viewed as a very early regimental history. He’s also a well-known figure because he plays a role subsequently as a senior commander in the British civil wars.

Is it very readable?

It is surprisingly readable. Anyone who can access Early English Books Online (EEBO), for example, can access it online either in its original format or as a Word document. There’s a very good—quite expensive, unfortunately—modern critical edition. It’s 17th-century English, but it’s full of arresting anecdotes and turns of phrase. It’s really a very, very good read.

Next on your list of books about the Thirty Years War is Golo Mann’s Wallenstein: His Life Narrated. Tell me about this book. Do you also want to mention who Albrecht von Wallenstein was, for anyone who doesn’t know?

Wallenstein is one of the towering figures in the war. He comes from the lesser nobility, like a lot of the senior commanders, and he rises to prominence through being a general, especially an organizer of armies for the Holy Roman Emperor. So from 1625 he is the senior field commander of the main army in the Empire. Because the emperor can’t pay him and because he’s financing much of the mobilization of the army on his own personal credit, he’s rewarded with captured territory. He receives the Duchy of Mecklenburg, because the then-Dukes of Mecklenburg have backed the wrong side, and so they’re expropriated.

This raises him to the senior ranks of the aristocracy in the Empire and incurs the suspicions of those who otherwise back the Emperor. They think, ‘Well, if the Emperor can do this what might he do to us?’ First, they engineer his dismissal. Then the imperial army suffers a major defeat and he’s recalled. After that, he’s increasingly perceived as a barrier to peace negotiations by part of the anti-imperial faction. That’s rather ironic, because personally he probably favoured a negotiated peace.

“England is one of the major powers that is not directly involved Thirty Years War, but they actually send as many troops to the continent as the Swedes do.”

But he’s unconventional in the sense that although he builds a lavish palace in Prague—which is now the Czech Senate—he doesn’t play the role of the courtier. He doesn’t really have a faction at court. He’s always away commanding the army and so a whispering campaign starts that he’s about to betray the Emperor. Ultimately, the Emperor sanctions his murder and he’s assassinated in the town of what’s now Cheb in Bohemia.

Did the imperial military cause suffer as a result?

It doesn’t, actually. That demonstrates, I think, that although much is changing during the war, the basic socio-political order remains intact. Wallenstein is conscious that he’s about to be removed and at the very last minute genuinely does try to defect and attempts to take the officer corps and soldiers with him. But they don’t follow. They know on which side their bread is buttered and they know that only the Emperor can grant rewards that would be considered legitimate, whereas Wallenstein is not, on his own, a legitimate player. He only derives legitimacy through his relationship to the Emperor. Once that’s gone, his soldiers know his days are numbered and his card is marked.

Does Golo Mann’s book have a particular slant?

There are a good number of Wallenstein biographies; I think there’s something like two and a half thousand books and articles written about him. He’s such a fascinating figure, with so many questions to ask. Was he a Czech nationalist? Was he a peacemaker? Was he the last of the great mercenary captains? He fits all of these different archetypes. He’s also interested in astrology. So there are a lot of interesting angles.

Mann’s biography is very solid. He wasn’t a professional historian, but he did read everything and he also had advice from the best Czech historians at the time and corresponded with them. Mann provides a lot of detail, but it doesn’t weigh heavy. There are some passages that are a bit strange. In the German version, there is a passage where he imagines what Wallenstein might be dreaming, which is perhaps exhibiting his novelistic heritage a bit too much.

Golo Mann was obsessed with Wallenstein. He played him in a school play. But this book is a very good attempt to try and provide a balanced picture of the man and his role in the Thirty Years War.

It sounds like it’s also highly readable.

Yes, it was a bestseller. The German edition of Wallenstein sold at least 100,000 copies. It was the basis of the most expensive West German TV production in the 20th century, a four-part series. It captured the public imagination.

Is there a good film about the Thirty Years War that you think is worth watching?

There have been a number of attempts to do it. Famously, there’s the film made in the 1970s called The Last Valley, starring Michael Caine and Omar Sharif. It has everything: the plague, mercenaries and a witch burnt at the stake. But the problem is that the war is a drama on such a grand scale. There are so many characters that it’s very, very difficult to do and I haven’t seen anything that really brings it off.

The next book is Eduard Wagner’s European Weapons and Warfare 1618-1648, which has amazing illustrations of the troops that were fighting in the war.

That’s why I picked it. This period of the Thirty Years War is very visual, in the sense that it sees a massive expansion of print media and the first regular newspapers. All this is propelled by the war. But these illustrated broadsheets are produced as much for propaganda purposes as for pure information. There are some fantastic engravers producing panoramic battle scenes and so forth.

So there’s a great wealth of material, and this book is based on those illustrations and on surviving items of equipment from the war. It provides a very good compendium of what the armies looked like, what their military equipment looked like, to a level of detail that’s generally missing. For example, it shows you what the baggage wagons looked like.

Did the Thirty Years War witness any kind of revolution in military tactics or strategy?

In the very influential ‘military revolution thesis’ first advanced in the 1950s, it’s supposed to have done that, yes. But I’m sceptical. It’s much more of an evolutionary process over the course of the war and there are some developments that are specific to this conflict. Because of the interlinking between military operations, the need to hold territory to resource armies, and the peace negotiations, the field armies actually change composition so that they become predominantly cavalry forces by the end of the war.

That is totally at odds with the general European trend and isn’t replicated in any later conflict. But in the Thirty Years War, armies needed to be mobile to respond to the needs of the diplomats and cavalry could forage more easily, too. Cavalry could pitch up in an area, draw out infantry from the garrisons in the towns, make up an army and then fight a battle. That trend is not replicated in the wars that, for example, the Spanish and French are fighting at the same time, and it is not replicated after the war, where the trend is towards infantry and relying on infantry fire power.

I think when we look at the detail, we see some things are part of a general trend, but it’s a trend rather than a revolution. Other things are particular to the conflict and are peculiar to it.

What’s actually happening in the battles?

This is one of the things that you can tell from Wagner’s book. He shows all the different troop types, how each type of soldier is armed in a specific way. Battles were fought with a combination of different types of soldier. Infantry included pikemen who were more heavily armoured and had pikes to protect the musketeers against cavalry attack, because reloading firearms was a fairly slow process. There were different types of cavalry: light cavalry for scouting and harassing the enemy and plundering their baggage and causing panic, and heavy cavalry that were meant to attack infantry formations that had lost cohesion.

Most of the casualties in battles actually occurred towards the end, when one side broke. If one side’s formations lost cohesion, then soldiers were exposed individually. A pike on its own is very unwieldy and they are only effective en masse. Much the same can be said for contemporary firearms.

The scale of civilian deaths in the Thirty Years War was huge. Why was that?

Yes, there are all sorts of statistics. The Holy Roman Empire’s population is reduced by about 20%, but more than a fifth of the population died. Overall numbers are difficult to estimate. The major killer is the plague, which was spread by troop movements. The worst period is the 1630s, when the war becomes truly general throughout the Empire and the armies are moving fairly rapidly. One contingent brought the plague into the German part of the Empire from Northern Italy. Malnourishment, due to the disruption of agriculture and trade, left people vulnerable.

These were much more likely causes of death than direct killing. Direct killing was usually much more situational, specific and often used as a terror tactic: you murdered the servant in order to get a householder to reveal where they had buried their treasure.

The last book on your list is The Diary of a Mercenary from the Thirty Years War by Peter Hagendorf.

The diary is missing the beginning and it’s missing the end. It was rediscovered in a library in Berlin in the early 1990s. It’s a fascinating book on the Thirty Years War because of its length. We do have a surprisingly large number of voices of ordinary people in the war, but we have very few from ordinary soldiers and certainly none of this length. Until this diary was published and popularized, the main go-to source, if you wanted to evoke what everyday life in the war was like, was Grimmelshausen’s Simplicius Simplicissimus, which is a semi-autobiographical novel.

The novel’s hero is a kind of innocent abroad. One of the early scenes of Grimmelshausen’s book is the attack on the main protagonist’s farm. He writes about this through the eyes of a child. It’s extraordinarily evocative. He describes what is obviously torture but without actually saying what it is. Grimmelshausen’s book was the book that people would cite but it is, of course, a work of fiction, even though it’s based on personal experience.

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

Hagendorf, on the other hand, is a very ordinary man writing in a very matter-of-fact way about his experiences of being a soldier. He writes about his wife, who dies, and his children, some of whom die. He writes about how he takes a woman captive and then lets her go. He talks about his attitudes to religion but especially magic. He recounts the time where he gets drunk and he falls behind his regiment and is pounced on by peasants who beat him up and steal his satchel, and when he arrives back, his mates laugh at him. It has lots of these anecdotes.

And it’s been quite interesting to see how this has basically replaced Grimmelshausen. In a recent five-part series by ARD, one of the major broadcasters in Germany, they picked five exemplary individuals to illustrate the war. One of them is a nun. I can’t remember the others, but the soldier is represented by Hagendorf. Grimmelshausen is out of the picture: we have Hagendorf now, as the authentic voice of the people, as it were.

Whose side was he on?

He was most likely a Protestant because he comes from the area around Magdeburg, and he’s actually involved in the sack of Magdeburg. But he fights for the Catholic League forces, serves in Italy and then serves throughout most of the Empire. He’s captured at a battle and empressed into the Swedish army, serves in the Swedish army for a year or so and is then able to escape and rejoin the other side. He records everywhere he goes; somebody’s calculated that he walks about 22,000 kilometers over the period.

Does he have any sense of political commitment or is he just being blown hither and thither by fate?

He’s a loyal soldier and he gets promoted to being an NCO and has some responsibilities. At one point, he looks after wounded soldiers and so on, but he seems to have served the Swedish forces as diligently as he served the Bavarian forces. Equally, he’s able to come back without being punished and continue. Like many accounts by soldiers—also as in, say, the Napoleonic Wars—much of it is about daily survival. One day he says, ‘we’ve had nothing to eat’ and then the next day it’s ‘we were able to eat chicken and feast.’

How did you come to write your book about the Thirty Years War? Was there a gap you were filling, a piece of the puzzle that you felt was missing?

I was given the opportunity to write the book by Penguin. They wanted an up-to-date, general history that would replace C V Wedgwood’s history The 30 Years War, which is often the book that most people know about and is still in print. But it was written in 1938, and the Second World War hangs over her account. James I is portrayed as an appeaser; it’s very much of its time and she didn’t deal with some areas that have become of historical interest subsequently.

So that was the task. Then, as I got into it, I realized that I couldn’t explain things the way that other people were explaining them. I felt those explanations didn’t make sense, and the more I read about it, the more I felt I needed to explain matters in a different way.

Was one of the principal things that you ended up taking issue with the idea that it was an exclusively confessional conflict?

That’s one of them—because of the inadequacy of any definition of what a religious war is. Religion was being invoked in a whole range of different conflicts. For some people it clearly was a religious war, and they felt so because of direct theological reasons. There were other people who had theological reasons for saying that religion should not actually be dictating politics in anything other than a general moral sense. So I think we need to see this in a more nuanced way, and look at individuals rather than blanket explanations.

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by .

I felt that the attempts to try to make sense of the war had, naturally enough, tried to simplify it, but had, as a result, done some injustice to the actual events and to the people that were involved. Without trying to make things complicated, I felt I needed to recognize the complexity in order to explain it.

How does the Thirty Years War fit into the German psyche now?

Herfried Münkler has said that it’s faded from memory, but the sales of his own book actually disprove him. If you go into bookshops in Germany you will find books on the Thirty Years War and there is a strong public interest. The popular perception of the war, despite all the academic writing, hasn’t actually shifted much since the beginning of the 19th century, which is of a national disaster and almost, in many respects, a greater calamity than the two World Wars.

The level of destruction is perceived as greater than the Second World War?

We’re not really comparing like with like. The Thirty Years War is a war fought in the pre-industrial age, so loss of human life and indeed of animals cannot be replaced by machinery. The war has a truly lasting impact on the population of central Europe. It takes 60 years to recover to the pre-war level. And that is also delayed by another 30 or 40 years by wars against the Ottoman Empire and France. But, nonetheless, a significant part of that problem can be directly related to the Thirty Years War. So there’s no question that it’s a truly terrible conflict that leaves a very long legacy.

Interview by Benedict King

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Peter Wilson

Peter H. Wilson is Chichele Professor of the History of War at the University of Oxford, a Fellow of All Souls College and Principal Investigator of a five-year research project on the ‘European Fiscal-Military System 1530-1870’ funded by the European Research Council 2018-23. His books include The Holy Roman Empire: A Thousand Years of Europe’s History (Penguin/Harvard UP, 2016), as well as Europe’s Tragedy: A History of the Thirty Years War (2009), which won the Society for Military History’s Distinguished Book Award. His latest book, Lützen, was published in 2018 by Oxford University Press in its Great Battles series, and his next, Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire, will be published in June 2020.

Save for later

Peter Wilson

Peter H. Wilson is Chichele Professor of the History of War at the University of Oxford, a Fellow of All Souls College and Principal Investigator of a five-year research project on the ‘European Fiscal-Military System 1530-1870’ funded by the European Research Council 2018-23. His books include The Holy Roman Empire: A Thousand Years of Europe’s History (Penguin/Harvard UP, 2016), as well as Europe’s Tragedy: A History of the Thirty Years War (2009), which won the Society for Military History’s Distinguished Book Award. His latest book, Lützen, was published in 2018 by Oxford University Press in its Great Battles series, and his next, Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire, will be published in June 2020.