Sunday, April 18, 2010

Reflections on the Thirty Years War

Historians of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) inevitably pose or wrestle with the perennial question: Is it a war of religion or politics?  Traditionally, in history books and the like, the conflict provides a bookend to the “Confessional Age,” or “Age of Reformation,” a tumultuous era starting with Luther’s appearance at the Diet of Worms in 1521. The thirty-year conflict, in this context, is the last gasp of confessional-based diplomacy and fanatical violence in the name of God; yet, the combatant states were clearly engaging in Realpolitik. Catholic France formed an alliance with Protestant Sweden in its ongoing attempt to thwart the dynastic ambitions of the Catholic Habsburg dominions on its eastern and southern flanks.

While early modern historians see both piety and politics as an intertwined causa belli, military historians consider new precedents in the history of warfare. With perhaps only part of their tongues in cheek, some have suggested that the decades-long struggle was the first World War. It was not only the most devastating conflict in Europe to date; it unleashed a few global skirmishes in the colonial possessions abroad, largely between the imperial titans France and Britain. For my part, the Seven Years War of the subsequent century provides a better candidate for a pre-World War I world war. One cannot deny the brutality of the Thirty Years War—a brutality that presumably has roots in religious passion. But I am not entirely convinced that religious wars—if the Thirty Years War is such—are any more vindictive and atrocity-ridden then the dynastic and territorial wars of old. The Japanese troops’ sadistic murders of the inhabitants of Nanking, for instance, had no ideological dimension other than imperial conquest and racial hate.

On a side note, some historians are trying to introduce the term "The New Thirty Years War" to refer to WWI and WWI collectively as one long conflict from 1914 to 1945.  The new here of course hearkens back to the 17th-century struggle.  While students often dismiss the idea as ridiculous when I mention it in class, the term is not without some merit.  For the most part, both world wars had the same combatants lining up against each other.  Moreover, the unresolved issues that ended the first war led to the second one.  A mere twenty-one years divided the two conflicts.  Since were only about seventy years out from World War II and its devastation is still on our collective consciousness (enhanced in no small part by excellent documentaries and movies), we're apt to separate the first war from the second.  But I wonder if, say, two-hundred years from now people will bother to make such a distinction.  Who bothers to distinguish the three separate conflicts between the Spartans and Athenians of 5th century BCE when the Peloponnesian War will suffice?  The further in time the world wars of the twentieth century recede, the more likely we'll interpret them as one entity.

With one cheesy exception, Hollywood has virtually ignored the Thirty Years War, even if you'll find movies on Stuart England and the Three Musketeers that are set in the early 17th century.  The exception is "The Last Valley" (1970) which is based on a mediocre novel (which I once dug out of a dusty shelf at the university library).  It stars no less than Omar Sharif and one of my favorite actors of all time, Michael Caine.  The premise of the story is a good one.  A motley band of cutthroat mercenaries under the command of a war-weary and enigmatic commander winter at a remote alpine village in presumably Southern Germany.  A lone refugee, a former teacher who lost his family in the massacre at Magdeburg, witnesses the devastation of war and the ravages of plague before he too stumbles into this idyllic sanctuary.  The backdrop of the film is spectacular, but the production and acting (Sharif and Caine excluded) is, as I say, cheesy.  The director, James Clavell, has an obvious anti-religious bent characteristic of movies in this period.  The scenes depicting witchcraft are awful, based more on pop culture than historical reality.  The film is a product of the times.

All is not lost.  Both the "Captain" and "Vogel," the characters played by Caine and Sharif respectively, manage to utter a few introspective statements about war and the human condition.  Desperate for anything on this war, I squeezed out a decent 10-minute excerpt to show in my European history courses.  The scene conveys, to my mind, the complexity of labeling the war a religious conflict; some of the mercenaries almost come to blows over their religious differences, and yet they're fighting together for nothing more than good old-fashioned booty.  (I employ the word booty, which inevitably gets snickers in class, in the traditional sense, mind you!).  Hollywood could find some excellent material in this war for an epic movie, but then again I'm afraid of the end product.  Judging from today's fare of blockbusters, film moguls and directors would likely throw some vampires, zombies and blue creatures into the battlefield to spruce things up.  Destroying history is not my idea of poetic license, however.  For my two cents, if the cinematic powers that be allow another movie set in the Thirty Years War, Ridley Scott's the man for the job.

Unless you're an avid student of the 17th century, and the Thirty Years Wars in particular, stay away from the film.  I wouldn't want it to diminish your interest in this historical period.  But I'll give readers a heads-up: I'll be coming back to this topic every now and then.  Stay tuned for my discussion of the destruction of Magdeburg in 1631 next month.  You're waiting with bated breath, I can tell!  I realize that female readers as a rule are less interested in war and the military as topics.  I also know that readers today are interested in current issues and to the extent that they might consider a historical topic it will be American history.  Der Viator tries to accommodate everyone in this blog.  Keep in mind that my occasional preoccupation with war is less about military tactics and battle formations and more about the search for meaning in a post-Nietzschean world.