What I'm reading: Thirty Years of Woe

Peter H Wilson's Europe's TragedyAs ever my reading list is long with both History and Science Fiction but I think it is worthwhile mentioning a few of the history books here as they are most enjoyable.

The first and best of the lot is Europe’s Tragedy by Peter H. Wilson. There are excellent reviews around so I’ll point you to them rather than write my own right now. I’d point out one small irritant which is that Wilson has a tendency to shift what seems to me abruptly between theatres of conflict. I’m getting used to it, but combined with the huge line up of notable actors in the period, it can make reading harder going that I’d like.

The Telepgraph
Worse than the Black Death, worse than the First World War, worse than the Second World War, worse than the Holocaust – that is how the Thirty Years War lives on in the collective German memory. This is just one of many arresting pieces of information to be gleaned from this colossal history of one of the longest and most destructive conflicts in European history.

The Times
The lead-lined window that sparked it all is still there, of course: you can even open it, and peer down to the dry moat into which the three Catholic imperial counsellors were cast on May 23, 1618 by a group of enraged Bohemian Protestant gentry. The room itself is on the fourth floor of the great Hradschin Palace, which looks over the river to the city of Prague. All is peaceful now, but it wasn’t then; it was the epicentre of a storm that was to engulf much of Europe for the following three decades.

Californian Literary Review
Wilson, whose grasp of 17th century politics and diplomacy is most impressive, makes two significant contributions toward understanding the origin of the Thirty Years War. First, the Holy Roman Empire, which unified the German and Slavic states of Central Europe under Habsburg rule, was a much more effective political force than is generally realized. Differing in organization from a modern nation state, the Empire was an elective monarchy which kept order and cohesion among the component dukedoms, electorates and free city-states.

BBC History magazine
Perhaps most importantly Wilson is an enemy of historical inevitability. The first 300 pages of this book, far from being a countdown to inexorable catastrophe, are largely about why the war should not have occurred. Against the familiar line that a chaotic and enfeebled Holy Roman empire of German principalities, cities and micro-territories was already long past its sell-by date in 1618, Wilson offers a feisty defence of imperial institutions and of their remarkable success during the later 16th century in solving problems of territorial inheritance, religious rights and political rivalries.

One final observation before I leave it for today, the cover for the British and Irish edition is top left and it really is a nice cover but the US edition is really something, far superior and much more attention grabbing so I’ve included it below right.

See what I mean?

The Stockholm Bloodbath: Betrayal & History

Eoin Purcell

With thanks of Wikipedia
With thanks to Wikipedia

This is a nasty one
History is full of rich incidents like the Stockholm Bloodbath, be it a massacre, the destruction of a city. In fact it is as full of these ridiculously violent events as it is full of events that offer hope, the promise of change and prosperity like this week’s election of Barack Obama.

A quick glance at the history of scandanavia offers some fascinating stories, everything from the Kalmar Union, the sinking of the Vasa and the older history of exploration, colonisation and Vikings. What stands out for me in this particular story is the betrayal.

History sparkles with stories of betrayal and turncoats. The Stockholm Bloodbath is only one such event. The nobility of Sweden were betrayed by the King of Denmark after they had sworn fealty to him. Having foolishly trusted his word, they were corralled in his presence and then executed over a number of days.

It sounds like fiction, a dastardly king betrays the rebels after they had a deal but it happened and it will continue to happen perhaps not as dramatically as in Stockholm. After all, promises are made everywhere, by everyone, sometimes we belive them, sometimes we view them skeptically, and sometimes we take them so to heart that we lose the natural skepticism that keeps us safe.

The nobility of Sweden probably somewhere in the back of their thought processes distrusted Christian II (they had fought a protracted campaign with him after all) so why did they put themselves in his power? I don’t know the answer to that question, but they did and events took their course.

I came across a nice passage while searching Google books:

Memoirs of the Courts of Sweden and Denmark During the Reigns of Christian VII. of Denmark and Gustavus III. and IV. of Sweden By John Brown

It would seem the King was not a man who wore loyalty too heavily!

As an aside
And on a better note Ireland this day, 18 years ago, had it’s own moment of Change & Hope when we elected the first female president of Ireland Mary Robinson. Not only was she the first female president, she was also the first candidate to defeat a candidate of Fianna Fáil in a presidential election.