The Thirty Years War 1614-48 as World War

The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) was a watershed moment in European and world history.  In the aftermath of its crisis Holland grew to become a hegemonic world power that was freed from the Spanish Habsburg domination of the low countries of Europe, Holland and Belgium before the long wars.   The sociologist and world historian, Immanuel Wallerstein views the Thirty Years War as only the first of two sets of long wars, for the Napoleonic wars of the late 18th and early 19th century also lasted as long (1792-1815) and which made Britain the dominant world power, just as the thirty year period from World War I to 1945 made the United States the dominant hegemonic power after the Second World War (Wallerstein 2011, xxv).  Wallerstein views the Thirty Years War as the first modern world war of the capitalist world system. Following Polisensky this view sees the war as incorporating three of the great trade and commercial areas of the new world system:  the grain and timber producing regions of the Baltic, the slave and bullion trade of the Atlantic Ocean and the ongoing Mediterranean system.

From Grimmelshausen to Schiller:  Early Modern Attempts in Literary and Historical Interpretations of the Thirty Years’ War

The Thirty Years War prompted some early literary and philosophical works that were direct responses to its tragedies and crisis ridden years.  Hans Grimmelhausen’s picaresque style novel, Simplicissimus was written as a satire on war by a veteran of the war who had been kidnapped at the age of 10 by Hessian soldiers and was a camp boy-slave in their service for a period of the war.  Later he served as a veteran soldier during the last years of the war fighting for the Bishop of Strasbourg.  Grimmelshausen (1621-1676) merges his own autobiography with various anecdotes and stories he received from others and which circulated as part fact and myth.

Another contemporary 17th century writer influenced by the Thirty Years War was the conservative German jurist Samuel von Pufendorf (1632-1694).  Born in Saxony in Germany it was a region that next to the Palatinate region around Prague suffered from severe attacks by the Catholic Imperial general Tilly.  Because of the war he was homeschooled until the age of 13 and became a distinguished Latinist, an essential language for the study of law and philosophy.  In the late 17th century most works in philosophy, law and even the sciences were still being written and published in Latin (Seidler 2015). Pufendorf was influenced by the state of lawlessness and wrote a theory of natural law and philosophy that supported the idea of an absolute ruler as the best form of state and governance. These works included On the Law of Nature and of Nations (De jure naturae et gentium) [1672]. This work had direct influence on Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, another key text that supported absolutism in the age of restored monarchy after the English Civil War. In his later career Pufendorf was also a state librarian and wrote several works of history including An Introduction to the History of the Principal Kingdoms and States of Europe (1688) (von Pufendorf 2013).

In the mid-1630s a set of Dutch correspondence or memoranda on the Thirty Years War was translated by Thomas Hobbes who was employed by the Lord Cavendish as a scholar-tutor at his residence (Malcolm 2007).  Hobbes, the conservative royalist philosopher whose later work, The Leviathan became a rationale for authoritarian rule, saw the Thirty Years War as entirely a continental based war between Empires and states divided and beset by religious rivalry and other significant clashes over power and their lack of hegemony, not least of which was the problem of the Turks.

Among the earliest histories of the disastrous Thirty Years War in Europe was Friedrich Schiller’s, Geschichte des dreißigjährigen Kriegs or A History of the Thirty Years’ War, written in 1792[1].  This was part of a series of history works written by Schiller that served as contextual analysis for his trilogy of plays on General Wallenstein, one of the most notorious generals of the war.  Schiller’s interest in humanistic and liberal ethics prompted him to examine the crisis of the Thirty Years War to show how crisis ridden and deeply despotic the state and civil society can descend.  Schiller wrote another history on the The Revolt of the Netherlands,  (Geschichte des Abfalls der vereinigten Niederlande von der spanischen Regierung) that arose as a successful rebellion at the end of the Thirty Years War and marked Dutch ascendance as a European and more importantly as a player in the modern world system of empires.

Immanuel Wallerstein’s estimation of the Thirty Years War as a new type of world war, was only partially understood and articulated in Schiller’s time.  Schiller’s history does not consider the impact of the world-system of empire rivalries as a cause of the war.  But Schiller does recognize the complex position posed by the Turks and the rivalry for power of Charles V and the Spanish Habsburg system.

The Myth of the Westphalian System

The Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 is often lauded as a landmark of diplomacy, both for the carefully written diplomatic language of the treaty and its lasting effects.  In International Relations (IR) it is held up as the basis of the nation-state and its definition of national sovereignty.  The Westphalian System as it is known is actually a myth.  Successive wars and outbreaks of violence can be found in various parts of Europe and certainly in its colonies throughout the second half of the 17th century.  For example, the King of Sweden Charles X Gustav (1622-1660) declared and started the First and Second Northern Wars (1655–1660) that included invasions against Poland and Lithuania and then against Denmark. This included a remarkable winter attack in which the Swedish army was able to cross a frozen portion of the sea that ice solid enough to support a surprise invasion of Jutland in Denmark from Sweden. In response the Swedish diplomatic delegation to Denmark was held in prison for eight months. (Seidler 2015).

Bibliography 2016. Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller. Accessed July 30, 2016.

Malcolm, Noel. 2007. Reason of State, Propaganda, and the Thirty Years’ War : An Unknown Translation by Thomas Hobbes. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press.

Seidler, Michael. 2015. Pufendorf’s Moral and Political Philosophy. Edited by Edward N Zalta. Winter. Accessed July 30, 2016.

von Pufendorf, Samuel. 2013. An Introduction to the History of the Principal Kingdoms and States of Europe. Edited by Michael J Seidler. Translated by Jodocus (1695) Crull. Indianopolis, Indiana: Liberty Fund.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. 2011. The Modern World-System II : Mercantilism and the Consolidation of the European World-Economy, 1600–1750.Berkeley: University of California Press.

[1] For a chronological summary of Schilller’s works see the website on Schiller at ( 2016).