The Importance of the Thirty Years War in Literature and Politics

The Spanish tercio stands depleted during their defeat at the hands of the French at the Battle of Rocroi, 1643

Few sometimes may know, when thousands err. – John Milton, Paradise Lost

hen a young John Milton sat down to write Latin poetry in his dormitory at Cambridge in the mid 17th century, many themes catalyzed his pen to put words to paper. Yet a preeminent anxiety in the formative Latin poetry of the young puritan was  the cataclysm he observed from across the English Channel (1). As his own government meandered in defending its supposed Protestant allies and advocated for peace, the Protestant armies of Denmark, Bohemia, and Sweden were progressively turned back and crushed by the catholic powers in Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. James I even failed to send troops to save his own son-in-law, Frederick V, when a catholic host annihilated his dwindling host at the Battle of White Mountain.  All of this impressed deeply on Milton and his revolutionary generation; the feudal order had waged war against the estates (the growing middle class) in light of a failing legal system in the Holy Roman Empire, leaving millions dead and the core rivalries and contradictions of society unsolved. It was but years after this era that the axe fell on Charles I and a transatlantic tradition of republican resistance to monarchism was born.

In a time before Cromwell, Paine, and Robespierre, there was this most unfortunate era; where the dying feudal order rife with contradiction brought on the wings of political paralysis the deaths of millions. An era where the core contradictions of society where not dealt with but subverted by emergent nationalism (secular and non) and imperial ambition. The damage was worst in Germany, where the population would vote the war as the most devastating in the country’s history in the 1960s (2*). In many ways, the roots of 19th and 20th century German nationalism were first sewed in the disastrous fragmentation of Germany after the Peace that ended the Thirty Years War (the Peace of Westphalia).

Despite these long reaching consequences, the war is but an afterthought for even scholars of the early modern period. Like World War I, the Thirty Years War draws less attention than its more substantive ancestors. As James Joyce proved in Dubliners (perhaps too well for some readers), paralysis can be just as meaningful as great leaps forwards and backwards. In the perilously fixed limbs of German society in the mid 17th century we find precedent for the keenly militant tone of many of our most treasured early modern authors such as John Donne, Andrew Marvell, and John Milton; and I will argue that to ignore the Thirty Years War is to shut out a major avenue for understanding their work. What’s more, in the history of the Thirty Years War we find remarkable similarities to our own time (some of which I will cover below) and equally remarkable warnings against the problems of imperialism, abstraction, and dedication to aged constitutional provisos.

It it for this latter reason that I have taken a break from writing my thesis (fleeing like Frederick V from the Catholic League, in other words) to write this on the 2nd anniversary (to the day) of Waiting for Putney. In that time, we’ve reached over 110 countries and collected tens of thousands of unique readers. I certainly did not expect the late night, caffeine-induced sermons about Cuba and Milton that began this blog to lead where it has, and I thank each and every reader for their attention and thought. Like a good puritan, I will celebrate this milestone by ruminating on the near collapse of western civilization and the ways in which said collapse mirrors our own time.

The Thirty Years War in Literature:

John Donne

Literary scholars of 17th century British literature find themselves in the uncomfortable position of reading literature only years apart that is rapturously different. This has resulted in the quite awkward “long 18th century” which includes the literature written during the rule of Charles II and James II. This rapture in literature was caused chiefly by the English Revolution, but the war that ravaged Europe in the time leading up that fateful struggle left indelible marks on the literature of canonical writers from Donne to Bunyan. In many ways, the necessity of the awkward “long 18th century” was brought about by the militancy and violence that loomed in the fearful caverns of British thought leading up to the English Revolution, and the Restoration’s delightful (or utterly repulsive, as it is for this author) flight from themes of religious ideology, the question of legitimate political violence, and the prospect of universal truth is a direct response to these themes transported from Europe’s tragedy to all the kingdoms of Christendom. Here, we will look at the work of John Donne to find the threads of war that separate so profoundly early and late 17th century British literature.

The specter of war in British literature can perhaps be seen most profoundly in the work of John Donne. Writing well before the English Revolution, John Donne put pen to paper in those troubling years in which the German crisis became generalized to include all the powers of Europe (the late 16th and early 17th centuries). Throughout Donne’s work we find repeated attempts to synthesize the two ever-splitting protestant and catholic factions. Scholars have justifiably attached this theme to Donne’s own struggle with conversion from Catholicism to Anglicanism but his textual attempts to bring together these factions reflects a more generalized reflection on their failure to do so as Europe descended into war. “Death, Be Not Proud” and “Meditation XVII,” two of his most famous works, both reflect a desire that extends beyond the merely personal or national  to unite the warring churches of Christ. Both are written after his conversion to Anglicanism (the former a Holy Sonnet, the latter part of his much celebrated Devotions upon Emergent Occassions) (3), and both are written (~1620 and ~1623 respectively)( 4) right as the Thirty Years War emerged as a major international conflict. Let us first look at “Death, Be Not Proud” as it was written right as the Thirty Years War broke out. The poem ends,

And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die. (Death, Be Not Proud)

The all-important “we” in the second to last line anticipates Donne’s later focus on depicting the universality of Christians and humans in general. Of note, this universality is built here on the back of a condemnation of martial force and the chivalric nationalism that accompanies wars to this day. This general fear of war created by the temporary truce between the Dutch and Spanish was a tinder box in the minds of Europeans – and Donne here remarks that Death is itself a slave to fate that dwells in war and sickness. This idea of slavery to fate and war reflects the writings of thinking men across Europe at the time, highlighted in great detail in the opening chapters of C.V. Wedegewood’s chronicle of the war. War seemed inevitable, but all wanted to avoid it. This is repeated in Spanish, German, and English literary circles. In 1620, a year after top catholic officials had been thrown out of a three story window into a pile of crap (literally), Donne here strives for reconciliation and warns against the appeal of religious war. Donne hopefully declares that death and war will die in the face of an eternal life given by Christ. It is a hope he will quickly lose as the war in Germany became more violent.

By the year 1623, the Bohemian protestant state had been crushed by the Hapsburgs and in the very year Christian the Younger (a protestant) was defeated at the cost of nearly 13,000 casualties at the Battle of Stadtlohn. We see the events of the exponentially multiplying war on Donne in his famous Meditations. In one of his most famous moments of prose, Donne writes in Meditation XVII,

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee. (Meditation XVII)

Far from the confident declarations of the previously cited sonnet, Donne here replaces hopefulness with a universal sorrow. Ever clever with his language, Donne even fits in the term “continent,” almost certainly a reference to the events occurring “on the continent.” He continues to assert that each and every death, the bodies washed away by the tens of thousands in Germany  make “Europe (the) less.” As the bell tolled for thousands of men fighting for religious freedom, profit, and nation, Donne defiantly, if not hopefully, asserts that the war that presently rocked Europe lessened all the parties involved. This change in Donne’s tone, from one of hopeful declaration and persuasion to defiant and universal sorrow at the loss of Catholic and Protestant alike is elucidated with greater detail by the events of the Thirty Years War. Donne’s dealings with Catholicism had certainly ended by this time, but he still found himself deeply entangled in the questions that tore Europe apart.

Donne’s interaction with these themes that were anathema to restoration writers is but an example of how the Thirty Years War fractured the short 17th and long 18th centuries. In our understanding of the literature of this time period, the importance of the Thirty Years War and the intellectual environment it created cannot be overstated. To read Donne, Marvell, Milton, Winstanley, and Bunyan without an understanding of their view of the European cataclysm from across the Chanel is to read Hemingway and Fitzgerald without rendering the effects of the First World War. Let us turn now to some of the similarities to be found between our era and this tragic one, and endeavor to point out some of the pedagogical remedies for that paralysis to be found in studying the history of the era.

Constitutions and the Abstraction of Conflict:

The Surrender of Jülich, by Jusepe Leonardo (1635).

One of the more striking qualities of both the Thirty Years War and the English Revolution is that the revolutionaries and warriors in each case attempted to hold to ancient constitutions and traditions while massacring each other in heinous numbers. When Ferdinand (the Holy Roman Emperor to be) infringed upon Protestant privileges in Bohemia, they had retaliated by throwing his officials out a window. When the Bohemians went to the Protestant Union (a group of protestant German princes put together for self-defense) to ask for money and support, the Union was horrified at the Bohemian’s violation of the ancient ways of the Holy Roman Empire. Ferdinand headed the state that supposedly was controlled by these various documents, but he cared less about its provisos than his supposed enemies. While liberal Lutherans condemned the actions of radical Calvinists in an effort buy clout with the catholic institutions of power, the Hapsburgs imprisoned and killed both groups.

This confusion and political moderation born of an attachment to aged documents originating in the era of Charlemagne certainly reflects similar developments in the United States. While constitutional rights are thrown out the window by a growing surveillance state and an increasingly violent police presence across the country, leftists and rightists alike urge a return to the Constitution’s promised rights. This idea that present failures in governance are due to a corruption of some core set of rights or national values (German and American, respectively) dominated 17th century German politics. The problem with this rendering in both eras was the supposition that this set of rights and values were born in universal time. “German Values” in the 17th century were the same as the values of Arminius (the Germanic general at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest) and Charlemagne; and “American values” in the 21st century are the same as the values of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. When new variables were introduced (the protestant reformation, and the derivatives economic collapse of 2008) , the aging legal documents of each country came under fire. In both cases, the battle was fought in the courts, and in both cases, the results were disastrously inconclusive. 

In Bohemia, the protestants urged Ferdinand to adhere to the “Letter of Majesty” in which Rudolf II (the former Holy Roman Emperor) had promised them equal rights to practice their religion. As the militantly catholic Ferdinand began his campaign to dissolve the provisos of this letter, the case was taken to several courts across the Empire. Different verdicts were given, allowing Ferdinand to continue with his campaign while legal confusion prevailed. This lead to the militant action in Bohemia (the aforementioned defenestration), which was in turn condemned by protestants as previously mentioned. So the courts of the Holy Roman Empire ensured both militant retaliation and the recreation of the conditions that would replicate violence through paralytic moderation and adherence to outdated legal codes.

In the United States, the failure of courts to convict those responsible for the economic collapse, the War in Iraq, and those responsible for police violence created a similar sense of militancy that erupted most notably in Ferguson and Baltimore. These acts of militancy, just like that of the Bohemians, was condemned by their supposed comrades on the left and right. These activists must seek legal recourse, claimed the moderates, to a problem rooted in legal ineptitude and paralysis. Thus we see a self-replicating cycle that spins on the axis of assuring violence by legal failure and then condemning it. German intellectual circles spun on this circle while thousands of men, women, and children were butchered on the battlefield and in besieged cities. This cycle is not self-sustaining, though, and as war escalated in the mid 1620s, leaders endeavored to obfuscate constitutional precedent by the abstraction of conflict to an almost ludicrous degree.

As war escalated and moderates hurried to justify it, governments and leaders needed the constitutional organs to raise money and armies. The Hapsburg dynasty had long tasked the emerging bourgeoisie with funding its armies against Ottoman invasions, and when the dynasty asked for money to fight protestants the burghers were less than willing to cooperate. To mitigate outrage, leaders used mercenaries to an unprecedented degree. Battles of the Thirty Years War were not uncommonly fought by Spaniards (ostensibly ruled by the Hapsburgs) fighting for the French against the Hapsburgs who fielded an army of Dutchmen. In the Jülich succession crisis of the 1610s, for example, France, Spain, and the Hapsburgs all fielded mercenary armies to secure a tiny parcel of land close to the ever-warring low countries all because the leader of the tiny nation of Jülich passed away and a quarrel over who was to succeed him (and what religion that person would be a part of) erupted. Just what each individual soldier was fighting for was deeply ambiguous. In reality, kings and emperors alike were using the funds of the state for personal empowerment and political maneuvering for themselves and their families. This was a fact not lost on the emergent bourgeoisie, and the enslavement of feudal aristocracy to this set of political principles would be paid back in part at Whitehall, Yorktown, and the Bastille.

Thus the supposed guardians of the ancient German values violated them consistently and hid it through the abstraction of conflict through mercenaries and feigned religious and national fervor. In our era, conflict is abstracted in numerous ways. Armies are relatively small in number, and mercenaries are commonly used by the US and its allies in the middle east. A physical abstraction is also a luxury afforded the american ruling class. In any case, a movement for a radical remaking of the German state textured with the realities of the day may have prevented thirty years of war. Instead, moderates clung to ancient traditions as the ruling class violated them for personal gain at the cost of millions of lives. This question of the ruling class being disparate from moderate elements that continually tried to court them brings us to perhaps our clearest lesson from the Thirty Years War.

Mitigation and Synthesis:

Mercenaries put civilians to the sword (that randomly adult looking baby isn’t going down without a fight) in Sebastian Vrancx’s “Soldiers Plundering a Farm During the Thirty Years War.”

The chief lesson of the Thirty Years War for us today is one that teaches us how we should construct our movements for change in systems paralyzed by unchecked ruling classes and failing justice systems. In Germany in the 17th century, much like 21st century America, political movements cling to constitutional precedence and endeavor to find ways to best mitigate the failures of the economic system of society. Coming to the end of the Thirty Years War should help us understand where such politics lead, and should also give us a gloomy warning that holds hope in its recognition.

The end of the Thirty Years War is perhaps why it is not studied to a great degree. The outcome of so much death was essentially total ruination and utter paralysis with almost no positive outcomes. Yet as I mentioned before, in the paralysis of Germany we find potential salves for that paralysis that as we have seen is so similar to our own. As Kings and Emperors sent thousands to their deaths, a growing sense of distrust in central government understandably blossomed in war-ravaged Germany. This lead to the utter fracturing of Germany in the Peace of Westphalia (5). Small principalities were split into several land grants the size of central park in New York City. This way, reasoned German intellectuals, the privileges promised to Protestants that started the war could be secured so long as they found a neck of the woods that was sympathetic to them or had a Protestant prince.

This desire for decentralization is extremely prevalent in modern american politics. After the economic bailouts and fraudulent wars in the middle east, a profound apathy underlies a distrust in governance that is matched only in the Civil War era in American history. This relationship of failed constitutions and the growth of a desire for decentralization is a dangerous one, as the history of the Thirty Years War can teach us. In the aftermath of disastrous decentralization, Germany became an economic backwater reversed only with the growth of nationalism and militarism in the early and mid 19th century. When Germany finally came together it partook in two World Wars and was the home of unprecedented nationalism and centralization.

The problem then as it is now is not with central government. It is instead, as it was then, rooted in the failure of resistance movements to seek synthesis and not merely mitigation. By shackling the protestant cause to aged documents, resistance movements in the Holy Roman Empire were unable to reach the universality John Donne so desired. Instead, protestants were stuck in a cycle of courts and alliances that continually failed them and lead to their utter destruction at the hands of the Spanish and Austrian Hapsburgs. In the United States, topical activism attached perilously to appeals to the ethics of the government officials and the documents by which they rule prevents a more universal critique of the capitalist system.

Modern activists must not fall for the Hapsburg lie that courts and representative diets can fully amend the contradictions of society and must equally avoid the diffusion of ruling class “justice” systems. We must instead follow in the footsteps of the bourgeois revolutionaries who succeeded in dissolving the paralysis of late feudalism left in the wake of the Thirty Years War. In England, America, and France, revolutionaries changed the question from one of constitutional precedence to one of “cruel necessity” (6) and the new life of an unburdened, revolutionary state (7). Like them, we must seek the contradictions of our day and find syntheses, imperfect as they be, for them. By seeking synthesis and shifting the questions of political resistance away from aged constitutional precedent and legal mitigation, we can achieve what the Bohemians and Germans could not. We can finally declare with John Donne that “death,” the deaths Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and so many others, “thou shalt die.”

Notes:

(1) Lewalski’s biography of Milton

(2) The general facts expressed in this post are taken from Peter Wilson and C.V. Wedgewood’s histories of the event. I recommend them both.

(3) The title itself suggests his interaction with something beyond the merely autobiographical.

(4) Dates for Donne’s work are disputed, but both of these dates I secured from my Norton Anthology. Generally, these dates seem to be in the ballpark from my outside research.
(5) Germany after the Thirty Years War is, in my scholarly opinion, the first example of splatter painting. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Holy_Roman_Empire_1648.svg#/media/File:Holy_Roman_Empire_1648.svg

(6) By legend, Cromwell said this after seeing Charles I’s body

(7) I’m mirroring Robespierre’s language in his famous declaration that Louis must die so that we (France) can live.

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Filed under Andrew Marvell, Early Modern, History, History of the English Civil War, Horatian Ode, John Donne, Meditation XVII, Milton, Modern, Movements, Puritanism, Thirty Years War

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