Anniversary of the Modern West

The Thirty Years’ War at 400

Some of the greatest events in human history simply fail to register in popular consciousness. Last year, we rightly heard a terrific amount about the Reformation, or at least, about its early Lutheran phase. But the spring of 2018 actually marks the 400th anniversary of the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War, another critical event that was at least as significant as the Reformation. The war raged for a full generation, and claimed some eight million lives. In various ways, the conflict profoundly influenced our ideas about politics, diplomacy, military affairs, science, and religion, and it had an immense impact on art and literature. It ensured the survival of Protestantism, and created the state system that endured until the last century. This was a critical event in making Europe as we know it historically, and in shaping the Western consciousness.

For various reasons, the Thirty Years’ War is just a blank for most nonspecialists in the English-speaking world. That question of memory is one of the great gulfs between Continental Europe and the Anglosphere. Europeans long remembered the war’s titanic personalities and events, and commemorated them in both high and low culture. The ghastly wartime experiences of ordinary people are indelibly stamped in European popular imagination through the searing images of printmakers like Jacques Callot, with his Miseries of War series, or the satirical novel...

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