The Path to Modernity

The Hobbesian mayhem that struck Europe in the first half of the 17th century was not an event, or a series of events, befitting the designation of a war.  The plural form, as in the Napoleonic Wars, would be more apt.  It was a pancontinental minus-sum-game involving all major players (save Russia) that continued, relentlessly, long after its early instigators and participants were dead.  The conflict was not a Clausewitzian “continuation of politics by other means”; it was a substitution of politics by the torch and the sword.

Peter H. Wilson’s detailed narrative shows the Thirty Years War as absurd, not only morally but technically.  Rational players, he contends, could have wrapped it up well before Sweden joined the fray, yet the balance between ends and means in the decisionmaking calculus—tenuous to start with—was lost to fear, pride, blood lust, va-banque adventurism, fanaticism, and numbing inertia well before the war entered its most destructive phase in the 1630’s.  These sentiments are present in varying degrees in all wars.  In Europe between 1618 and 1648, they were dominant.

After a striking opening that covers the Defenestration of Prague, Wilson takes the reader through 100 years and 266 pages of events—the Reformation, the emergence of confessional power politics, the complex late-16th-century European chessboard—that provide...

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