The Thirty Years War looms large in the contemporary secularist imagination. There, it’s simply taken for granted that religious fanaticism laid waste to Europe between 1618 and 1648, and that the carnage only stopped when the exhausted powers of the day agreed to the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the wars of religion by adopting the principle of cuius regio eius religio—the prince’s religion would determine the religion of the principality. More subtle secularists find in cuius regio eius religio one root of modern statecraft, from which religious ideas and religiously informed moral judgments are to be rigorously excluded.
That’s the way it was, and that’s the lesson to be learned, right? Well, no, actually.
Or so writes Peter Wilson in “The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy” (Belknap/Harvard). As Professor Wilson’s subtitle suggests, the Thirty Years War was indeed a horrible business. When it was finally over, the Holy Roman Empire of the Hapsburgs had lost 20 percent of its population—some 8 million people—which is truly dreadful, even by 20th century European standards of mass slaughter. True, Wilson writes, the Thirty Years War began as a religiously-inspired civil war within the Hapsburg lands. But it became an international affair and a historic disaster when Sweden’s Gustavus Adophus, waging war behind a facade of Lutheran piety, saw his geopolitical chances and took ‘em. (That Richelieu and the Catholic French sided with the Lutheran Swedes in order to cut their Catholic Hapsburg rivals down to size nicely illustrates Lord Birkenhead’s comment in “Chariots of Fire:” “The Frogs aren’t a terribly principled lot…”).
Wilson’s challenge to conventional secularist wisdom lies in his summary judgment: this grisly business had far less to do with theological arguments over justification by faith than it did with dynastic ambition, greed, political incompetence, and a ruthless lack of morals among early practitioners of that foreign policy “realism” on which certain parties in Washington, D.C., pride themselves today. In short, the Thirty Years War was about politics detached from ethics, not about religion detached from reason.