Journal Article

The Causes of the Thirty Years War 1618–48

Peter H. Wilson

in The English Historical Review

Volume CXXIII, issue 502, pages 554-586
Published in print June 2008 | ISSN: 0013-8266
Published online June 2008 | e-ISSN: 1477-4534 | DOI:
The Causes of the Thirty Years War 1618–48

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The Thirty Years War (1618-48) was the most destructive conflict in Europe before the twentieth-century world wars. There are several explanations of what caused the war, but these rarely discuss the merits of alternative interpretations, nor do they make their own underlying assumptions explicit. Anglophone scholarship generally fits the war into a wider struggle against Spanish Habsburg hegemony, whereas older German writing saw it as a conflict beginning in the Holy Roman Empire but fusing with wars elsewhere. Others place greater emphasis on structural causes, interpreting the war as the culmination of a ‘General Crisis of the seventeenth century’ attributed to social, economic or environmental factors. More recently, there has been a return to the view that it was a religious war, or that it was a ‘state-building war’ related to the transition from medieval to modern political organisation. This article reviews these approaches and investigates how they work as historical explanations, before suggesting an alternative. It identifies the difficulty in defining the war as a chief obstacle to explaining its causes. While related to other European conflicts, the Thirty Years War was primarily a struggle over the political and religious order within the Empire. It was neither inevitable, nor the result of irreconcilable religious antagonism. Rather, it stemmed from a coincidence of tension within the Empire with a political and dynastic crisis within the Habsburg monarchy that undermined confidence in the emperor's ability to resolve long-standing constitutional problems.

Journal Article.  15556 words. 

Subjects: British History ; World History ; European History ; International History

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