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review 2020-01-22 20:18
The Thirty Years War
The Thirty Years War - Cicely Veronica Wedgwood

War is hell, just imagine it lasting for an entire generation with armies crisscrossing the same ground again and again producing famine, depopulation, and disease all in the name of religion, nationalism, and then finally simple greed.  C.V. Wedgwood’s The Thirty Years War covers nearly a half century of history from the causes that led to the conflict through its deadly progression and finally it’s aftereffects.


From the outset Wedgwood sets the German domestic and the continental political situations in focus by stating that everyone was expecting war but between Spain and the Dutch while the German economy was on the decline due to the rise of new trading patterns over the course of the last century.  It was only with the succession of the Bohemian throne and the ultra-Catholic policies of the Ferdinand II after his election that started the war everyone knew was coming, sooner and further east than expected.  The war began as a purely religious conflict that saw the Catholic German princes led by Emperor Ferdinand crush the Protestant opposition because many of the Protestants decided not to help one another until it was too late due to political conservatism that Ferdinand used to his advantage.  It wasn’t until Gustavus Adolphus and the Swedes entered the conflict a decade later that the conflict turn slowly from religious to international and an extension of the Bourbon-Habsburg in which the former used first allies then their own troops to prevent the encirclement of France by both branches of the Habsburgs.  The negotiations for the end of the war took nearly five years and would change as events in the field would change strategies until finally allied members of the Bourbon and Habsburgs would cut deals with the other side to quickly break deadlocks and achieve peace but how it took almost six years to stand down the armies to prevent chaos.


Wedgwood’s narrative historical style keeps the book a very lively read and makes the war’s progress advancing even when she’s relating how the continuous fighting was affecting the German population.  She is very upfront with the men, and a few women, who influenced the conflict throughout it’s course from the great kings of Ferdinand II, Christian IV of Denmark, and Gustavus to the great princes Maximillian I of Bavaria, John George of Saxony, and Frederick Henry of Orange to the mercenary generals that gained in importance as the conflict continued like Albrecht von Wallenstein to finally the political masterminds of Richelieu and Mazarin.  With such a large historical cast, Wedgwood’s writing keeps things simple and straight for the read thus allowing the conflict’s long drawn out nature to fully impact the reader and how it affected those out of power.  And in describing the aftereffects, Wedgwood disarms many myths about the effects of the war that over three hundred years became considered fact.


The Thirty Years War by C.V. Wedgwood is an excellent narrative history of a conflict that saw the end of one kind of conflict and the beginnings of another with interesting personalities that fought and conducted policy around it while also showing the effects on the whole population.  If you’re interested in seventeenth-century history or military history, this book is for you.

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url 2019-11-01 10:12
Podcast #160 is up!
Alfonso X, the Justinian of His Age: Law and Justice in Thirteenth-Century Castile - Joseph F. O'Callaghan

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it I interview the eminent scholar of medieval Spain Joseph F. O'Callaghan (still going strong at 90!) about his book on the legal code drafted by the Castilian king Alfonso X. Enjoy!

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url 2019-08-23 21:02
Podcast #156 is up!
Emperor: A New Life of Charles V - Geoffrey Parker

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview the distinguished historian Geoffrey Parker about his new biography of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Enjoy!

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review 2019-04-20 13:44
Romanticizing Spain's war against the Soviet Union
Hitler's Spanish Legion: The Blue Division in Russia - Gerald R Kleinfeld,Lewis A. Tambs
When the Third Reich went to war against the Soviet Union in 1941, they did not do so alone. Their campaign was a multinational effort to which several of Germany's allies contributed contingents of varying sizes. One of the most enthusiastic participants to this effort was Spain, which supplied a division of infantry. Officially incorporated into the German army as the 250th Infantry Division, it was called the Blue Division after the blue shirts the fascist Falangist volunteers sported. Its members served on the Eastern Front for over two years, until the need to distance his country from the increasing likelihood of Germany's defeat led Spain's leader, Francisco Franco, to order their withdraw in the autumn of 1943, though volunteers continued to serve in German units until the end of the war.
As an aspect of the larger European effort against the Soviet Union in the Second World War the Blue Division justifies a study that evaluates its contribution to the campaign within the context of Spain's informal engagement with the conflict. Unfortunately this is not what Gerald Kleinfeld and Lewis Tambs provide in this book. Instead of offering readers a systematic analysis that evaluates the combat performance of the division or considers their activities within the context of German-Spanish relations the two authors provide only a basic narrative of the unit's combat operations, one that romanticizes the Spaniards' effort and relies too much on national stereotypes to explain their behavior. While many readers will no doubt be entertained by the stories of guripas engaging snipers and bravely withstanding Soviet attacks it contains, overall the book disappoints as a history of the division's performance or an assessment of its role in the war, and is worth reading only for the lack of a better English-language book on the subject.
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review 2019-04-14 17:58
A masterpiece of historical biography
Franco: A Biography - Paul Preston
From Benito Mussolini to Adolf Hitler, the 1930s was the heyday of right-wing dictatorships in Europe. Yet none of them proved as enduring as that of Francisco Franco. From the triumph of his Nationalist forces in 1939 until his death in 1975 Franco dominated Spain, guiding it from years of war and scarcity through the tumultuous economic and social changes of the postwar era. Such a figure deserves a through and penetrating study of his life set within the context of his times, and Paul Preston provides his readers with just such a book.
Preston's presentation of Franco's life within its pages can be divided into four periods. The first covers his early years, from his childhood in Galicia to the start of the Spanish Civil War. The scion of a family of naval officers, Franco was destined for the sea until Span traumatizing defeat at the hands of the United States in 1898 curtailed his options. Instead Franco opted for a career in the army, where his discipline and his organizational skills ensured in a meteoric rise. Preston pays particular attention to Franco's service in Morocco during the drawn out Rif War, arguing that it was here where Franco's approach towards governance — one in which obedience was to be compelled with force rather than cultivated through building consensus — first developed. With Spanish politics veering from monarchy through dictatorship and republicanism, it was one that would increasingly appear to be the only solution to Spain's problems.
Nevertheless, Preston notes that despite his burgeoning right-wing political views, Franco was willing to reconcile with the Republic provided that he continue to be appointed to the positions he felt he deserved. Yet even after he was relegated to the command of the Canary Islands Franco hesitated to join the emerging conspiracy against the newly-elected left-wing government, only committing to the cause at the last minute. This brings Preston to the second part of his book, which chronicles Franco's role in the Spanish Civil War. Here Franco waged campaigns on several fronts, fighting the Republicans  militarily while gradually cementing his control over the Nationalists and ensuring his emergence as the dominant leader at the end. Though Franco had opportunities to win the war more quickly than he did, Preston shows how Franco pursued his meticulous approach both to give himself time to cement his control over the disparate Nationalist factions and to purge the Republican regions conquered by his forces. For Franco, the civil war was nothing less than an ideological crusade for his vision of Spain, one that he would spend the rest of his life trying to preserve.
Achieving his vision of Spain, though, required navigating a variety of international challenges, most immediately those created by the Second World War. This part of Preston's book is in many way the most revelatory, as he goes to considerable lengths to debunk the postwar myths perpetuated by Franco and his regime. Rather than carefully hewing to a course of neutrality in the conflict as he subsequently claimed, Preston shows Franco as an eager ally of Germany and Italy, to the point where Franco offered in 1940 to join the war on the Axis side. Franco's mercenary interests, however, alienated Adolf Hitler, who prioritized Vichy France's compliance over the Spanish participation that Franco offered in return for France's empire in North Africa. Even as Franco's interest in joining the war waned he continued to offer the Germans considerable support, which ranged from auding U-boat operations to providing thousands of volunteers for Germany's campaigns against the Soviet Union. Well after the Allied invasion of Normandy Franco's preference for a German victory endured, even as he pivoted to court the Allies.
With the end of the war Franco scrambled to adapt to the postwar environment. This serves as the final period covered in Preston's book, as it shows how Franco gradually adjusted to the realities of the world now before him. Here he was aided by the nascent Cold War, which helped transform Spain from a pariah to a useful ally for the United States against the Soviets. But Franco was also forced to adjust in the 1950s to the economic realities before him by abandoning the autarkic policies advocated by his Falangist allies and embracing the economic liberalization urged by the more technocratic members of his government. While Spain prospered over the course of the 1960s, Preston sees Franco as more of an obstacle than an enabler here, noting that resignations and transfers of power back to a monarchist system earlier would have opened up more of the international aid opportunities that Spain so badly needed. Yet Franco proved reluctant to give up control of Spain, a reluctance that was borne out when within two years of his death Spain rejected the undemocratic regime he preferred in favor of the parliamentary democracy that endures to the present day.
In this respect, Franco's greatest achievement lay not in the Spain he tried to create but in his own ability to endure. Preston succeeds in showing how Franco survived in a world moving past him. While the reader can get burdened down in the later chapters with the details of cabinet formation and the jockeying of various family members, overall his book is a masterpiece of biography. From it emerges a portrait of a man vainly holding back the forces of change in Spain, yet one who managed to hold on to his own position to the very end. To understand his ability to do this and why he failed in his broader effort to reshape Spain to conform to his vision for it, Preston's book is necessary reading.
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