The Rhetoric of Death and Destruction in the Thirty Years War

By Theibault, John | Journal of Social History, Winter 1993 | Go to article overview

The Rhetoric of Death and Destruction in the Thirty Years War


Theibault, John, Journal of Social History


"Anno 1642, all the misery continued just as bad as in the previous year, so that the despair pressed all the harder . . . whoever has not himself seen and lived through such circumstances cannot believe what I note here."(1) This plaint by Lorenz Ludolf, the pastor of the village of Reichensachsen in the principality of Hesse-Kassel, is one of thousands of expressions of misery and despair prompted by the depredations of the Thirty Years War produced in localities throughout Germany. The image of death and destruction created by such plaints has defined the social history of the Thirty Years War to a greater extent than almost any other event in early modern European history. If ever there was a moment when the ravages of the apocalyptic horsemen--war, famine, plague, and death--were evident, it was during the war. This made the war one of the first issues to develop a significant social historical literature. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the social impact of the war generated lively interest, which culminated in Gunther Franz's broad synthetic work, Der Dreissigjahrige Krieg und das Deutsche Volk just before the Second World War.(2) But ironically, the past forty years, which have seen a surge of interest in the nature of the Malthusian system of early modern Europe in France, England, and elsewhere, has witnessed a marked decline in interest in the social impact of the Thirty Years War in Germany.(3)

The way in which historians dealt with the thousands of descriptions of death and destruction has contributed to that decline in interest. Such descriptions have provoked a sometimes vigorous debate about their reliability, which has not recognized the richness of the source. The debate has bogged down in an either/or analysis: either plaints such as Ludolf's were accurate relations, so that one may conclude that starvation and even cannibalism were rampant in the war, or they were exaggerated and so should be dismissed as unreliable. The first approach characterized Gustav Freytag's popular history, Pictures from the German Past, which presented several vignettes from Saxony during the war to underscore how miserable circumstances were. Freytag's sensational account was bolstered by the more sober-minded assessment by Karl Theodor von Inama-Sternegg, while Gunther Franz's demographic synthesis also seemed to confirm the picture of wide-ranging destruction.(4)

In reaction to the sensationalistic portrayal by Freytag, a more recent school of historiography has criticized what it calls the "myth of the all-destructive fury of the Thirty Years War."(5) It has discounted the lurid descriptions of death and destruction as motivated by crass material motives. The most vigorous proponent of the idea that interest rather than veracity shaped most claims has been S. H. Steinberg, who argued that the educated chroniclers of the war were predisposed to exaggerate the extent of destruction because their property was particularly vulnerable and money for "culture" was less available.(6) He adduced no evidence to support his claims, but Gerhard Benecke, in a careful analysis of urban debts and claims of damage in the town of Lemgo supported Steinberg's contention, concluding that "a war damage claim was an unscrupulous attempt to get tax-reduction from the territorial authorities irrespective of neighbors' problems. It was not a credible account of actual war damage."(7) According to Benecke, the main obstacle to overcoming the exaggeration of local chroniclers is the excessive gullibility of modern historians. He argues: "no straight-forward picture emerges from the Lippe records of the war and occupation years, unless the naive view is taken, and every time a general plea for exhaustion and dearth is made in order to avoid further taxes, it is accepted at face value and ascribed to war horrors--a poetic license more applicable to post war literature as shown by Grimmelshausen's best-seller 'Simplicius Simplicissimus'. …

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