Kevin Cramer. The Thirty Years' War and German Memory in the Nineteenth Century. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007. xi + 385 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8032-1562-7.
Reviewed by Brian Vick (Department of History, University of Colorado at Boulder)
Published on H-German (January, 2008)
The Thirty Years' War and Modern German Memory
In his provocative study of the historiographical and commemorative discourse surrounding the Thirty Years' War in nineteenth-century Germany, Kevin Cramer delves exhaustively into the contemporary literature on the subject and reveals it to have been a major venue of confessional and political conflict among Catholics and Protestants over the course of the century. In a winning and telling phrase, he points to the "appellate function of historical inquiry" as a series of "briefs argued before the bar of collective memory" (p. 100). When the author also claims that these debates were absolutely central and fundamental to the development of German nationalism and national identity, however, a certain caution or critical distance is advisable.
The book is organized in five chapters, reflecting contemporary historiographical controversies concerning five different periods or aspects of the Thirty Years' War. The first chapter deals with debates about the war's origins in the years 1618-29, while the second focuses on evaluations of the role of the Swedish king, Gustavus Adolphus. Chapter 3 then considers the historiographical wrangling over the figure of Albrecht von Wallenstein, while Chapter 4 treats the symbolic importance of the sanguinary sack of Magdeburg in 1631 and traces the ensuing blame game between Protestant and Catholic historians as to who actually initiated the city's destruction. Chapter 5, "German Gothic," then moves to analyze the deployment of atrocity narratives and images of sacrifice within the historical discourse and "memory work" surrounding the Swedish phase of the war (1630-38). Finally, the conclusion carries the discussion through the two World Wars ("The Second Thirty Years' War").
The book's principal arguments are developed in the first two chapters and the last. Cramer first depicts the struggles over the interpretation of the Thirty Years' War as a not-so-masked form of contestation between Protestants and Catholics. The contest took place over the proper form a new German state should take, and over the question of which confessional community represented the true essence of Germanness and German values. Catholic historians looked back to the federal Holy Roman Empire as a model national polity and supported either the status quo of the German Confederation or the großdeutsch idea of a revived imperial German nation-state including the Habsburg Austrian territories (the author does not always distinguish between these positions). In this context, Catholics portrayed the war as political rather than religious in nature. They viewed Ferdinand II as the defender and even restorer of the traditional central authority of the empire against the rebellious Bohemian nobility and Protestant princes. The moment of seeming imperial victory in 1629 was thus offered as a model and a "what might have been" scenario for German nationalism, with Ferdinand and/or Wallenstein eyeing Baltic expansion and a naval and commercial great power status for the rejuvenated empire. Protestants, for their part, are said to have focused upon the intervention of Sweden after 1630 as a possible precursor of the kleindeutsch or Prussian-led solution to German unity, with the Protestant military states of northern Germany and Sweden overturning the outmoded imperial structure to establish a new Protestant great power in central Europe.
In the final chapter, the author analyzes the prevalent, often lovingly if gruesomely detailed atrocity narratives concerning the Thirty Years' War, and establishes the centrality of images of martyrdom and sacrifice to nineteenth-century German nationalism and national identity. Here, two main meta-narratives emerge, as Protestants and Catholics competed for the status of the war's prime victims and based their communal and confessional cohesion upon that victimhood. The Protestant narrative promised redemption for past suffering in a future Prussian-led, Protestant German nation-state, while the Catholic one offered no such comforting teleology, instead stopping at the expression of fear of exclusion from the German nation, or even of annihilation. The author does note that Catholic fears seem to have been greater in the case of the more isolated populations in northern and western Germany, as opposed to those in the more secure realm of Bavaria (and presumably Austria as well).
This appears to be a neat argument, but some difficulties with Cramer's analysis do arise. In nearly every chapter, the author introduces important exceptions to patterns of Protestant and Catholic adherence, with Protestants supporting (or even initiating) "Catholic" arguments and vice versa. This recognition might have led to a more nuanced view of the historiographical and political landscape in nineteenth-century Germany, but except in the case of the Wallenstein controversy, these exceptions did not lead the author to relativize his claims. He gives relatively little consideration to other possible fault lines within the political and cultural matrix, such as the position of commentators on the political spectrum, their geographic location, or the brand of Protestant or Catholic religiosity they represented. The predisposition of Catholics towards political conservatism, for example, is noted but not integrated into the argument (for comparison with other Catholics or with conservative Protestants), and the repeated interventions of the radical großdeutsch anti-Prussian Protestant historian Karl Adolf Menzel on the ostensibly Catholic side of debates are passed over in relative silence.
The author also tends to assume that Catholics must have been großdeutsch and Protestants kleindeutsch, but this was not always the case (particularly for Protestants), not only in the sense that lines of confessional and national unity were often crossed, but also insofar as many religiously and politically conservative Protestants and Catholics were non- or even anti-nationalist. Moreover, a chronological problem occurs with the repeated use of the großdeutsch/kleindeutsch division as the explanatory mechanism for debates prior to 1850, insofar as those positions were by no means so fully developed or hardened in the decades before the 1848 Revolution. Even based on the evidence Cramer offers, patterns of adhesion and argumentation in the nineteenth-century contestation of history and memory must have been more complex than argued here. The author builds on the work of Wolfgang Altgeld and Helmut Walser Smith on the relationship between confession and national identity in nineteenth-century Germany, but takes it to an oversimplifying extreme. The Protestant versus Catholic division was important but does not explain everything.
The main problem with the book, however, is one of perspective and context. The account certainly does not suffer from tunnel vision, to the extent that it tries to relate the discourse on the Thirty Years' War to many others aspects of German history. The author does, however, fall prey to the tendency to make that discourse too pivotal to modern German memory and modern German history. The Thirty Years' War is thus said to have been "the decisive political event that shaped modern Germany," and its memory to have "shaped every debate in the nineteenth century over the ideal form of the German nation" (p. 2). The Thirty Years' War even comes to overshadow the period of the Wars of Liberation (1813-15) in nineteenth-century German memory. But while the author is able to find plenty of instances in which writers or speakers invoked the experience of the Wars of Liberation when discussing the Thirty Years' War, he does not offer any examples where texts or commemorative speeches involving the Napoleonic Wars attempted to make sense of that experience by referring to the early seventeenth century. And the same is true for all other historical periods or political debates, where the author can show how they fed into discussions surrounding the Thirty Years' War, but not how influence operated in the opposite direction.
It would surely be possible to find such instances, but not in equal number. This imbalance underscores the author's tendency to overestimate or overstate the ubiquity and centrality of discourse about the Thirty Years' War within German historiography and memory. Other historical periods and episodes were just as important, whether it be the Wars of Liberation, the late-seventeenth- and eighteenth-century conflicts involving France, Austria, and Prussia, the battles between Romans and Teutons in the days of Arminius, or the medieval exploits of Charlemagne and the Ottonian and Hohenstaufen emperors. The book attends briefly to the famous passage at arms between Julius Ficker and Heinrich von Sybel about imperial policy in medieval Italy, but greater engagement with the literature on the Middle Ages (primary and secondary) would have helped fill in the picture of conflict among Protestant and Catholic, pro-Prussian and pro-imperial historians, as for example Thomas Brechenmacher's Großdeutsche Geschichtsschreibung im neunzehnten Jahrhundert (1996), which is not cited. The book's tendency to exaggerate the importance of the discourse on the Thirty Years' War is also reflected in its problematic efforts to link it with the German experience of mass death and genocide in the twentieth century, or with debates like the Historikerstreit of the 1980s. The author makes effective, well-informed use of the narratological literature on the Holocaust and trauma in history writing for theoretical inspiration, but causal connections posited between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries rest on weaker foundations.
Cramer's account of the history and memory (chiefly the former) of the Thirty Years' War in nineteenth-century Germany offers a well-researched, often insightful window onto the period's confessional and political conflicts, but that discourse was not the hub of this world to the degree claimed, and the interpretation of the patterns revealed in it remains somewhat stark and narrow, especially as regards the divisions adduced between Protestant and Catholic, kleindeutsch and großdeutsch.
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