The best books on the Thirty Years' War

3 authors have picked their favorite books about the Thirty Years' War and why they recommend each book.

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The Thirty Years War

By C.V. Wedgwood,

Book cover of The Thirty Years War

The late, great C.V. Wegwood was one of the masters of narrative history who—like her contemporary Barbara Tuchman—became a legend for weaving a bounty of facts into a brilliant page-turner. In this classic, she takes on what is perhaps Europe’s most infamously complicated war and succeeds with characteristic genius. The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) was many things: the culmination of Europe’s religious wars, a struggle for the heart of a continent, a clash of empires, a collapse of civilization, and, perhaps most poignantly, a sprawling nightmare that still haunts the German people. Wedgwood covers it all in a crisp, witty narrative in which characters high and low virtually walk off the page. In English, this is probably still the reigning treatment of this bear of a subject, and it is a joy to read.

Who am I?

During my career as an author, I have written on everything from U.S. Presidents to natural disasters. My true passion, however, is military history, a subject I have followed closely since childhood. Why? I have no idea. Nevertheless, I have read widely on the subject and, with the publication of Outnumbered, fulfilled a longstanding dream. The early modern period of European history, during which the continent’s culture left behind the Middle Ages and laid the foundations of the world we live in today, was an era rife with military change and innovation, as well as endemic conflict and the emergence of powerful, centralized nation-states, all of which I find enthralling. These books bring this time and place to life.

I wrote...

Outnumbered: Incredible Stories of History's Most Surprising Battlefield Upsets

By Cormac O'Brien,

Book cover of Outnumbered: Incredible Stories of History's Most Surprising Battlefield Upsets

What is my book about?

Who doesn’t love a good underdog story? While warfare has consistently demonstrated the decisive impact of superior numbers, lopsided engagements have on occasion had an unexpected outcome. Outnumbered chronicles fourteen momentous battles in which a smaller, ostensibly weaker force prevailed in an epochal confrontation, from ancient times through World War II.

How did Hannibal’s 55,000 Carthaginians turn the tables on an 80,000-strong force of Romans? What allowed 6,000 Englishman to overcome 20,000 French at Agincourt in 1415? Which errors doomed a Russian army twice as large as its opposing German force at the Battle of Tannenberg during World War I? Replete with sudden twists of fate and intriguing character studies, this is a fascinating look at the capriciousness of battle and the unexpected lessons to be learned from overcoming the odds.


By Daniel Kehlmann, Ross Benjamin (translator),

Book cover of Tyll

A true marvel of a novel. It follows the famous jester Tyll Ulenspiegel and the Winter Queen and several learned and lethal Jesuit priests (among others). Most novels that cut between storylines lose momentum and direction. Tyll takes bold leaps and keeps transforming into new adventures, new truths, a new vision of the seventieth century that subtly mixes historical fact and magical possibility.  

Who am I?

I am the author of two novels, and I currently teach fiction writing in the MFA program at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. I’ve long been fascinated with journeys both real and literary. In the early 1990’s I lived in Taiwan and traveled across China—from Guangzhou to the far northwestern desert province of Xinjiang, an extraordinary journey that informed my first novel. 

I wrote...

Heaven Lake

By John Dalton,

Book cover of Heaven Lake

What is my book about?

When Vincent Saunders – fresh out of college in the States – arrives in Taiwan as a Christian volunteer and English teacher, he meets a wealthy Taiwanese businessman who wishes to marry a young woman living in China near Heaven Lake but is thwarted by political conflict. Mr. Gwa wonders: In exchange for money, will Vincent travel to China, take part in a counterfeit marriage, and bring the woman back to Taiwan for Gwa to marry legitimately? What follows is not just an exhilarating sometimes harrowing journey to a remote city in China, but an exploration of love, loneliness, and the nature of faith.

The Art of War in Western World

By Archer Jones,

Book cover of The Art of War in Western World

If you are to be a serious student of war, warfare, and tactics, then you will need a general reference guide. This book should be your go-to reference for general knowledge on this subject. Jones elegantly combines three major components of war (tactics, strategy, and logistics) to explain the last 2,500 years of military history, from phalanxes in ancient Greece through to the Thirty Years’ War that shaped modern Europe. Well written and thoroughly researched, I have kept it on my desk for the last thirty years.

Who am I?

I spent 40 years as a soldier studying war. After graduation from Royal Military College, I joined the Armoured Corps. Throughout history, we have regaled each other with stories of war. From Greek myths to Norse sagas to modern movies, we cannot seem to get enough of war stories. And yet, we know that war is inherently a bad idea. It is evil. It is a form of collective madness. War is destructive and cruel, unworthy of our better selves. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, war breaks the bonds of our affection and does not speak to our better angels. I study it in order to better understand this madness.

I wrote...

Praxis Tacticum: The Art, Science and Practice of Military Tactics

By Charles Oliviero,

Book cover of Praxis Tacticum: The Art, Science and Practice of Military Tactics

What is my book about?

Pundits have long predicted the end of conventional warfare, but it is here to stay. Counterinsurgency, guerrilla warfare, terrorism, peace enforcement, policing duties, all of these forms, like conventional warfare, are as old as mankind. Modern militaries claim that they are professional bodies, responsible to teach, control and discipline their members. But at least one aspect of this claim is poorly executed: tactics are not taught to junior leaders, which is why Praxis Tacticum is essential reading for all junior officers and NCOs.

There is an old military adage that there is no teacher like the enemy. It is a truism, but before that dreadful reality, the wise commander will prepare to meet that enemy and become the teacher and not the student.


By Murray Pittock,

Book cover of Scotland: The Global History: 1603 to the Present

In terms of Scottish political and cultural history, this is a hugely important book that will astonish and delight everyone engaged in the matter of Scotland. What impresses is the range and scope of Murray Pittock’s global vision for Scotland, but what engages is the minute human detail of the people in the diaspora that he reveals to us, positive and negative. This is the polar opposite of dry history, it is a magisterial work that Scots will actively return to again and again, as we redefine our role in Europe and the world in the 21st Century. I have interviewed Murray for several BBC programmes and he has always come across as a brilliant communicator, who like me, is passionate about Scotland.

Who am I?

Very little Scottish history or culture was taught in school when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. When I began to read books on the subject from the local library and then studied Scottish literature at Edinburgh University, I realised what my brother and sister Scots had missed out on, and was determined to rectify that by writing accessible books which would both inform and entertain as well as enrich their lives and change the way they perceived their culture. I love their reaction to my work and the influence my books have had. 

I wrote...

The Scottish World: A Journey Into the Scottish Diaspora

By Billy Kay,

Book cover of The Scottish World: A Journey Into the Scottish Diaspora

What is my book about?

A celebration of the huge contribution the Scots have made in every far-flung corner of the world and the legacy they have created in areas that will surprise and delight—from freemasonry to football and from intellectual enlightenment to the appreciation of fine wine! I made documentaries on the Scottish diaspora over several decades for the BBC, so this is the fruit of that labour combined with a personal account of my own world travels where just being a Scot helped me tremendously in places as far apart as Hawaii, Malawi, Thailand, Poland, the United States, and Canada.

The German Way of War

By Robert M. Citino,

Book cover of The German Way of War: From the Thirty Years' War to the Third Reich

Connects military gamblers from Frederick II to Hitler, demonstrating that “rolling the iron dice of destiny” (Bismarck) by starting wars they hoped would be short but even though they knew they could not win if they went long instead, was always the German national tradition. I learned a great deal from this key book about the irrationalities of decisions made to go to war, contrary to the assumption in most analysis that decision-makers weigh the odds with care. And how many wars are started with a roll of the dice and without a real plan to win them? Or at least, no Plan B once Plan A goes awry, as it always does. 

Who am I?

I'm an award-winning teacher and writer who introduces students and readers to war in a profession that today is at best indifferent to military history, and more often hostile. That gives me a wry sense of irony, as colleagues would rather teach about fashion than fascism and truffles over tragedy. Having written a multiple award-winning book that covered 2,000 years of war, frankly I was sickened by how the same mistakes were made over and again. It has made me devoted to exploring possibilities for humane behavior within the most inhumane and degraded moral environment humanity creates; where individuality is subsumed in collective violence and humanity is obscured as a faceless, merciless enemy.

I wrote...

Mercy: Humanity in War

By Cathal J. Nolan,

Book cover of Mercy: Humanity in War

What is my book about?

War presents the most degraded moral environment humanity creates. It is an arena where individuality is subsumed in collective violence, and humanity is obscured as a faceless, merciless enemy pitted against its reflection in an elemental struggle for survival.

A barbaric logic has guided the conduct of war throughout history. Yet as Cathal Nolan reveals in this gripping, poignant, and powerful book, even as war can obliterate hope and decency at the grand level, it simultaneously produces conditions that permit astonishing exceptions of mercy and shared dignity. Pulling the trigger is usually both the expedient thing and required by war's grim and remorseless calculus. Yet somehow, the trigger is not always pulled. A different choice is made. Restraint triumphs. Humanity is rediscovered and honored in a flash of recognition.

Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch

By Rivka Galchen,

Book cover of Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch

A surprisingly funny novel about a real-life witchcraft trial in seventeenth-century Germany that darkens as it goes on. The “witch” is Katharina Kepler, mother of the famous mathematician and scientist Johannes Kepler, who really was accused of bewitching her neighbours. The novel takes inspiration from the history book about her trial by Ulinka Rublack (also recommended) but it goes on its own journey with the evidence. Mostly narrated in Katharina’s voice, it’s moving and inventive, lifting the story out of the past and making it very immediate for the reader. As well as enjoying the writing, I learned a lot about how slow and achingly uncertain witchcraft trials could be. And isn’t that a great title?

Who am I?

I’ve been researching and writing histories of witchcraft for over twenty years because I wanted to know why people would confess to a crime that they couldn’t have committed. I especially wanted to know about women’s stories of witchcraft, and I found that fiction really helped me to imagine their worlds. I’m a Professor at Exeter University and I’m working on two new books about witchcraft trials: The Witches of St Osyth and Witchcraft: A History in Thirteen Trials. I’m trying to feel every word and give the “witches” the empathy they deserve.

I wrote...

Witchcraft: The Basics

By Marion Gibson,

Book cover of Witchcraft: The Basics

What is my book about?

Witchcraft: The Basics explores the phenomenon of witchcraft in history and fiction, from its earliest definitions in the Middle Ages through to its resonances in the modern world. It looks at case studies of witch trials in Britain and America, witches in Shakespeare and other literature, the scholarly field of Witchcraft Studies, witches as neo-pagans and activists, and witches in film and TV.

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