Thursday, April 28, 2011

A few thoughts on Wedgwood's The Thirty Years War

I'm reading C.V. Wedgwood's The Thirty Years War (among other things, as time permits), and I was struck by the (potential, at least) timeliness of the following passages (pages 164 and 165 of the 1961 Doubleday Anchor edition):

"In Prague the gravity of the situation was increased by the necessities of the government. Frederick had begun the trouble by slightly debasing the currency during his year of rule; Ferdinand's nominee, Liechtenstein, continued the process, reduced the amount of silver in the coinage by more than seventy-five percent and attempted to fill the imperial coffers -- and his own -- with the profit which he made on the mint. In January 1622 Ferdinand, in hope of further gain, made a contract with a group of speculators for the establishment of a privately controlled mint in Prague. The currency was drastically debased while prices were forcibly stabilized; the plan failed utterly, for the people became suspicious and hoarded what good money they had, while in spite of the provision of the government, food alone rose to twelve times its normal price. External trade stopped altogether and for the ordinary exchanges of everyday life the people took to barter. To add to the damage done by this crazy scheme, the chief object of the contractors was rather their own enrichment than the payment of Ferdinand's debts.

"At this moment Ferdinand was besieged with demands to buy the confiscated lands. The local nobility and many wealthy merchants offered him what had once been fair prices in the Prague money, prices which he could not now refuse to take without repudiating his own currency. It was one thing to sell the lands and another to make use of the money; Ferdinand had accepted his own coin, but his soldiers threw it back in their officers' faces, because the local peasants would not take it in exchange for the necessities of life. Throughout Bohemia trade came almost to a standstill, the peasants would not provide the towns with food, the army was mutinous, the civil population starving, and certain contractors, of whom Liechtenstein was not least, were among the richest men in Europe. At Christmas 1623, Ferdinand devaluated the money and broke the contract. By that time the greater part of the confiscated land had been sold for an average price of less than a third its normal value. His first move towards financial security had been catastrophic, for nor only had he lost the advantage of the confiscation, but he had completed the economic ruin of Bohemia. Wealth, which had been widely distributed among an industrious peasantry and an active urban population, had become, through political persecution and the disastrous effects of the inflation, concentrated in a few unscrupulous hands. As a source of imperial revenue Bohemia had become useless."

Wedgwood here is writing of the brief tenure of Frederick, the Elector Palatine, as King of Bohemia. Ferdinand was Archduke, erstwhile King of Bohemia himself, and Holy Roman Emperor. The next thing (more or less) that happened -- at least in Wedgwood's recounting -- was Wallenstein. Oh, joy.


  1. Oh my God - does History ever repeat itself and especially the fools and naves who wander its stage.