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Gábor Kármán (ed.): The Princes of Transylvania in the Thirty Years War (= Central and Eastern Europe; Vol. 10), Paderborn: Brill / Ferdinand Schöningh 2022, 391 S., ISBN 978-3-506-79522-9, EUR 114,00
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Graeme Murdock
Trinity College, Dublin
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Bettina Braun
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Graeme Murdock: Rezension von: Gábor Kármán (ed.): The Princes of Transylvania in the Thirty Years War, Paderborn: Brill / Ferdinand Schöningh 2022, in: sehepunkte 24 (2024), Nr. 6 [15.06.2024], URL:

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Gábor Kármán (ed.): The Princes of Transylvania in the Thirty Years War

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This coherent and valuable collection of twelve essays focuses on the involvement of the Transylvanian principality in the Thirty Years War. Géza Pálffy's excellent opening piece provides essential orientation for readers. Transylvania's participation in the Thirty Years War was spasmodic in the 1620s and in the 1640s. Transylvania's princes were sometimes directly backed by Ottoman forces and attracted considerable support from the Hungarian Estates for their anti-Habsburg campaigns. Transylvania's princes (and Hungarian nobles) exploited Habsburg weakness rather effectively, and periods of conflict ended with the Habsburg court conceding territory to Transylvanian control and reaching compromise settlements with the Hungarian nobility.

There are two essays in this collection on the topic of Transylvania's armies by János B. Szabó. Szabó presents a view shared by other contributors of poor coverage of Transylvania's participation in the Thirty Years War in existing Anglophone historiography. Szabó observes that while Peter Wilson's important 2009 study The Thirty Years War: Europe's Tragedy dedicated more attention to Transylvania than most studies of the conflict, this still only amounted to two pages in a book of 900 pages. For Szabó, the military history of Transylvania remains a particular blind spot for researchers outside Hungary. Szabó analyses the forces at the disposal of Transylvanian princes. The Transylvanian military had been seriously weakened by almost constant conflict during the Long Turkish War of the 1590s and early 1600s. Princes Gábor Báthory and Gábor Bethlen attempted to reform and strengthen the court cavalry and infantry. Princes could raise forces by turning to the nobility and to Szeklers in eastern Transylvania, whose political privileges were connected to military service. Despite efforts to build up Transylvania's forces, Bethlen commanded "not very well-trained army with relatively bad weaponry" (47). Transylvania's traditional forces could offer resistance in the event of Habsburg attacks, but Hajduk irregular forces and soldiers from Hungarian border forts were essential for Transylvania's participation in campaigns in Royal Hungary.

Szabó's second article focuses on the three campaigns undertaken by Bethlen in 1619-1622, 1623, and in 1626. There was a sense, not least among Transylvania's potential allies, of diminishing returns from these campaigns. In the autumn of 1619 Bethlen advanced across northern Hungary, taking control of Pozsony (Bratislava) and approaching Vienna. Forces (how many and of what utility is contested) were sent by Bethlen to Bohemia to fight with Frederick V at the Battle of White Mountain. The second and third campaigns against the Habsburgs in Royal Hungary were followed by swift peace agreements. István Czigány addresses the campaign led by prince György I Rákóczi in 1644-1645. Rákóczi's army of light cavalry and Szekler and Hajduk infantry was approximately 10-15,000 strong. Czigány argues that Rákóczi's aims were to support the Protestant cause in Royal Hungary and to enlarge Hungarian territories under his control. In 1644 Rákóczi advanced west towards the borders of Moravia but coordination with the Swedish army faltered. By the time Lennart Torstensson achieved a great victory over the Habsburg armies at Jankau, Rákóczi was already more interested in advancing peace negotiations with the Habsburg court rather than continuing to fight against the Emperor.

While Transylvania's princes tried to maximise the resources at their disposal (as discussed by István Kenyeres), the principality needed allies to sustain their conflict against the Habsburgs. Transylvanian princes acted in most respects with a high degree of autonomy but, as tributary Ottoman vassals, princes required permission from the Sultan before undertaking any external military action. Ottoman troops were also directly involved in the Thirty Years War. Balázs Sudár assesses the role of Ottoman auxiliary forces in the armies of Gábor Bethlen. During Bethlen's short campaign in 1626, a sizeable Ottoman army made its own advance north against Habsburg castles and forces. From the perspective of the Habsburgs, this collaboration between Transylvania's princes and the Ottoman empire increased the dangers posed on their south-eastern front. However, Ottoman involvement aided Habsburg propaganda to discredit Transylvania's princes and their allies. Gábor Almási describes the attacks in printed texts against Bethlen. Nóra G. Etényi assesses the image of Transylvania in the Empire (for example a 1621 broadsheet depicting a turban wearing Bethlen; 'Türckischer Bethlehem und Mahometischer Gabor'). Kees Teszelszky discusses the image of Transylvania in the Dutch Republic, where Bethlen was presented in resonant terms as struggling to defend Hungarian political liberties and religious freedoms.

Transylvania's allies at different stages of the war (Electoral Palatine, Bohemia, the Dutch Republic, England, Denmark, Sweden, and the French monarchy) saw the potential advantages of supporting Bethlen and then Rákóczi. However, as Kármán explains, in the case of the Swedes there were protracted discussions about the terms under which the Transylvanians would take up arms against the Habsburg. Zsuzsanna Hámori Nagy assesses the origins of the treaty between France and Transylvania. In 1638 Johann Heinrich Bisterfeld (who left Herborn to seek refuge in Transylvania) was sent by Rákóczi to Paris to advance discussions about a possible alliance. Both the Swedes and French were suspicious about how reliable their Transylvanian partners were and about how promised subsidies might be spent. Kármán draws on an impressive range of archival sources to reconstruct the stages of delicate negotiations and highlights the persistently negative view of Transylvania taken by the Swedish chancellor, Axel Oxenstierna. At the State Council, Oxenstierna expressed his distrust of the Transylvanians with "something barbarian in them, and likened supplying them with a subsidy to taking bread from a child and giving it to the dogs" (196). Viewed from the Transylvanian court, decisions about treaties and about how long to fight against the Habsburgs were entirely pragmatic given the principality's limited resources and vulnerability to their Ottoman and Habsburg neighbours. Bethlen and Rákóczi acted with no little strategic skill and played a relatively weak hand rather well in negotiations with their allies and in making separate peace treaties with the Habsburgs.

In the contested discussion about the degree to which the Thirty Years War can usefully be described as a religious war, the Transylvanian principality provides a helpful case-study as discussed in a second article by Gábor Kármán. Transylvania had four legal religions after 1595 but under princes Bethlen and Rákóczi the Reformed church was first among equals in the confessional politics of Transylvania. The religious objectives pursued by Bethlen and Rákóczi were clearest in their concern to combat the persecution of Reformed and Lutheran churches in Royal Hungary (notably through the 1645 peace of Linz). Transylvanian commitment to a broader vision of a shared Reformed (or Protestant) cause in the Thirty Years War is more difficult to sustain. Rhetoric about purely religious motivations ran ahead of reality not least as the Reformed prince Rákóczi negotiated alliances with Lutheran Sweden and Catholic France. However, and partly as a consequence of the War, extensive and significant Reformed networks continued to develop and intensify between courts, diplomats, Reformed clergy, and students that connected England, the Dutch Republic, the Empire, and Transylvania.

Graeme Murdock