Erik Jönsson Dahlberg, Count (1625-1703)



March across the Belts. The Swedish troops cross the ice to Zealand, 1658: painting by Johan Philip Lemke (1631–1711)

Swedish military engineer and general. Dahlberg was an innovative engineer in the mold of Vauban and Coehoorn, to the point that he is sometimes called the “Swedish Vauban.” Like all top military engineers of the era, he both built fortifications and helped attack and defend them. Among his important sieges were Copenhagen and Kronborg. He also carried out two successful defenses of Riga. In 1658 he conducted a Swedish army over several frozen rivers en route to Denmark. His most famous feat was to cross the frozen Great and Little Belts of the Denmark Strait. This enabled an attack on Copenhagen, before which he famously entered the city alone and explored its defenses for several days as a guest of Danish officers he knew. With remarkable foolishness, they gave him a tour of the city’s defensive works. Dahlberg also commanded Swedish engineers during several wars in Poland, the Scanian War (1674-1679), and the first years of the Great Northern War (1700-1721). His influence was perpetuated through his life example, skill at map-making, fortresses he designed, and widely published writings on military architecture.


After decades of failed, costly, and aggressive war leading to humiliating defeat under Christian IV (1588-1648), Danes were left without a taste for war at the mid-17th-century mark. This mood placed severe restraints on Fredrik III when he succeeded his father in 1648 at the close of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). Denmark had been excluded from talks leading to the Peace of Westphalia, as a result of which it lost Bremen to Sweden and Swedish ships no longer were forced to pay Sound Tolls. The Rigsdag would not vote funds to give the new king an Army large enough to tempt him to make aggressive war, in the process also ensuring that he did not have forces capable of national defense. Even so, when Swedish fortunes under Karl X looked to be at ebb tide, Fredrik declared war on Sweden. He thereby recklessly took a wholly unprepared Denmark into the Second Northern War (1655-1660) against a battle-tested foe whose state was organized for war. This proved to be a catastrophe. Guided by Count Dahlberg, Karl made a spectacular crossing of the frozen Belts with 5,000 Swedish troops, appearing suddenly in the suburbs of Copenhagen and compelling Fredrik to sign the Treaty of Roskilde (February 26/March 8, 1658). Karl then returned in August and besieged Copenhagen. Only aid from the United Provinces, and later from Brandenburg and Austria, saved the Danish capital from ruin.

In 1660 Denmark experienced what amounted to a constitutional coup d’état. Facing noble opposition to taxation, the non-noble Estates introduced a fundamental restructuring of the elective monarchy and state. In this move against the entrenched nobility they were supported by Fredrik III. Under threat of martial law in Copenhagen, the Rigsdag crumbled (October 23/November 2, 1660), voting to make the monarchy hereditary and to abolish noble privilege. The revolution was confirmed the following January. In less than a dozen years, and in face of several severe military defeats brought about primarily by reckless monarchs, the Danes nevertheless shifted from radical limitation of royal power to the new-style “absolute and hereditary monarchy.” This began a process of integrating the old noble elite of birth with a new, non-class-based elite of national service that would continue into the mid-19th century.

The Danish 1660s were consumed by a search for anti-Swedish allies and formation of a series of alliances that bore little fruit, and most of that bitter: with England in 1661, France in 1663, and the United Provinces in 1666. In September 1672, Denmark joined several small north German states, Leopold I of Austria, and Friedrich-Wilhelm of Brandenburg in a defensive alliance. The next year Denmark signed a naval alliance with the United Provinces, which agreed to subsidize a Danish fleet of 20 sail and an army of 12,000 men. This set the stage for the Scanian War (1674-1679), during which the Danes were once again highly aggressive, invading Scania and seeking its annexation. The young Swedish king Karl XI conducted a highly spirited and effective defense against the Danish invaders. The Danes lost at Halmstadt (a. k. a. “Fyllebro”) in August 1676 and suffered through an astoundingly bloody fight at Lund that December, proportionately the bloodiest battle in military history, with 50% of all participants killed. In 1677 the Danes twice tried, but failed to capture Helsingborg. They lost again at Malmö (July 5/15, 1678), and yet again at Landskröna (July 14, 1678). The Danes proved unable to advance beyond their holdings of Helsingborg and Landskröna, despite significant numerical advantages over the defending Swedes in cavalry, infantry, and artillery. The war also brought France against Denmark, in defense of Louis XIV’s Swedish alliance. The French penetrated Oldenburg, leading the Danes to quickly agree to the Peace of Fontainebleau (August 23/September 2, 1679). That ended the war between Denmark and France by forcing the Danes to promise to restore all their conquests to Sweden in exchange for a paltry indemnity to be paid to Denmark. The Peace of Lund (September 16/26, 1679) formally ended the war between Denmark and Sweden on the terms of Fontainebleau, and with confirmation that Swedish shipping remained exempt from paying the Sound Tolls.

Denmark remained unreconciled to the loss of Scania and the Swedish exemption from the Sound Tolls. With the Maritime Powers and Brandenburg neutral at best, and far more concerned with the threat from France, Fredrik IV (1671-1730) was forced to seek allies in the east for any war he hoped to wage against Sweden. He found a willing partner in Augustus II of Poland and, in 1699, Peter I of Russia. The three monarchs framed a secret alliance declaring a joint intention to wage a war of aggression leading to partition of the Swedish empire, all three hoping to take advantage of the passing of the more formidable Karl XI and the youthful inexperience of the new Swedish king, Karl XII. That proved to be a foolish wager, as the boy-king of Sweden swiftly emerged as a formidable opponent of all three attackers during the first half of the Great Northern War (1700-1721). Denmark paid first. Sweden quickly knocked Denmark out of the war with a bold amphibious operation: the Swedish fleet navigated the “Flinterend,” a dangerous passage between Sweden and Sjælland (or Zealand), to enable landing an army near Copenhagen on July 13-14/July 25-August 4, 1700. The frightened Danish king agreed to exit the aggressive alliance with Poland and Russia and left the war upon signing the Peace of Travendal (August 7/18, 1700). After Karl overreached by invading Russia, only to suffer disaster at Poltava (June 27/July 8, 1709), Denmark sought to take advantage by pouncing yet again on Scania. The Danes landed a large amphibious force there, while Peter personally opened a new siege of Riga. However, the Danes were soundly defeated at Hälsingborg (February 28/March 10, 1710), even in Karl’s prolonged absence at the Sublime Porte. That fight finally decided the issue of Sweden’s permanent possession of Scania. More fighting, the premature death of Karl XII, and Russia’s decisive victory over Sweden opened the door for Denmark to seek gains at the edges of the crumbling Swedish empire. Sweden agreed to the Peace of Frederiksborg (June 14, 1720) with Denmark (which signed on July 8th), accepting the loss of some territory and agreeing to pay the Sound Tolls after a hiatus of 70 years. Yet, the treaty was actually something of a defeat for the Danes, who lost Wismar and Rügen and gained, after ten years of war, only minor territory in Gottorpian Schleswig and a small indemnity of just 600,000 crowns.

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Hitler and the Generals


A Romantic View, eventually Reality!

Those who speak of “the Wehrmacht” and mean the power structure of the institution as a whole are referring mainly to the responsible group of military leaders. It cannot be doubted that the top level-that is, the ranking officers in the high commands and the troop commanders-were largely responsible for converting into specific military orders Hitler’s general ideas about race and waging an ideologically based war of extermination. This was demonstrated in the preceding chapter. By comparison, the responsibility of millions of German enlisted men, many of whom were drafted for military service against their will, is incomparably smaller, even though, over the course of the war, many of them became accessories to crimes, or even accomplices in them.

But how much military and political influence did the military elite possess, beyond the confines of the institution, within the overall power structure of the National Socialist regime? While National Socialists persecuted their political opponents and achieved the Gleichschaltung (Nazification) of most political and social organizations, they handled the Wehrmacht with kid gloves, and even favoritism. The military was strengthened enormously, in terms of both personnel and materiel, and Hitler declared it to be the “second pillar” of the state, alongside the Nazi Party itself. In comparison with the treatment of military affairs under the Weimar governments, Hitler’s policies brought about the restoration of the authoritarian state for which the military had been longing. And that in turn brought officers immense gains in social prestige and possibilities for professional advancement.

One development with significant consequences for the relationship between the new government and the military leadership occurred on February 3, 1933, only a few days after Hitler had been named chancellor. The new head of government met for the first time with the commanders of the army and navy in a secret meeting at the Berlin home of General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord, chief of the Army High Command. In a speech that lasted two and a half hours, Hitler laid out his new policies. Lasting relief for the present crisis, he explained to them, could be found only “by seizing new Lebensraum in the East and Germanizing it relentlessly.” In order to achieve this, the first requirement would be a “complete reversal” of current domestic policies, entailing “the strictest kind of authoritarian government, eliminating the cancerous tumor of democracy,… [and] eradicating Marxism root and branch.” It would further be necessary to make Germany ready to defend itself again, that is, to attack pacifism and strengthen the resolve of the population to fight “by all possible means.” Germany would need to build up its armed forces and existing arsenal, freeing up the Nazi Party storm troopers (SA) to concentrate on domestic political issues. It would also be necessary for the army to refrain from all intervention in the domestic struggle.

Hitler thus announced to the commanders of the armed forces in unmistakable terms his agenda for establishing an authoritarian state, and also for militarizing the government, the economy, and society. He even mentioned his goal of conquering new territory as Lebensraum. The generals and admirals in his audience were pleased by the “strong will and ideological energy” in Hitler’s speech.

Hitler’s program for making the entire nation “ready to defend itself again” corresponded to the ideas then current in the armed forces that the wars of the future would be “total” in character. Werner von Blomberg, the new Reichswehr minister, was thus probably speaking for the commanders as a whole when he declared on the same day, February 3, that Hitler’s cabinet had turned the aspirations of many of Germany’s finest into a reality because the cabinet represented the first step in readying the average citizen for “self-defense.” In this case, then, the interests of the National Socialist government and the military coincided. The same holds for the long-term prospect of a future war. The officers could have had no doubt that when Hitler spoke of expanding the military and building new weapons, he did not mean strengthening the country’s defenses-a goal that in itself represented a violation of the Treaty of Versailles-but rather preparations for an extensive campaign of conquest.

All this indicates that Hitler and the military leadership were in agreement from this early date on about a policy to militarize German society as a necessary first step on the path to later wars of aggression. A not insignificant circumstance in the solidifying of this alliance was the way Hitler repeatedly emphasized his sense of obligation to the traditions embodied by Paul von Hindenburg, the former field marshal of the First World War and current president of Germany. Adolf Hitler’s public gesture on Potsdam Day, March 21, 1933, could not have failed to make a lasting impression on military leaders of a conservative Prussian stamp and leaders from industry, the churches, the civil service, the legal system, and the aristocracy: in a well-calculated symbolic gesture, the old field marshal had appeared at the military ceremony in full uniform, with all his medals and a spiked helmet, and the man who had served in the war as a private bowed to him before the eyes of the assembled soldiers in a gesture of respect.

Hindenburg died in 1934, and after that Hitler became, at least pro forma, “supreme commander of the armed forces.” The military leadership now saw to it that all soldiers swore an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler personally. Such an oath may not have meant much to the average enlisted man, but for career officers it was a different matter. Up to 1918 they had sworn loyalty to the Kaiser as their supreme commander; he had been the central figure from which everything else took its orientation, and the new oath to the Fuehrer and chancellor of the Reich, Adolf Hitler, appeared to stand in the same tradition. Certainly the oath the generals had sworn to Hitler played a critical role during the Second World War, in particular when they struggled with the question of whether to join the resistance movement.

In the scholarly literature on the Wehrmacht, much has been made of Hitler’s distrust of the generals, most of whom were Prussian and members of the aristocracy, and of various crises in which they were involved. Both the distrust and the crises were real, and have been well documented. Hitler was in fact by no means always certain that he had the generals’ support, and he remained suspicious of them to the very end. Members of the military elite expressed doubts about Hitler’s radical war strategy, as General Ludwig Beck did, for example, in 1938. Objections of this kind were raised during the preparations for war against France. But when the Blitzkrieg against France was waged exactly as Hitler wanted and ended in triumph, the generals were reduced to silence. From that point on they accepted the priority of Hitler’s political leadership more than ever. In their eyes the military success had proved particularly convincing. And with few exceptions, they had no objections on principle to the fact that Hitler’s radical kind of warfare violated international law. As we have seen, they accepted both the planning of the Russian campaign and the events at several sites.

The weight of the events referred to as the “generals’ crises” has often been overemphasized since 1945. It is true that a number of generals were recalled, replaced, or transferred to the so-called “Fuehrer’s reserve,” and often this occurred against their will, of course. The resulting anger and resentment, however, never rose to levels that could have threatened the survival of the regime. The sole event amounting to a direct political attack on the dictatorship was the assassination attempt against Hitler on July 20, 1944. In sum, the relationship between Hitler and the generals who did not participate in the conspiracy was one of trust, approval, and subordination; it was not characterized by conflicts, let alone fundamental differences of opinion on how the war should be waged.

The fact is that a basic consensus developed early on between the military leadership and Hitler, given their similar political interests and their views on war as an instrument of policy-even a policy of aggression, conquest, and extermination. Through the oath they swore to the “Fuehrer and supreme commander of the Wehrmacht,” career officers saw themselves as the latest link in the long Prussian tradition of unconditional obedience to military orders. The victories of 1939-40, which National Socialist propaganda ascribed to Hitler’s genius as a military strategist, further reduced the officers’ independence and political clout, binding them even more closely to the country’s political leaders and their party.

Given so much consensus, it is almost surprising to find that Hitler made systematic use of bribes to keep the leaders of the Wehrmacht on his side. Hitler did not invent the use of gifts (in this case mostly cash or real estate) as a tool of leadership; it had existed earlier under rulers like Frederick the Great in Prussia and Napoleon in France. The goal always remained the same: to bind the generals more closely to the ruler by giving them valuable presents. Hitler marked special occasions such as military victories, but also birthdays, with gifts of money or land (tax free) as well as expensive objects, such as works of art, that had been seized by revenue officials. Occasionally politicians like Robert Ley and Joachim Ribbentrop or the staff of the architect Albert Speer were rewarded in this way, but as a rule such gifts flowed to the top echelon of the military. As early as 1935 Hitler thanked August von Mackensen, the prominent elderly field marshal, for his services to the regime with a country house, which came with three thousand acres of land and a staff of two hundred. Field Marshals Gerd von Runstedt, Erhard Milch, and Hans-Günther von Kluge each received 250,000 reichsmarks, and General Heinrich von Kleist got the lavish sum of 480,000 marks, while Admiral of the Fleet Erich Raeder and Luftwaffe General Hugo Sperrle were given paintings valued at 38,000 and 90,000 marks, respectively. Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel even took the initiative in this area, asking for and receiving from Hitler 250,000 reichsmarks in cash and a tract of land valued at 730,000 marks, from tax money and confiscated property. The book Dienen und Verdienen (Serving and Earning) by Gerd R. Ueberschär and Winfried Vogel documents the extent to which members of the top echelon were dependent on the regime for their standard of living, and how Hitler ensured their gratitude, continued compliance, and support through his material gifts-buying it, in effect. The fact that generals allowed themselves to be rewarded in a manner smacking of corruption remained “largely unknown” to the German public during the war.

In the final phase of the war, when it had become clear that Germany could not win it, the generals did not distance themselves from their supreme commander, Hitler, even though more people died from war-related causes than in the previous four years. They remained devoted-one could even say chained-to him, and let the soldiers entrusted to their oversight fight on until the unconditional surrender of May 8, 1945.

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