Devastation of Brandenburg


George William, Elector of Brandenburg.

During the Thirty Years War (1618–48) the German lands became the theatre of a European catastrophe. A confrontation between the Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand II (r. 1619–37) and Protestant forces within the Holy Roman Empire expanded to involve Denmark, Sweden, Spain, the Dutch Republic and France. Conflicts that were continental in scope played themselves out on the territories of the German states: the struggle between Spain and the breakaway Dutch Republic, a competition among the northern powers for control of the Baltic, and the traditional great-power rivalry between Bourbon France and the Habsburgs. Although there were battles, sieges and military occupations elsewhere, the bulk of the fighting took place in the German lands. For unprotected, landlocked Brandenburg, the war was a disaster that exposed every weakness of the Electoral state. At crucial moments during the conflict, Brandenburg faced impossible choices. Its fate hung entirely on the will of others. The Elector was unable to guard his borders, command or defend his subjects or even secure the continued existence of his title. As armies rolled across the provinces of the Mark, the rule of law was suspended, local economies were disrupted and the continuities of work, domicile and memory were irreversibly ruptured. The lands of the Elector, Frederick the Great wrote over a century and a half later, ‘were desolated during the Thirty Years’ War, whose deadly imprint was so profound that its traces can still be discerned as I write’.


Brandenburg entered this dangerous era utterly unprepared for the challenges it would face. Since its striking power was negligible, it had no means of bargaining for rewards or concessions from friend or foe. To the south, directly abutting the borders of the Electorate, were Lusatia and Silesia, both hereditary lands of the Habsburg Bohemian Crown (though Lusatia was under a Saxon leasehold). To the west of these two, also sharing a border with Brandenburg, was Electoral Saxony, whose policy during the early war years was to operate in close harmony with the Emperor. On Brandenburg’s northern flank, its undefended borders lay open to the troops of the Protestant Baltic powers, Denmark and Sweden. Nothing stood between Brandenburg and the sea but the enfeebled Duchy of Pomerania, ruled by the ageing Boguslav XIV. Neither in the west nor in remote Ducal Prussia did the Elector of Brandenburg possess the means to defend his newly acquired territories against invasion. There was thus every reason for caution, a preference underscored by the still ingrained habit of deferring to the Emperor.

Elector George William (r. 1619–40), a timid, indecisive man ill equipped to master the extreme predicaments of his era, spent the early war years avoiding alliance commitments that would consume his meagre resources or expose his territory to reprisals. He gave moral support to the insurgency of the Protestant Bohemian Estates against the Habsburg Emperor, but when his brother-in-law the Elector Palatine marched off to Bohemia to fight for the cause, George William stayed out of the fray. During the mid-1620s, as anti-Habsburg coalition plans were hatched between the courts of Denmark, Sweden, France and England, Brandenburg manoeuvred anxiously on the margins of great-power diplomacy. There were efforts to persuade Sweden, whose king had married George William’s sister in 1620, to mount a campaign against the Emperor. In 1626, another of George William’s sisters was married off to the Prince of Transylvania, a Calvinist nobleman whose repeated wars on the Habsburgs – with Turkish assistance – had established him as one of the Emperor’s most formidable enemies. Yet at the same time there were warm assurances of fealty to the Catholic Emperor, and Brandenburg steered clear of the anti-imperial Hague Alliance of 1624–6 between England and Denmark.

None of this could protect the Electorate against pressure and military incursions from both sides. After the armies of the Catholic League under General Tilly had defeated Protestant forces at Stadlohn in 1623, the Westphalian territories of Mark and Ravensberg became quartering areas for Leaguist troops. George William understood that he would be able to stay out of trouble only if his territory were in a position to defend itself against all comers. But the money was lacking for an effective policy of armed neutrality. The overwhelmingly Lutheran Estates were suspicious of his Calvinist allegiances and unwilling to finance them. In 1618–20, their sympathies were largely with the Catholic Emperor and they feared that their Calvinist Elector would drag Brandenburg into dangerous international commitments. The best policy, as they saw it, was to wait out the storm and avoid attracting hostile notice from any of the belligerents.

In 1626, as George William struggled to extract money from his Estates, the Palatine General Count Mansfeld overran the Altmark and Prignitz, with his Danish allies close behind. Mayhem broke out. Churches were smashed open and robbed, the town of Nauen was razed to the ground, villages were burned as troops attempted to extort hidden money and goods from the inhabitants. When he was taken to task for this by a senior Brandenburg minister, the Danish envoy Mitzlaff responded with breathtaking arrogance: ‘Whether the Elector likes it or not, the [Danish] King will go ahead all the same. Whoever is not with him is against him.’ Scarcely had the Danes made themselves at home in the Mark, however, but they were pushed back by their enemies. In the late summer of 1626, after the imperial and Leaguist victory near Lutter-am-Barenberg in the Duchy of Brunswick (27 August), imperial troops occupied the Altmark, while the Danes withdrew into the Prignitz and the Uckermark to the north and north-west of Berlin. At around the same time, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden landed in Ducal Prussia, where he established a base of operations against Poland, completely disregarding the claims of the Elector. The Neumark, too, was overrun and plundered by Cossack mercenaries in the service of the Emperor. The scale of the threat facing Brandenburg was made clear by the fate of the dukes of neighbouring Mecklenburg. As punishment for supporting the Danes, the Emperor deposed the ducal family and bestowed Mecklenburg as booty upon his powerful commander, the military entrepreneur Count Wallenstein.

The time seemed ripe for a shift towards closer collaboration with the Habsburg camp. ‘If this business continues,’ George William told a confidant in a moment of desperation, ‘I shall become mad, for I am much grieved. [… ] I shall have to join the Emperor, I have no alternative; I have only one son; if the Emperor remains, then I suppose I and my son will be able to remain Elector.’ On 22 May 1626, despite protests from his councillors and the Estates, who would have preferred a rigorous policy of neutrality, the Elector signed a treaty with the Emperor. Under the terms of this agreement, the entire Electorate was opened to imperial troops. Hard times followed, because the imperial supreme commander, Count Wallenstein, was in the habit of extracting provisions, lodgings and payment for his troops from the population of the occupied area.

Brandenburg thus gained no relief from its alliance with the Emperor. Indeed, as the imperial forces rolled back their opponents and approached the zenith of their power in the late 1620s, Emperor Ferdinand II seemed to disregard George William entirely. In the Edict of Restitution of 1629, the Emperor announced that he intended to ‘reclaim’, by force if necessary, ‘all the archbishoprics, bishoprics, prelatecies, monasteries, hospitals and endowments’ which the Catholics had possessed in the year 1552 – a programme with profoundly damaging implications for Brandenburg, where numerous ecclesiastical establishments had been placed under Protestant administration. The Edict confirmed the settlement of 1555, in that it also excluded Calvinists from the religious peace in the Empire; only the Catholic and Lutheran faiths enjoyed official standing –‘all other doctrines and sects are forbidden and cannot be tolerated.’

Sweden’s dramatic entry into the German war in 1630 brought relief for the Protestant states, but also raised the political pressure on Brandenburg. In 1620, George William’s sister Maria Eleonora had been married off to King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, a larger-than-life figure whose appetite for war and conquest was twinned with a missionary zeal for the Protestant cause in Europe. As his involvement in the German conflict deepened, the Swedish king, who had no other German allies, resolved to secure an alliance with his brother-in-law George William. The Elector was reluctant, and it is easy to see why. Gustavus Adolphus had spent the past decade and a half waging a war of conquest in the eastern Baltic. A series of campaigns against Russia had left Sweden in possession of a continuous swathe of territory stretching from Finland to Estonia. In 1621, Gustavus Adolphus had renewed his war against Poland, occupying Ducal Prussia and conquering Livonia (present-day Latvia and Estonia). The Swedish king had even pushed the elderly Duke of Mecklenburg into an agreement that the duchy would pass to Sweden when the duke died, a deal that directly undercut Brandenburg’s longstanding inheritance treaty with its northern neighbour.

All of this suggested that the Swedes would be no less dangerous as friends than as enemies. George William returned to the idea of neutrality. He planned to work with Saxony in forming a Protestant bloc that would oppose the implementation of the Edict of Restitution while at the same time providing a buffer between the Emperor and his enemies in the north, a policy that bore fruit in the Convention of Leipzig of February 1631. But this manoeuvring did little to repel the threat facing Brandenburg from north and south. Furious warnings and threats issued from Vienna. In the meanwhile, there were clashes between Swedish and imperial troops across the Neumark, in the course of which the Swedes chased the imperials out of the province and occupied the fortified cities of Frankfurt/Oder, Landsberg and Küstrin.

Emboldened by the success of his troops in the field, the King of Sweden demanded an outright alliance with Brandenburg. George William’s protests that he wished to remain neutral fell on deaf ears. As Gustavus Adolphus explained to a Brandenburg envoy:

I don’t want to know or hear anything about neutrality. [The Elector] has to be friend or foe. When I come to his borders, he must declare himself cold or hot. This is a fight between God and the devil. If My Cousin wants to side with God, then he has to join me; if he prefers to side with the devil, then indeed he must fight me; there is no third way.

While George William prevaricated, the Swedish king drew close to Berlin with his troops behind him. Panicking, the Elector sent the women of his family out to parley with the invader at Köpenick, a few kilometres to the south-east of the capital. It was eventually agreed that the king should come into the city with 1,000 men to continue negotiations as the guest of the Elector. Over the following days of wining and dining, the Swedes talked beguilingly of ceding parts of Pomerania to Brandenburg, hinted at a marriage between the king’s daughter and the Elector’s son, and pressed for an alliance. George William decided to throw in his lot with the Swedes.

The reason for this policy reversal lay partly in the intimidating demeanour of the Swedish troops, who at one point drew up before the walls of Berlin with their guns trained on the royal palace in order to concentrate the mind of the beleaguered Elector. But an important predisposing factor was the fall, on 20 May 1631, of the Protestant city of Magdeburg to Tilly’s imperial troops. The taking of Magdeburg was followed not only by the sacking and plundering that usually attended such events, but also by a massacre of the town’s inhabitants that would become a fixture in German literary memory. In a passage of classically measured rhetoric, Frederick II later described the scene:

Everything that the unfettered license of the soldier can devise when nothing restrains his fury; all that the most ferocious cruelty inspires in men when a blind rage takes possession of their senses, was committed by the Imperials in this unhappy city: the troops ran in packs, weapons in hand, through the streets, and massacred indiscriminately the elderly, the women and the children, those who defended themselves and those who made no move to resist them [… ] one saw nothing but corpses still flexing, piled or stretched out naked; the cries of those whose throats were being cut mingled with the furious shouts of their assassins…

For contemporaries too, the annihilation of Magdeburg, a community of some 20,000 citizens and one of the capitals of German Protestantism, was an existential shock. Pamphlets, newspapers and broadsheets circulated across Europe, with verbal renderings of the various atrocities committed.9 Nothing could more have damaged the prestige of the Habsburg Emperor in the German Protestant territories than the news of this wanton extermination of his Protestant subjects. The impact was especially pronounced for the Elector of Brandenburg, whose uncle, Margrave Christian William, was the episcopal administrator of Magdeburg. In June 1631, George William reluctantly signed a pact with Sweden, under which he agreed to open the fortresses of Spandau (just north of Berlin) and Küstrin (in the Neumark) to the Swedish troops, and to pay the Swedes a monthly contribution of 30,000 thalers.

The pact with Sweden proved as shortlived as the earlier alliance with the Emperor. In 1631–2 the balance of power was tilting back in favour of the Protestant forces, as the Swedes and their Saxon allies swept deep into the south and west of Germany, inflicting heavy defeats on the imperial side. But the momentum of their onslaught slowed after Gustavus Adolphus’s death in a cavalry mêlée at the Battle of Luätzen on 6 November 1632. By the end of 1634, after a serious defeat at Nördlingen, Sweden’s ascendancy was broken. Exhausted by the war and desperate to drive a wedge between Sweden and the German Protestant princes, Emperor Ferdinand II seized the moment to offer moderate peace terms. This move worked: the Lutheran Elector of Saxony, who had joined forces with Sweden in September 1631, now came running back to the Emperor. The Elector of Brandenburg faced a more difficult choice. The draft articles of the Peace of Prague offered an amnesty and withdrew the more extreme demands of the earlier Edict of Restitution, but they still made no reference to the toleration of Calvinism. The Swedes, for their part, were still pestering Brandenburg for a treaty; this time they promised that Pomerania would be transferred in its entirety to Brandenburg after the cessation of hostilities in the Empire.

After some agonized prevarication, George William elected to seek his fortune at the Emperor’s side. In May 1635, Brandenburg, along with Saxony, Bavaria and many other German territories, signed up to the Peace of Prague. In return, the Emperor promised to see to it that Brandenburg’s claim to the Duchy of Pomerania would be honoured. A detachment of imperial regiments was sent to assist in protecting the Mark and George William was honoured – somewhat incongruously, given his utter lack of military aptitude – with the title of Generalissimus in the imperial army. The Elector, for his part, undertook to raise 25,000 troops in support of the imperial war effort. Unfortunately for Brandenburg, this mending of fences with the Habsburg Emperor coincided with another shift in the balance of power in northern Germany. After their victory over the Saxon army at Wittstock on 4 October 1636 the Swedes were once again ‘lords in the Mark’.

George William spent the last four years of his reign trying to drive the Swedes out of Brandenburg and to take control of Pomerania, whose duke died in March 1637. His attempts to raise a Brandenburg army against Sweden produced a small and poorly equipped force and the Electorate was ravaged by both the Swedes and the imperials, as well as by the less disciplined units of its own forces. After a Swedish invasion of the Mark, the Elector was forced to flee – not for the last time in the history of the Brandenburg Hohenzollerns – to the relative safety of Ducal Prussia, where he died in 1640.

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