The battle of Lützen. Cornelis Danckerts: Historis oft waerachtich verhael.., 1632. Engraving by Matthäus Merian.
At the end of September 1631, Gustav’s forces were once more on the march, this time across Thuringia and Franconia to the Rhineland, a fertile supply region with good communications. Swedish forces entered Frankfurt am Main on 27 November; Mainz capitulated on 22 December. Oxenstierna arrived there the following month to set up Sweden’s administrative and supply headquarters. Gustav styled himself ‘duke of Franconia’ and treated areas under Swedish control as occupied territory. Supplies were requisitioned arbitrarily and places were taxed for military purposes. Church lands were confiscated and handed over to officials and commanders as compensation. Libraries and art collections were plundered and taken back to Sweden. The Swedes acquired more German allies than before, but many of them were forced into agreements to provide zones in which the Swedes could requisition supplies. Those who joined of their own accord were either dispossessed princes (Frederick V of the Palatinate) or minor Franconian princes and Rhineland cities hoping for protection. Richelieu looked on with barely concealed alarm at burgeoning Swedish fortunes, now closer to France’s own spheres of influence.
For the Austrian and Spanish Habsburgs Sweden’s advance was a catastrophe. Philip IV’s garrisons in the Palatinate were eliminated and the Spanish Road broken. Worse followed when Count Tilly’s counter-attack on the Swedes at Bamberg in March 1632 failed, giving Gustav the excuse to advance on Bavaria. The League army was crushed, Tilly mortally wounded in the battle of Lech (15 April 1632), and Gustav and Frederick V entered Munich in triumph on 17 May. With Saxon forces invading Bohemia and Maximilian in exile in Salzburg, Emperor Ferdinand considered fleeing to Italy, but instead took the advice of his counsellors and recalled Wallenstein. The precise terms of the agreement which Ferdinand reached with Wallenstein at Göllersdorf in April 1632 will never be known, but they probably granted his Generalissimo the right to sign peace treaties in his name and to confiscate lands he conquered or pardon their rulers. In return, Wallenstein raised a new army of 65,000 men and besieged Gustav’s forces at Nuremberg. The city’s population was already swollen by refugees and Gustav had to fight his way out with heavy losses. He then engaged with Wallenstein’s forces to the southwest of Leipzig at Lützen (16 November 1632). The Swedes emerged victorious and Wallenstein withdrew to Bohemia, but Gustav Adolf had been killed in battle.
Chancellor Oxenstierna took over the direction of affairs in Germany, while a Regency Council was installed in Stockholm to advise Gustav’s daughter and heir, Christina. Confronted with a collapse in confidence, Oxenstierna was forced to make generous offers. German counties and bishoprics were off-loaded to colonels as ‘donations’ to reward them for what they were owed. How to satisfy the financial demands of the military entrepreneurs who kept the Swedish military machine going became the major concern of its strategists through to the end of the war. Oxenstierna hoped to lessen Sweden’s burdens by spreading the obligations among German allies, but the Heilbronn League, signed in April 1633, never fulfilled his expectations. The outstanding debts could not always be verified; and, where they could, they were so enormous that they absorbed all and more of the French and Dutch subsidies which the Swedes put at the League’s disposal. Worse, France reduced its subsidies and moved to limit Sweden’s impact west of the Rhine. In August 1633, French troops invaded Lorraine and, by the end of the following year, they controlled a large stretch of territory in the Reich from Basel up to Lorraine, with garrisons in Speyer, Philippsburg, Mannheim and Trier. Above all, Oxenstierna lost the support of Brandenburg and Saxony. The former could not be reconciled to Sweden’s insistence on Pomerania as a territorial guarantee in any eventual peace negotiations. The latter was unwilling to be a junior partner in a Swedish-dominated alliance, especially one led by that ‘pen-pusher’ (Plackscheisser) Oxenstierna. When the Saxon Elector learned the full extent of Sweden’s demands for compensation in July 1634, he made overtures to the emperor.
The possibility of luring Saxony back into the imperial fold is one explanation for Wallenstein’s failure to exploit the military advantage which he enjoyed in 1633. Exactly what the imperial Generalissimo was negotiating – with Sweden as well as Saxony – constitutes the essence of Wallenstein’s enigma. His diplomatic manoeuvres, coupled with his failure to come to the aid of Bavaria, gave ammunition to the growing number of critics in Vienna, orchestrated by the emperor’s Jesuit confessor Lamormaini. The Spanish were preparing to send a relief army to the empire and contested Wallenstein’s claims to be in charge of all Catholic troops in the Reich. His enemies seized on news that (aware of the plots circulating against him) he demanded his colonels swear an oath of personal loyalty at Pilsen on 12 January 1634. Ferdinand ordered his arrest, alive or dead. Wallenstein was assassinated by members of the garrison at Eger on 25 February 1634, the place to which he fled, apparently en route to the Saxons. The Swedes highlighted the news as one more sign to their wavering German allies that the emperor was not to be trusted.
The military operations of Gustav Adolf and Albrecht von Wallenstein mobilized the largest armies yet seen in Europe. Wallenstein had well over 100,000 troops under his command in 1628–9; Gustav Adolf had perhaps 150,000 men in his armies by late 1631. At Breitenfeld, over 30,000 imperial and 40,000 Swedish and Saxon forces were in combat. The underlying strategy for maintaining such massive military concentrations was to coordinate as far as possible the supply and resourcing organizations in order to occupy and defend the key parts of central and North German territory, Bohemia, Silesia and Moravia. The logistical key to the operation was the rivers. The resource portfolio was secured by war taxes (contributions), collected in goods or cash from as wide an area of productive territory as possible. Wallenstein’s strategy revolved around the Elbe and Oder, with the supply-chains fed from Moravia, Silesia and Bohemia. Gustav Adolf’s relied on the Rhine and its tributaries until he moved from Bavaria into Franconia. The Swedish débâcle at Nuremberg (between the Main and the Danube) was in part attributable to its weakened supply-chains.
After the Peace of Prague, the numbers of troops deployed by belligerents in Germany declined. The War Council in Vienna estimated that it had 73,000 troops mobilized in early 1638, but only 59,000 in 1639. Under Gustav Adolf, the Swedes maintained five campaign armies. By the early 1640s, this had been reduced to just two. The last important battles of the war involved armies considerably smaller than those which had fought in the early 1630s. At Jankau (5 March 1645) in southern Bohemia, 16,000 imperial forces clashed with a similar number of Swedes. At the second battle of Nördlingen (Allerheim, 3 August 1645) 16,000 Bavarian and imperial troops confronted 17,000 French and Hessian combatants. The resulting smaller armies were more resilient and battle-hardened. The ambitions of colonels to over-extend their entrepreneurial operations were curbed. Commanders were better able to manage their supply-chains and the arrears of pay were more controllable. They used their operational freedom of manoeuvre to protect their field armies, avoid sieges and concentrate on securing or maintaining strategic advantages.
The Swedish army, for example, was gradually rebuilt after the defeat at Nördlingen. From its supply-base in Pomerania and Mecklenburg, and supported by Baltic toll-revenues and French subsidies, Field-Marshal Johan Banér led campaigns in 1636–7, 1639–40 and 1641 into Silesia, Moravia and Bohemia with an army composed largely of German and Scottish veterans. With a force that rarely exceeded 20,000, he was able to prevent the imperial armies from eliminating the Swedish presence in Germany. His successor, Field-Marshal Lennart Torstensson, continued this strategy, his expedition in 1642 culminating in a crushing defeat of imperialist forces at the second battle of Breitenfeld (23 October 1642). His campaign in 1643 was curtailed by operations in Denmark, but that of the following year into the German heartland wiped out the imperial army commanded by Matthias Gallas at the battle of Jüterbog (23 November). Leading a force of 12,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry into the fray, Gallas (the ‘army wrecker’) retired to Bohemia with only about 2,000 foot and a few hundred cavalry left. He was relieved of his command, and after imperial defeats at Jankau and Allerheim the following year, Vienna reluctantly contemplated concessions at Westphalia.
The trend towards smaller, more professional armies was driven by the practical and political limits of what armies could extract from German territories and a changing relationship between military entrepreneurs and their state sponsors. Ransoms for senior officers tended to become the responsibility of the state and not part of war operations. The imperial-Bavarian and imperial-Saxon armies were no longer financed by contributions extorted by troops from occupied territories but paid for through regular taxes. The Electors and Estates at the Diet of Regensburg (1641) regularized other payments, at least for troops in garrisons, so that they were, to some extent, financed less arbitrarily.
The cumulative impact of the Thirty Years War on the civilian population in Germany has never been possible to estimate accurately. Although there were deliberate scorched-earth tactics (in Lorraine in the 1630s, Swedish troops in Bavaria in 1632 and 1646), the biggest impact was undoubtedly through scarcities of food, loss of plough-teams and the spread of disease. Although smaller towns were sacked, especially when garrisons refused to surrender, larger towns rarely saw any major military contingents within their walls. The catastrophe at Magdeburg was an exception. The worst devastation took place in the 1630s and early 40s. Grain prices rose to record levels as agricultural production was affected by warfare, climatic instability and the temporary migration of country folk to the towns to escape troops. The resentments towards military exactions appeared in peasant ambushes and resistance. The Sundgau peasantry rose against the Swedes in 1633; peasants in Westphalia joined nobles and imperial cavalry against the Hessian army. There were certainly some places where population levels sank by over 30 per cent as disruptions to family and community resulted in collapsing birth-rates.
Although walled towns were, to a degree, protected, the wealth of patrician élites was eroded by war contributions and unpaid interest on loans and bonds. Contemporary eye-witness testimonies furnish graphic accounts of individual experiences. The diary of Peter Hagendorf, a Catholic soldier, described in matter-of-fact terms his role in the sack of a town in Bavaria in 1634: ‘Here I got a pretty girl as my booty, and 12 thalers in cash, some clothes and a lot of linen.’ A few weeks later, he recorded the same in another location ‘and here again I got a young girl out of it’. The alabaster sculpture by the brilliant miniaturist sculptor from Hall, Leonard Kern, of a Swedish soldier abducting a young naked woman, her hands tied, about to be raped, is a reminder of the brutal encounters which imprinted themselves on the generation which survived.
These form the bedrock to a collective consciousness of an all-destructive war which was evoked afterwards in the classic 1668 German picaresque novel by Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen. The Adventurous Simplicissimus recounts the life of a vagrant, Melchior Sternfels von Fuchsheim, who joins the army, changes sides, enjoys a high and low life, ends up in Russia and finally returns to become a hermit. The experiences were not autobiographical but they were read as having been so. They implicitly pointed the finger at the public authorities in the empire who had failed to protect their subjects. It is not surprising that, in Saxony and elsewhere, rulers did not summon the Estates for fear of what they would hear. In those places where they did meet – Hesse-Kassel and the principality of Jülich-Cleves-Berg, for example – there was a crescendo of rage at princely failure. Different confessions and social orders united in saying that they were the state which princely misrule had ruined.
The question of how to sustain attritional warfare was also fundamental to the Spanish and French monarchies. Neither had effective mechanisms for distributing fairly the burdens that warfare on this scale generated. Spain had for so long borne the costs of major military commitments in Europe that it was next to impossible for it to change the means by which it distributed that load. France avoided major external military commitments until the mid-1630s. Its entry into the Thirty Years War was principally to dismantle Spanish Habsburg hegemony in Europe and replace it with its own. To achieve that objective required military campaigns on several fronts at once and the rallying of allies to achieve consonant objectives. The Thirty Years War was transformed into a global struggle which brought Spain and France to the brink of collapse.