In September 1634, when an Imperial army began its siege of Augsburg, King Gustavus Adolphus was already dead. His twenty-nine-month spree over the face of Germany had been stopped on the battlefield of Lützen, near Leipzig, in November 1632. Tilly and Pappenheim were also dead—Wallenstein as well, coldly assassinated in February 1634.
Several of the most brilliant generals of the Thirty Years War had thus disappeared halfway through the stretch of those years. It was a conflict that would be the graveyard of many generals and thousands of noblemen from all parts of Europe. How, therefore, could it have been anything but an abattoir for “little people”? In 1635, Louis XIII had taken France into the war, seeking to obstruct German and Spanish Habsburg ambitions by contributing subsidies to the freebooting Swedish army—the chief defender of the Protestant cause in Germany and enemy number one to the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand II.
A city of about forty-five thousand people at the beginning of the war, Augsburg had lost more than fifteen thousand inhabitants by the time of the siege, victims of widespread crop failures, dearth, and disease. But it would take a stunted imagination to believe that the survivors had therefore got used to their woes. They had not. They gritted their teeth, fought their way, and showed immense human reserves.
A sharp divide between rich and poor ran through the city, with most of the population—petty craftsmen in the cloth industry—living on the margins of subsistence and tipping over into hunger when crops were poor. They kept an eye on the size of bread loaves, on changes in the weather, and on crop yields. Bread riots in January 1622 had led to the storming and plundering of bakery shops. In fear of serious civil disorder, the city council had taken to making occasional handouts of grain.
Despite the fact that the city was predominantly Protestant, Catholics had enjoyed a certain freedom of worship until the Edict of Restitution (1629) planted anxiety among Protestants by seeming to pose a menace to the property rights of Augsburg’s Lutheran churches. This anxiety was dispelled—only to be replaced by others—when the Swedish army seized the city in April 1632 and introduced a garrison of soldiers. The fist of military authority quickly brought in restrictions against Catholics. On April 23, they were removed from the city council by a Swedish royal order. On May 3, Swedish forces confiscated all arms from “papists.” In July, Catholics were ordered to stay at home until further notice, and anyone pursuing studies with the Order of Jesuits was given two days to get out of Augsburg or face the penalty of death. A few months later, in November, came a decree forbidding Catholics, on pain of death, to attend church, whatever their social condition. In other words, the rich and noble must also beware.
Meanwhile, the Swedes decided to reinforce the walls and defenses of the city by adding ravelins and other outworks. Some four thousand troops arrived on May 15, all to be quartered on citizens. Their wages would be used to pay for food and drink. Three days later, the new bosses began to arm Protestants and to organize all able-bodied men into a militia. In July, to speed up the work on the city’s defenses, they decreed that one person from every household had to go out daily to work on the construction sites. Here was a testament to the hustling ways of Swedish armies in Germany. In action so far away from their native land, Swedish officers knew that most of their soldiers and all their material resources, money or payment in kind included, had to come from wherever they found themselves. And if subsidies came in from abroad, such as from France, so much the better; but subsidies would not suffice to meet the needs of the Swedish-led armies.
The fact that the newly arrived soldiers would be spending their wages in Augsburg did not mean, therefore, that they were bringing in any kind of wealth. On the contrary, what they spent would be coming from increases in local excise taxes, from a new poll tax, from abuses in the system of billeting, and from the plundering of castles, houses, villages, and farms in the outlying districts, including towns as far as Memmingen, about fifty-five miles away. This booty, however, would slowly work against Augsburg’s benefit, because the theft and destruction of rural wealth led to spikes in the price of foodstuffs. The damage to crops and livestock added still more melancholy to the fact that war and bad weather, during the early 1630s, had already slashed the production of cereals in that part of Bavaria and eastern Swabia. So to have six thousand horsemen making a stop in the villages around Augsburg—as happened on May 27, 1632, to be billeted there for nearly a week—simply aggravated the district’s yawning poverty. In short, for two or three years before the siege of 1634–1635, famine, the stealthy destroyer, had been edging its way toward Augsburg, and those in command were turning the city itself into a little garrison state.
The link between hunger and the occupying soldiers is highlighted by a military command of July 26, 1632, which ordered the local peasantry to cut down the thousands of trees, many of them fruit-bearing, that formed a thick circle of greenery outside and around Augsburg. Logistically, their removal would deprive the Catholic enemy of protective cover, while also providing lumber for the work on the city’s defensive perimeters. The bitter resentment of the peasants over the destruction of so many trees was swept aside. They had to do as they were told. And then on January 3, 1633, out went a town cry ordering all refugee peasants to get out of the city. But if any chose to labor on the defensive works around the walls in return for one and a half pounds of bread per day, they were permitted to remain. Eight days later, this order was overruled by the command that all foreign or refugee peasants leave Augsburg at once and go back to their lands. The shrinking food supply was creating anxieties. With four to five thousand soldiers quartered on citizens, the claims on foodstuffs—on grains in particular—had become fierce, now that 20 percent of the city’s population was made up of soldiers.
By April 1633, with the endless to-and-fro of troops, Augsburg’s rural hinterland had lost large numbers of horses and cows to pillaging Swedish troops. Many fields lay fallow. And though the sale of booty in the city had been outlawed, the ordinance was ignored, first of all by army officers. Augsburg’s streets and open spaces teemed with plundered horses and cattle, and with numerous carts and wagons, all loaded with copperware, pewter, bedding, linen, clothing, and heaps of personal items. Much of this spoil, now “selling for wretched, paltry sums,” had belonged to the peasantry. But there was more. Because of the rural violence of soldiers, a large number of peasants, fleeing danger to life and limb, had managed to steal into Augsburg, despite the decrees and town cries against their doing so. They arrived in wagons, carrying their families and all possible foodstuffs; and there they lived, parked in cramped spaces, in horrendous circumstances, straining to survive. Over the coming year or two, many of them would meet death inside or outside the city walls.
No wonder, then, that in the larger picture of southern Germany, military violence in villages provoked peasant uprisings against mercenaries and local officials, such as in upper Austria in 1626 and 1632–1636; in Swabia, Breisgau, and Sundgau in 1632 and 1633; and in Bavaria, closer to Augsburg, in 1633–1634. But all were violently suppressed. One such outburst in Austria ended with the massacre of four hundred women, children, and old people.
The chief chronicler of life in Augsburg in the 1630s was Jakob Wagner, the son of a wealthy merchant. In his early sixties at the time, he was a close observer of daily events and in a position to gauge the growing tensions between soldiers and burghers. Billeting, new taxes, “contributions,” nocturnal guard duty, and the endless toil demanded for defensive works at the city walls had generated angry resentment among the people of Augsburg. The soldiers, in turn, and especially their Swedish commanders, seeing themselves more and more harassed by Imperial troops, were unrelenting in their demands. A mutiny in the Swedish army had erupted late in April 1633, led by officers and caused by the fact that the army had not been paid since 1631. Nor had soldiers received the promised bounties for the famous battles of Breitenfeld (1631) and Lützen (1632). To settle the mutiny, Oxenstierna, the head of Swedish forces in Germany, found a solution in the conveying of conquered territories and lordships, by deed and legal title, to his generals. The generals could then pay their officers, who would seek, in turn, to satisfy the demands of their soldiers. Meanwhile, even before the outbreak of the mutiny, there was no controlling a soldiery which had been invited, in effect, to grab whatever it took to stay alive.
The wages of soldiers in Augsburg thus turn out to have been mostly payment in kind: food, plus loot from outside the city, or anything they could squeeze from the hosts on whom they had been quartered.
By the summer of 1634, in war’s annihilation of rules and civilian supply lines, trade in Augsburg verged on collapsing. Many of the neighboring lands had been stripped of foodstuffs by traversing armies, and certain places had not seen bread in more than a year. Yet taxes and the bullying requests of the soldiers never let up. To satisfy war taxes, citizens were driven to sell assets, and rich merchants began to file for bankruptcy in the looming face of financial destruction. Jakob Wagner records the names and losses of the main bankrupts. Some of the amounts were enormous—in one case, for example, 169,764 florins, and in another 163,909 florins: each sum large enough for the purchase of dozens or even scores of houses in Augsburg. Such losses sufficed to pitch families of patricians into the ranks of the near destitute, for if they depended on returns from investments, those too had come to an end.
Worse was to come. On September 6, 1634, Imperial, Spanish, and Bavarian forces destroyed the Swedish army at Nördlingen. Some of the victorious units were now ordered to take Augsburg. And there, outside the walls, they would harry a city council which had already resolved to make a live-or-die defense at the expense, if need be, of “all their God-given earthly goods.” Croats and other Imperial dragoons rode into the region to plunder any remaining cattle and to set fire to mills, while also killing, in their raids, passing burghers. With the help of other units, they blocked the Lech River on October 3, diverting its waters away from the city. On the fourteenth, local peasants, on higher ground, managed to unblock ditches and to get the waters flowing toward Augsburg again. Fearing that the river would again be cut off and thus disable their graingrinding facilities, the burghers began to construct eighty human- and horse-driven mills.
Inhabitants now turned against the city council. Eager to avoid the death and ruin of a drawn-out siege, the poor favored a negotiated surrender, knowing well that they would be the first to die of hunger. In the clashing of fears and angers, the city was treated to seditious lines and verses. This angry output circulated furtively, or was passed on by word of mouth, in response to an urban council that was determined to crush public opposition to its evangelical stance against the besiegers.
If the city had previously struggled to lay in food reserves, by the end of October it was impossible to bring in anything in quantities because of the tightening blockade. And efforts to cut through the ring of soldiers were punishable—as we have come to expect—by mutilation, death, “merciless beatings,” or even by the tearing down of the houses of smugglers. Food prices leaped. The poor began to plead for work on the city’s line of defenses, asking only for bread as payment, in spite of the fact that those labors had recently been completed. City councillors tried to meet the pleas, making more defense plans, and soon “loaves of bread” were being “cut into pieces every day and distributed among the poor. Now more work was being done for bread than previously for money, and it is a wretched thing to behold.”
Once firewood ran out, soldiers broke into empty houses, stripping them of rafters: wood to be burned for heating and cooking. When they started to come down with dysentery late in the year, they became an even more serious worry for the authorities. But one rule was always axiomatic: Soldiers had to be fed and kept at least minimally contented, for in the end—thus the reasoning—only they could keep Augsburg from the hands of the Imperial forces. Being ready, presumably, to give up their lives at the walls and ramparts, they had to be among the first in line, along with the city’s leading families, for the vanishing stocks of food. The “useless” poor—useless in the economy of any resistance to a long siege—had to be sacrificed. Yet the savage irony was that unless they were cut down by a malady, soldiers were among those who were most likely to survive a siege that ended in a negotiated surrender. Famine, on the contrary, always did away with the poor.
When Siena’s patricians argued, in 1554, that the city was in the survival and honor of its patrician women, not in its physical walls, they were saying, in effect, that lives (some at least) were more important than those walls.
In January 1635, as Augsburg edged toward the limits of its food reserves, the urban council lived in some fear of a popular revolt and even feared that the soldiers, seeking to escape the gnawing spread of famine, might reach a secret agreement with the Imperial besiegers. But the control of the military and civilian bosses held. Indeed, on January 8, they voted unanimously to hold out for their Protestant cause as long as possible. This turned out to be bravado, for twelve days later, in an about-face, the council voted to negotiate “with the Papists,” although even then the evangelicals, supported by the army officers, succeeded in slowing up the pace of negotiations.
Soldiers continued to claim a bread ration of one and a half pounds per day, more than double the ration for civilians. They had no doubt insisted on this, for the public sale of bread had ended by late December. Thereafter, when citizens picked up bread allotments at the few well-guarded bakeries, they sought to steal back home, casting eyes in all directions, to avoid the risk of being assaulted for their bread by soldiers. Pack animals, horses, and pets had disappeared from streets and houses. Eaten. Animal skins had gone the same way. All eatable greenery must also have disappeared before the onset of that icy winter, when the waters of the encircling moat, outside the city walls, froze over. As for eating carrion, some time earlier, the famine-stricken had been seen to gnaw at dead horses rotting in the streets.
The eating of human flesh was inevitable. And the subject now broke into reports and conversation. Grave diggers complained that many bodies were brought to them missing breasts and other fleshy parts. What to make of this was only too obvious. “To his horror … a Swedish soldier who had stolen a woman’s shopping basket discovered flesh from a corpse.” When citizens found that bits of bodies had been cut off, they began to throw the dead into the river. Wagner believed that the desperate countryside was more given to the atrocity of cannibalism than the city. But commenting on its incidence in Augsburg, Johann Georg Mayer, a neighboring village pastor who had found refuge there, hauntingly declared that “the bodies of the living had thus become the graves of the dead.”
In the meantime, some of the poor were also freezing to death.
Why were the city councillors so determined to let the siege go on? What were they hoping for in negotiations that lasted two murderous months? In January and February, many hundreds of people died of hunger in the streets or froze to death. The will to rebel against the council was broken by the enervating effects of famine, and starving civilians were likely to be all but worthless as guardsmen at the walls. The danger of a revolt had passed. Then what about the hope of succor from Swedish forces? That army had been cut to pieces at Nördlingen; its remnants fled north into Saxony and Hesse, pursued or reconnoitered by the Catholic enemy. The siege of Augsburg was a mopping-up operation, around a city expected to fall to the juggernaut of starvation, not to thundering guns or a storming.
Yet the resisting hard men held their course. Lutheran preachers of an evangelical bent stepped up their reassuring words: God would come to the help of this godly city. Wanting a humane capitulation, opponents jumped on this litany but gave it an ironic twist and posed a rhetorical question: Was the council expecting citizens to become brave martyrs?
In view of the thousands of soldiers garrisoned in Augsburg, we must assume that Sweden’s officers had a decisive voice in prolonging the stubborn defense, while at the same time seeking every kind of concession from General Matthias Gallas, the commander of Imperial forces. That the Swedes were able to keep this up for so long was remarkable, for if, as threatened, the city had been taken by storm, the entire garrison could have been put to the sword and only the officers ransomed—a mercy intended to secure the same kind of treatment for captured Imperial officers.
What were Gallas and the Imperial forces getting in return for their lenience? They expected to march into an intact Imperial city and a peaceful situation. Besides, Augsburg was the home of many “papists.” But more concretely, Gallas was perhaps seeking to save the lives of hundreds of his men, who would have perished at the walls and just after scaling them. The sack of Magdeburg was fresh in the German public mind, a thorn now lodged in memory. And since Imperial officers were perfectly aware of the nightmarish conditions inside Augsburg, they would have had no trouble envisaging the consequences of bursting into the city in a wave of violence and blood.
The surrender terms of the Löwenberg agreement, March 22–24, 1635, confirmed the right of the city’s Protestants to practice their faith. But this article, tellingly, had long been on offer. After the Catholic victory at Nördlingen, moderate Protestant princes crossed back to the support of the Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand II, and this change was soon clinched in the Peace of Prague (May 20). The question therefore has to be raised: Was Augsburg’s fierce resistance to the siege worth the sacrifice of thousands of lives? Army officers and a dominant group of city councillors would perforce have said yes, whereas most residents would have said no.
In fact, the Löwenberg articles show that the officers had good reasons to insist on a stubborn resistance, for the articles throw a mantle of remarkable protection over the Swedish garrison. They authorize the soldiers to leave Augsburg with all their flags, weapons, wagons, and camp followers. They guarantee their safe departure from the city, along with anyone else who chose to leave with them. In addition, the departing soldiers would be allowed to march to their destination, Erfurt, at their own pace, to make stops where they wished, and to carry all their own food and fodder, inasmuch as the entire region lay in a sea of waste and scarcity. But if they managed to pick up any food or forage along the way, there was to be no payment for it. Any soldier who had previously served in the Imperial or Bavarian armies could now go back to them; and any other soldier who wanted to pass to that side was also free to go. There would be an amicable exchange of prisoners. Finally, soldiers forced to remain in Augsburg out of injuries or illness were to be cared for until they could return to their regiments.
There was a certain comradely spirit among soldiers, and sometimes it crossed battle lines. Indeed, that sense of affinity grew stronger during the Thirty Years War, especially when it became the norm, from 1631, to press captured soldiers into the ranks of the winning side. When the Swedish army was shattered at Nördlingen, the victors found that many of their prisoners had previously served in the Imperial army. They were promptly taken back into the Habsburg and Bavarian ranks.
The Swedes had been hands-on witnesses to the effects of starvation, and they had known about the claims concerning cannibalism. Yet when they and the troops under their command left Augsburg, they could say that all things considered, affairs had gone well for them.
The people of the city could say no such thing. In the course of the war, the numbers of their dead climbed grimly. Credited with a population of about forty-five thousand souls at the beginning of the war in 1618, seventeen years later Augsburg had a mere 16,500. The city was still there physically, unlike Magdeburg, but it would have struck merchants and diplomats—travelers who had known it previously—as a specter, a pale eminence.
War went to people, to food, to supplies; it moved inevitably to the points where these abounded. Not surprisingly, then, all European cities and large towns came out of the late middle ages flanked by defensive walls, enabling them to repel marauding armies. The “laws of war”—and they were nothing more than custom—laid it down that a successful siege would be followed by a sack, unless preceded by a negotiated surrender. But a sack was unlikely, unless there had been sustained combat beforehand, as occurred even in Antwerp.
Yet all the unwritten rules could be broken, and a town might be sacked or spared, despite negotiated arrangements or stubborn resistance. The outcome hinged on the condition of the besieging forces and their officers. In the face of fragile, unruly armies, custom itself held a fragile status.