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"Freedom of Belief for All the World": Gustav Adolf in Germany (Part I)

Discussion in 'World History' started by Dachs, Nov 4, 2009.

  1. Dachs

    Dachs Intelligence Officer

    Feb 23, 2005

    Of all of the events in the Thirty Years' War, save the Defenestration that started it, the things that get the most attention are the ones surrounding the King of Sweden, Gustav II Adolf ("Gustavus Adolphus") and his brief but revolutionary entry into the German war. West Point teaches about Gustav's operational and tactical acumen, military historians have accorded him a ranking as a Great Captain of History, and he is widely regarded as having jump-started the Swedish Stormaktstid, the "era of great power".

    Historiographically, the entry of Sweden into the Thirty Years' War has frequently been treated as one of the few episodes of action in an otherwise dreary and dreadfully boring repetitive war in which nothing was decided. While this is far from true, and an oversimplification, the dramatic Gustavian intervention deserves notice all the same. It saw European warfare fought on the largest scale up to that point, and had a decisive impact on the resolution of confessional politics in the Holy Roman Empire. The entry of Sweden into northern Germany drastically altered the nature of the eternal struggle for dominium maris Baltici, control of the Baltic Sea. And the events of 1630-2 changed Sweden from a relatively minor power, second banana to Denmark-Norway, into a Great Power with interests all over Europe.

    Besides, if I wrote about anything else in the Thirty Years' War, nobody'd read the damned thing. :p

    So: here is the first part, the story of the war, especially of the Swedish intervention, to 1631. The titanic struggles of 1632 shall be left for another article.

    The Outbreak of War in the Empire

    In 1618, fallout from the Habsburg "Brothers' War" inheritance conflict and from the perceived hardline Counter-Reformation policies of Ferdinand of Austria flared into open revolt. At about nine in the morning on the 23rd of May, a group of Protestant Bohemian nobles and city councilors, led by the count of Thurn, broke into the Hradschin castle in Prague, where several Habsburg governing officials, the Regents, were meeting. After a short confrontation, Vilém Slavata and Jaroslav Borita von Martinitz of the Regents and their secretary Philipp Fabricius were tossed out the high windows of the palace. The defenestratees survived, contrary to plan, but the Protestant nobles' rebellion against the Habsburgs continued anyway.

    The whole thing probably would not have broken out into war had it not been for the actions of the Calvinist Elector Palatine, Friedrich V, who had been carrying out a policy of radicalizing the ongoing debate over confessional politics in the Empire. After shopping around for a non-Habsburg who could be made king, the Bohemian rebels settled on Friedrich, whose policy in the years before the defenestration can only be described as radical. He, spurred on in large part by his counsellor Christian von Anhalt-Bernburg, continued his father's attempts to create a wide "Evangelical Union" ("evangelical" here referring to the Protestants' self-description back in the day), an alliance of Calvinist and Lutheran princes that would be able to throw their weight around in the Reichstag and resist any popish aggression. Yet before 1618 the majority of Protestants in the Empire supported resolving confessional disputes through the imperial court system, the Reichskammergericht, and Friedrich's efforts to create a militant Protestant bloc met largely with failure. His allies were restricted to southern Germany, and based on family and commercial ties. Neither Calvinist Brandenburg nor Lutheran Saxony, the other powerful secular Electorates, sided with the Palatinate in its disputes. And the formation of the Union partially backfired by inducing the duke of Bavaria, Maximilian I, to create his own Catholic "Liga", to oppose the Union - a similarly limited organization of Catholic princes.

    During the course of 1619, though, the Bohemian rebels continued to hold out, and with the alliance of the Transylvanian prince Bethlen Gabor even gave the Habsburgs a hot time. At the elections in Frankfurt for the imperial crown, they scored another victory when Ferdinand was ruled ineligible to use the Bohemian vote. Yet at the elections, every one of the Electors agreed to crown Ferdinand as Holy Roman Emperor - even the Palatine one. A few months later, Friedrich V was offered the Bohemian crown by the rebels, and he accepted. His term as king was short. The Bohemian Confederates, the Transylvanians, and the Protestant Union were indeed a formidable array of opponents for the Habsburgs, but they were divided geographically and failed to harness their resources effectively. At the Battle of White Mountain in the late fall of 1620, Habsburg troops, aided by the Liga army, decisively defeated the Bohemians and the Union. Friedrich's precipitate flight from Prague earned him the nickname of the "Winter King", for that had been the length of his reign.

    The Extension of the Crisis

    Yet the remainder of the Union continued to resist the Habsburgs. This was in part because they could not pay their troops to disband. The major Union army, led by the count of Mansfeld, spent the next few years ping-ponging northwards, from Franconia into the Netherlands (where it played a critical role in the renewed Dutch Revolt) and then into Frisia. Ferdinand and his Liga and Spanish allies occupied the Palatinate and forced much of the rest of the Union out of the war by 1624. Yet von Mansfeld's army remained intact, frequently beaten (by the forces of Johan t'Serclaes, count of Tilly, the general-in-chief of the Liga) but not destroyed.

    The movement of the war northward, combined with Ferdinand's policy in Bohemia and southern Germany, widened the fighting even further. Christian IV, king of Denmark-Norway, had extensive interests in northern Germany, particularly in Lower Saxony, where he was vying to place his younger sons in charge of some bishoprics. That ability was seriously jeopardized by Ferdinand's forced re-Catholicization of ecclesiastical territories in Franconia. Now that the war was in the north, Danish influence in Lower Saxony, considered the backyard of the monarchy, was threatened. Further, Denmark-Norway's position as the de facto leader of the Lutheran states made it more difficult to ignore confessional politics, especially so close to home. Danish riches (acquired in large part from the monarchy's monopoly on the Sound Toll, the dues levied on trade passing into and out of the Baltic) and the relative independence of the king from his noble Estates gave Christian the freedom of action to intervene on his own initiative. In 1625, he gave the war new fire by allying with von Mansfeld and moving troops into Lower Saxony.

    Christian's entry into the fighting showed just how dependent Emperor Ferdinand was on the Liga army and on Duke Maximilian (now Elector, having claimed the Palatine title for himself). The Emperor decided to acquire his own commander to balance von Tilly, and enlarge his own army. By the summer of 1625, he was in negotiations with one of his major generals, Albrecht von Wallenstein, to contract for the raising of an army of 24,000 men, to be expanded as necessary. Von Wallenstein - called "the Friedländer" by contemporaries, because of his possession of the Duchy of Friedland - duly raised the troops, and promptly defeated von Mansfeld in 1626 at the Dessau Bridge. He joined with von Tilly, and attacked Christian IV's Danes at Lutter in the summer of the same year, winning a decisive victory. In 1627 and 1628, the Catholic armies occupied nearly all of the Danish possessions on Jutland and Holstein, and next year Christian sued for peace, duly agreed at Lübeck in 1629.

    The Baltic Hijinks

    The Danish-Norwegian collapse and the final defeat and death of von Mansfeld in 1626 while on his way to join the Transylvanians nearly ended the state of war within the Empire. But there were still loose ends, and more problems were caused by the intervention of other, extra-Imperial factors. During the campaigning against the Danes, von Wallenstein had occupied the duchy of Pomerania, signing the Capitulation of Franzberg with its duke, Bogislav XIV, in 1627. This Pomeranian acquisition spurred planning in Spain, which was beginning to run into problems in its Dutch war. The count-duke of Olivares, in charge of Spanish policy, believed that Pomerania would serve as an excellent base for operations against the critical Dutch trade links to Scandinavia. He wished to expand his almirantazago, his "Admiralty of the North", a system to try to weaken the Dutch hold on north European seaborne trade. Now that the Imperials held Pomerania, they had a base from which to force the cities of the Hansa to join the almirantazago scheme. Combined with von Wallenstein's desire to secure additional naval bases for his fledgling Baltic Fleet, the result was an expansion of conflict. Stralsund, a Hansa city in Pomerania with a long tradition of ignoring the duke, was seen as the ideal target.

    Stralsund's city council was encouraged to reject the Imperial demands for troop billeting, accession to the almirantazago, and naval construction by not only the desperate Danes, but the Swedes as well. Gustav Adolf, having concluded a short truce in his current Polish war, had opened talks with von Wallenstein for an alliance in 1627. Sweden was to invade Norway in conjunction with allied operations on the sea against the Danish islands. Von Wallenstein, unwilling to pledge his support to Sweden and already acting too much on his own initiative, let the discussion fall off. Gustav promptly broke off the talks and moved towards a temporary rapprochement with Denmark-Norway, the ancestral foe, meeting with Christian himself on the border of Skåne at Ulvsbäck, and signing an agreement to help the Stralsunders. Gustav had already had his eye on Stralsund, which as the closest German port to Sweden had a unique strategic value as a trading partner and entryway into the Empire.

    Swedish and Danish troops arrived throughout 1628, as von Wallenstein's troops besieged the city, reaching the port in the nick of time. Repeated Imperial assaults were blunted and von Wallenstein's troops were forced to withdraw. But at the same time, von Wallenstein, eager to strike back at his new foe, contracted with the Polish-Lithuanian king, Zygmunt III, to provide troops to fight the Swedes in the Vistula delta. In the summer of 1629, fighting in the east heated up again, and the Swedes were worsted in a skirmish near Honigfeldt by the allies despite mutual distrust and tensions. But after Honigfeldt, the Imperial commander, von Arnim, fell out with Zygmunt and resigned in protest; the Poles and Swedes both felt incapable of continuing the war, and with Anglo-French mediation concluded the Truce of Altmark in September 1629. Sweden retained conquered Livonia and several Prussian ports, though it returned Courland and part of its Vistula delta conquests to the Polish. At the same time, the Dutch fighting admiral Piet Hein captured most of the Spanish annual silver fleet, a tremendous morale-boosting victory for the Dutch that totally destroyed confidence in de Olivares' almirantazago scheme. Spanish support dried up for von Wallenstein's Baltic plans, his Polish ally left the war, and his fleet was trapped by a Swedish flotilla in Wismar, where it rotted away uselessly. The conclusion of the Danish war allowed Ferdinand to remove von Wallenstein (who had continuously gathered more troops, accruing too much personal power, and who had rubbed a lot of people the wrong way) and force him to disband his armies.

    The Stupendous Political Blunder

    The final element left to set the stage was Ferdinand's political solution to the end of military operations in the Empire. As part of his "peace package" to accompany the Lübeck treaty, he promulgated the Edict of Restitution in March 1629. This was what Ferdinand believed was the "true" interpretation of the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, which had created a framework for confessional politics. The key issue at stake was the restitution of secularized territories of and Catholic Church temporal bishoprics that had been taken over by Protestant clergy. Ferdinand's Edict held that all lands that had fallen under Protestant control since 1552 were illegally occupied and must be restored to the Catholic clergy from before. This had already been policy, as mentioned, in Franconia and the Rhineland from the early 1620s, and was a key factor in driving Christian IV into war.

    Ferdinand and many of the more radical Catholics believed that the restitutions were justified even further by the unbroken Imperial victories scored since White Mountain a decade prior. And even many Protestants would concede that the Catholic military victories would justify some territorial and ecclesiastical gains. But the Edict of Restitution threw this out the window by first formalizing the exclusion of Calvinists (who had not been mentioned in the Augsburg formula) from the settlement, and by totally bypassing the imperial constitution and court system in favor of a unilateral and total restitution program. Not only were all Protestant princes and prince-bishops now at risk, they had good reason to fear further efforts at re-Catholicization. The prominence of the Jesuit confessors of the Elector of Bavaria and the Emperor in crafting the Edict played a role in terrifying many Protestants with the specter of a popish plot, spearheaded by the Society of Jesus. Even the Swiss Protestants believed they were at risk.

    Ferdinand was, however, willing to give way on some key points, badgered by the suddenly-contrite Elector Maximilian of Bavaria. Johann Georg, Elector of Saxony, formed a united front with Georg Wilhelm of Brandenburg in claiming that the Augsburg peace had been a treaty - only mutual consent by all signatories could alter it. He, like most Protestants, retained his faith in the imperial courts, and suggested that the restitution cases be judged only on their individual merits, not blanket restitution back to 1552. Anselm von Umstadt, Archbishop-Elector of Mainz, proposed a formula for accepting blanket restitution, with a change for the secularization start date to 1621 - to which all of the Electors agreed. But Maximilian of Bavaria wavered, due to the concurrent political battle over von Wallenstein's dismissal - he claimed after the fact that his Jesuit confessor had talked him into it - and Ferdinand rejected the compromise settlement. Lutherans and Calvinists alike felt cornered by the Imperial failure to revise the Edict.

    The door was thus wide open for the Swedish Army when Gustav Adolf disembarked at Usedom in Pomerania on the sixth of July, 1630. He was thirty-six years old.

    The Northern Adventurer

    Gustav's landing on the north German coast did not immediately revolutionize the situation. His performance in war and domestic politics before 1630 had been spotty at best. At the beginning of his reign, while he was still a minor, Sweden had been worsted in the Kalmar War with Denmark-Norway, which had gained a significant indemnity - a million riksdalers - out of the deal. The concurrent war with Muscovy, a Swedish intervention during the famous "Time of Troubles", had petered out after Jakob de la Gardie conquered Novgorod in 1611 - Gustav's troops were forced to abandon the siege of Pskov in 1615, and two years later signed the Peace of Stolbovo with the Muscovites. At Stolbovo, Swedish gains (Gustav secured Ingria, rounding off his control of the eastern Baltic coast and blocking the Muscovites off from the same) were probably more due to Muscovy's financial and military exhaustion than any Swedish military victories. In the 1620s, Gustav had fought two wars with Poland-Lithuania, which had started out well, with Swedish gains in Livonia, but by the end of the decade the Poles had caught up to the Swedes militarily. Gustav's first encounter with Imperial troops at Honigfeldt had ended badly. The few Swedish military victories Gustav had scored thus far had only been won against badly outnumbered opponents.

    Yet despite these unpromising results, Sweden was arguably forced to remain at war constantly. The Kalmar War showed what the wars of Johan III and Karl IX in the preceding decades had already indicated: Sweden did not have the capacity to fight a war on her own soil, and if it was to be a power at all, it needed to maintain its army and fight its wars elsewhere. The end of war with Denmark-Norway allowed the army to be moved to Russia; the end of war with Muscovy allowed it to shift to Livonia and Prussia; the end of war with Poland-Lithuania precipitated the landing at Usedom. Gustav's constant wars, and those of his Vasa predecessors, had helped precipitate the growth of something somewhat unlike other systems in Europe, a large native officer pool among nobility who fought in service to the monarchy because it was service to the monarchy - and because it was more profitable than eking out a hardscrabble existence on a farm in the cold North - instead of as a social obligation. These officers, too, helped precipitate wars, for they comprised a significant part of the Riksdag, the Swedish Estates, who unlike so many other Estates in Europe were willing to support and finance war measures.

    Gustav justified his war to the Protestant Germans at large by a large-scale propaganda war. Adler Salvius, his PR man, was already in Germany by the time he landed, trying to rouse the Protestant Electorates to the defense of their liberties against the vile Edict - in alliance with Sweden, of course. The King himself, upon arrival in Pomerania, issued manifestos of a similar tenor. But what were Sweden's war aims anyway? Neither Gustav nor his genial chancellor and political mastermind Axel Oxenstierna was clear on that. Their justifications to contemporaries contradicted one another. To France, a probable ally, the Swedes floated the idea (almost certainly joking) that Louis XIII could be elected Emperor - and Cardinal Richelieu, the French counterpart to Oxenstierna, would be the Pope! To many Protestants, the Swedish claimed to be the saviors of the evangelical cause - yet Gustav admitted later that if he were fighting a war of religion he would have declared war on the Pope. To all Europe, Sweden claimed to be fighting a war for her security - yet with von Wallenstein's fleet in ruins and his army disbanded, what threats were there? Some historians have cited economic reasons, and surely these played a role in Swedish calculations, but Gustav made no attempt to integrate northern Germany into the Swedish regional market. More sound goals - though of course we cannot be sure, considering Gustav's and Oxenstierna's reticence about committing themselves - include weakening the power of the Emperor, especially in northern Germany, and simple conquest of outposts along the coast. Later on, war aims would shift dramatically, of course.

    At the same time as Gustav's landing at Usedom, the Reichstag was meeting in Regensburg. Discussion of the Edict had been removed from the agenda. But there was no consternation over the Swedish landing, either. Ferdinand had no good reason to be terrified of yet another northern adventurer, with seemingly fewer resources than the last one. Gustav had about 18,000 men with him in Pomerania - but surrounding him in northern Germany were some 50,000 Imperial troops, with 30,000 more close by. Gustav managed to capture Stettin before their approach, but that was about it in terms of conquests. Pomerania, after the last few years of maintaining von Wallenstein's army, didn't have the resources to sustain a very large Swedish one as well. Gustav was limited to his coastal enclave. He tightened his position by forcing Stralsund into a formal protectorate and bludgeoning the hapless duke of Pomerania into submitting to Swedish suzerainty, with Pomerania falling to the Swedish crown after the duke's death. But more than this could not be done without the aid of the Protestants of the Empire.
  2. Dachs

    Dachs Intelligence Officer

    Feb 23, 2005
    The End of Neutrality

    Despite his propaganda and the Edict of Restitution, this was still lacking. Johann Georg attempted to solidify his moderate line against the Edict by a congress at Leipzig in the spring of 1631, which all Protestant princes in the Empire attended (save Darmstadt and Pomerania). The Elector of Saxony managed to get his fellow attendees to agree to a loose alliance and a unified army of some 40,000, along with common voting in the Reichstag. Even this victory for the moderate line, though, was undermined by Ferdinand's continuing refusal to compromise, which especially alienated those Protestant princes still burdened with Imperial occupying troops. As yet, none of them made any concrete moves towards Sweden, but it was clear they would swing that way if Gustav Adolf could win victories.

    None of them save one, anyway. Christian Wilhelm of Magdeburg, who had lost his administrative post due to the restitutions, figured that he had nothing to lose and snuck back into Magdeburg in July 1630, promptly rallying the city council in support of Sweden. Gustav Adolf quickly dispatched an officer, Colonel Dietrich von Falkenberg, to help defend the city, but as yet was unable to follow with his field army. Von Falkenberg and the Magdeburgers were promptly sealed inside the city by the Imperialist general Gottfried Heinrich, count of Pappenheim. Von Tilly promptly sent zu Pappenheim more troops to aid in the blockade of Magdeburg, and requested permission to launch an offensive against Sweden. Here, diplomacy intervened. France had been negotiating with counterweights to the Emperor for some years now - Gustav was one, and Maximilian of Bavaria another. In the winter of 1630-1 Gustav had tried to improve his financial and diplomatic position by formalizing an alliance with France, and Richelieu agreed. By the Treaty of Bärwalde, France undertook to pay Sweden a yearly subsidy of a million livres, with an extra 400,000 livres as back pay for 1630. The Swedes were to maintain an army of at least 36,000 men. In addition, both states agreed not to make peace with their common enemies without the consent of the other, and both pledged to respect Bavarian neutrality. So Maximilian was understandably cautious about committing himself against Sweden, which would cut his ties to France.

    Gustav recognized his desperate need for victories to shore up support, and so planned a surprise attack on Gartz and Greifenwalde a few days after New Year's, 1631. So began the year's momentous campaigning. Von Tilly immediately shifted his troops to Frankfurt an der Oder to block the Swedish advance, covering over two hundred miles and barring the gate. Gustav rapidly changed direction, retracing his steps through Pomerania to capture Demmin in Mecklenburg in late February. He was doggedly followed by von Tilly, who counterattacked and seized the Swedish-held town of Neubrandenburg in mid-March. But this last march had overextended him. The Liga and Imperial troops were stretched out over northern Germany, besieging Magdeburg, holding the Oder line, blocking Gustav in Mecklenburg, and with von Tilly in his field army. Von Tilly soon realized that this last move had shifted the balance - he was now outnumbered. He quickly moved to Magdeburg to join his army to zu Pappenheim's besiegers and alleviate some of the problems of overextension. He would await the fall of Magdeburg and the approach of Imperial reinforcements from Italy, where the Mantuan War was winding down.

    The besiegers at Magdeburg had an unassailable position and numerical superiority, so Gustav went back to his original Oder plan. Frankfurt was revisited in April, and stormed by assault. Gustav moved on Landsberg at the end of the month and solidified his position. But he could not distract von Tilly from the siege of Magdeburg. Through the month of May, the Imperial and Liga troops made inexorable progress, capturing first the outworks, then the suburbs, and finally preparing for a last assault on the 20th. This close to destruction, the city council had second thoughts, and asked von Falkenberg to come to terms with the Imperials. They were fobbed off by assurances that Gustav was closing in. He was doing nothing of the sort, but the councilors were temporarily mollified.

    Gustav's attempt to coerce the twin Protestant Electorates to ally with him against the Emperor met with no success before May. Already enraged by Georg Wilhelm's failure to honor the marriage alliance contracted between Sweden and Brandenburg in 1620, Gustav marched on Berlin at the beginning of May. Timidly, the Elector responded by dispatching his wife and other women of the court to parley with the King of Sweden at Köpenick, just outside Berlin. Gustav and a thousand of his Swedes were allowed to enter the city and negotiate. Oxenstierna's honeyed words and promises of parts of Pomerania and Westphalia were contrasted with the King's frustrated railings against neutrality. For Gustav Adolf, Georg Wilhelm was either with him or against him in this war, as he put it, "between God and the Devil". But the Elector would not be swayed, and Johann Georg was impassive as well. Gustav Adolf was still at Potsdam when Magdeburg fell.

    The morning assault on the walls by the Imperialists on the 20th of May had been well executed. Troops swarmed in from five directions at seven o'clock, buoyed up by zu Pappenheim's wine ration, and had cracked the walls open within an hour. What ensued was bloody house-to-house fighting, with the Magdeburgers hunkered down behind barricades in the streets. It got bloodier within minutes, as a fire started. The debate over who started it has been going ever since. Von Falkenberg is an oft-mentioned culprit, being blamed for wanting to go out - literally - in a blaze of glory. His main critics, though, had ulterior motives (like Güricke, a city councilor who wanted to whitewash his role in the siege to justify his own seizure of power after the fire). At the time, Protestant propaganda claimed that the Liga and Imperial troops set the fire purposefully, which would make no sense, considering they wanted to take the city intact for its supplies if nothing else. Probably the best explanation lies in accident: there are several stories claiming that zu Pappenheim, in order to clear out a fortified house blocking his troops' way, ordered it to be fired, and from there it spread.

    By ten in the morning, the fire had spread across most of the city, and it was accompanied by widespread plundering, rape, and murder by the victorious Imperialists, which continued for several days. Von Tilly and zu Pappenheim organized firefighting efforts and saved as many citizens as they could, and there are stories of the Premonstratensians (native to Magdeburg) rescuing hundreds of women in their monastery. The city cathedral was saved, too, with a thousand people inside. Even among the plundering soldiers, for every instance of child gang rape there is one of relative kindness. Another councilor, Friese, and his family were smuggled out of the city by one of the soldiers. All told, somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000 Magdeburger soldiers and citizens were killed in the siege and fire. A census of a few months later found less than five hundred people remaining in the city.

    The rape of Magdeburg was a public relations disaster equaled only by Ferdinand's total rejection of the Leipzig program on the 14th of May. He called for its attendees to disband their army and their alliance, and followed it up by invading the prominent Protestant duchy of Württemberg in June. By late July, the duchy's defenders had surrendered. And on the Elbe, Gustav's patience finally snapped with the news of Magdeburg. The King called in another 25,000 men, stormed Spandau and Küstrin, and set up cannons outside the electoral palace. Georg Wilhelm surrendered on June 20 and signed an alliance. A Swedish detachment of 8,000 under the command of Åke Tott promptly split off to finish up the conquest of Mecklenburg, while the rest of Gustav's army moved to Werben and began to skirmish with von Tilly's troops. Over the rest of the summer, the two armies continued to build up, while staying in constant contact. Gustav had the better of the low-intensity fighting, but could not claim to be inflicting a particularly heavy defeat on the Catholic troops - certainly not to the tune of the 7,000 enemy casualties he claimed in his pamphlets. He was still outnumbered by 11,000 men, and von Tilly had more on the way, but the King continued to gain allies - in late May, the United Provinces had contracted for a subsidy, and minor Protestant princes like Wilhelm von Hesse-Kassel came over to his side with increasing frequency.

    Maximilian of Bavaria's confusing diplomacy helped to place von Tilly in an increasingly difficult position. Without regard to the treaty that had just been signed with the King of Sweden, Richelieu formalized the Franco-Bavarian understanding with a defensive pact in May 1631. By attempting to keep his options open, Richelieu, by effectively allying with both sides, was in fact restricting himself. Fallacious assumptions as to his ability to use the Swedish as a tool against the Emperor underlay this contradictory diplomacy. Maximilian, for his part, needed a lifeline for his proposed constitutional party, still clinging to a modified version of the Leipzig program, and hoping to reconcile with Johann Georg. To that end, von Tilly was ordered to attack neither the Swedes nor the Saxons, but to menace them both. The extended skirmishing in July and August depleted his army's supplies, though, while the Elector prevaricated. By early September, his troops were on the verge of starvation, and both the Emperor and Maximilian were growing exasperated of Johann Georg's attempt to stay neutral and work things out peacefully. On the 5th of September, von Tilly's troops crossed the Saxon border; by the 12th, the Elector had sided with Sweden, securing much more generous terms than had his northern neighbor.

    The Battle of Breitenfeld

    The stage was finally set for a field battle. With Saxony's alliance treaty in hand, Gustav and 23,000 Swedes crossed the Elbe and joined up with the Elector and 16,000 Saxons twenty-five miles north of Leipzig. Much is made of the contrast between the dusty, worn, and hardened Swedish troops and the fresh, shining, and untrained Saxons. Gustav was somewhat uneasy about working with the Saxon commander, none other than von Arnim, lately of von Wallenstein's service, and a Brandenburg native. Yet any differences had to be put aside quickly. Von Tilly's troops captured the fortress of Pleissenburg on the 13th of September; a day later they entered its ward Leipzig, capital of Electoral Saxony. Bolstered by reinforcements, 7,000 Imperial troops under von Fürstenberg, von Tilly was finally free to pursue an uncomplicated offensive strategy, one he had desired since the beginning of the campaign. Those reinforcements brought his numbers to 38,000, a thousand of which were left to guard Leipzig. Von Tilly then struck out to the north, colliding with the nearly 39,000 allied troops massed near the village of Breitenfeld, five miles from Leipzig.

    The Swedish troops were formed in a modified variant of the famous Dutch tactical system of Maurits van Nassau, often referred to as "linear" tactics. Its focus was on maximizing firepower, and to that end the Swedes deployed in longer formations, with a five-rank block of pikemen and a six-rank block of musketeers. The pikes were organized to provide protection for the musketeers on one hand and a powerful punch as shock infantry on the other. While somewhat difficult to control, the longer formations maximized the potential power of the army. To complement the well-drilled Swedish infantry, the Swedes had excellent cavalry, especially the light Finnish cavalry (the Hakkapeliitta), which was well drilled. Swedish horse had undergone the beginnings of a tactical revolution in the 1620s, starting with the Battle of Dirschau against the Poles, widely cited as the point at which the Swedes began to shift to the use of their cavalry as shock units as opposed to the concentration on pistol fire that many Western European militaries had adopted. Gustav's victory at Dirschau had been one of the first ever over the practically invincible Polish cavalry, but it was followed by mixed performance in the Vistula delta in the last years of the war that obscured the Swedes' growing technical superiority. Finally, Sweden had concentrated on the construction of more mobile artillery pieces, and although the famous leather cannons had been largely abandoned in favor of light bronze-cast pieces by 1631, the principle behind them still underlay Swedish tactical artillery doctrine. The famous Lennart Torstensson, Gustav's young artillery commander, was to win accolades for his performance both before and after the King's death.

    Gustav's opponent relied on an opposing tactical system, frequently referred to as the tercio, or Spanish square. It was deeper than the Dutch-Swedish battalions, and not as cumbersome, with a musketeer core flanked, fronted, and guarded in rear by pikemen. "Sleeves" of musketeers were on the square's flanks, with extra detachments on the corners. The squares were especially popular with the Habsburgs for their utility against the Ottoman Turks, whose cavalry created a threat to flank and rear that could best be dealt with by affording the musketeers in an army all-round protection. Command and control was vastly improved over the linear tactics. Morale was also generally better, as the densely packed men in the rear ranks, though they could not fire at the enemy, would be able to prevent their fellows further forward from running away.

    On the morning of the 17th of September, 1631, the allied army crossed the Loberbach, arraying itself just south of the village of Podelwitz, with a marshy stream at their backs. They had skipped breakfast to make the five-mile march to the field, but the allies only reached the field, organized, and set up their artillery by midday. Von Tilly's army was already there, disposed along a slight rise with the village of Breitenfeld on the left flank, Seehausen directly to the rear (along with a small forest), and Göbschelwitz on the right. The Catholic infantry were arrayed in twelve blocks, grouped by threes. A further square was on each flank to support the cavalry, which were deployed on the two flanks as usual, with a few units of cuirassiers under Dietrich von Erwitte positioned near Seehausen to act as a general reserve. On the right flank, Johann von Isolano and Friedrich von Fürstenberg (not -burg) led the cavalry, with von Isolano in charge of the Croats. Zu Pappenheim had charge of the left flank cavalry, while von Tilly had overall charge of the infantry.

    Spoiler Pre-Battle Dispositions :

    At midday, the allied artillery opened up, allowing the Swedes and Saxons to finish organizing. Gustav, dismissive of the Saxon army's quality, and to improve the command and control of his own troops, disposed his troops separately from the Saxons. He put Gustav Horn in charge of his left flank, while he himself commanded the right flank cavalry, along with Johan Banér's heavy cavalry. The infantry were arrayed in two lines. Torstensson had the artillery, but effectively commanded the right wing of infantry as well. His cannons caused significant damage to the Imperial infantry in their deep formations, but only slightly more than was done to the allies themselves. The artillery dominated the contest in the early afternoon, for more than two hours.

    Zu Pappenheim's cavalry moved near half past two, attacking Gustav's 2,500 cavalry on the allied right. Eight times his cavalry closed to pistol range, but each time they peeled off, worsted by the fire from both the Swedish cavalry and a unit of 900 musketeers posted to stiffen the horse line. At the same time, his attack had set off a chain reaction on the Imperial right, as von Fürstenberg launched his own assault on the Saxon army. Von Fürstenberg's cuirassiers attacked the Saxon horse head on, while von Isolano and the Croats swung round through Göbschelwitz village to attack the Saxons in flank. For a few minutes, the untried Saxons held up, but then the Saxon noble cavalry levy quit the scene, followed quickly by the mercenary horse. Von Fürstenberg, however, couldn't take advantage of his cavalry victory. The Croats were already riding off to plunder the Saxon camp, while his own cavalry were pursuing many of the routing Saxon horse.

    Spoiler Initial Attacks :

    Already, though, the right flank victory had induced von Tilly to begin bringing up the infantry. The massive Catholic squares slid obliquely across the Swedish front towards the Saxon position. Their advance, combined with the troopers von Fürstenberg managed to rally, shattered Saxon morale. Johann Georg fled and didn't stop until he was fifteen miles away. A few of the Saxon regiments, fleeing north, stopped by the Swedish camp to plunder their allies' baggage. Only von Arnim himself remained, accompanied by two cavalry regiments; he pulled back to join Gustav Horn and the Swedes.

    Spoiler Saxon Collapse :

    The Imperial and Liga infantry were struggling into the former Saxon position at half past three, and had they moved smartly and their enemies been less prepared they could have taken the Swedes in flank. Gustav Horn, though, was a fairly wily cove, and as the Imperialists passed the Swedish army on their way to the Saxon positions he drew back the left flank infantry and cavalry, refusing it. Lennart Torstensson's artillery opened up on the passing Imperial army at the same time, punishing the strung-out Catholic army severely. But that only made up in part for the fact that, without the Saxons, the Swedes were badly outnumbered. Von Tilly ordered his men to march against Horn's wing, to encircle Torstensson in the center. The fighting on the Swedish left quickly heated up, forcing Horn to feed regiments from the reserve line into the battle.

    Spoiler Crisis on Both Flanks :

    A little past four, Gustav finally moved on the Swedish right. Zu Pappenheim's horse had been exhausted by the constant fruitless attacks over the last two hours. When Banér, on Gustav's orders, charged with the heavy cavalry, dispensing with the pistols in favor of cold steel, the Imperial left collapsed. Gustav led the cavalry and the right flank infantry regiments in a wheel, pivoting around Torstensson's men in the center, and contacted the left-flank Imperial infantry just before five in the afternoon. While Gustav, at the head of the charging Hakkapeliittas, captured the Catholic artillery, Banér and the Swedish foot engaged the Liga and Imperial infantry with their firearms. Torstensson's artillery, trained on the spread-out and unsupported tercios in the left and center of the Catholic line, made short work of the Imperial troops.

    Spoiler Swedish Flank Attack :

    Gustav and the Swedish right swung round again, to fight the last Imperial troops on the field, von Tilly and the former right flank. Here the fighting had been sanguinary for the last few hours, and the numerically superior Imperialists had nearly broken the Swedish line, and would have but for Horn's skillful deployment of the reserves. He committed his last regiment, a unit of Scots of the Munro clan, at the same time as Gustav's attack struck the Catholic troops in the rear. With that, von Tilly's army dissolved. The sad remnant of his squares streamed south, towards Seehausen. Some of the infantry tried to make a last stand in the forest near Seehausen, rallied by zu Pappenheim, but at dusk Torstensson's artillery moved up and blasted apart that last line. The last semblance of resistance had ended by nightfall.

    Spoiler Final Moves :

    The surrounded Liga and Imperial right wing had yielded 6,000 prisoners; the Swedes bagged half that number again when they moved on Leipzig on the 18th of September. These men were largely press-ganged into the Swedish army, more than erasing the 2,000 losses Gustav had suffered. Von Tilly was only able to gather 13,000 men at Halberstadt on the 20th, a sad remnant of the victorious army that had pushed the Danes into the sea a few years before. Nearly eight thousand of his troops had perished at Breitenfeld. The rest - well over 10,000 men - had deserted. To all intents and purposes, the Catholic powers no longer had an army.

    The Aftermath of Breitenfeld

    The Battle of Breitenfeld's immediate military impact was astonishing. The few Imperial troops remaining in Saxony quit the Electorate immediately. Swedish arms were crowned with easy victories as Gustav and his army pushed southwards into Franconia. Less than a month after the Breitenfeld victory, the Swedes had marched all the way to the Main River, where the rich bishopric of Würzburg lay, protected by the formidable Marienburg castle and its fortifications. It became a base for a further Swedish drive into south Germany.

    Equal to the military importance of the battle was its symbolic value. By year's end, Gustav was feted as a new Joshua, a new Alexander. For Catholics, this King of the Swedes was doing the same as his Gothic ancestors had in 410, marching south to sack Rome itself.

    Victory at Breitenfeld had ensured that Ferdinand's Edict of Restitution project was doomed. It was with good reason - if a bit of hyperbole - that a plaque was put up on the field by later generations in the Romantic nineteenth century, with the simple legend, "Freedom of belief for all the world." This tremendous victory, on the heels of thirteen solid years of Habsburg triumphs, reenergized the Protestant cause in the Empire. (A "C-C-C-COMBO BREAKER" here would not be inappropriate.) Without Breitenfeld, the Imperial princes could never have salvaged their constitutional liberties at Prague in 1635, could not have saved the confessional balance in Imperial politics.

    What of the long-term military impact? Did this battle demonstrate once and for all the superiority of the linear formation to the aging Spanish square? It was too early for such a verdict. True, the deep ranks of the Imperial army contributed to the higher casualties from the Swedish artillery, but the fundamental reason behind von Tilly's defeat had been the problem of command and control over an army so large and comparatively unwieldy, combined with Swedish technical advantages largely unrelated to tactical factors like troop formations. The tercio still had its role to play, at Lützen the next year, and at Nördlingen in 1635. It would continue to stand up well to linear formations for much of the remainder of the war, albeit in modified form.


    The defeat at Breitenfeld left the Emperor and the Liga cornered. Without resources, without allies, and faced with a mounting coalition of enemies both within the Empire and without, yet unable to compromise, Ferdinand II hunkered down and prepared to claw his way back from the brink of destruction. The tables had been turned, and once again the House of Austria would need to turn to a certain Bohemian nobleman...

    A bloody crescendo would be reached in the 1632 campaign. Sweden and the Empire each fielded armies of over 100,000 men. It would see five major pitched battles and rapid reversals of fortune for both sides. The campaigns fought in this year would shape much of the rest of the conflict.


    Clark, Christopher - Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947: Most useful for this article in the discussion of constitutionalism in the Empire and the role of Georg Wilhelm in the crisis of 1631. In general, it is an excellent history of the Brandenburg-Prussian, then solely Prussian state, with a heavy bias towards the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Fairly well-rounded; if anything I would say the military side gets short shrift, only a good thing as far as many are concerned. Clark is not too preoccupied with his main goal, that of adding nuance to the reputation the Prussian state and people have picked up in history, a good thing as it gives a better picture of things.

    Frost, Robert I. - The Northern Wars 1558-1721: Concise, topical discussion of war and society in Eastern and Northern Europe during the relevant period that spends most of its time on trends and not on the fighting, but hits enough of the major engagements in sufficient detail to be worthwhile. A slightly frustrating omission was a discussion of the Great Northern War after the Battle of Poltava, which got far less notice than I should have liked. (Though an outline is there, mostly focusing on Swedish politics and Russia.) Recommended if you can find it.

    Jones, Archer - The Art of War in the Western World - There are few better works on the entirety of Western military history of such a length. Doesn't get bogged down in detail and sticks to the important stuff, mostly. This does lead to some omissions, and it should not be regarded as a definitive and up-to-date work on any of the subjects it covers, but it's great for an introductory work. Was of primary utility in describing the Gustavian campaign to break out of Pomerania in winter-spring 1631.

    Parker, Geoffrey (ed.) - The Thirty Years' War: Overall a decent synthesis of scholarship up to about the 1980s. Parker's account, while still fairly distorted in terms of focus, is a much more...'scholarly' work than the usual standby, Wedgwood. Does more to introduce non-human factors and is better at pulling away from many of the standard myths.

    Wedgwood, Cicely Veronica (2005 edition) - The Thirty Years War: Has long been the standard work in the period. Very easy to read, narrative history, but has missed out on the last seventy years of scholarship, which shows. Typical problem of works on the period in only lightly touching on the problems of constitutionalism and the German Liberties, as well as the runup to the conflict, and spends much time highlighting the Bohemian Revolt and the Gustavian intervention, with regrettably little time given to subjects outside that purview and a woefully inadequate discussion of the actual fighting. Reminds me of Bruce Catton's personality-centric view of the American Civil War.

    Wilson, Peter - The Thirty Years War: Europe's Tragedy: Released earlier this year. It is a longass book, not for the fainthearted. That is the price paid for an excellent effort to provide context. Up to date on most of the details I myself am familiar with - it's nice not to have to rely on articles and focused literature. Is very clearly not just about the war, especially not just about the war in Germany, does a good job tying together events across the Continent and in going over domestic-political, international-political, social, economic, and non-combat military events that too often get glossed over in many histories. I am also quite pleased with the tactical maps provided, as adequate maps are all too often lacking in military histories. Highly recommended if you've got the time and/or the patience.

    The images used in depicting the engagement were self-created, after information from the Wilson, Jones, and Parker books, especially the Wilson one, which had a great map.
  3. kulade

    kulade Chieftain

    Dec 12, 2003
    Props on using the word "defenestration," and in the first line at that.

  4. Agent327

    Agent327 Observer

    Oct 28, 2006
    In orbit

    I disagree. Nice one, Dachs! :goodjob:
  5. Verbose

    Verbose Chieftain

    May 17, 2004
    Sweden / France
    Very interesting! Very good too! Very much a German perspective? Not that it substantially differs from the Swedish view, being rather a matter of inflection.:)

    Kind of wondered at the early description of the Swedish intervention as "brief"? This war had its ups and downs for the Swedes, but they were in it all the way to 1648. Certainly to Chancellor Oxenstierna, reforming Swedish administration at break-neck speed in order to raise the cash to keep the interminable wars going, there were no telltale signs of "briefness".

    In fact, in retrospect what Oxenstierna did on a political and administrative level in Sweden was a lot more lasting, and in some ways more impressive, than what Gustavus did with the army in Germany. It's an interesting domestic corollary to the Swedish action in Germany.:)
  6. Dachs

    Dachs Intelligence Officer

    Feb 23, 2005
    Thanks, guys. :)
    I meant to describe the Gustavian part as "brief", not the Swedish involvement as a whole. :blush: That's why Oxenstierna and the internal Swedish stuff hasn't really entered into the article - we haven't got to 1634 yet. But there's also the fact that I'm total rot on Swedish domestic history with the possible sole exception of the indelning.
  7. Dragonlord

    Dragonlord Fantasy Warlord

    Oct 11, 2002
    Stuttgart, Germany
    Good article, Dachs! Looking forward to the second part!

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