All Europe had grown afraid of the tremendous and increasing power of the Hapsburg Emperor.
Continuing The Thirty Years War,
our selection from The Story of Germany by Charles F. Horne published in 1914. The selection is presented in 3.5 installments, each one 5 minutes long. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in The Thirty Years War.
Ferdinand passed laws and gave decrees, without any pretense of calling a council or seeking the approval of the princes. His general, Wallenstein, was given one of the conquered states as his dukedom; and Wallenstein declared openly that his master had no further need of councils; the time had come for Germany to be governed as were France and Spain.
The Catholic princes, with Maximilian of Bavaria at their head, became frightened by the giant they themselves had created, and began to take measures for their own preservation. They demanded that Wallenstein be removed from his command. The Emperor, perhaps himself afraid of his too powerful general, finally consented.
There still remained, however, the serious question whether Wallenstein would accept his dismissal. His huge and ever-growing army was absolutely under his control. His influence over the troops was extraordinary. A firm believer in astrology, he asserted that the stars promised him certain success, and his followers believed him. Tall and thin, dark and solemn, silent and grim, wearing a scarlet cloak and a long, blood-red feather in his hat, he was declared by popular superstition to be in league with the devil, invulnerable and unconquerable. No evil act of his soldiery did he ever rebuke. Only two things he demanded of them–absolute obedience and unshaken daring. The man who flinched or disobeyed was executed on the instant. Otherwise the marauders might desecrate God’s earth with whatsoever hideous crimes they would. His troops laughed at the idea of being Catholics or Protestants, Germans or Bohemians; they were “Wallensteiners” and nothing else.
Even Ferdinand would scarcely have dared oppose his overgrown servant had not Wallenstein failed in an attempt to capture Stralsund. This little Baltic seaport held out against the assaults of his entire army. Wallenstein vowed that he would capture it “though it were fastened by chains to heaven.” But each mad attack of his wild troopers was beaten back from the walls by the desperate townsfolk; and at last, with twelve thousand of his men dead, he retreated from before the stubborn port. A superstitious load was lifted from the minds even of those who pretended to be his friends. Wallenstein was not unconquerable.
He accepted the Emperor’s notice of removal with haughty disdain. He said he had already seen it in the stars that evil men had sowed dissension between him and his sovereign, but the end was not yet. He retired to his vast estates in Bohemia, and lived at Prague with a magnificence exceeding that of any court in Germany. His table was always set for a hundred guests. He had sixty pages of the noblest families to wait on him. For chamberlains and other household officials, he had men who came from similar places under the Emperor.
Meanwhile a new defender had sprung up for exhausted Protestantism. Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden, invaded Germany in 1630 and called on the Protestants to help him in the fight to save their faith. All Europe had grown afraid of the tremendous and increasing power of the Hapsburg Emperor. Not only was Protestant England in league with the Swedes, but Catholic France, under its shrewd minister, Richelieu, also upheld them. Still the burden of actual fighting fell upon Gustavus Adolphus, who proved himself the greatest military leader of the age, and, in the eyes of Protestant Europe, the noblest and sublimest man since Luther.
It is not our province to analyze the motives of the Swedish King, the “Lion of the North,” as he is called. How much he was actuated by ambition, how much by religion, perhaps he himself might have found it hard to say. His coming marks the turning-point of the contest; his brilliant achievements constitute the fourth period of the war.
Tilly opposed him with the army of the Catholic League–Tilly, the victor of thirty desperate battles. The Emperor and his court laughed, and, thinking of the Bohemian King and the Dane, said: “Another of these snow kings has come against us. He, too, will melt in our southern sun.”
The Protestant princes hesitated, fearing to join Gustavus; he was hampered on every side. Tilly in his very face stormed the great Protestant city of Magdeburg, and sacked it with such merciless brutalities as raised a cry of horrified disgust, even in that age of atrocities. “Never was such a victory,” wrote Tilly to the Emperor, “since the storming of Troy or of Jerusalem. I am sorry you and the ladies of the court were not there to enjoy the spectacle.” A heap of blackened ruins, hiding a few hundred famished and broken outcasts, was all that remained of a splendid and prosperous city of forty thousand souls.
Tilly’s object in this bloody deed seems to have been to terrify the rest of Protestant Germany into submission. If so, he failed of his purpose. Gustavus promptly abandoned gentle measures, and by a threat of force compelled the Saxon elector to join him. He then met Tilly in a fierce battle near Leipsic and utterly defeated him. Tilly fled, and his army was almost annihilated, the fugitives who escaped the Swedes falling victims to the vengeance of the enraged Protestant peasantry. Few men who had taken part in the sack of Magdeburg lived long to boast of their achievement.
Gustavus swept victoriously through all the Rhineland. One Catholic prince or bishop after another was defeated. The advance soon became little more than a triumphal procession, city after city opening its gates to welcome him. The Saxon army conquered Bohemia; Gustavus reached Bavaria.
There on the southern bank of the River Lech the Bavarian army under Tilly and Prince Maximilian was drawn to oppose the passage of the Protestant troops. It seemed impossible to cross the broad and deep stream in the face of such a force and such a general. Gustavus kept up a tremendous cannonade for three days. He burned great fires along the shore, that the smoke might conceal his movements. Tilly was struck down by a cannon-ball, the whole Bavarian army fell into confusion, and the Swedes rushed across the river almost unopposed. Maximilian fled with his army; and Bavaria, which as yet had escaped the horrors of the war, was in its turn plundered by an enemy.
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