Today’s installment concludes The Thirty Years War,
the name of our combined selection from Samuel R. Gardiner and Charles F. Horne. The concluding installment, by Charles F. Horne from The Story of Germany, was published in 1914.
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Previously in The Thirty Years War.
Time: 1618 – 1648
The stars in their courses seemed indeed to fight for Wallenstein. From the moment that he was deprived of his command, the triumphant cause of the Emperor had fallen, fallen until now it lay in utter ruin. The Saxons held Bohemia; all Western Germany was in Gustavus’ hands; nothing interposed between the conquerors and defenceless Austria–nothing but Wallenstein.
Messenger after messenger sped from the Emperor to his offended general, entreating him to reaccept his command. Wallenstein dallied, and postponed his consent, until he had wrung from his despairing sovereign such terms as never general secured before or since. Practically Wallenstein became as exalted in authority as the Emperor himself, and wholly independent of his former master. He was to carry on the war or to make peace entirely as he saw fit, without interference of any sort. Certain provinces of Austria were given him to hold as a guarantee of the Emperor’s good faith.
The mere raising of the great general’s standard drew around him another army of “Wallensteiners,” with whom he marched against Gustavus. Two of the ablest military leaders in history were thus pitted against each other. There were clever marches and countermarches, partial, indecisive attacks, and at last a great culminating battle at Luetzen, in Saxony, November 6, 1632.
Gustavus won; but he perished on the field. He was always exposing himself in battle, and at Luetzen he galloped across in front of his army from one wing to another. A shot struck him–a traitor shot, say some, from his own German allies. He fell from his horse, and a band of the opposing cavalry encircled and slew him, not knowing who he was. His Swedes, who adored him, pressed furiously forward to save or avenge their leader. The Wallensteiners, after a desperate struggle, broke and fled before the resistless attack.
Wallenstein himself, his hat and cloak riddled with bullets, rushed in vain among his men, taunting them furiously with their cowardice. It was only the night and the death of Gustavus that prevented the Swedes from reaping the full fruits of their victory. The imperial troops retreated unpursued. Wallenstein held a savage court-martial, and executed all of his men whom he could prove had been among the first in flight.
From this time the war enters on its fifth stage. Wallenstein did little more fighting. He withdrew his troops into Bohemia, and it is hard to say what purposes simmered in his dark and inscrutable brain. He certainly was no longer loyal to the Emperor; probably the Emperor plotted against him. Wallenstein seems to have contemplated making himself king of an independent Bohemian kingdom. At any rate, he broke openly with his sovereign, and at a great banquet persuaded his leading officers to sign an oath that they would stand by him in whatever he did. Some of the more timid among them warned the Emperor, and with his approval formed a trap for Wallenstein. The general’s chief lieutenants were suddenly set upon and slain; then the murderers rushed to Wallenstein’s own apartments. Hearing them coming, he stood up dauntlessly, threw wide his arms to their blows, and died as silent and mysterious as he had lived. His slayers were richly rewarded by Ferdinand.
All Germany was weary of the war. The contending parties had fought each other to a standstill; and, had Germany alone been concerned, peace would certainly have followed. But the Swedes, abandoning Gustavus’ higher policy, continued the war for what increase of territory they could get; and France helped herself to what German cities she could in Alsace and Lorraine. So the war went on, the German princes taking sides now with this one, now the other, and nobody apparently ever thinking of the poor peasantry.
The spirit of the brutal soldiery grew ever more atrocious. Their captives were tortured to death for punishment or for ransom, or, it is to be feared, for the mere amusement of the bestial captors. The open country became everywhere a wilderness. The soldiers themselves began starving in the dismal desert.
The Emperor, Ferdinand II, the cause of all this destruction, died in 1637, and was succeeded by his son, Ferdinand III (1637-1657). The war still continued, though in a feeble, listless way, with no decisive victories on either side, until the peace of Westphalia, in 1648. This peace placed Protestants and Catholics on an equal footing of toleration throughout the empire. It gave Sweden what territory she wanted in the north, and France what she asked toward the Rhine. Switzerland and Holland were acknowledged as independent lands. The importance of the smaller princes was increased, they, too, becoming practically independent, and the power of the emperors was all but destroyed. From this time the importance of the Hapsburgs rested solely on their personal possessions in Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia. The title of emperor remained little better than a name.
Indeed, Germany itself had become scarcely more than a name. During those terrible thirty years the population of the land is said to have dwindled from fifteen millions to less than five millions. In the Palatinate less than fifty thousand people remained, where there had been five hundred thousand. Whole districts everywhere lay utterly waste, wild, and uninhabited. Men killed themselves to escape starvation, or slew their brothers for a fragment of bread. A full description of the horrors of that awful time will never be written; much has been mercifully obliterated. The material progress of Germany, its students say, was retarded by two centuries’ growth. To this day the land has not fully recovered from the exhaustion of that awful war.
This ends our selections on The Thirty Years War by two of the most important authorities of this topic:
- The Thirty Years War by Samuel R. Gardiner published in 1874.
- The Story of Germany by Charles F. Horne published in 1914.
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