Saturday, September 17, 2005

. . . And Lutheran Chump

Miss Wedgwood also has a brilliant portrait of John George, a man who was the Elector of Saxony, the standard bearer of Lutheranism in the "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation," and quite a contrast to Gustavus Adolphus.

John George's role in the Thirty Years War was to be always expostulating vainly for moderation and "German liberties." He was wary of the expansion of the prerogatives of the Catholic emperor, but even less sympathetic with Calvinists upsetting the existing detente between Catholics and Protestants in the empire, and most fearful of all of foreign intervention, whether by Spain for the Catholics, or by Sweden (and behind her, the paymaster France) for the Protestants. In the war's first campaigns in Bohemia, he hoped to limit the possibility of a wider war by assisting the Catholic Emperor Ferdinand in crushing the Calvinist led revolt in Bohemia and Moravia, after receiving guarantees that Lutheran churches would be protected, and only Calvinist and Hussite churches would be fed into the Counter-Reformation hamburger-grinder. Of course, Ferdinand broke his promise and Lutheran pastors too soon joined their despised Calvinist and Hussite colleagues in jail or exile. In 1631 he was dragooned into fighting in Gustavus Adolphus's crusade against the Emperor, but after the king's death in 1635 he soon dropped out of the coalition and went back to the Emperor's side, vainly issuing pleas for everyone to be reasonable. John George felt for Germany and her immense sufferings in war, but somehow his compromises never brought peace.

But enough of my commentary, I give you Miss Wedgwood (The Thirty Years War, p. 62-64):

John George, Elector of Saxony, was a little over thirty; a blond, broad, square-faced man with a florid complexion. His outlook on life was conservative and patriotic; he wore his beard in the native fashion, clipped off his hair and understood not a word of French. His clothes were rich, simple and sensible as befitted a prince who was also a good Christian and a father of a family, his table generously supplied with local frit, game and beer. Three times a week he attended a sermon with all his court and partook of the sacrament in the Lutheran fashion. According to his lights John George bore out his principles, leading an unimpeachable private life in an oppressively domestic atmosphere. Although hunting was a mania with him he was not without culture, took an intelligent interest in jewellry and goldsmiths' work, and above all in music. Under his patronage, Heinrich Schuets performed his miracle of welding German and Italian influences into music that foreshadowed a later age.

In spite of these claims to culture, John George had preserved the good old German custom of carousing in a manner that shocked men under French or Spanish influence, Frederick of the Palatinate [the Calvinist prince elected by the rebels as king of Bohemia in 1619] and Ferdinand of Styria [the Catholic emperor of the Habsburg dynasty]. John George, who scorned foreign delicacies, had been known to sit at table gorging homely foods and swilling native beer for seven hours on end, his sole approach at conversation to box his dwarf's ears, or pour the dreges of a tankard over a servant's head as a signal for more. He was not a confirmed drunkard; his brain when he was sober was perfectly clear, and he drank through habit and good fellowship rather than weakness. But he drank too much and too often. Later on it became the fashion to say that whenever he made an inept political decision that he had been far gone at the time, and the dispatches of one ambassador at least are punctuated with such remarks as, 'He began to be somewhat heated with wine', and 'He seemed to me to be very drunk'. It made diplomacy difficult.

But it did not alter the situation, for John George, drunk or sober was equally enigmatical. Nobody knew which side he would support. There was no harm perhaps in keeping the two parties guessing if John George himself knew which side he favoured; unhappily he was as much in the dark as his suitors. He wanted above all, peace, commercial prosperity, and the integrity of Germany; unlike Frederick or Ferdinand he had no mission and did not wish to risk present comfort for doubtful future good. Seeing that the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation was in danger of collapsing, he knew no remedy save that of shoring it up again. Between the two parties that were wrenching the structure apart, between German liberties and Habsburg absolutism, he stood for the solidarity of ancient things. First and last he was a constitutionalist.

Of the three leaders he was probably the most intelligent, but he had neither Ferdinand's self-confidence, nor Frederick's confidence in others; he was one of those who, seeing both sides to every question, have not the courage to choose. When he did act his motives were wise, honest and constructive, but he always acted too late.

Two people exercised great though not decisive influence on him, his wife and his Court preacher. The Electress Magdalena Sybilla was a woman of character, virtuous, kind, conventional and managing. Her insight was limited; she believed that Lutheranism was right, that the lower orders should know their place and that a public fast was a seemly way of meeting a political crisis. She controlled the Electoral children and the Electoral household admirably and was partly responsible for the close sympathy engendered between her husband and his people, being one of the first princesses to recognize the importance of a middle-class standard of respectability in building up the prestige of a royal family.

The Court chaplain, Doctor Hoee, was an excitable Viennese of a noble house, whose education among Catholics had given him some understanding of their outlook; the Calvinists, he said, had forty times more errors in their creed. On the other hand he was a sincere Protestant and like his master a constitutionalist. As venomous a writer as he was an eloquent speaker, he had an unslaked passion for print, first displayed in his sixteenth year, and was known as a controversialist all over Germany. The Calvinists, making a play on the pronunciation of his name, called him the high-priest -- Hohepriester. Intellectually vain and socially exclusive, the learned Doctor was an easy target for ridicule. 'I cannot thank God enough,' he had been heard to say, 'for the great and noble gifts that His holy omnipotence has bestowed on me.'

Posterity has not been kind to John George and his advisers. As the defenders of a nebulous constitution and a divided people they had a thankless task, and as events showed they performed it badly, but the Elector must at least have credit for some qualities unusual enough in the years to come. He was always honest, he always said what he meant, he worked sincerely for peace and for the commonweal of Germany, and if now and again he put Saxony first and grasped more than he should for himself, the fault was of his time and at least he never asked the foreigner to help him. History knows him as the man who betrayed the Protestants in 1620, the Emperor in 1631, and the Swedes in 1635. In fact he was almost the only man who preserved consistent policy among the veering schemes of enemies and allies. Had he been different he might have found a via media for his country that would have saved her from disaster. It was one of the major tragedies of German history that John George was not a great man.

Gustavus Adolphus or John George of Saxony: which is the truer exemplar of confessional Lutheranism in political life?

Also posted at Here We Stand.