Saturday, September 17, 2005

Lutheran Champ . . .

374 years ago today, in 1631, the Swedish armies under their king Gustavus Adolphus met the armies of the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor, the Austrian Habsburg, Ferdinand II, and defeated at Breitenfeld. That victory came at the nadir of Protestant fortunes during the Thirty Years War and marked the defeat of Ferdinand's Counter-Reformation project. Begun with a national and constitutional revolt in Bohemia and Moravia (today's Czech Republic) against Austrian absolutism, the war had already seen the crushing of that rule and the exile of 150,000 Protestants. Then followed the "Edict of Restitution" which aimed to return to Catholicism all the populations and lands gained by Protestantism between 1555 and 1628. In Augsburg, for example, to which Ferdinand paid special attention as the "holy city" of the Lutherans,

after certain discussion with the municipality, the exercise of the Protestant religion was altogether forbidden and its ministers were exiled from the city. Augsburg collapsed without a sword drawn or a shot fired. Eight thousand citizens went into exile, among them an old man, Elias Holl, who had been master-mason for thirty years and had but recently completed the town hall which was the burghers' greatest pride. . .

In this atmosphere of despair and weariness, the expedition of the Swedish King was accompanied by delirious accolades from the Protestant world. The German Protestant rulers themselves, after thirteen years of brutal war were, however, more wary. Their leader, John George of Saxony, was only a reluctant ally, and his troops played an ignominious role in the great battle. In the years to come, after the King's death in battle at Luetzen, the Swedish army would become just another foreign mercenary gang ravaging Germany. The final settlement, after sixteen more years of agonizing war, revoked the Edict of Restitution but left the status quo in Bohemia and Moravia. Germany had lost perhaps a third of her population; Augsburg's Protestants could go home, Bohemia's couldn't.

The quotation above comes from pp. 237-238 C.V. Wedgwood's classic history, The Thirty Year's War. Readable and well-balanced, her account stands out for her brilliant portraits of the leaders of the war, and her famous judgment:

After the expenditure of so much human life to so little purpose, men might have grasped the essential futility of putting the beliefs of the mind to the judgement of the sword. Instead, they rejected religion as an object to fight for and found others (p. 506).

Here is here description of Gustavus Adolphus (pp. 260-263):

At the time of his landing, Gustavus Adolphus was thirty-six years old. Tall, but broad in proportion so that his height seemed less, fair, florid, his pointed beard and short hair were of a tawny coloring, so that Italian soldiers of fortune called him 'il re d'oro', and his more usual sobriquet, 'the Lion of the North', gained additional meaning. Coarsely made and immensely strong, he was slow and rather clumsy in movement but he could swing a spade or pick-axe with any sapper in his army. In contrast his skin, where it was not tanned by the weather, was as white as a girl's. He held himself erect, a King in every gesture, no matter to what task he lent himself. As the years went by, he stooped a little forward from the neck, contracting his short-sighted light blue eyes. The King's appetites were hearty and his dress simple: he wore for preference the buff coat and beaver hat of a soldier, relieved only by a scarlet sash or cloak. He could look as well in the ballroom as in the camp, but he did not on that account evade the toils of campaigning: he would sweat and starve, freeze and thirst with his men, and had stayed fifteen hours at a stretch in the saddle. Blood and filth mattered nothing to him --the kingly boots had waded ankle-deep in both.

Yet no greater mistake could be made to imagine that Gustavus was simple because he was soldierly. Ambassadors, who were shocked by his too easy manners and the tactless directness with which he expressed his opinions, overcame their initial repugnance when they discovered the concentrated thought and practical knowledge behind his rapid judgments. Courtiers who took advantage of his friendliness raised a storm that they could rarely allay; servants who lingered to ask unnecessary questions were sharply send about their business, and ambassadors whose credentials were not correctly inscribed with his titles could find no admission until the mistake was set right.

Educated from his earliest childhood to the task of kingship, he played in his father's study during the transactions of state affairs almost before he could stand upright. At six years old he had accompanied the army on campaign, at ten sat at the council table and given voice to his opinions, and in his teens received ambassadors unaided. He had a smattering of ten languages, an interest in learning, perhaps a little perfunctory, and a passion for practical philosophy; he carried a volume of Grotius with him everywhere.

Not excepting either Richelieu [the French cardinal who led his country's policy and subsidized the Swedish war], or that prince so much advertised among his contemporaries, Maximilian of Bavaria, Gustavus was the most successful administrator in Europe. In the nineteen years of his active reign, for he had been king in word and deed since his seventeenth year, he had stabilized the finances of Sweden, centralized the administration of justice, organized relief, hospitals, postal service, education, evolved an elaborate and successful conscription scheme for his army and tackled the problem of an idle and ambitious nobility by forming the Riddarhus, an assembly of nobles who were responsible to the Crown for the government of Sweden. He was in no sense a democratic king; his theory of politics was aristocratic, but while his guiding hand controlled the aristocracy, one and a half million people in Sweden and Finland enjoyed the smoothest rule in Europe. Moreover he had encouraged commerce and developed the natural resources of his country, her mineral wealth especially. Sweden had the materials to manufacture her own armaments and she had used them; there had hardly been a full year of peace since the accession of the King. In these circumstances, it was hardly remarkable that the Swedish Estates in 1629 had unanimously voted the subsidies for a three years' war in Germany.

Gustavus had applied to war that same ardent and adventurous intelligence which he applied to the affairs of peace. An admirer of Maurice of Orange [who had defeated Spain and secured the independence of the Netherlands], he had developed the tactics of that prince so as to get the utmost mobility and efficiency from his troops. He had brought over Dutch professionals to instruct his men in the use of artillery and in siege warfare, and had himself experimented in the manufacture of a light and mobile form of cannon. His so-called 'leathern' guns were, however, only partly successful and he relied in general on quick-firing four-pounders, light enough for one horse or three men to move.

Like all great leaders, Gustavus believed in himself as well as in his cause. Repeatedly in the moment of crisis he declared his unshaken conviction that God was with him. By education he was a Lutheran, but his toleration of the Calvnists more than once aroused doubts among his subjects and allies. He was nevertheless convinced of the peculiar rightness of his own broad Protestantism, and could not easily conceive how any many could be persuaded by force to change his religion. Yet he was tolerant at least in this respect, that as he scorned those who were converted by compulsion, he scorned himself to use it. He was willing to allow the defeated, of whatever faith, to continue in their errors.

Gustavus was a brilliant administrator, a skilful soldier, fearless, resolute, impetuous; but these characteristics alone do not explain his power over his contemporaries. The cause lay rather in his own mind, in that terrific confidence in himself which hypnotized not only his followers, but those who had never seen him. An Italian in Gustavus's arm, a soldier of fortune with neither nation nor faith to make him love the Swedish King, was paid to shoot him. More than once he levelled his pistol for the act, yet though the opportunity were never so favourable, he could not fire; for as he looked his heart would turn to lead and his hand refused to act. Did fate indeed endow the King with supernatural armor, or did his own gigantic confidence, imparting itself to others, give him his virtue? 'He thinks the ship cannot sink that carries him'; that was the King's secret, that his revelation, the inspired egoism of the prophet.

After describing Gustavus's preparations and landing in Germany, Miss Wedgwood assesses his relations with the French Cardinal Richelieu, who subsidized the Swedes to defeat the Habsburg dynasty ruling Spain and Austria and so relieve the threat to France (p. 239):

In his struggle against the Habsburg, Richelieu intended to make good use of the surplus energies of such inspired champions as the King of Sweden. The people of north Germany were already flocking to his banners, their ministers praying for him, their sons hastening to join his ranks. The Protestant Cause was alive again. But Richelieu and his secretaries in the stuffy anterooms of the Louvre imagined they knew better. The exploitation of courage and spiritual ardour has been the opportunity of the practical politician since the world began, and at Baerwalde [where the Franco-Swedish treaty was signed] the King was -- they thought --limed and taken.

They were mistaken. The King's faith was genuine, his desire to help oppressed Protestants was since, but he was neither simple soldier nor fanatic. 'He is a brave prince,' Sir Thomas Roe meditated, 'but wise to save himself, and maketh good private use of an opinion and reputation that he is fit to restore the public'. He stood, the English diplomat considered, even now upon the banks of the Rubicon, but 'he will not pass over unless his friend build the bridge'. Richelieu would hardly have described his policy as building a bridge for the King of Sweden; rather the King of Sweden was to build a bridge for him. But the Cardinal and his agents had overreached themselves and the King of Sweden had signed the treaty of Baerwalde with his eyes open. With the help of French money he would shortly make himself independent of French policy: exploitation is a game that two can play.

But of course, not all Lutheran rulers of the time were such champs. Indeed to outside observers in the Thirty Years War, such as the English or the Dutch, the Lutherans of Germany generally stood out only for their venomous verbal attacks on Calvinists as a "dragon pregnant with all the horrors of Mohammedanism," while all the time standing ready to join hands with the Emperor and betray the Protestant Cause. These accusations were pointed especially at John George, elector of Saxony. Miss Wedgwood's portrait of him is as sensitive, as understanding, and as beautifully readable as that of the King of Sweden; read on below . . .

Also posted at Here We Stand.