War Must Nourish Itself

Herbert Langer, The Thirty Years’ War, Trans.C. S. V. Salt, Blandford Press, 1980

The seventeenth century was ruled by an aristocratic caste that no longer exists, save in the minds of the credulous and easily-deceived.   It was an imaginary caste of devils, angels, and other powers now consigned to oblivion.  For peasant and prelate, soldier and prince, this caste was as real as flesh and blood, and infinitely more powerful than mortal sovereigns.  Bigger than big. 

Take the Devil, for example.  The Devil had not fallen to his current low estate, but was everywhere manifest; and he was a force in the world greater than popes and kings.  Plenty of people had seen him.  He was variously described as tawny or swarthy, of Indian or African features, his nostrils breathing fire like a dragon’s.  The things he did surpassed belief, but they were true: there were many records of them.  A seventeenth-century English chronicler esteemed for his records of the Devil’s appearances was impressed by the testimony of reputable witnesses to an amazing event: the destruction of a belfry by lightning, wherein the Devil entered the belfry at the moment the lightning flashed.  The Devil was always doing things like that; and only the vigilance of the churches’ inquisitors kept him, and his pestilential witches, at bay. 

These inquisitors were hard-working men.  Their prosecution of witches generally targeted elderly women of the working classes; but occasionally they went trolling among the elite, and netted more presentable sinners.  In Germany, it was only Johannes Kepler’s high position — he was mathematician and astronomer to the Holy Roman Emperor — that rescued his mother, Katherina, accused of being a witch, from burning at the stake.  That was too bad for the inquisitors, since witch hunting was usually a profitable undertaking.  The worldly goods of the condemned were divvied up by their accusers, judges and executioners, and this incentive made the pursuit of the wicked relentless.  In the eyes of pious Christians, that was all to the good.

Luckily, there were angelic warriors ready to do battle with devils, demons, and heretics.  They intervened in human affairs regularly.  In fact, the seventeenth century was attended by scores of miracles committed by a wonder-working Providence.  In the famous “defenestration of Prague” — the almost farcical prelude to the Thirty Years’ War — the Imperial dignitaries thrown from the windows of Prague Castle were saved by the intervention of the Virgin, “who wrapped them in her wondrous cloak” to ensure their survival.  They fell, it is said, on a dung heap, and lived.  That happened in 1618, an unpropitious year for peace. 

The Thirty Years’ War climaxed an era of profound cultural confusion, in which science and superstition were strangely intermingled.  It was a hard time for men like Kepler.  Chemistry was hopelessly intertwined with alchemy.  Astronomy and astrology clung to each other like Gemini’s twins, one rational, the other demented, the latter more respected than the former.  Kepler lamented that his researches in astronomy were underwritten by patrons who gloried in horoscopes and flattering predictions.  To do his work, he said, he was made to pay homage to Astrologia, the “crazy daughter” of astronomy, giving credence to his patrons’ belief in the mystic powers of the planets.  It disgusted him.

But Astrologia seemed to have a hand in the war’s beginning.  The year 1618 was a kind of annus mirabilis — a year of wonders whose phenomena fascinated astrologers and other charlatans.  Its comets, eclipses, and parhelia marked the beginning of a general bloodletting.  For the next three decades — until the Treaty of Westphalia brought peace in 1648 — Germany was convulsed by a grand mal of phenomenal violence.  Marauding armies marched and countermarched through its cities and villages.  Its harvests were destroyed by a freebooting soldiery hated by the peasants.  A quarter of its population was laid waste, and vast swaths of rich farmland were rendered “war deserts” by the mercenaries who fought and foraged on both sides.

Conventional historians have long thought the conflict a war of religious prejudice and dynastic ambition.  And so it was, for the most part.  Catholics strove against Protestants; Hapsburg dynasts struggled with rebellious vassals.  Devoutly Catholic Austria sought to subdue the Lutheran states that held Germany’s northern plain.  A militant, if divided, Christianity gave courage to kings and princes alike.  It also gave, in Frederick Engels’ phrase, “an aureole of sanctity” to their expansionist designs.  And that was nothing to be ashamed of.  The pious on both sides sought the same ends: to annihilate the impious, and strip them of everything they had.   

Zealousness went hand in hand with a desire for plunder and territorial gain.  As with Catholic, so with Protestant: commanders of rival creeds held like designs.  They wanted the same things: spiritual redemption, and a larger plot of land to enjoy that redemption in.  Their religious convictions were heartfelt, unfeigned.  The monkish Count Tilly fought with missionary fervor to cut down and conquer Germany’s Protestant heretics, and thereby restore their lands and chattels to the Hapsburg Empire.  Tilly’s rival, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, fought with comparable resolve to “smite and slay” his Catholic enemies, and thereby secure Sweden’s newly-won possessions on the Baltic.  Religion was united with conquest, and both flourished in war.  But religion, as usual, found itself in a supporting role.  The Spanish regiments in the Hapsburg service who sang “Viva la guerra por mar y tierra” knew the war was fought primarily for dominion — for possession of lands and seas, not to wipe out heresy and win salvation in the true faith. 

Religious prejudice and dynastic ambition spurred the outbreak of the war, determined the course of its development, and decided its outcome.  There was, however, a third factor of nearly equal importance, one neglected, ignored, or left unexplored by most historians: something that can only be called the war of the classes.  The peasantry — the embattled class that formed the vast majority of Germany’s population — experienced the war as a series of clashes with soldiers and mercenaries in the pay of the princes.  These gangs of banditti ranged throughout Germany and left behind them fields of stubble and villages reduced to famine.  They relied on forage to supply their quartermasters and field kitchens.  “War must nourish itself” was their demand; and War accordingly fed upon the fields, farms, and granaries that should have fed the peasants and their children.

Marxist historians have given close attention to the skirmishes and massacres that marked the progress of the Thirty Years’ War.  The explosive resentment that fueled the peasants’ hatred of the princes was the theme of Engels’ treatise on The Peasant War in Germany, a rising quelled with much bloodshed long before the Thirty Years War began.  Engels’ theme was amplified by Karl Kautsky and Franz Mehring, Marxist scholars who wrote pioneering studies of peasant rebellions in early modern Germany.  Later, in the German Democratic Republic, official scholarship emphasized the role of “class struggle” in peasant history, as befit a regime founded, at least nominally, on Marxist principles.  East German scholars brought their sights to bear on the manuscripts, court records, and memoranda of peasant life preserved in town halls and archives.  Despite the destruction of archival materials in the Second World War, they found much to work with.

The class tensions that flared in the Thirty Years War figure prominently in the work of Herbert Langer, a professor of history at the University of Greifswald in Mecklenburg.  Langer’s social and cultural history of the war, first published in East Germany in 1978, is a work of astonishing erudition, drawing on sources in ten languages to document the war’s progress in Germany.  His Thirty Years’ War ranges far and wide: from the dementia of witchcraft and demonology to the discoveries of science, engineering, and philosophy, from the lives of crofters and charcoal burners to those of princes, prelates, and generals of mercenaries.  In his depiction of day-to-day life, he sets forth a tableau as rich in incident as a painting by Brueghel.  But the ploughmen, artisans, and adventurers who figure so largely in his text are not, like the figures in Brueghel’s dark landscapes, anonymous; they have a voice, and their figures bulk larger than those of their lords and commanders.

“In the ruling circles,” Langer observes, “especially in the cabinets of central and southern Germany, it was feared — more than anything else — that a far reaching peasants’ rebellion could break out, as in the past.”  The princes had reason to be worried: the people were ready to rise up against them.  A new Peasant War was in the offing.

When the Thirty Years’ War began, the financial position of the peasantry was precarious.  The harsh life of the village poor was becoming much harsher.  A “price revolution” — triggered, in part, by an influx of silver from Spain’s New World colonies — was whipping up the price of grain, making bread a costly commodity.  The pace of inflation was quickened by “coin clipping,” the debasement of the coinage by money changers who silvered copper coins in tartar and exchanged them for precious silver.  An astonishing rise in prices occurred at the outset of the war; spurred by speculation, the price of corn quadrupled from 1621 to 1623.  The poor, despairing and infuriated, took their vengeance on the money changers by smashing their trading booths in markets and fairs. 

So “throw out the balance,” the rioters sang to these merchants;  “the gallows are your counting house.”  They set upon the “clippers and weighers,” money changers whose operations were sanctioned by the princes.  Zealous priests whose sympathies lay with the peasantry encouraged the rioters; they refused the sacraments and a Christian burial to the money changers, and preached that robbing and killing these “evil slayers” was no sin.  The riots soon gave way to a running warfare with the princes’ armed retainers, who were well equipped for battle.

Against the peasants’ scythes and staves, the princes mustered cannons, mortars, and rockets.  Ingenious and lethal weaponry, far in advance of the era’s primitive technology, was devised for the princes’ whims.  In Dresden, capital of the Electorate of Saxony, an “organ gun” whose 24 barrels could be fired simultaneously was the pride of the prince’s arsenal.  This gun, like the princes’ other artillery, was served by troops of expert cannoneers, highly paid journeymen enrolled in guilds of “artificers.”  They were the corps d’elite of the princes’ mercenaries, the best-trained and best-paid of the hired battalions.

The war was a magnet for mercenaries of many faiths and nationalities.  Under flags of “double thickness taffeta,” clad in long cloaks and “generously cut breeches,” were pikemen (“lansquenets”) and musketeers from Germany, Sweden, France, and England, and cavalrymen from Croatia, Hungary, and Transylvania.  Among the auxiliaries were hard-riding Greek lancers, and Lapp archers whose appearance astonished their allies.  The mercenaries’ camp followers were also a mixed lot: the baggage trains echoed with oaths in Rottwelsch, a peculiar jargon rich in words of Yiddish, Romany, and Romance origin. 

Religious sympathies were often of little importance.  Catholic soldiers served under Protestant commanders, and vice versa.  It was not unusual for men to change sides.  Some recruits were inspired by religious enthusiasm, but it seems unlikely that many veterans were inspired by faith.  A colonel would seldom inquire into his captain’s state of grace; as well might his captain ask a trollop whether she was Papist or Protestant.  Who cared, so long as poverty or avarice made her willing to spread her legs?  The veterans knew, or seemed to know, what Goethe later said — that “the ecclesiastical element was the varnish with which passions and ambitions were coated to deceive oneself and others.”

For many men, the war was merely a business proposition; and for them one’s loyalty lay with one’s purse.  Self-enrichment was their ideal.  George Gascoigne, the English poet who served the Dutch as a soldier of fortune, classed his comrades in three categories:  “Haughty Harte, Greedy Mind and Miser.”  Among the flags they fought under was a banner dedicated to Fortuna, the goddess of plenty, often shown bearing a cornucopia of gold.  Fortuna was the mercenaries’ fetish; and young volunteers hoped that Fortuna would bring them a winner’s luck — and advancement and promotion to a colonel’s command. 

A colonel’s patent or commission enabled its holder to raise a regiment of musketeers or pikemen, as a corporate president might raise a large sum of venture capital today.  Noblemen sold or mortgaged their estates to purchase a colonel’s command.  High rank was the entree to wealth.  Patents and commissions were traded like common stock; and a “mad atmosphere of speculation” arose, which Marx likened to the frenzy that accompanied the trading of railway shares in his own day.  As in war, Fortuna rewarded those who struck first.

The archetype of the mercenary soldier was Albrecht von Wallenstein, a brilliant commander of Imperial troops, less a Catholic than a cynical agnostic.  A minor Czech nobleman, he put the Hapsburgs in his debt by quelling a Protestant rebellion in Bohemia at the outset of the war.  He was by nature an entrepreneur — a “war businessman,” in Langer’s phrase — who always had his eye on the main chance.  His victory allowed him to seize the lands of the murdered and exiled Protestant leaders.  By 1623, only five years after the war began, he owned a quarter of the kingdom of Bohemia.  With the Emperor’s permission, he piled up a greater fortune by minting “substandard coinage on a gigantic scale.”  The profits from this coinage paid the cost of his campaigns against the heretics, whose plundered lands brought him, and his lieutenants, a handsome yield on their investment. 

Wallenstein was a rapacious profiteer, a speculator in stolen estates, and an astute man of business.  Stricken with gout and (so it seems) syphilis, he lived in a monumental palace in Prague.  He was “averse,” remarks Langer, to all manner of “music, dancing, banquets and celebrations”; and he ordered the palace servants to cover the nearby streets and squares with heaps of straw to “deaden the sound” of the city outside his walls and cordons.  When he was assassinated in 1634, he was a hated man, abandoned by the Emperor and his liegemen: “gloriosa in vita, infamato in morte.”  He was despised for his soldiers’ depredations; and his victims’ contempt was well expressed in a leaflet mocking him as “Allen ein Stein” — “a tombstone for them all.”  Kepler, in a remarkably prescient horoscope, had told Wallenstein as much at the outset of his career.  His glory would decay, grow rotten, and finally give way to infamy.  He would become, in Kepler’s words, a “monster” of the “underworld.”

The troops of Wallenstein and his enemies were alike in their fondness for torture and a seemingly casual brutality.  These they practiced on the peasants as a matter of course.  Violence was a convenient means of robbery and extortion, practiced even by the Lutheran Swedes who claimed to be the saviors of the peasantry from Catholic oppression.  To extort confessions from the peasants, the freebooters forced them to swallow the “Swedish drink,” an often fatal torture that filled the stomach and gullet with human feces.  Village women were raped, scourged, and mutilated; village boys were forcibly recruited as child soldiers; and many villagers were forced to accept virtual servitude as prostitutes and camp followers.  Rumors of slave raids — it was said that peasants had been sold to the Turks by their mercenary captors — spurred peasant resistance. 

The peasants’ armament was meager — halberds, hayforks, and pigstickers — but it often sufficed in their irregular warfare with the mercenaries.  They built “thorn defenses,” through which the “licensed robbers” could only pass one by one, to be slaughtered singly.  Contemporary engravings show the peasants’ revenge: here a horseman is surprised by men with bludgeons; there a cavalier, dismounted, tries to fend off a farmer’s axe.  Though the soldiers were often volunteers from peasant villages, the peasants were seldom inclined to show mercy. 

The fury of their vengeance does not diminish the peasants’ heroism.  The author Johann Jacob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, a veteran whose picaresque tale of The Runagate Courage became the model for Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, praised the valor of the peasants’ defense of their village homesteads.  With caustic wit, he advised the princes to launch “an unjust and unnecessary war if the pace of ruination was too slow for them.”  But Grimmelshausen also recognized that the pace of ruination had been slowed, and in some cases halted, by the fierce resistance of the peasants and their allies, the poor townsmen.  He paid tribute to the village “boers.”  He claimed that the much-despised peasantry merited praise as the “substrate” that “nourished” every form of German culture; just as he claimed that the peasants’ courage was that culture’s strongest bulwark.

If Grimmelshausen’s praise of the peasantry seems exaggerated — and the boers were certainly no less prone to prejudice and superstition than their enemies — one should consider the opinion of modern historians, who share his admiration for the rebels.  The Czech historian J.V. Polisensky, an expert on seventeenth century Europe, echoes Grimmelshausen’s encomium:

“Neither the generals, nor the diplomatic agents, nor even [the] early capitalists . . .  are the heroes of the war.  They are to be seen in the common people, tortured, robbed and murdered by soldiery of both sides.  As early as 1620, the foreign ‘observers’ [attached to the Bohemian forces] . . . wrote in the same vein of the great peasant risings in the rear of both armies.  In the end, they say, one cannot blame the poor ‘boers’: they have already suffered too much.  And this was only the beginning of the war. . . .”  

There was little heroism to be seen on the other side.  The lansquenets and musketeers, the armed servants of the princes, found their modern incarnation in the Schwarze Landsknechts and grenadiers of the SS; and Brecht, in his “Ballad of the Woman and the Soldier,” wrote an epitaph for both classes of men:

“You will fade away like smoke

And the warmth fades too

And your deeds do not warm us. . . .”

The glory of the princes and their mercenaries, like the fear inspired by the devils, demons, witches, and warlocks of the seventeenth-century pantheon, is irretrievably gone.  But the memory of what the peasants did is still with us; and their deeds still have the power, even at this distant remove, to inspire their descendants.  In the forests of Saxony, Pomerania, and the Palatinate, the hawthorn trees that formed the peasants’ “thorn defenses” are still growing.


From Herbert Langer’s history of the Thirty Years War:

“The exercise of organized military force to achieve political aims in class society had developed into a fine art in the course of the millennia, even among the popular masses fighting for social progress.  Even in the case of the Thirty Years’ War, whose tendency and result on the soil of the Empire consisted in socio-cultural destruction, Man was unable to bring about this destruction without lending it the mark of craftsmanship and creative effort.  Foundrymen lovingly ornamented bells and cannon alike with decorative figures; the soldier competed with the cavalier in matters of fashion; the most glorious feast for the eyes in this ‘visual age’ was a military parade;  nowhere but in the art of war was such direct practical encouragement given to mathematics and the natural sciences;  alchemists even concerned themselves with the use of poisons in the field.  Society had to pay a high price for this progress; but without this price, which was paid not only by wars but also by oceans of misery and suffering in times of peace, mankind in class-divided society could not have advanced.  War is the work of Man and can neither extirpate nor deny the legacy of Prometheus.”

Dean Ferguson is an editor of Transformation, a newly launched literary journal.  He lives and works in San Francisco.

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