Military History

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Book Review of Wallenstein: The Enigma of the Thirty Years War

Posted by William Young on August 10, 2012

Geoff Mortimer. Wallenstein: The Enigma of the Thirty Years War. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. ISBN 978-0-230-27213-2. Maps. Plans. Plates. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xi, 277. $100.00.

Albrecht von Wallenstein (1583-1634), a minor Bohemian nobleman, was a military entrepreneur that rose to become one of the most powerful men in central Europe, one of the greatest landowners, and a prince.  He twice raised, financed, and led massive armies to save Emperor Ferdinand II from defeat in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648).  Dr Geoff Mortimer expertly explores the life and military leadership of Wallenstein in this study.  He notes that previous studies in the English language by John Mitchell, The Life of Wallenstein, Duke of Friedland (1837), Francis Watson, Wallenstein: Soldier under the Sun (1938), and Golo Mann, Wallenstein: His Life Narrated (1971, translated into English in 1976) continued to propagate many myths about the man who was assassinated by imperial soldiers after he became too powerful in the Holy Roman Empire during the Thirty Years War.  Mortimer’s previous works include Eyewitness Accounts of the Thirty Years War 1618-48 (2002) and (as editor) Early Modern Military History, 1450-1815 (2004).

At the outbreak of the Bohemian revolt, that began the Thirty Years War, Wallenstein took the side of the Austrian Habsburgs and the Catholics against the Bohemian Protestant rebels, led by Elector Frederick V of the Rhine Palatinate.  He raised a regiment of troops and fought in the wars against Count Ernst von Mansfeld and Bethlan Gabor, Prince of Transylvania, in Moravia.  After the Imperial victory at the Battle of White Mountain (1620), Wallenstein regained his lands that had been lost to the Protestant rebels in Bohemia, and then secured additional lands that had  belonged to his mother’s family as well as confiscated lands that had belonged to Protestant rebels.  He gradually grouped his estates into what was called Friedland in northern Bohemia.  After additional military successes Wallenstein became a prince and then Duke of Friedland in 1625.

Wallenstein supported Emperor Ferdinand II (1619-1637) by raising an army to support the Austrian Habsburgs.  His continual military success led to his ability to purchase additional lands in Bohemia.  He used his vast wealth to provide loans to Ferdinand II who repaid those loans with more lands and titles.  In 1626, Wallenstein defeated Mansfeld at the Battle of Dessau Bridge.  He then joined the Count of Tilly in the war against Christian IV of Denmark, and later gained as a reward the Duchy of Mecklenburg.  He attempted to build an imperial naval fleet to challenge the Northern Powers.  But he failed to capture Stralsund (1628) which denied him access to the Baltic Sea.  Even so, Wallenstein defeated Christian IV at the Battle of Wolgast in the Duchy of Pomerania, forcing the Danish king to agree to the Peace of Lübeck (1629).

In 1630, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden joined the Thirty Years War by invading northern Germany.  Meanwhile, Ferdinand II, suspecting the power and ambition of his general, dismissed Wallenstein.  Tilly took over Wallenstein’s army.  But, Gustavus Adolphus, financed by France, defeated Tilly at the First Battle of Breitenfeld (1631), and then marched across central Germany.  The Swedes defeated Tilly at the Battle of Rain (1632) and then occupied Bavaria and Bohemia.  Now Ferdinand II needed the ability of Wallenstein to raise an army and defend what was left of the Holy Roman Empire.  Wallenstein raised a new army within a few weeks and took to the field.  He forced the Saxon army, which was allied to Sweden, from Bohemia and then moved against the Swedes and besieged Nuremberg in Bavaria.  Once supplies in the city dwindled, the Swedish king moved out and attacked the fortified Imperial camp in the Battle of Alte Veste (1632).  Wallenstein defeated the Swedes and forced Gustavus Adolphus to retreat to Saxony.  The Swedes, despite the death of Gustavus Adolphus, then defeated Wallenstein’s army in the Battle of Lützen (1632).

In 1632 Wallenstein had slowed down the tide of Swedish victories and kept them from invading and occupying the Habsburg hereditary lands.  But his own losses were substantial.  He had to rebuild his army while avoiding a major battle in 1633.  Wallenstein knew that the Habsburgs needed peace, and therefore he negotiated with the enemy to buy time to rebuild his army and possibly to achieve a peace settlement.  Even so, his enemies in Vienna accused him of avoiding battle and preparing to desert Ferdinand II.  Mortimer discusses Wallenstein’s failed peace negotiations.  He did resume the offensive, and defeated the Swedes and Saxons at the Battle of Steinau (1633) in the recovery of Silesia.  He then moved his army into winter quarters near Pilsen in Bohemia.  In the meantime, Ferdinand II, listening to Wallenstein’s political enemies, sought to rid himself of Wallenstein.  Wallenstein was tried and found guilty in abstentia for his so-called treachery in a secret court.  Thus, the Emperor had him assassinated at Eger in 1634.

Mortimer provides an excellent modern study of Wallenstein.  The author does a good job at trying to get to the bottom of many issues, including Wallenstein’s personality, ambition, organizational talents, and interest in astrology.   He writes that “the problem in distinguishing between fact, exaggeration, and invention is that the tall stories [about Wallenstein's life] started to appear early in Wallenstein’s public career, no doubt because of the interest which his sudden rise to prominence created.  They were then deliberately publicised, magnified and exploited by his enemies in the later years of his life, so that they were well-established common knowledge by the time of his death” (p.241).  As such, numerous myths grew and continued to influence our view of Wallenstein.   This work is highly recommended for students interested in the Thirty Years War and Early Modern Military History.

Dr William Young
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota

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