Wallenstein: His Life
Wallenstein is one of the great mystery men of history. Born in 1583, a Czech subject of the Austrian Habsburgs, he rose to become the richest and most powerful man in Germany, commander-in-chief of the imperial army in the Thirty Years War, until 1634 when he was assassinated at the command of the Emperor Ferdinand II. But we cannot begin to understand Wallenstein without some understanding of the world in which he operated.
Germany and Italy, which had dominated medieval Europe, slipped behind in the sixteenth century. In Spain, France, England, and the Netherlands national states were consolidated which were also national markets. In Germany and Italy the strength of the towns was an obstacle to the national unification which elsewhere so conspicuously benefited the commercial classes. The Holy Roman Empire was a medley of small principalities, not a unified nation, hardly a state. In England and the Netherlands Protestantism provided a unifying force; in Spain and France its defeat was also part of the process of national unification. But Germany, home of the Reformation, was left more bitterly divided. Protestants came to predominate numerically (over 80 percent of the population, Golo Mann estimates). But the most powerful single political unit in the empire, the Habsburg dominions, remained determinedly Catholic, in close alliance with the other great Habsburg power, Spain. After a generation of sporadic warfare the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 accepted the fact of division, the need for co-existence. The principle of “cuius regio, eius religio” left each principality to determine its own creed. It was a victory for princes over the empire rather than of Protestants over Catholics.
For sixty years an uneasy truce prevailed. It was shaken from time to time as the “conversion” of a ruler, or the quirks of hereditary succession, turned a small principality from Catholic to Protestant (or vice versa) overnight. It was shaken by the spread of Calvinism, the fighting creed of those excluded from the Peace of Augsburg; and of the Counter-Reformation, of the Jesuits, of those who wished to recover property and power for the Catholic church. It was shaken by the successful revolt of the Netherlands, under Calvinist leadership, against Catholic and Habsburg Spain. The truce extended even into the lands of the Habsburgs, from whom the emperor was now regularly chosen. In Bohemia, old Hussite territory, Protestant worship was long tolerated.
But the two sides were polarizing. German Calvinists looked to the Netherlands; some German Catholics looked to Spain. The French monarchy, just emerging from thirty years of religious civil war, was prepared to support Protestantism in Germany while suppressing it in France, in order to weaken the empire. Lutheran Denmark and Sweden would have liked to extend their influence over Protestant northern Germany.
The crisis came with the consolidation of Habsburg power in the hands of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, a dedicated Counter-Reformation Catholic working in close contact with…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.