Wallenstein; drawing by David Levine

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 the Spanish branch of the family. His election as king of Bohemia in 1617 provoked a revolt by a group of Protestant nobles who deposed Ferdinand and replaced him by Frederick Elector Palatine, husband of Elizabeth, daughter of James I of England. The calculation, in so far as there was one, was that the Netherlands and German Protestants would rally around the new king of Bohemia and that James I would stoutly support his son-in-law.

None of this happened. The leading German princes were Lutherans who regarded Frederick as a trouble-maker: they sat tight. James, as the contemporary joke went, sent 100,000 ambassadors, but no troops. The Netherlands were preoccupied by internal crisis, Sweden by war in Poland. Frederick was chased out of Bohemia, then out of his hereditary dominions. Ferdinand, now Holy Roman Emperor, reduced Bohemia by ruthless terrorism. Representative institutions were destroyed, Protestant worship proscribed. The property of rebel leaders was confiscated and distributed among Habsburg supporters. Outstanding among the beneficiaries was Albrecht von Wallenstein.

Wallenstein was thirty-five at the time of the Bohemian revolt. He was, as his brother-in-law put it, “high-born,…and related to all the great houses of Bohemia.” His Protestant parents died before he reached his teens. Early accounts of him are not attractive. At Nürnberg Academy in Altdorf, even though the rector “liked to rampage at night through the town as the ringleader of drunken students,” Wallenstein’s violence was regarded as excessive, and he left by agreement after six months. He became a professional soldier. In his early twenties he abandoned the religion of his ancestors and qualified for court office by going to mass. Nothing in his career suggests that any deep convictions were involved. He married a rich widow, considerably older than himself. She conveniently died four years later.

Wallenstein started raising troops at his own expense which he placed at the disposal of the financially embarrassed emperor: an investment in futures. When the Bohemian revolt came in 1618, Wallenstein borrowed hugely to raise 3,000 cavalry, and intervened on the winning side. War booty provided the wherewithal for further loans to the emperor, which Ferdinand could repay only in land confiscated from defeated rebels. Wallenstein reinvested his considerable profits in loans, and again took repayment in land. In 1622 he became commandant of Prague, effectively governor of Bohemia. He used this position to speculate in debased currency. “This,” as Golo Mann writes, “was the year of his breakthrough to enormous wealth.” He bought the vast territory of Friedland, and continued lending to the emperor. Within two or three years Wallenstein became “one of the richest men in Christendom.” A second marriage in 1623 “unlocked…the most private openings to the imperial court.” Wallenstein became a prince of the empire and Duke of Friedland, where he set up his own imposing court. Under his expert supervision Friedland achieved an economic miracle—producing food and armaments for Wallenstein’s vast army, all ultimately at the emperor’s expense.


In 1625, under new military necessity, Wallenstein was appointed general of the imperial army. His 50,000 mercenaries soon rose to 100,000. In two brilliant campaigns this Rockefeller turned general separated the invading king of Denmark from his German allies, drove him back home, and forced peace on him. Germany was subjugated. Wallenstein occupied and fortified the Pomeranian coast, and himself acquired the vast duchy of Mecklenburg. It was the high point of his career. He began to have visions of imposing peace on Germany and Europe, of building up a Baltic fleet, cutting a Kiel canal.

Ferdinand had different intentions. In March 1629 he issued the Edict of Restitution, demanding the restoration of all church lands secularized since 1552. It was a declaration of permanent war against all German Protestants, especially against the Lutheran princes whom Wallenstein had been sedulously wooing. The edict could have been enforced only by maintaining a large army indefinitely. Yet those in Germany most enthusiastic about restitution were least enthusiastic about the independent power Wallenstein’s army gave him. “Whoever favored peace, which all did, was not at liberty to desire the restitution. Whoever favored restitution was not at liberty to want demobilization.”

Wallenstein had never been consulted about the edict, and sabotaged its operation. “The edict cannot endure,” he said publicly. From this point Wallenstein’s motives and intentions become mysterious. We do not know what, if any, alternative policy he had. He and his army had long been the object of attack from Bavaria, head of the Catholic League. Maximilian of Bavaria had seized the property and the electoral dignity of the Elector Palatine. A compromise peace would call these in question. Yet Bavaria and its supporters mistrusted Wallenstein, with some reason. They insisted on his dismissal from the supreme command, and in August 1630 the emperor agreed. To the astonishment of everybody the all-powerful general went quietly.

Next year Gustavus Adolphus, the Lutheran king of Sweden, invaded Germany and reversed the whole military situation. Those who had clamored for Wallenstein’s dismissal now urged his recall. He was restored to his command on terms of his own dictating. Gustavus was forced to battle at Lützen (November 1632), and killed on the battlefield. Whether or not this was a Swedish defeat (as Golo Mann argues) or a drawn battle, it marked the end of Swedish domination of Germany; and with it the need for Wallenstein.

Wallenstein failed, or seemed to Vienna to fail, to follow up his advantage over the Swedes. He indulged in farflung independent negotiations—with the North German Protestants, with Denmark, with France. He ignored or disobeyed orders from Vienna. He clearly saw himself as an independent force, but what exactly he aimed to do with his power is a question about which historians still argue. Perhaps Wallenstein himself did not know.

Certainly he was no longer loyal to the interests of Vienna as the emperor saw them. He did not enforce the Edict of Restitution, and it seemed unlikely that he would accept dismissal this time. So the Holy Roman Emperor suborned Wallenstein’s subordinate generals and ordered them to seize their chief alive or dead. He was assassinated on February 25, 1634 by three mercenary colonels, an Irishman and two Scots. They discussed their plans in English so as not to be understood.

Golo Mann’s biography follows the leisurely pattern of a nineteenth-century life and times. It is thoroughly researched, though the 100 pages of notes of the German edition are not printed in this translation. Mann uses every scrap of evidence about Wallenstein’s private and public life, and places him against the background of European politics. Wallenstein’s ruthless arrogance, securely based on achievement, is worthy of Marlowe; his hesitations, uncertainties, the mystery of his intentions, the brutal tragedy of his end, are Shakespearean. He attracted dramatists, from Henry Glapthorne in 1639 to Schiller’s early nineteeth-century trilogy.


Golo Mann believes that Wallenstein is “the most traduced, the most highly misunderstood figure of authority in the realm of story.” Most of the evidence on which historians rely is based, he argues, on the slanders of his enemies and on his behavior in the last months when he was a sick man and barely responsible for his actions. Mann’s distrust of the available evidence leads him to resort to the novelist’s device of interior monologue. Wallenstein’s addiction to astrology has often been emphasized. He had his horoscope cast more than once and maintained his own personal astrologer. Golo Mann plays down this side of Wallenstein, but suggests that his subsequent actions may have been influenced by the predictions of a sensational career which Kepler made in 1608. Kepler’s prophecies were so accurate that it is indeed tempting for those who do not believe in astrology to suspect that they came to be correct because Wallenstein acted them out.

For the historian a more important subject than the unascertainable thoughts of Wallenstein in his last years is how he achieved his extraordinary position in the first place. He is the greatest of all the condottieri, a man whose career outdid anything which Machiavelli held out for Cesare Borgia. Wallenstein employed Catholics and Protestants indiscriminately in his army, which reminds us that the first public figures to advocate toleration were also generals, William the Silent in the Netherlands, Oliver Cromwell in England. But Wallenstein is poles apart from these men who came to power as party leaders in a revolution. Wallenstein did not believe with the emperor, Maximilian of Bavaria, or Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden that the Thirty Years War was a religious war. Gustavus was self-consciously the leader of Europe’s militant Protestant party, and he started with the power of the Swedish state behind him. Wallenstein owed nothing to ideology. His military power became an end in itself. This helps to explain the ease with which he was disposed of, but the mystery of his rise remains.

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw the consolidation of the omnicompetent nation state in Western Europe. Among other things contributing to centralization of state power was the escalating cost of war—firearms of increasing accuracy, cannon of increasing weight, armies and ships of increasing size, the necessity for disciplined and trained military formations. Money and still more money, taxes and still more taxes, were called for: more paper work, more elaborate bureaucracy. Yet in Germany state power was shared by the princes. The Thirty Years War divided them into rival groups, each with its own armies.

What Wallenstein saw was the possibility of applying his entrepreneurial genius to turn this situation to his profit. He is said to have told the emperor in 1625 that it would be possible to maintain an army of 50,000 but not of 20,000. Whether literally true or not, this accurately describes his practice. The absolute monarchies of Western Europe were based on a similar principle; but at least a legal structure, a fig-leaf of moral authority, covered the violence with which in the last resort their taxes were extorted. In Germany there was no effective state. Wallenstein’s violence was naked and continuing: it became a system. “Part of the army, nobody knows how large a part, was employed simply to exact the costs of the whole.”

It was an extravagantly irrational system; enforced contributions maintained not only Wallenstein’s army but also his elaborate and luxurious court of hundreds of individuals. Wallenstein could billet his troops, free of charge, wherever he chose; he could levy black-mailing tribute on towns. If his anger was roused—and it easily was—he could kill people, or organize punitive expeditions, or turn a blind eye to the plunder and torture which his troops were always ready to commit. (Not that his troops were necessarily worse than others: he maintained discipline when he wished to. But he was more free from restrictions.)

The structure of Wallenstein’s power demanded his presence always with the army. He could not afford to waste time in court intrigues, distasteful to him anyway. Yet ultimately he was subject to the whims of the emperor, his courtiers and theologians. And Wallenstein’s authority lasted only as long as his military power. The financier on whose back he originally climbed went bankrupt and committed suicide. “See what things of mine there are with him,” Wallenstein ordered on hearing the news, “and fetch them as speedily as may be, in particular tapestries, gilded leather and other things. And he owed my lady 10,000 ducats. See that they too are paid without delay….”

If more money were needed, there had to be more confiscations. In theory Wallenstein’s army lived on the land of rebels and enemies, not of friends and peaceful subjects; but when enemies ran short it became necessary to invent them. Wallenstein confiscated men’s property on the ground that they were communicating with the enemy at a time when he was doing precisely that himself. His career shows that the rule of law has some advantages. That Wallenstein’s exactions were made in the emperor’s name did not alter the fact that he was, in the last resort, a freebooter playing his own game, establishing his own princedoms in Friedland and Mecklenburg, always ready to sacrifice any theoretical principle to his own private economic interests. “Certainly my desire is to assist peace,” he wrote; “but Mecklenburg I must have and retain. In contrary case I desire no peace.”

William the Silent and Oliver Cromwell were able to take over and reconstruct a state machine because they stood for principles which were enthusiastically shared by many of their compatriots. Napoleon, the military genius with whom Wallenstein is most obviously comparable, attached himself to a set of principles, whether or not he seriously believed in them, and to the form of state which embodied them. But Wallenstein’s beliefs are impossible to define except by negatives. He was neither a Counter-Reformation Catholic nor a crusading Protestant. In his outlook he perhaps comes closest to George Monck, the professional soldier who after various changes of side during the English Revolution found himself in 1660 in control of events and restored Charles II. But Monck had a sound sense of the limits of the possible. He settled for a dukedom and very considerable but not outrageous wealth. Wallenstein’s ambition and greed seem to have known no bounds. He was Hobbist man, swayed by “a perpetual and restless desire of power after power that ceaseth only in death.”

Wallenstein’s career solved nothing. His death solved nothing. The Thirty Years War dragged on for another fourteen years, with non-German powers increasingly involved and with ghastly effects on the German people. One outcome was the consolidation of absolute monarchy in France; another was the rise of the military machine of Brandenberg-Prussia, around which Germany was ultimately to be united. Meanwhile the more sophisticated states of the Netherlands and England began to finance large armed forces by taxes raised with the consent of the propertied, so that wars could be fought with fewer unpleasant consequences for their own populations; trade and industry consequently developed to heights undreamed of by the Duke of Friedland.

This Issue

March 17, 1977