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  • James Houser

February 25, 1634 - Death of Albrecht von Wallenstein

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

February 25, 1634. Cheb, Czech Republic. A guest at an inn is roused from his sleep and unceremoniously murdered with a polearm thrust into his gut. The murderers, Scottish and Irish mercenaries commissioned by the Holy Roman Emperor, have killed the most powerful man in Europe. Who is - well, was - Albrecht von Wallenstein?

The Holy Roman Empire (HRE) in the 1600s was a mess for a ton of reasons. Sprawling across modern Germany, Austria and central Europe, it consisted of over 300 member states held together by arcane and byzantine legal structures under an Emperor. The larger states resented the increasing control of the Austrian Habsburgs, who had held the Imperial title for the last two centuries. The Protestant Reformation had vastly changed the internal dynamics of the HRE dividing its member states between the mostly Protestant north and west and Catholic south.

Europe's Island of Misfit Toys: The Holy Roman Empire, 1618

When Bohemian Protestants rebelled against the Emperor in 1618, the Habsburgs threw down. The greatest of the European religious wars, the Thirty Years' War, had begun.

For the Catholics, the war initially went well. The Emperor had no army of his own, so he had to depend on the Catholic states of the Empire. Their Army of the Catholic League drove the Protestants from Bohemia, then began attacking their forces in Germany. By 1625, the Protestants had withdrawn to the northern half of the country where they were stronger.

Despite the League victories, Emperor Ferdinand II wanted an army under his personal control. He wanted to take this war as an opportunity to both crush the Protestant nations *and* cement Imperial supremacy in the HRE for good, and if the war was won by a league of Catholic powers it would undermine his centralizing authority. To build an army, he needed a general - a man of experience, means and acumen.

Albrecht von Wallenstein was a Bohemian nobleman, one of the wealthiest men of the region and an experienced soldier. A former Protestant, he had become Catholic as a career advancement move without a second thought, which may tell you a little about his character. The Protestant rebels had confiscated his lands, but he raised a cavalry regiment from his own pocket and led it in the first few campaigns.

Portrait of Albrecht von Wallenstein, by Anthony Van Dyck, 1629

Wallenstein saw the war as an opportunity too - an opportunity to get rich. He managed to gain land across Germany, especially a huge chunk of Bohemia that he had basically appropriated. He rose quickly, becoming a Count and a Duke in exchange for his war services. This ambitious man was an unknown quantity - but he seemed like the man.

He was the man, in the best and worst ways. In 1625, the Emperor recruited the ambitious minor nobleman to raise an army. Wallenstein took the Emperor's money and raised 50,000 men, a colossal force in those days. His ability to raise, supply and lead this army from thin air was a testament to his enormous talents as organizer and logistician.

Then Wallenstein took that army and began smashing the Protestants. He virtually drove their armies from north Germany, and when the Protestant King of Denmark invaded to defend his religious brethren Wallenstein whipped his army in 1628, driving him from the continent.

By 1629, though, it looked to the Emperor like he had caught a tiger by the tail. Wallenstein had opened huge lines of credit to fund his army, but also took advantage of this credit to procure personal loans. With these loans, he bought huge tracts of land across Germany and added it to his growing empire within an empire. Arrogant, ambitious, strong and growing stronger, Wallenstein had become a threat.

In 1630, the Emperor decided that the Protestants were basically defeated, and it was time to curtail his powerful general. He dismissed Wallenstein and disbanded his army - at the worst possible moment. That same year, just after Wallenstein had been fired, Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus arrived with a magnificent army in northern Germany. He had come to save Protestantism, and he did.

In 1631 and 1632, Gustavus destroyed the Catholic League army and reversed ten years of Imperial victories. The Swedish Blitzkrieg across the Empire clove deep through Germany like a sickle, its tip pointed straight at Austria. The Emperor had no choice. He had to recall Wallenstein.

Wallenstein did what he did best. He raised an army of 50,000 men within a few weeks - a ridiculous feat - and marched off to save Catholicism. At Alte Veste, Wallenstein stopped the Swedes cold, and at Lutzen in 1632 his forces killed King Gustavus in the climactic battle of the Thirty Years' War.

"Death of King Gustav II Adolf of Sweden at the Battle of Lützen" by Carl Wahlbom, 1855

1633, though, saw Wallenstein reluctant to do much of anything. The Emperor grew suspicious, and it soon came to light that the general had taken the unauthorized step of negotiating to end the war! Wallenstein had decided on his own initiative that the war had to end because of its unprecedented cost and destructiveness, so he was trying to bring the Protestants to the peace table. It was rumored he wanted to "force a Just Peace on the Emperor in the name of a United Germany."

That winter, Ferdinand II finally decided that Wallenstein had to die. He convened a secret court to convict him in absentia, issued a warrant accusing him of high treason, and dispatched Colonel Walter Butler, an Irish mercenary officer, to track Wallenstein down and kill him.

Woodcut of Wallenstein's Assassination in Cheb, Date Unknown.

Wallenstein fled, but not fast enough. Butler and his Scotch-Irish riders ran him down on February 25 at Cheb, where he had been trying to defect to the Swedes once he learned of the warrant. With little preamble, they butchered his loyal officers, hunted the man down, and killed him in his bed. They immediately beat feet back to Vienna, where rich rewards awaited.

The death of Wallenstein marked the last peace negotiation for 14 years, and possibly the last hope to unify the Empire. But he was undone by his ceaseless ambition. The Emperor could not live with him or without him.

There is a downside to being the indispensable man.

Book Recommendation: For the Thirty Years' War, the best history (it's long, but any history will be, it was a massive war) is Peter H. Wilson, Europe’s Tragedy: A History of the Thirty Years War (London: Allen Lane, 2009). For Wallenstein's influence on logistics and the military art, a good start would be Martin Van Creveld, Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).

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