Historically, Albrecht von Wallenstein, duke of Friedland and Mecklenburg was one
of the most important mercenary commanders of the Imperial army during the Thirty
Years' War (1618–48). In the centuries since his death, it is the dark side of his
character which has prevailed, his intrigues and betrayals and murders. Wallenstein
has assumed a kind of evil eminence, a devilish Faust-like character in the German
consciousness who remember him, in the most part justly, as the source of the wretchedness
and destruction and bloodshed that came to the Fatherland in a terrible time. The
memories of the Kaiser and of Adolf Hitler have been secretly kept green and admiring
by most of the German people, despite the draconian penalties, but Wallenstein is
remembered as Germany's true Prince of Darkness.
Born a Protestant at Hermanic, Bohemia, 24 September, 1583, Wallenstein belonged
to a Czech noble family of Bohemia who were members of the Bohemian Brethren. He
studied at the Lutheran university at Altdorf, travelled in France and Italy, became
a Catholic apparently at the Jesuit college at Olmutz. He married an elderly widow,
whose large fortune he inherited in 1614 and promptly squandered, being forced to
enter military life to escape his creditors.
In 1617 he served as an officer in the army of Ferdinand of Styria, who became emperor
in 1619, against Venice, and in 1618 against the revolting Bohemians—his own people.
This was just after the Thirty Years' War began with what became known as the Defenestration
of Prague, when a group of Protestant legislators threw three Imperial commissioners
out of an upper story window in the palace.
In 1621 Wallenstein received for the first time an independent command and fought
against the prince of Transylvania, Bethlen Gabor, who had invaded Moravia. In return
for large advances of money to Ferdinand, he received after the battle of the White
Mountain so many of the confiscated estates of the Bohemian insurgents that his possessions
in northern Bohemia formed the territory of Friedland, which Ferdinand in 1624 raised
to a principality. Wallenstein's relations with the Jesuits were most friendly. Determined
to become the champion of the Habsburgs and of the Church in the empire, he offered
to raise an army of 20,000 men at his own expense, upon which Ferdinand appointed
him, 7 April, 1625, "Captain over all the imperial forces in the Holy Roman Empire
and the Netherlands", and in June raised him to the rank of a duke.
Unknowingly, Ferdinand had created a monster.
It was largely due to Wallenstein and Wallenstein's military practices, which were
adopted by all the armies, that the Thirty Years' War turned Germany into a hell
on earth and created a devastation which some historians believe was worse than that
of World Wars One and Two. Wallenstein's motto was simple: "Let war feed on war."
He had no supply lines, no supply trains, no problem with paying his soldiers—he
and his armies simply took anything they wanted from any locality they passed through,
Protestant or Catholic. Be it eatable, drinkable, ride-able, shootable, spendable,
or female, they just helped themselves and killed anyone who got in the way. Wallenstein's
armies were like a horde of fire ants swarming over the countryside and stripping
away everything, leaving a barren wasteland in their wake.
Wallenstein was also responsible for the innovation of what might be called the first
modern partisan warfare. He hired a number of Croatian light cavalry, similar to
Cossacks and armed with lance and saber, to serve as outriders, scouts and a screen
for his main forces, and these marauders gained themselves an evil and terrifying
reputation as killers, rapists, and arsonists. Soon all the armies were employing
bands of irregular light horsemen in this manner, of all nationalities, but the nickname
"Croats" stuck to them.
Wallenstein was very successful in collecting his army and late in the autumn appeared
at the scene of war in the circle of Lower Saxony. He occupied Magdeburg and Halberstadt,
On 25 April, 1626, he was attacked at the bridge of Dessau over the Elbe by the enemy
he most feared, the Protestant commander Ernst von Mansfeld, whom to pretty much
everyone's surprise Wallenstein defeated and forced back into Dracula country, Transylvania.
In 1627, Wallenstein raised an army that finally numbered almost 150,000 men, which
he supported by assigning definite territories of the empire to its different divisions,
including those both of Catholic princes and of Protestant rulers who were friendly
to the emperor. There was little discipline, and the greed of the generals and colonels
was great. After a short time of unrestricted looting and pillaging by the new standing
army, angry accusations were made against Wallenstein from every quarter. In the
meantime, he drove Mansfeld's troops out of Silesia and advanced as far as Jutland
in Denmark. In January, 1628, the emperor granted Wallenstein the Duchy of Mecklenburg
in fief for life and in June, 1629, as a hereditary possession. Thus he became one
of the most prominent princes of the empire.
The other princes holding this rank hated him, fearing that he would overthrow their
freedom and subject them once more to the supremacy of the emperor. Wallenstein had
now reached the highest point of his successes. He made the vain boast that in three
years he would conquer Constantinople, and sought unsuccessfully to form an alliance
between the emperor and Gustavus Adolphus; he also endeavored to persuade the Hanseatic
towns to form a union with the empire. He even planned a canal uniting the North
Sea and the Baltic Sea. But he was unable to collect a fleet, or to occupy and close
the whole of the German coast along the Baltic. Wallenstein failed in the siege of
Stralsund in the summer of 1628 and several other campaigns. He accused others for
his lack of success, but eventually his enemies at court were able to procure his
After this Wallenstein's life was mainly a series of intrigues, and at this point
he added to his well-deserved reputation for bloodthirstiness and callousness an
equally well-deserved reputation for treachery and unreliability. His character,
which had never been noble, now gave way completely. He was perhaps more embittered
over the loss of Mecklenburg than over the loss of the rank of commanding general.
As early as the spring of 1631 he negotiated through Bohemian refugees with Gustavus
Adolphus in an attempt to betray the emperor and change sides; which side began the
negotiations is a disputed point. Wallenstein also apparently hired assassins and
carried out several complicated murder plots, which involved doing away with his
various rivals at the Vienna court in a number of exotic ways, including poison,
strangling, and in one case having an enemy mauled an eaten by a captive lion. His
attitude was noted at court.
When, after the battle of Breitenfeld, Gustavus Adolphus continued his campaign and
the emperor in October appealed again to Wallenstein, the latter was willing to listen
to him but did not come to terms until April, 1632, when the Swedes had overrun northern
Germany. Wallenstein received absolutely unprecedented powers never granted before
or since by any king or government to a commanding general, including the right to
fill all positions in the army on his own say-so, to negotiate with foreign governments,
and any troops not under his command were not to be permitted in the empire.
On 25 May, 1632, he again took Prague, then squared off to take on the Swedes led
by their brilliant warrior king, Gustavus Adolphus. In September the Swedish king
attacked Wallenstein but was driven back. In order to force Gustavus to retreat Wallenstein
advanced toward Saxony. On reaching the boundary of Bavaria, Maximilian of Bavaria
and his troops betrayed Wallenstein and turned back, a loss which weakened Wallenstein's
strength. On 16 November a famous and bloody battle was fought with the Swedes at
Lutzen in Germany. Wallenstein was not defeated, but neither was he the victor; and
he suffered such heavy losses that he ceased operations.
During this entire period he fought but one battle himself, that at Steinau in Silesia,
where in October he defeated the Swedish troops, his last victory. He grew more and
more involved in negotiations which finally led him into treason against the emperor.
Sometimes he was engaged in negotiations with the Swedes, sometimes with Saxony against
Sweden and the Habsburgs, and finally even with France. At one time he desired, by
combining with the estates of the empire, to establish peace. Probably the impelling
force was largely the desire for revenge.
Wallenstein's inactivity and double dealing brought the emperor into a position which
might easily have become dangerous. In addition the Spanish ambassador at Vienna
urged his removal. During these later years the Jesuits were opposed to him, and
the army fell away from him. Prague and Pilsen deserted him and went over without
a struggle to the emperor as soon as the latter took the first measures against Wallenstein,
who responded by plotting to assassinate the emperor and replace him on the throne
with—himself. No one in Europe would have accepted such a coup; clearly, towards
the end of his life Wallenstein was losing touch with reality.
His mad scheme was inevitably betrayed, and Ferdinand responded as one might expect.
Albrecht von Wallenstein was tracked down at one of his country residences at Eger,
in Bohemia, by two Protestant Scotch officers and one Catholic Irish officer hired
for the job, all belonging to his own army. They bribed his servants to desert him
and broke into his study on the night of February 23rd, 1634, and after a desperate
sword and pistol battle in which all were wounded, laid the once mighty general dead
on the floor with a dozen blade and bullet wounds.