Albrecht von Wallenstein was one of the most celebrated military leaders of seventeenthcentury Europe, and brought to its highest point a system of warfare based on private contracting, organization, and finance.
Born into a minor but well-connected Bohemian family, Wallenstein's decisive moment came in 1618 when he gave his military and financial support to Ferdinand II in the Habsburg emperor's struggle against the revolt of his Bohemian subjects. The reconquest of Bohemia was followed by a redistribution of power and lands in favor of a handful of loyalist nobles, and notably Wallenstein, who was created duke of Friedland, a vast amalgam of prosperous estates brought together north of Prague, close to the Elbe River. Wallenstein might have remained a powerful, influential Bohemian aristocrat, but victory had given the militantly Catholic Habsburg monarchy control not only over Bohemia, but far greater influence over all the territories of the Holy Roman Empire. Belatedly, the European Protestant powers woke up to the consequences of this. Successive bids to challenge the Habsburg hegemony came together in 1624–1625 with a project to draw the army of Christian IV of Denmark into the empire in association with a contracted army of mercenaries under Ernst von Mansfeld, and an attack led from the east by Bethlen Gabor, Calvinist ruler of Transylvania. The Habsburgs were sustained by a single army in the empire, largely controlled by the Catholic ruler of Bavaria.
Faced with the prospect of war on multiple fronts, Ferdinand II accepted an offer made to him by Wallenstein to raise a new army for imperial service at his own expense. Wallenstein was not proposing anything unprecedented: individual unit commanders, even generals, had previously raised troops on their own account, expecting to recoup their initial expenses from higher subsequent salaries and the opportunities for plunder and war taxation. What was distinctive about Wallenstein's offer was the scale of his operations: by early 1626 the army had a strength of nearly sixty thousand men, and continued growing as Wallenstein drew up more recruitment contracts. Moreover the ultimate reimbursement of subcontracting unit officers, financiers, food and munitions suppliers, and indeed Wallenstein himself, was to rest on a massive and systematic exploitation of military taxation by the army itself. The collection of such “contributions” had a well-established history. But Wallenstein's army raised them at a level and on a scale beyond anything previously attempted, firstly from territories which were hostile to imperial authority, then increasingly from neutrals or even the territory of the Habsburgs themselves. Contributions were used systematically to fund the entire costs of military operations, including the repayment of the capital outlay of all of the investors in the army.
Wallenstein's formula brought extraordinary military success: war waged by well-organized and ruthless private enterprise, tapping into systems of recruitment, supply, and finance on an international scale, could sweep away most of the previous restraints on military activity. In 1626 Wallenstein's army defeated Mansfeld at Dessau Bridge on the Elbe, then blocked and outmaneuvered the dissolving army of Bethlen Gabor. Meanwhile the commander of the Bavarian army, Count Tilly, had shattered the main Danish field army at Lutter. In 1627 Wallenstein's huge imperial army rolled into north Germany in multiple columns, supported by food and munitions produced in the Duchy of Friedland and shipped down the Elbe. Christian IV's forces were driven back through Holstein and into Denmark, and their north German allies were cowed and broken. At this point the emperor started using Wallenstein's army for the subjugation of Germany as a whole, culminating in the notorious 1629 Edict of Restitution, confiscating swathes of north German Protestant territory for the Habsburgs or their Catholic allies. Confiscation of territory and goods by imperial decree was a central and hugely resented feature of the emperor's policy toward the German states in these years. Wallenstein was the beneficiary, both in his own right, most notoriously when he received the two confiscated duchies of Mecklenburg as compensation for his military expenses, and as a more general means of meeting the costs of the army and its entrepreneurs through systematic confiscation of territory and property from the emperor's opponents. As a result of these increasingly high-handed measures, by 1629 even previous allies had turned against the power that Wallenstein had given the emperor, while the demands for military contributions were encountering growing resistance. Shortfalls threatened to bring down the entire military system in a mass of unpaid debts, while pressure by the major German princes for the emperor to remove Wallenstein and disband the army steadily mounted. In August 1630 Ferdinand II dismissed Wallenstein and precipitated a financial crisis which all but paralyzed the army. This coincided with the landing of Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden on the coast of Pomerania with an army which was rapidly swollen by mercenary units raised on the same subcontracting basis as Wallenstein's. The remnants of the imperial army, joined with the Bavarian forces of Tilly, campaigned against the build-up of Swedish—Protestant forces, but in September 1631 suffered a crushing defeat at Breitenfeld.
Facing outright defeat, Ferdinand recalled Wallenstein to reconstruct and lead the imperial army, and the duke demonstrated his organizational genius and ruthlessness in reassembling an army of a hundred thousand men within months of his new commission. In the summer of 1632 he campaigned in southern Germany, supplying his concentrated army around Nuremberg and inflicting a major operational defeat on the Swedes. But overestimating the readiness of the Swedes to disperse into winter quarters, he was forced into a bloody defensive battle at Lützen in November, where the Swedes gained a pyrrhic victory, losing Gustavus on the battlefield. Reluctant to undertake high-risk operations in the uncertain climate following Gustavus's death, rumors that Wallenstein was negotiating with the various anti-Habsburg powers and was seeking to broker a separate peace in the empire were spread by his enemies. Frustration with what seemed to be Wallenstein's dilatoriness erupted in the winter of 1633–1634: orders from Vienna that the army move into territory occupied by Swedish forces were met by a direct refusal from the duke, while an assembly of his officer—proprietors declared their unconditional allegiance to Wallenstein. For a group of subordinate commanders, partly motivated by loyalty to the emperor but mainly by ambition and greed, this was enough. Feeding on the anxieties at the court that Wallenstein was now out of control, they persuaded Ferdinand that his removal was necessary. He was murdered by some of his own officers at Eger on February 25, 1634.
Wallenstein was a deeply controversial figure, combining unparalleled administrative and organizational ruthlessness and efficiency with obsessive behavioral traits and a firm belief in astrology. His enigmatic behavior, combined with relentless ambition and political vision, attracted attention during his lifetime, and has maintained it since, not least thanks to Friedrich Schiller's Wallenstein trilogy of plays, which contributed to the romantic myth that Wallenstein had been fighting for the liberation and ultimate unification of Germany.
SEE ALSO: Gustavus Adolphus, Gustav II Adolf (1594–1632); Mercenaries; Military Revolution, the (1560–1660); Thirty Years' War (1618–1648).
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