Modern history



During the Thirty Years War (1618–48) the German lands became the theatre of a European catastrophe. A confrontation between the Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand II (r. 1619–37) and Protestant forces within the Holy Roman Empire expanded to involve Denmark, Sweden, Spain, the Dutch Republic and France. Conflicts that were continental in scope played themselves out on the territories of the German states: the struggle between Spain and the breakaway Dutch Republic, acompetition among the northern powers for control of the Baltic, and the traditional great-power rivalry between Bourbon France and the Habsburgs.1 Although there were battles, sieges and military occupations elsewhere, the bulk of the fighting took place in the German lands. For unprotected, landlocked Brandenburg, the war was a disaster that exposed every weakness of the Electoral state. At crucial moments during the conflict, Brandenburg faced impossible choices. Its fate hung entirely on the will of others. The Elector was unable to guard his borders, command or defend his subjects or even secure the continued existence of his title. As armies rolled across the provinces of the Mark, the rule of law was suspended, local economies were disrupted and the continuities of work, domicile and memory were irreversibly ruptured. The lands of the Elector, Frederick the Great wrote over a century and a half later, ‘were desolated during the Thirty Years’ War, whose deadly imprint was so profound that its traces can still be discerned as I write’.2


Brandenburg entered this dangerous era utterly unprepared for the challenges it would face. Since its striking power was negligible, it had no means of bargaining for rewards or concessions from friend or foe. To the south, directly abutting the borders of the Electorate, were Lusatia and Silesia, both hereditary lands of the Habsburg Bohemian Crown (though Lusatia was under a Saxon leasehold). To the west of these two, also sharing a border with Brandenburg, was Electoral Saxony, whose policy during the early war years was to operate in close harmony with the Emperor. On Brandenburg’s northern flank, its undefended borders lay open to the troops of the Protestant Baltic powers, Denmark and Sweden. Nothing stood between Brandenburg and the sea but the enfeebled Duchy of Pomerania, ruled by the ageing Boguslav XIV. Neither in the west nor in remote Ducal Prussia did the Elector of Brandenburg possess the means to defend his newly acquired territories against invasion. There was thus every reason for caution, a preference underscored by the still ingrained habit of deferring to the Emperor.

Elector George William (r. 1619–40), a timid, indecisive man ill equipped to master the extreme predicaments of his era, spent the early war years avoiding alliance commitments that would consume his meagre resources or expose his territory to reprisals. He gave moral support to the insurgency of the Protestant Bohemian Estates against the Habsburg Emperor, but when his brother-in-law the Elector Palatine marched off to Bohemia to fight for the cause, George William stayed out of the fray. During the mid-1620s, as anti-Habsburg coalition plans were hatched between the courts of Denmark, Sweden, France and England, Brandenburg manoeuvred anxiously on the margins of great-power diplomacy. There were efforts to persuade Sweden, whose king had married George William’s sister in 1620, to mount a campaign against the Emperor. In 1626, another of George William’s sisters was married off to the Prince of Transylvania, a Calvinist nobleman whose repeated wars on the Habsburgs – with Turkish assistance – had established him as one of the Emperor’s most formidable enemies. Yet at the same time there were warm assurances of fealty to the Catholic Emperor, and Brandenburg steered clear of the anti-imperial Hague Alliance of 1624–6 between England and Denmark.

None of this could protect the Electorate against pressure and military incursions from both sides. After the armies of the Catholic League under General Tilly had defeated Protestant forces at Stadlohn in 1623, the Westphalian territories of Mark and Ravensberg became quartering areas for Leaguist troops. George William understood that he would be able to stay out of trouble only if his territory were in a position to defend itself against all comers. But the money was lacking for an effective policy of armed neutrality. The overwhelmingly Lutheran Estates were suspicious of his Calvinist allegiances and unwilling to finance them. In 1618–20, their sympathies were largely with the Catholic Emperor and they feared that their Calvinist Elector would drag Brandenburg into dangerous international commitments. The best policy, as they saw it, was to wait out the storm and avoid attracting hostile notice from any of the belligerents.


2. Portrait of George William (1619–40); woodcut by Richard Brend’amour based on a contemporary portrait

In 1626, as George William struggled to extract money from his Estates, the Palatine General Count Mansfeld overran the Altmark and Prignitz, with his Danish allies close behind. Mayhem broke out. Churches were smashed open and robbed, the town of Nauen was razed to the ground, villages were burned as troops attempted to extort hidden money and goods from the inhabitants. When he was taken to task for this by a senior Brandenburg minister, the Danish envoy Mitzlaff responded with breathtaking arrogance: ‘Whether the Elector likes it or not, the [Danish] King will go ahead all the same. Whoever is not with him is against him.’3 Scarcely had the Danes made themselves at home in the Mark, however, but they were pushed back by their enemies. In the late summer of 1626, after the imperial and Leaguist victory near Lutter-am-Barenberg in the Duchy of Brunswick (27 August), imperial troops occupied the Altmark, while the Danes withdrew into the Prignitz and the Uckermark to the north and north-west of Berlin. At around the same time, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden landed in Ducal Prussia, where he established a base of operations against Poland, completely disregarding the claims of the Elector. The Neumark, too, was overrun and plundered by Cossack mercenaries in the service of the Emperor. The scale of the threat facing Brandenburg was made clear by the fate of the dukes of neighbouring Mecklenburg. As punishment for supporting the Danes, the Emperor deposed the ducal family and bestowed Mecklenburg as booty upon his powerful commander, the military entrepreneur Count Wallenstein.

The time seemed ripe for a shift towards closer collaboration with the Habsburg camp. ‘If this business continues,’ George William told a confidant in a moment of desperation, ‘I shall become mad, for I am much grieved. [… ] I shall have to join the Emperor, I have no alternative; I have only one son; if the Emperor remains, then I suppose I and my son will be able to remain Elector.’4 On 22 May 1626, despite protests from his councillors and the Estates, who would have preferred a rigorous policy of neutrality, the Elector signed a treaty with the Emperor. Under the terms of this agreement, the entire Electorate was opened to imperial troops. Hard times followed, because the imperial supreme commander, Count Wallenstein, was in the habit of extracting provisions, lodgings and payment for his troops from the population of the occupied area.

Brandenburg thus gained no relief from its alliance with the Emperor. Indeed, as the imperial forces rolled back their opponents and approached the zenith of their power in the late 1620s, Emperor Ferdinand II seemed to disregard George William entirely. In the Edict of Restitution of 1629, the Emperor announced that he intended to ‘reclaim’, by force if necessary, ‘all the archbishoprics, bishoprics, prelatecies, monasteries, hospitals and endowments’ which the Catholics had possessed in the year 1552 – a programme with profoundly damaging implications for Brandenburg, where numerous ecclesiastical establishments had been placed under Protestant administration. The Edict confirmed the settlement of 1555, in that it also excluded Calvinists from the religious peace in the Empire; only the Catholic and Lutheran faiths enjoyed official standing –‘all other doctrines and sects are forbidden and cannot be tolerated.’5

Sweden’s dramatic entry into the German war in 1630 brought relief for the Protestant states, but also raised the political pressure on Brandenburg.6 In 1620, George William’s sister Maria Eleonora had been married off to King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, a larger-than-life figure whose appetite for war and conquest was twinned with a missionary zeal for the Protestant cause in Europe. As his involvement in the German conflict deepened, the Swedish king, who had no other German allies, resolved to secure an alliance with his brother-in-law George William. The Elector was reluctant, and it is easy to see why. Gustavus Adolphus had spent the past decade and a half waging a war of conquest in the eastern Baltic. A series of campaigns against Russia had left Sweden in possession of a continuous swathe of territory stretching from Finland to Estonia. In 1621, Gustavus Adolphus had renewed his war against Poland, occupying Ducal Prussia and conquering Livonia (present-day Latvia and Estonia). The Swedish king had even pushed the elderly Duke of Mecklenburg into an agreement that the duchy would pass to Sweden when the duke died, a deal that directly undercut Brandenburg’s longstanding inheritance treaty with its northern neighbour.

All of this suggested that the Swedes would be no less dangerous as friends than as enemies. George William returned to the idea of neutrality. He planned to work with Saxony in forming a Protestant bloc that would oppose the implementation of the Edict of Restitution while at the same time providing a buffer between the Emperor and his enemies in the north, a policy that bore fruit in the Convention of Leipzig of February 1631. But this manoeuvring did little to repel the threat facing Brandenburg from north and south. Furious warnings and threats issued from Vienna. In the meanwhile, there were clashes between Swedish and imperial troops across the Neumark, in the course of which the Swedes chased the imperials out of the province and occupied the fortified cities of Frankfurt/Oder, Landsberg and Küstrin.

Emboldened by the success of his troops in the field, the King of Sweden demanded an outright alliance with Brandenburg. George William’s protests that he wished to remain neutral fell on deaf ears. As Gustavus Adolphus explained to a Brandenburg envoy:

I don’t want to know or hear anything about neutrality. [The Elector] has to be friend or foe. When I come to his borders, he must declare himself cold or hot. This is a fight between God and the devil. If My Cousin wants to side with God, then he has to join me; if he prefers to side with the devil, then indeed he must fight me; there is no third way.7

While George William prevaricated, the Swedish king drew close to Berlin with his troops behind him. Panicking, the Elector sent the women of his family out to parley with the invader at Köpenick, a few kilometres to the south-east of the capital. It was eventually agreed that the king should come into the city with 1,000 men to continue negotiations as the guest of the Elector. Over the following days of wining and dining, the Swedes talked beguilingly of ceding parts of Pomerania to Brandenburg, hinted at a marriage between the king’s daughter and the Elector’s son, and pressed for an alliance. George William decided to throw in his lot with the Swedes.

The reason for this policy reversal lay partly in the intimidating demeanour of the Swedish troops, who at one point drew up before the walls of Berlin with their guns trained on the royal palace in order to concentrate the mind of the beleaguered Elector. But an important predisposing factor was the fall, on 20 May 1631, of the Protestant city of Magdeburg to Tilly’s imperial troops. The taking of Magdeburg was followed not only by the sacking and plundering that usually attended such events, but also by a massacre of the town’s inhabitants that would become a fixture in German literary memory. In a passage of classically measured rhetoric, Frederick II later described the scene:

Everything that the unfettered license of the soldier can devise when nothing restrains his fury; all that the most ferocious cruelty inspires in men when a blind rage takes possession of their senses, was committed by the Imperials in this unhappy city: the troops ran in packs, weapons in hand, through the streets, and massacred indiscriminately the elderly, the women and the children, those who defended themselves and those who made no move to resist them [… ] one saw nothing but corpses still flexing, piled or stretched out naked; the cries of those whose throats were being cut mingled with the furious shouts of their assassins…8

For contemporaries too, the annihilation of Magdeburg, a community of some 20,000 citizens and one of the capitals of German Protestantism, was an existential shock. Pamphlets, newspapers and broadsheets circulated across Europe, with verbal renderings of the various atrocities committed.9Nothing could more have damaged the prestige of the Habsburg Emperor in the German Protestant territories than the news of this wanton extermination of his Protestant subjects. The impact was especially pronounced for the Elector of Brandenburg, whose uncle, Margrave Christian William, was the episcopal administrator of Magdeburg. In June 1631, George William reluctantly signed a pact with Sweden, under which he agreed to open the fortresses of Spandau (just north of Berlin) and Küstrin (in the Neumark) to the Swedish troops, and to pay the Swedes a monthly contribution of 30,000 thalers.10

The pact with Sweden proved as shortlived as the earlier alliance with the Emperor. In 1631–2 the balance of power was tilting back in favour of the Protestant forces, as the Swedes and their Saxon allies swept deep into the south and west of Germany, inflicting heavy defeats on the imperial side. But the momentum of their onslaught slowed after Gustavus Adolphus’s death in a cavalry mêlée at the Battle of Luätzen on 6 November 1632. By the end of 1634, after a serious defeat at Nördlingen, Sweden’s ascendancy was broken. Exhausted by the war and desperate to drive a wedge between Sweden and the German Protestant princes, Emperor Ferdinand II seized the moment to offer moderate peace terms. This move worked: the Lutheran Elector of Saxony, who had joined forces with Sweden in September 1631, now came running back to the Emperor. The Elector of Brandenburg faced a more difficult choice. The draft articles of the Peace of Prague offered an amnesty and withdrew the more extreme demands of the earlier Edict of Restitution, but they still made no reference to the toleration of Calvinism. The Swedes, for their part, were still pestering Brandenburg for a treaty; this time they promised that Pomerania would be transferred in its entirety to Brandenburg after the cessation of hostilities in the Empire.

After some agonized prevarication, George William elected to seek his fortune at the Emperor’s side. In May 1635, Brandenburg, along with Saxony, Bavaria and many other German territories, signed up to the Peace of Prague. In return, the Emperor promised to see to it that Brandenburg’s claim to the Duchy of Pomerania would be honoured. A detachment of imperial regiments was sent to assist in protecting the Mark and George William was honoured – somewhat incongruously, given his utter lack of military aptitude – with the title of Generalissimus in the imperial army. The Elector, for his part, undertook to raise 25,000 troops in support of the imperial war effort. Unfortunately for Brandenburg, this mending of fences with the Habsburg Emperor coincided with another shift in the balance of power in northern Germany. After their victory over the Saxon army at Wittstock on 4 October 1636 the Swedes were once again ‘lords in the Mark’.11

George William spent the last four years of his reign trying to drive the Swedes out of Brandenburg and to take control of Pomerania, whose duke died in March 1637. His attempts to raise a Brandenburg army against Sweden produced a small and poorly equipped force and the Electorate was ravaged by both the Swedes and the imperials, as well as by the less disciplined units of its own forces. After a Swedish invasion of the Mark, the Elector was forced to flee – not for the last time in the history of the Brandenburg Hohenzollerns – to the relative safety of Ducal Prussia, where he died in 1640.


Frederick the Great later described Elector George William as ‘incapable of governing’, and one history of Prussia noted unkindly that this Elector’s worst defect was not so much ‘indecision of mind’ as ‘the absence of a mind to make up’. Two such Electors, it added, and Brandenburg would have ‘ceased to provide anything but parochial history’. Judgements of this kind abound in the secondary literature.12 George William certainly cut an unheroic figure, and he was conscious of the fact. He had been seriously injured as a young man in a hunting accident. A deep wound on his thigh became chronically inflamed, confining him to a sedan chair and depressing his vitality. At a time when the destiny of Germany seemed to rest in the hands of physically imposing warlords, the spectacle of the Elector fleeing hither and thither in his sedan chair to avoid the various armed forces passing without leave across his territory hardly inspired confidence. ‘It pains me greatly,’ he wrote in July 1626, ‘that my lands have been wasted in this way and that I have been so disregarded and mocked. The whole world must take me for a cowardly weakling…’13

Yet the hesitation and wavering of these years had less to do with the personal characteristics of the ruler than with the intrinsic difficulty of the choices that confronted him. There was something irreducible, something structural in his predicament. This is worth emphasizing, because it draws our attention to one of the continuities of Brandenburg (later Prussian) history. Again and again, the decision-makers in Berlin would find themselves stranded between the fronts, forced to oscillate between options. And on each of these occasions the monarch would be vulnerable to the charge that he had hesitated, prevaricated, failed to decide. This was not a consequence of ‘geography’ in any simplistic sense, but rather of Brandenburg’s place on the mental map of European power politics. If we visualize the main lines of conflict between the continental power blocs of the early seventeenth century – Sweden-Denmark, Poland-Lithuania, Austria-Spain, and France – then it is clear that Brandenburg, with its virtually undefended appanages to the west and the east, was in the zone where these lines intersected. Sweden’s power would later decline, followed by that of Poland, but the rise of Russia to great-power status would pose the same problem anew, and successive governments in Berlin would have to choose between alliance, armed neutrality and independent action.

As Brandenburg’s military and diplomatic predicament deepened, competing factions emerged in Berlin with opposed foreign-political objectives. Should Brandenburg abide by its traditional allegiance to the Holy Roman Emperor and seek safety at the side of the Habsburgs? This was the view espoused by Count Adam Schwarzenberg, a Catholic native of the County of Mark who had supported the Brandenburg claim to Jülich-Berg. From the mid-1620s onwards, Schwarzenberg was the leader of a Habsburg faction in Berlin. By contrast, two of the most powerful privy councillors, Levin von Knesebeck and Samuel von Winterfeld, were strong supporters of the Protestant cause. The two camps fought bitterly for control of Brandenburg’s policy. In 1626, as the Elector was forced into closer collaboration with the Habsburg camp, Schwarzenberg succeeded in having Winterfeld tried for treason and driven out of the country, despite protests from the Estates. In the autumn of 1630, on the other hand, when Sweden was in the ascendant, a pro-Swedish faction emerged, led by the Calvinist Chancellor Sigismund von Götzen, and Schwarzenberg was forced to retire to Kleve, only to return to Berlin after the initiative passed back to the imperial side in 1634 and 1635.

The women at court also had strong views on foreign policy. The Elector’s young wife was the sister of the Calvinist ruler Frederick V, whose Palatine homeland had been overrun and devastated by Spanish and Catholic League troops. She naturally took an anti-imperial view, as did her mother, who had joined her in exile from Heidelberg, and the Elector’s aunt, who had married the brother of Frederick V. The Elector’s Lutheran mother, Anna of Prussia, was another outspoken opponent of the Habsburgs. It was she who had engineered the marriage of her daughter Maria Eleonora to the Lutheran King of Sweden in 1620, disregarding the objections of her son, Elector George William.14 Her intention was to bolster Brandenburg’s position in Ducal Prussia, but it was a highly provocative move at the time, since Sweden was at war with Poland, whose king was still formally the sovereign of Ducal Prussia. As these initiatives suggest, dynastic politics still functioned in a way that gave an important voice to consorts and female relatives of the monarch. The women in dynastic families were not just living securities for inheritance claims; they also maintained relationships with foreign courts that could be of great importance and they did not necessarily see themselves as bound by the monarch’s policy.

Beyond the narrow circle of the Elector’s court were the holders of power in the land, the provincial Estates, representatives of the Lutheran nobilities. These were deeply sceptical of foreign political adventures of any kind, particularly when they suspected that these were motivated by an attachment to the Calvinist interest. As early as 1623, a delegation of Estates representatives warned the Elector against the enthusiasms of ‘hot-headed councillors’ and reminded him that their military obligations extended only to ‘what was absolutely necessary for the preservation of the land in the case of an emergency’. Even after repeated incursions by Protestant and imperial troops, the Estates remained impassive in the face of entreaties from the sovereign.15 As they saw it, their function was to forestall unwarranted adventures and to preserve the fabric of provincial privilege against incursions from the centre.16

Such passive resistance was difficult to overcome in peacetime. After 1618, the problem was compounded by the fact that the war, in its early phases, deepened the Elector’s dependence on the corporate local structures of his territory. George William had no administration of his own with which to collect military contributions, grain or other provisions – all this had to be done by agents of the Estates. The provincial organs of tax collection remained under Estate control. With their local knowledge and authority, the Estates also played an indispensable role in coordinating the billeting and through-marches of troops.17 On occasion they even negotiated independently with invading commanders over the payment of contributions.18

Nevertheless, as the war dragged on, the fiscal privileges of the provincial nobilities began to look fragile.19 Foreign princes and generals had no compunction in extorting contributions from the provinces of Brandenburg; why should the Elector not take his share? This would involve rolling back the ancient ‘liberties’ of the Estates. For this task, the Elector turned to Schwarzenberg, a Catholic and a foreigner with no ties to the provincial nobility. Schwarzenberg lost no time in imposing a new tax without any recourse to the usual provincial organs. He curtailed the power of the Estates to oversee state expenditures and suspended the Privy Council, transferring its responsibilities to the Council of War, whose members were chosen for their complete independence from the Estates. In short, Schwarzenberg installed a fiscal autocracy that broke decisively with the corporate traditions of the Mark.20 During the last two years of George William’s reign, Schwarzenberg virtually ran the war against Sweden, pulling the tattered remains of the Brandenburg regiments together and mounting a desperate guerrilla campaign against Swedish troop units. Requests for tax exemptions from impoverished, war-damaged towns were unceremoniously rejected and those who entered into negotiations with the invaders – over billets, for example – were branded as traitors.21

Schwarzenberg was a controversial figure among his contemporaries. The Estates had initially supported his cautious, pro-imperial foreign policy, but they later came to loathe him for his assault on their corporate liberties. His prosecutions and intrigues earned him the hatred of his opponents in the Privy Council. His Catholic faith was a further spur to their rage. In 1638–9, when Schwarzenberg’s power was in its zenith, flysheets circulated in Berlin decrying the ‘Hispanic servitude’ of his rule.22 In retrospect, however, it is clear that this powerful minister set a number of important precedents. What survived his military dictatorship was the notion that the state, in times of need, might be justified in sweeping aside the cumbersome machinery of Estate privilege and corporate fiscal co-regency. Seen from this perspective, the Schwarzenberg years were a first indecisive experiment in ‘absolutist’ rule.


For the people of Brandenburg, the war meant lawlessness, misery, poverty, deprivation, uncertainty, forced migration and death. The Elector’s decision not to risk a pro-Protestant commitment after 1618 initially kept Brandenburg out of trouble. The first major incursions came in 1626, with the Danish campaign in northern Germany. During the fifteen years that followed, Danish, Swedish, Palatine, imperial and Leaguist troops overran the provinces of Brandenburg in rapid succession.

The towns in the path of advancing armies faced a choice between surrendering and admitting the enemy, defending the walls and suffering the consequences if the enemy broke through, or abandoning them altogether. The town of Plaue in the Havelland district of western Brandenburg, for example, successfully defended itself against attack by a small imperial force on 10 April 1627, but was abandoned by its population on the following day, when the enemy returned in greater numbers to renew the assault. No sooner had the imperials established themselves in the town, but it was attacked, captured and plundered by advancing Danish troops. In the city of Brandenburg, the mayor and corporation of the Old City on the right bank of the river Havel agreed to open their walls to the imperials, but the councillors of the New City on the other bank opted to seal themselves off by burning the bridges between the two precincts, barring their gates and firing on the invaders as they approached. A fierce battle followed, the defences of the New City were breached by imperial artillery, and the troops stormed through the city plundering in all quarters.23

The hardest-hit provinces tended to be those, like the Havelland or the Prignitz, where river passes commanding the main military transit routes repeatedly changed hands throughout the war. During the summer of 1627, Danish forces played a game of cat-and-mouse with the imperial strongholds in the Havelland, plundering and laying waste to a string of quaintly named villages: Möthlow, Retzow, Selbelang, Gross Behnitz, Stölln, Wassersuppe.24 Most commanders regarded their armies as personal property and were thus reluctant to commit men to battle unless it was absolutely necessary. Pitched battles were thus relatively rare and armies spent most of the war years engaged in marches, manoeuvres and occupations. It was an arrangement that spared the troops, but weighed heavily on host populations.25

War brought a drastic rise in taxation and other obligatory payments. First there was the regular ‘contribution’, a combined land and poll tax levied by the Brandenburg government upon its own population to support the Elector’s army. Then there were the numerous legal and illegal levies raised by foreign and home troops. These were sometimes agreed between the occupying commander and government officials or the mayors or councillors of cities and towns.26 But there were also countless episodes of outright extortion. In the winter of 1629, for example, officers commanding troops quartered in the New City of Brandenburg demanded that the burghers pay subsistence costs for the next nine months in advance. When the latter refused, punishment billets were quartered on the locals. ‘And whatever they didn’t quaff or squander themselves, they smashed in two; they poured away the beer, stove in the barrels, smashed windows, doors and ovens and destroyed everything.’27 In Strausberg, just north of Berlin, the troops of Count Mansfeld required two pounds of bread, two pounds of meat and two quarts of beer per man per day; many soldiers refused to content themselves with their allotted ration and ‘scoffed and quaffed as much as they could get’. The result was a steep decline in nutritional standards among the inhabitants, a dramatic rise in mortality rates, a pronounced fall in fertility among women of childbearing age, and even the occasional incident of cannibalism.28 Many simply fled the town, leaving their household goods behind.29 In the tense intimacy of protracted billets, there were endless opportunities, as many of the eyewitness accounts confirm, for one-off acts of extortion and theft.

All this meant that the people in many parts of Brandenburg were slowly crushed under successive layers of extortion. A report compiled in 1634 gives us some sense of what this meant for the district of Oberbarnim to the north of Berlin, whose population numbered some 13,000 in 1618, but had fallen to fewer than 9,000 by 1631. The inhabitants of Oberbarnim paid 185,000 thalers to imperial commanders in 1627–30,26,000 thalers in contributions to the Swedish-Brandenburg allied forces in 1631–4, a further 50,000 thalers in provisioning costs to the Swedes in 1631–4,30,000 thalers in provisioning costs to the Saxon cavalry regiments, 54,000 thalers to various Brandenburg commanders, plus sundry other taxes and one-off levies, not counting many other informal extortions, seizures and confiscations. This at a time when a horse cost 20 thalers and a bushel of corn less than one thaler, when a third of the peasant-owned land had been abandoned or lay uncultivated, when the disruptions of war had ruined many branches of skilled manufacture, when the ripening grain around the town was regularly trampled into the ground by passing cavalrymen.30

Atrocity stories – narratives of extreme violence and cruelty by armed men against civilians – loom so large in the literary depictions of the Thirty Years War that some historians have been tempted to dismiss them as the accoutrements of a ‘myth of all-destructive fury’ or a ‘fable of wholesale ruin and misery’.31 There is no doubt that atrocity stories became a genre in their own right in contemporary reporting of this war; a good example is Philip Vincent’s book The Lamentations of Germany, which listed the horrors suffered by the innocent, featuring graphic plates entitled: ‘Croats eat Children’, ‘Noses and eares cut of to make hatbandes’, and so on.32 The sensationalist character of many atrocity stories should not obscure the fact that they were rooted, at least indirectly, in the lived experience of real people.33

Official reports from the Havelland record numerous beatings, houseburnings, rapes and wanton destruction of property. People living on the outskirts of Plaue, just a few kilometres to the east of Brandenburg city, described a through-march by imperial troops on their way to Saxony on New Year’s Day 1639 during which ‘many old people were tortured to death, shot dead, various women and girls raped to death, children hanged, sometimes even burnt, or stripped naked, so that they perished in the extreme cold.’34

In one of the most evocative memoirs that survives from Brandenburg, Peter Thiele, customs officer and town clerk at Beelitz near Potsdam, described the conduct of the imperial army that passed through his town in 1637. In order to force a certain Jürgen Weber, a baker in the town, to reveal where he had concealed his money, the imperials ‘stabbed a piece of wood half a finger long into his [penis], if you will excuse me’.35 Thiele described the ‘Swedish draught’, said to have been invented by the Swedes, but widely reported of all armies and a fixture in later literary representations of the war:

The robbers and murderers took a piece of wood and stuck it down the poor wretches’ throats, stirred it and poured in water, adding sand or even human faeces, and pitifully tortured the people for money, as transpired with a citizen of Beelitz called David Örttel, who died of it soon after.36


3. Atrocities against women in the German lands during the Thirty Years War, woodcut from Philip Vincent’s The Lamentations of Germany (London, 1638)

Another man, by the name of Krüger Möller was caught by imperial soldiers, bound hand and foot and roasted over a fire until he revealed the whereabouts of his money. But no sooner had his tormentors taken the money and gone, than another raiding party of imperials arrived in the town. Hearing that their colleagues had already roasted 100 thalers out of Möller, they carried him back to the fire and held him with his face in the flames, roasting him ‘for so long that he died of it and his skin even came off like that of a slaughtered goose’. The cattle merchant Jürgen Möller was likewise ‘roasted to death’ for his money.37

In 1638, the imperial and Saxon armies passed through the little town of Lenzen in the Prignitz to the north-west of Berlin, where they tore all the wood and equipment from the houses before putting them to the torch. Whatever householders rescued from the flames, the soldiers took from them by force. Hardly had the imperials departed, but the Swedes attacked and plundered the town, treating the ‘citizens, women and children so gruesomely that such things were never told of the Turks’. An official report compiled by the Lenzen authorities in January 1640 sketched a grim picture: ‘They tied our honest burgher Hans Betke to a wooden pole and roasted him at the fire from seven in the morning until four in the afternoon, so that he gave up the spirit amidst much shrieking and pains.’ The Swedes cut the calves of an elderly man to stop him from walking, scalded a matron to death with boiling water, hanged children naked in the cold and forced people into the freezing water. About fifty people, ‘old and young, big and small, were martyred in this way’.38

The men raised by the Elector himself were not much better than the invaders. They too were ill clothed, underfed and demoralized. Officers brutalized their men with a regime of draconian punishments. The soldiers of Colonel von Rochow’s regiment were ‘beaten and stabbed on trivial pretexts, made to run the gauntlet, branded’, and in some cases had their noses and ears cut off.39 Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the troops were equally merciless in their dealings with local civilians, prompting bitter protests against their ‘frequent extortions, plundering, murder and robbery’. So frequent were these complaints that Count Schwarzenberg convened a special meeting with the commanders in 1640 and dressed them down for vexing the civilian population with acts of insolence and violence.40 But the effect of his admonitions soon wore off: a report filed two years later from the district of Teltow near Berlin stated that the troops of the Brandenburg commander von Goldacker had been plundering the area, threshing the corn they found and treating the local people ‘in a manner as inhumane as, indeed worse than, the enemy could have done’.41

It is impossible to establish with any precision how frequently atrocities took place. The regularity with which such accounts crop up across a wide range of contemporary sources, from individual ego-narratives to local government reports, petitions and literary representations certainly suggests that they were widespread. What is beyond doubt is their significance in contemporary perception.42 Atrocities defined the meaning of this war. They captured something about it that left a profound impression: the total suspension of order, the utter vulnerability of men, women and children in the face of a violence that raged unmastered, out of control.

Perhaps the most eloquent testimony to the harshness of the tribulations visited upon the people of Brandenburg between 1618 and 1648 is simply the demographic record. Diseases such as typhus, bubonic plague, dysentery and smallpox raged unchecked through civilian populations whose physical resistance had often been undermined by years of high prices and poor nutrition.43 Across the Mark Brandenburg as a whole, about one half of the population died. The figures vary from district to district; those areas that were protected from military occupation or through-marches by water or swampland tended to be less seriously affected. In the marshy floodplains of the river Oder, known as the Oderbruch, for example, a survey conducted in 1652 found that only 15 per cent of the farms in operation at the beginning of the war were still deserted. In the Havelland, by contrast, which saw nearly fifteen years of virtually uninterrupted disruption, the figure was 52 per cent. In the Barnim district, where the population was heavily burdened with contributions and billets, 58.4 per cent of the farms were still deserted in 1652. On the lands of the district of Löcknitz in the Uckermark, on the northern margins of Brandenburg, the figure was 85 per cent! In the Altmark, to the west of Berlin, the mortality rate rose from the west to the east. Between 50 and 60 per cent are reckoned to have perished in the areas bordering on the river Elbe in the east, which were important military transit zones; the death rate sank to 25–30 per cent in the middle and 15–20 per cent in the west.

Some of the most important towns were very hard hit: Brandenburg and Frankfurt/Oder, both in key transit areas, lost over two-thirds of theirpopulations. Potsdam and Spandau, satellite towns of Berlin-Cölln, both lost over 40 per cent. In the Prignitz, another transit zone, only ten of the forty noble families who had been running the major estates in the province were still in residence in 1641, and there were some towns – Wittenberge, Putlitz, Meyenburg, Freyenstein – where no one could be found at all.44

We can really only guess at the impact of these disasters on popular culture. Many of the families that repopulated the most devastated districts after the war were immigrants from outside Brandenburg: Dutch, East Frisians, Holsteiners. In some places the shock was sufficient to sever the thread of collective memory. It has been observed of Germany as a whole that the ‘great war’ of 1618–48 obliterated the folk memory of earlier onflicts, so that medieval, ancient or prehistoric walls and earthworks lost their earlier names and came to be known as ‘Swedish ramparts’. In some areas, it seems that the war broke the chain of personal recollection that was essential to the authority and continuity of village-based customary law – no one was left of an age to remember how things were ‘before the Swedes came’.45 Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the paucity of folk traditions in the Mark Brandenburg. In the 1840s, when the craze for collecting and publishing myths and other folklore was at its height, enthusiasts inspired by the brothers Grimm found lean pickings in the Mark.46

The all-destructive fury of the Thirty Years War was mythical not in the sense that it bore no relation to reality, but in the sense that it established itself within collective memories and became a tool for thinking about the world. It was the fury of religious civil war – not only in his native England, but also on the continent – that moved Thomas Hobbes to celebrate the Leviathan state, with its monopoly of legitimate force, as the redemption of society. Surely it was better, he proposed, to concede authority to the monarchical state in return for the security of persons and property than to see order and justice drowned in civil strife.

One of the most brilliant German readers of Hobbes was Samuel Pufendorf, a jurist from Saxony who likewise grounded his arguments for the necessity of the state in a dystopian vision of ambient violence and disorder. The law of nature alone did not suffice to preserve the social life of man, Pufendorf argued in his Elements of Universal Jurisprudence. Unless ‘sovereignties’ were established men would seek their welfare by force alone; ‘all places would reverberate with wars between those who are inflicting and those who are repelling injuries.’47 Hence the supreme importance of states, whose chief purpose was ‘that men, by means of mutual cooperation and assistance, be safe against the harms and injuries they can and commonly do inflict on one another’.48 The trauma of the Thirty Years War reverberates in these sentences.

The argument that the state’s legitimacy derived from the need to forestall disorder through the concentration of authority was widely employed in early modern Europe, but it had a special resonance in Brandenburg. Here was an eloquent philosophical answer to the resistance that George William had encountered from the provincial Estates. Since it was impossible in peace or war to conduct the affairs of a state without incurring expenses, Pufendorf wrote in 1672, the sovereign had the right to ‘force individual citizens to contribute so much of their own goods as the assumption of those expenses is deemed to require’.49

Pufendorf thus distilled from the memory of civil war a powerful rationale for the extension of state authority. Against the ‘libertas’ of the Estates, Pufendorf asserted the ‘necessitas’ of the state. Late in his life, when he was employed as historiographer at the Berlin court, Pufendorf wove these convictions into a chronicle of Brandenburg’s recent history.50 At the centre of his story was the emergence of the monarchical executive: ‘the measure and focal point of all his reflections was the state, upon which all initiatives converge like lines towards a central point.’51 Unlike the crude chronicles of Brandenburg that had begun to appear in the late sixteenth century, Pufendorf’s history was driven by a theory of historical change that focused on the creative, transformative power of the state. In this way, he engineered a narrative of great power and elegance that has – for better or for worse – shaped our understanding of Prussian history ever since.

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