Thursday, June 17, 2010

Background to the Destruction of Magdeburg

Name me a powerful and mighty ruler who, given the chance to cross the Rubicon, wouldn’t seize the moment and feel a sense of destiny. Wouldn’t it be nice to slog through the salty sea with determination, waves lapping against your legs, banner in hand, adjutants and retainers in tow, until you reach the shore and stab the flag into the sand claiming the territory by right of conquest? Conquerors from Alexander the Great to General McArthur have had the privilege. Likewise, the ambitious King of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus, armed with 5,000 troops and subsidized by French coffers, arrived on the Pomeranian coast in 1630, intent on protecting the Protestant faith from extinction and reaffirming the constitutional privileges of German princes. The King’s true intentions, not intended for public consumption, included more so the extension and consolidation of Swedish hegemony in the Baltic ports of Northern Germany.

The interconnection of politics and religion forms the long backdrop to the Thirty Years War. The Reformation of the 16th century shattered Latin Christendom forevermore, dividing up Germany into a patchwork quilt of Protestant and Catholic principalities. The Peace of Augsburg (1555) granted each prince the right to determine the faith of his realm. Cuius regio eius religio, which means “whose government, his religion,” became the slogan for this principle. One author has referred to the Peace of Augsburg as the “mother of modern [ethnic] cleansing.” That’s an exaggeration, but if someone didn’t submit to the faith of the land, they had to pick up and leave. Territorial churches emerged as an arm of the state to supervise the inculcation of Catholic, Lutheran, or Reformed creeds. In what historians once referred to as “confessionalization,” the prince and his officials used religion to establish the realm’s territorial integrity and consolidate centralized power. We would be wrong to impose our modern, cynical sensibility and see the promotion of the faith as merely a means of governance—an “opiate of the masses.” Ruler and subject alike subscribed to these creeds in their heart of heart, albeit some were more devoted than others, and statesmen never let confessional issues dictate their diplomacy, to the chagrin of priests, chaplains and pastors. Political expedience and religious devotion went hand in hand.

By 1629, Emperor Ferdinand II wanted to turn back the clock. The Habsburgs had promoted the Counter Reformation for decades in a partially successful effort to reverse the gains that Protestants had made since the early 16th century. Based in Austria, they were also looking for ways to centralize their power to the North. With the Edict of Restitution Ferdinand hoped to achieve these objectives in one fell swoop. But if he thought this bold move would distinguish him from his predecessors, he was sorely mistaken. In addition to outlawing the Reformed faith throughout the empire, the Edict called for the restitution of land taken by Protestants since 1552. The greatest Protestant principalities of Germany, Brandenburg and Saxony, would have to deliver up wealthy bishoprics under this brash mandate. Motivated more by political expedience than religious devotion, these princes had worked with the Empire; however, Ferdinand had now jeopardized this relationship.

Meanwhile, France, concerned about the territorial ambitions of the Habsburg Empire, brought Sweden into the war to thwart its traditional enemy. Whatever the war had been before, by the 1630s it had turned into an extension of the dynastic struggle that had characterized the two realms for centuries. Ostensibly Gustavus Adolphus (see right), the “Lion of the North,” sought to defend the Protestant cause and protect the constitutional liberties of German princes—twin pillars of resistance to Habsburg power. But the Swedish king needed a victory to secure sufficient money and troops; he had to convince the Protestant princes that he could take on imperial forces. Magdeburg was one of the few cities to form an alliance with Sweden and thereby became the lynchpin for control in central Germany. As mentioned elsewhere, Count Tilly, commander of imperial forces, was well aware of the city’s strategic importance and symbolic significance for Protestantism. Magdeburg had withstood the onslaught of Catholic forces almost a century earlier. Once Tilly had surrounded the city by November of 1631, but it would take him another six months to gather sufficient troops for an attack.