The Sack of Magdeburg

Gustavus Adolphus, the original “stuck the landing” kinda guy. Photo Credit: Anders Fryxell

From his first steps onto German soil in July 1630, Gustavus Adolphus began to construct the legend that would define his role in the war. Quite literally, as Adolphus stepped off the boat he tripped, and fell to one knee. Pamphleteers immortalized the moment and hyped the piety of the Swedish King, humble and praying for the favor of the Almighty from the moment of his landfall. To Richelieu the “Rising Sun” had broken the horizon, but to Ferdinand II Adolphus’ arrival was just another Tuesday.[1]

The Emperor had plenty of reason to believe Adolphus was overhyped. After all, the last Scandinavian to elbow into the conflict had been easily beaten off, and Christian IV was considered the strongest of the northern monarchs. Adolphus himself had also only brought 13,000 men with him to contest the war. If he was looking for local support, Ferdinand was confident the Swede would be hung out to dry as Christian had been.

In spite of French financial and diplomatic assistance, Adolphus was keenly aware that the missing component of his campaign was local support to justify and expand this entire adventure. Lacking that, even with Wallenstein dismissed it was likely that he would be unable to break out of the defensive cordon Tilly had scrambled to throw up around Pomerania. In a very modern touch Adolphus began to circulate a series of pamphlets broadcasting the necessity of his intervention in five languages. While the now dispossessed lords of Mecklenburg and the still exiled Frederick answered the call, the only real “get” for Adolphus was the city of Magdeburg on the Elbe.

Magdeburg was a free city, and vulnerable to the Edict’s long reach. With 25,000 inhabitants, down somewhat from a pre war 30,000 after a  nasty bout of plague, the city had even and recently fended off Wallenstein’s attacks in 1629. In short, it was a perfect Protestant base for Adolphus provided he could defend the place. Well aware, Adolphus sent his officer Dietrich von Falkenberg and a team of Swedish officers to take local command as he kept up with his own recruitment.[2]

Magdeburg in the 1600’s, pre burning. Photo Credit: Jan van de Velde

But other than these meager gatherings, Adolphus was met with the same ringing silence from the major Protestants like the Electors of Saxony and Brandenburg. Probably most galling to the Swede was that Brandenburg’s Elector Georg Wilhelm was actually related by marriage to Adolphus, and sheltering some of Winter King Frederick’s relatives from Imperial prosecution. The Brandenburger’s territory had even been used as springboard by the Poles in their war with Adolphus, placing the Elector in the middle of a war whether he wanted to be or not. In general, Georg Wilhelm was not the strongest willed or most of assertive of leaders. His tragedy was to find himself stuck in the middle of powers on all sides, playing junior partner even to the Saxons. Yet Georg Wilhelm was unwilling to commit to anyone, and continued his miserable hedging attempt at neutrality.

Count Johann Georg of Saxony also did not want a war, and he especially did not want it on his northern doorstep. One of the family’s favorite hobbies was drinking, as Johann Georg had inherited the electoral title from a brother who had dropped stone dead in the middle of a pre joust beer.[3] If anything, Johann Georg was the closest representative Germany had for its own interests. Yet for a decade now all he had done to protest had been the occasional stern letter to the Emperor and the odd boycott. It had accomplished little, and Johann Georg’s decision to take a territorial bribe in exchange for his collusion in the Bohemian phase had permanently damaged his credibility. Yet now with Sweden’s invasion, Johann Georg had finally begun to rumble towards action. He had peeled off Wallenstein’s talented subcommander Hans-Georg von Arnim to recruit and train the Saxon army in the hope that “neutral” would not be mistaken for “weak”. Army in hand, the Saxon count had seen his moment and wrote to Ferdinand with his final offer. If the Emperor agreed to rescind the Edict of Restitution, Johann Georg would join his forces with Tilly, and the Swedish King was likely to be thrown out on his ear by the combined German army. A more pragmatic emperor would have taken the offer. Even a more cynical one might have. But Ferdinand was neither and he refused. He remained a Catholic first, and master of the Empire second. And so Germany’s Protestants sat, trapped between the Swedish Lion and the Hapsburg Eagle, prey to both. Eventually Johann Georg would be forced to pick a side.

Faced with a Protestant stonewalling, Adolphus opted for a “rough wooing” of the locals and started to drive into enemy territory regardless. But out of position and outnumbered, Adolphus could only watch as Magdeburg came under siege by General Tilly. For all his success, Tilly was finding life harder than ever. Maximilian’s secret treaty with France had bound Tilly from an open fight with the French ally in Sweden, which forced the general to pick less direct foes. Compounding the situation, Tilly’s men were starving to death. While they were technically near viable stores of food, they were in the hands of the new duke of Mecklenburg. Which was to say, Wallenstein, who was none too thrilled about losing his post as imperial commander. Taking his bread ball and going home, Wallenstein had instructed his local officers to resist any requisitions by the Catholic forces. Even if it was his own former army, Wallenstein would rather see them starve than lose command.

The Young Women of Magdeburg, a 19th Century painting that captures both the trauma of a sack, and the long scar the siege left in Germany’s cultural memory. Photo Credit: Eduard Steinbrück

Which was how Tilly’s starving army found itself laying siege to Magdeburg. Inside the city, Adolphus’ creature Dietrich von Falkenberg resisted any discussion of surrender by the city’s leaders. Finally on May 20th, 1631, troops under the command of Tilly’s hot blooded subordinate General Pappenheim stormed the city in the pre-dawn hours. For a ferocious two hours the cannons thundered and four hundred siege ladders were pushed against the walls. Falkenberg was fatally wounded, tried to conceal his injuries, and then died as his men fell back. Somehow, whether from the bombardments, an accident, or malicious arson, a series of fires broke out and began to burn through the city.[4] Slightly drunk and furious at the length of the siege, Tilly’s men then ransacked the city even as it burned, going house by house to shake down the locals for valuables of any kind. When those ran out the killing began in earnest, and “men, women, and children were pitilessly murdered in different ways…and words can simply not do justice to what took place”.[5]  Perhaps 20,000 of the city’s inhabitants would die from starvation, disease, exposure, and the sword, with the city dwindling to just 450 inhabitants by 1648. Tilly’s subordinate general Pappenheim admitted much of that was done in just one day, with the vast majority of the bodies simply dumped in the nearby Elbe. “Magdeburgization”, or the German equivalent, became a term for the sort of rape, pillage, and wholesale slaughter the city experienced. To the locals it must have seemed as if the Four Horsemen had invested in German real estate.

“Magdeburg”, a memorial in Worms. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Magdeburg was a catastrophe for the city, and the exact propaganda victory Gustavus Adolphus needed to impress the sensation of terror on Germany’s Protestants. There could be no neutrality, only fire and blood. Adolphus was also not shy about leaning on Protestant rulers to make sure they changed their tune. Georg Wilhelm broke ranks first, after Adolphus literally pointed a cannon at his Electoral palace. As the Calvinist Elector caved in to pressure, Adolphus was magnanimous and wined and dined the hapless Count. As if this were something other than the shotgun marriage it seemed to all parties. From there, he turned his roving eye towards Saxony.

In the end, Catholic invasion forced Johann Georg’s hand. Tilly’s men had been starving in the field, as Magdeburg and the area around it was now essentially a dead zone. Unable to find the supplies he needed elsewhere, and still bound by treaty to directly avoid contact with Sweden, Tilly had nipped across the border into Saxony and ransacked a few towns. It was an accidental ultimatum, and Johann Georg could not ignore it. More as a partner than a subject, he agreed to terms with Gustavus Adolphus. With that, a war started by a Bohemian revolt and endorsed by a German Elector had grown into a chimera. Now a Swedish Protestant King financed by French Catholic gold had corralled a reluctant Protestant Germany into supporting his invasion of Hapsburg territory. The bounds of European national self-interest were being drawn across the geography of the Holy Roman Empire.

[1] The reference in point.

[2] Modern readers may recognize all the tropes of CIA “trainers” encouraging a local uprising.

[3] As an annual present, the Emperor actually sent a case of the Count’s favorite claret to his palace.

[4] Theories abound on this one. Tilly certainly did not intend to burn the city, as his starving men needed a base to recuperate. But ultimately the reason for the disaster is less crucial than the horror of it. Deserved or no, Tilly’s military record has been synonymous with Magdeburg for 400 years.

[5] Martines, L. (2013). Furies: War in Europe 1450-1700.


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