The ReBrandenburging

The fortunes of the other supposed Hapsburg young gun Emperor Ferdinand III were only looking marginally better than a stomach ulcer death in 1640-41. Just the year before, Johanes Baner’s army had stormed into Bohemia once again and set half the country on fire. Even Baner was appalled at the state of the place, not that it stopped his men from shredding Bohemia further. Writing to Oxenstierna he noted, “I had not thought to find the Kingdom of Bohemia so lean, wasted, and spoiled, for between Prague and Vienna all is razed to the ground and hardly a living soul to be seen in the land”.[1] As with many other places in the Empire, it had been picked over by the war.

Ferdinand was still looking for some way to pull out of the war with a victory, and though the word must have made his father spin in his grave fast enough to power the first electric generator he was willing to “compromise”. To this end he had called a Diet in the city of Regensburg for 1640. As this was the first time one had been called since 1604, such a decision spoke volumes about Ferdinand’s concerns and hopes. Overtures of peace were made to the three remaining belligerent Protestant German states, which all came to nothing.[2] But still, Ferdinand was hoping the Diet would allow him to successfully change the face he had shown to Europe at Nördlingen. The Emperor perceived it was time to wave an olive branch rather than a sword, and he was willing to honor the terms of the Peace of Prague. If nothing else a united Germany would take the Cassus out from the front of the Franco-Swedish Belli at this point.

Regensburg in the 16th Century. Aside from some mild shifts to the defenses and size, this would likely be similar to its appearance during the war. Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Certainly the Swedish forces saw the danger. In the dead of winter, and in failing health personally, Johanes Baner led his Swedish troops on the march to Regensburg and crossed the frozen Danube. The attack was as brazen as it was startling. So sudden was the Swedish arrival that Ferdinand’s own personal hunting party had been outside the city walls when Swedish outriders ambushed them. They ate 19 of the Emperor’s prize falcons that evening, saying as much about the food situation in the Swedish army as it did about the Emperor’s recon units. Even as the Swedes deployed a few cannons and shelled the city, Ferdinand remained and even took a leading role in organizing the defense. While the optics of the emperor standing cool under fire were excellent, the reality was grim. As the Danube thawed, Baner withdrew, having symbolically shot a hole into the peace process with some literal cannons.[3]

Since Johann Georg’s meek return to the Imperial fold, Germany’s Protestants had been at the low ebb of their fortunes. Like any good two party system, when both sides opted for agreement it was inherently difficult to oppose the prevailing option of complying with the Emperor. But that did not mean that resistance to imperial control was gone, nor that the Emperor had somehow won over the Protestant wing of his nation through charisma and charm. If anything, the fact that Ferdinand’s offer in 1640 was the same it had been at the Hapsburg’s last high tide in 1635 felt out of step for many. The result was a consensus that formed in a leadership vacuum.

Elector Friedrich Wilhelm after the War in 1650. Sometimes called the Great Elector, Friedrich would live until 1688. His careful and martial nature set the stage for his son Frederick the Great. Photo Credit: Frans Luycx

As luck would have it, someone had emerged on the scene who not only saw the opportunity at hand, but was perfectly placed to take advantage of it. In December 1640, the old Elector of Brandenburg, Georg Friedrich, had finally died. The man had been a non-entity for much of his life. Following first the Saxons, then the Swedes, then the Imperial line as the winds of war and state had blown him hither and yon. Under Georg Wilhelm Brandenburg’s attempted neutrality had been met with outright hostility from the Swedes, who had first coerced his loyalty then systematically reduced the electorate to less than half its former size anyways. Georg’s son Friedrich was in no way like his father. Just 20, Friedrich Wilhelm’s Calvinism burned as bright as Frederick’s, tempered by the cool realism of a statesmen. It was fortunate, since anyone less decisive would have despaired at the state he inherited. Swedish and imperial troops had fought for every square inch of Brandenburg. This was to say nothing of his own army, which was busy burning and robbing whatever was left behind by the other powers. His income was an eighth of what his father’s had been before the war, and Friedrich Wilhelm had relocated to Königsburg[4] due to the literal and metaphorical collapse of his household in Berlin.[5] Taking stock with both characteristics in mind, it was apparent that the emperor could do little but wag a finger at Friedrich Wilhelm in Brandenburg. The only power that could actually give him anything was Sweden. Within five months of assuming the Electorship, Friedrich Wilhelm had contacted Oxenstierna, dispatched ambassadors to Stockholm, and by May had formally reaffirmed a ceasefire with Sweden. His troops were to remain mobilized, but would only fight defensive actions. In exchange for his good behavior, Oxenstierna began to withdraw from portions of Brandenburg, allowing the exhausted cities and countryside to recover. As a temporary measure it allowed Friedrich Wilhelm to potentially switch back if Swedish fortunes soured, but the Empire would never again be in a position to tip the scales.

Friedrich Wilhelm’s timing had been even better than he might have gauged. Following Baner’s death, the Swedish field army had nearly mutinied again, as its overwhelmingly German contingent rebelled against Baner’s successor Lennart Torstensson. Torstensson had assumed control in spite of the backbiting by 1642, but it likely helped strengthen Friedrich Wilhelm’s hand still further. After years of Protestant passivity, an Elector had defied the Emperor once again. With Johann Georg thoroughly discredited in their eyes, other Protestants began to formally or informally take their cues from Berlin. In a grassroots sense, this translated into a series of peace treaties and ceasefires at the local level. In bits and pieces, the Empire was fragmenting into zones of war and peace. In time, Friedrich Wilhelm’s firm leadership would lay the groundwork for the military juggernaut that became the Prussian kingdom, then modern Germany itself.

[1] Wedgwood 2005

[2] The Hapless and Homeless family of Frederick, the state of Hesse-Kassel, and Brunswick-Lüneberg. They will not be on the quiz, though the Hessian military was considered a scrappily professional force.

[3] Not that the muddy retreat was worth the cost. Baner would lose more than 4,000 men retracing his steps.

[4] now the isolated Russian enclave Kaliningrad east of Poland

[5] The roof caved in.


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