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"Rashed battalions were pounded into the meat grinder"

For those born later, the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) was divided into two parts.

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"Rashed battalions were pounded into the meat grinder"

For those born later, the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) was divided into two parts. The first consists of the well-known canon of confessional and class conflicts, which are given order by the appearance of well-known actors. The Swedish historian Peter Englund called the second "the devastation of Germany". Armies under little-known leaders roamed the Holy Roman Empire, and plans and objectives are seldom revealed.

The terrible heroes of the first part are Gustav II Adolf of Sweden and the imperial generalissimo Albrecht von Wallenstein. If one hadn't fallen near Lützen in 1632 and the other hadn't been released for firing by Emperor Ferdinand II in 1634, they might have found a way to peace. That was no longer the case for their successors. From there, the war mutated into a Machiavellian power game whose participants sat in Paris, Madrid, Vienna and Stockholm while millions of people starved, succumbed to plagues or were killed.

Amazingly, the assassination of the long-nearly omnipotent Wallenstein had put the Catholics back in the lead. The generalissimo was able to stop the Swedish triumph to some extent. But he had refused a determined reconquest of large parts of southern Germany. Archduke Ferdinand, King of Hungary, who was entrusted with the supreme command by his imperial father of the same name, set this as his goal. The ongoing threat from the Swedes played into his hands. For both Maximilian of Bavaria, head of the Catholic League, and the Spaniards were ready for a joint effort.

The opposite was the case on the Swedish Protestant side. After Gustav Adolf's death, his daughter Christina inherited him. The regency, however, was carried out by Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna from distant Stockholm, while powerful imperial princes such as Johann Georg I von Sachsen or Georg Wilhelm von Brandenburg flirted with a peace treaty and would have preferred to see the Swedes withdraw sooner rather than later. This was also the opinion of their partners in the Heilbronner Bund, which was reluctant to raise the funds for the upkeep of the Swedish garrisons in southern Germany.

On top of that, the two generals who now commanded the two large Protestant armies did not see eye to eye. Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar (1604–1639) had been in the service of Sweden since 1630 and, in gratitude for his successes, had been enfeoffed with the Duchy of Franconia, which had been formed from the bishoprics of Bamberg and Würzburg. Gustaf Horn (1592–1657) had landed in Germany at the side of Gustav Adolf and, after his death, had taken over command of the Swedish troops from Oxenstierna, his father-in-law.

Since both were not interested in a constructive cooperation and Oxenstierna could hardly take over the moderation from distant Stockholm, they did not succeed in recapturing the city of Regensburg, which had been taken by the Imperialists the year before. The setback dealt the victorious Swedes quite a blow, while Archduke Ferdinand was able to gain confidence as a Spanish army under Cardinal Ferdinand of Spain was on its way to reinforce it.

The rivalry between Bernhard and Horn and their uncoordinated approach ensured that the opponents could not be prevented from uniting. Instead of being able to give their exhausted troops a break in Augsburg, the imperial advance on Nördlingen forced them to march off immediately. On August 24, the Swedes reached the city, but could not bring themselves to deliver a decisive blow, especially since neither wanted to submit to the other. Instead, they waited for reinforcements from Württemberg and the Rhine while the two Ferdinands celebrated their union.

Peter Paul Rubens celebrated the welcome in a large painting. It is not for nothing that the river god of the Danube holds a jug in the foreground from which dark red water flows. Horn and Bernhard had indeed miscalculated. Because the reinforcements from Württemberg were militias with little combat experience, while the Spaniards consisted of elite troops. The imperial army now numbered almost 50,000 men, including 20,000 horsemen, while the Swedes could only muster a good half, including almost 10,000 cavalrymen.

In order to relieve the badly battered Nördlingen after all, Horn and Bernhard reluctantly agreed to carry out a relief attack against Ferdinand's left flank. However, neither of them had realized that their opponents had secured a number of small hills with ramparts in the meantime. Above all, the highest elevation, the Allbuch, was of crucial importance, since from there one could bypass the imperial army and advance to Nördlingen.

In the beginning everything went well. With their usual élan, Horn's men attacked early in the morning and overran the first field fortifications. Two brigades got in each other's way in the gunpowder, so that the opponents were able to launch a successful counterattack. "Now Horn's people would have needed help, but because of the gun smoke their own cavalry did not see what was happening and stood in contemplative meditation below the hill," writes Englund.

Horn sent his weary men into enemy fire a total of 15 times, while the Imperials' gaps were quickly filled with reserves. "At this unfortunate moment it happens that a powder keg flies into the air and causes the greatest disorder among the Swedish people," writes Friedrich Schiller in his "History of the Thirty Years' War".

About twelve o'clock Horn stopped "pounding his tattered battalions into the meat grinder" (Englund) and gave the order to retreat. It turned into a catastrophe because Bernhard also retreated and the Swedes were pushed together in a lowland that became the target of the Spaniards. They thrust "into the splintered streams of running, terrified men."

Around 6,000 of Horn's soldiers fell, many of the wounded were stabbed and robbed on the battlefield, and almost all of the guns and the baggage train were lost. Thousands were taken prisoner, including Horn. Bernhard was able to collect a total of 14,000 soldiers in Heilbronn. The Swedish position in southern Germany collapsed in one fell swoop. Württemberg was plundered by the Imperialists, and in Madrid they dreamed of a dictated peace.

But Emperor Ferdinand had other plans. He realized that the great victory was only due to a lucky constellation. Soon the Spaniards would withdraw to the Netherlands. He therefore resumed talks with the Protestant powerhouse Saxony, which was now more ready than ever for peace. It was closed in Prague on May 30, 1635. Since most of the imperial estates joined him, he could have ended the war after 17 years.

But that was no longer a German matter. France, which had been supporting Sweden with subsidies since 1631, actively entered the war, which ultimately escalated into a European power struggle. At Wittstock in Brandenburg, France and Sweden were able to stop the imperial advance in the north. From then on the devastation of Germany finally began.

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