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Lützen and the birth of modern warfare

The battle of Lützen between the imperial and Swedish armies was fought about 19km southwest of Leipzig in Saxony, Germany, on Tuesday 16 November 1632. It was neither the largest nor the bloodiest battle of the Thirty Years War (1618-48), Europe’s most destructive conflict prior to the twentieth-century world wars, but it is certainly the best remembered today.

The Thirty Years War has been remembered primarily as a bloody religious war which began in the Holy Roman Empire before allegedly spiralling out of control and engulfing most of Europe. Supposedly, it finally burnt itself out through mutual exhaustion, paving the way for the Peace of Westphalia which is widely regarded as the birth of a new secular international order. English-speaking historians have generally followed the lead established by contemporary British observers who saw the war as a struggle between an evil Austrian Habsburg emperor seeking to impose Catholicism, and valiant Protestant Germans fighting for their religious ‘freedom.’ Aided by the ‘mercenary’ general, Albrecht Wenzel Eusebius von Wallenstein, the Habsburgs finally had complete victory in their grasp when the German Protestants were ‘saved’ by the Swedish king, Gustavus Adolphus, who invaded the Empire in June 1630. Over the next two years, Gustavus won a string of spectacular victories which convinced later generations of military historians not only that he was one of the world’s greatest generals, but that Sweden had ‘revolutionised’ war-making.

Lützen became central to this received image, because it was where the Swedish Protestant ‘hero-king’ ‘met his death in the hour of victory.’ However, unlike Yorktown (1781), Waterloo (1815) or Königgrätz (1866), Lützen did not end a conflict or even mark a significant turning point in the Thirty Years War. It did not repel an invasion like Marathon (490 BCE), Trafalgar (1805), or the Battle of Britain (1940). It was extremely hard-fought, with over a quarter of the combatants being killed or seriously wounded during the nine hours of fighting, but the bloodletting did not constitute a heroic ‘last stand’ like Thermopylai (480 BCE), Little Big Horn (1876), Isandlwana (1879) or Dien Bien Phu (1954). Nor was Lützen ‘decisive’ in the sense of a clear-cut victory with immediate tangible strategic and political results, unlike Naseby (1645), or Blenheim (1704). Given these comparisons, it is fair to ask why so much significance has been attached to it and why it is still commemorated annually today.

Portrait of Gustav II Adolf of Sweden (1594-1632) by Jacob Hoefnagel (1573–1632/1633). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The battle in 1632 was not the only one fought at Lützen. Napoleon scored a costly tactical victory over a combined Prussian and Russian army on 2 May 1813 just 4km south of the scene of the earlier action. Both are commemorated in large dioramas in the town’s museum, with the Napoleonic battle represented by 5,500 miniature figures. While each has an important place in local heritage, only the first has secured a prominent place in history, while the second remains a footnote to the campaign which ended Napoleon’s rule in Germany at the Battle of the Nations in Leipzig five months later.

The contrast between these two battles provides an opportunity to reflect on what makes a great historical ‘event’. Neither ended a war or produced a major shift in international relations, yet the first battle of Lützen found an immediate echo in image and print, and became the object of political and historical disputes. To study Lützen’s legacy is to explore how such events are constantly rewritten as elements of propaganda, religious and national identity, and professional military culture. More specifically, Lützen exemplifies how the Thirty Years War is remembered and how it has been written into wider military and European history.

Its impact is heightened by the presence of the seventeenth-century’s two most famous generals, Wallenstein and Gustavus Adolphus, and above all by the latter’s death. Swedish propaganda swiftly fostered the lasting image of the king’s sacrifice for the Protestant cause against the spectre of Catholic Habsburg ‘universal monarchy.’ This heightened the confessional element in Swedish rhetoric, contributing to the general interpretation of the Thirty Years War as the last and most destructive of Europe’s ‘religious wars.’ While confession played a part in Sweden’s motives, most Germans had regarded its intervention in the Holy Roman Empire two years before as a foreign invasion. The image of selfless sacrifice was polished over the next sixteen years to legitimate Sweden’s substantial territorial acquisitions in Germany that were confirmed by the Peace of Westphalia. The confessional dimension continued into the nineteenth century, becoming overlaid by the struggle between Catholic Austria and Protestant Prussia for mastery of Germany.

The fact that Lützen was and has remained a predominantly Lutheran town assisted the development of a culture of public remembrance. After several near-misses whilst campaigning in Catholic Poland, Gustavus narrowly escaped again whilst attacking Ingolstadt in Bavaria in April 1632 when his horse was killed beneath him. His death on Catholic soil would have inhibited the kind of commemoration later associated with Lützen. He would not have been forgotten, but his memory would have become detached from the actual location of his death. It is this physical connection to the battlefield that first attracted wider attention during the eighteenth century and led to religious services at Lützen held annually since 1832 on 6 November, in line with the old Julian calendar used by European Protestants until around 1700.

Changes in the way Gustavus’ death has been remembered allow us to see how society has interpreted the notion of ‘sacrifice’ since the seventeenth century. The king’s death has remained largely in its early modern form as an individual sacrifice of a hero-king and Protestant martyr, in contrast to the twentieth-century concept of collective sacrifice associated with the mass slaughter of the two world wars. Yet, Gustavus’ continued prominence as a recognisable historical figure has contributed to the stronger memory of Lützen, in contrast to most other battles of the Thirty Years War (except, perhaps White Mountain in 1620). Gustavus thus serves as a symbolic link to what is now clearly perceived as a distant pre-modern past.

Lützen’s place in military history has even wider resonance. Gustavus is widely credited as the ‘father’ of the standing army; even of ‘modern warfare.’ His martial qualities were already emphasised by Swedish wartime propaganda, but what secured his reputation was the seal of approval by Napoleon and later generals. His campaigns became a core element of the curricula in nineteenth-century staff colleges, as well as in standard accounts of the rise of ‘western’ warfare, not least through the influential ‘military revolution’ thesis.

The battle marked the climactic end of what seemed a lightning campaign of conquest since Gustavus’ landing in northern Germany in June 1630, and which appeared to demonstrate the merits of the strategy and tactics of decision over those of attrition practised by Wallenstein. As is so often the case with history, things were rather more complicated. Rather than signalling a decisive shift towards modern warfare, Lützen indicated how closely matched the two armies were, and how they were both learning from each other during the Thirty Years War.

Featured image credit: Courtois: Die Schlacht bei Lützen 1632 by Jacques Courtois. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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