8 – The 17th Century’s Greatest Mercenary General
The 17th century’s greatest mercenary was probably Albrecht Wenzel Eusebius von Wallenstein (1583 – 1634), a soldier from Bohemia who approached warfare and soldiering as business moves and financial transactions. Although a Protestant, he rose to command the armies of the Holy Roman Empire during the Thirty Years War, fought for the Catholics, switched sides to fight for the Protestants, then switched once more to fight for the Catholics.
Wallenstein was born a Lutheran, but took service with the Catholic Hapsburgs in 1604. He ingratiated himself with his employers and with the influential Jesuits at their court with a nominal “conversion” to Catholicism. Like most moves in Wallenstein’s life, the conversion was a profitable one: his Jesuit confessor arranged for him to marry a fabulously wealthy elderly widow with huge estates. His wife’s vast wealth and lands, which Wallenstein inherited after her death in 1614, instantly vaulted him into the ranks of the powerful in the Habsburg realms.
Wallenstein fought in numerous campaigns and battles, and earned a reputation for military brilliance. When the Thirty Years’ War broke out, the Habsburgs feared that they would end up facing the Protestant-born Wallenstein, but he calculated that serving the wealthier Catholics would prove more lucrative. So he offered his services and an army of 30,000 to 100,000 to the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand II.
The Protestant-born Wallenstein then proceeded to destroy Protestant armies and the Protestant cause in his native Bohemia. He did such a thorough job of it, particularly at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620, that he eradicated two centuries of a strong Protestant tradition, dating back to Jan Hus’ uprising in the early 1400s. From a Protestant bastion in Central Europe, Bohemia was transformed into a Catholic stronghold, and it remains Catholic to this day.
Having wrecked the Protestant cause in Bohemia, Wallenstein then proceeded to wreck the Protestant cause in western and northern Germany. However, his successes and ambition, plus fears that he was preparing to switch sides, led Emperor Ferdinand to remove him from command in 1630. It was the break the Protestants needed to recover, and led by Sweden’s king Gustavus Adolphus, they won a series of stunning victories. The Emperor, reasoning that a potentially treasonous general was better than incompetent ones, recalled Wallenstein. He stabilized the situation by defeating Gustavus Adolphus at the Battle of Alte Veste in 1632, and killed him at the Battle of Lutzen later that year.
However, Wallenstein grew increasingly resentful of his treatment by Ferdinand. In a rare bad move, he did little to hide his intent to switch sides and defect to the Protestant cause by joining the Swedes, as soon as he negotiated an agreeable deal. Word got back to the Emperor of Wallenstein’s planned defection, so he nipped the problem in the bud by having the problematic general assassinated in 1634.