Monday, 12 March 2018


            We are sickeningly accustomed to seeing bestial images of Syrian civilians being indiscriminately burned, gassed and shattered by ‘brave warriors’ pouring obliteration into homes, schools and hospitals from the security of aeroplanes and artillery vehicles. We hear the partisan rhetoric used to defend such acts by men who have no right to call themselves human. But, hideous though such long-range obscenities are, they come nowhere near the hand-to-hand vicious slaughter that raged throughout Central Europe during the conflict which began exactly four hundred years ago. The Thirty Years War was, without a shadow of doubt, the worst conflict in European history. Worse than the Second World War? Yes. Worse than the First World War? Yes. Worse than the Revolutionary and Napoleonic War? Yes. Just look at the stats. Between 1939 and 1945, sixty million people perished. Between 1618 and 1648 a mere seven and a half million died. But the fatalities of World War II represented 3.5% of the population of the nations involved. The combatant states of the Thirty Years War lost 35% of their populations, and in the German lands most affected the proportion was higher.
            But let’s leave the cold balance sheet of death from military action, disease and famine and talk about actual events such as the siege of Magdeburg. At dawn on 17 May, 1631, that fine city held some 30,000 inhabitants. By noon on the 20th that number had been reduced to 5,000, most of them women and children. The downfall of Magdeburg was the end result of strategic miscalculation and rivalries between commanders supposedly on the same side. The siege, by Catholic forces fighting for the Holy Roman Emperor, began on 20 March. The city held out doggedly. The imperial commander, Johann Count Tilly, called for reinforcements from his ‘colleague’, Albrecht von Wallenstein. But Wallenstein was fighting a personal war and was happy to see his rival getting into difficulties. The citizens, too, were looking for a saviour in the form of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, leader of the Protestant forces. But he was also baulked by German princes who should have been his allies but who dallied over their response and prevented him coming to Magdeburg’s relief. The result was strategic stalemate, one of the worst things that could happen in seventeenth-century warfare. Idle armies rapidly became demoralised. More than that, they became resentful. And hungry. The majority of soldiers were conscripts, men plucked from the plough or prison or the ranks of unemployed vagabonds. The age of conscription was lowered as their conflict dragged on. Those African child soldiers drafted into modern wars had their counterparts in Europe 400 years ago. Tilly’s rag-tag army had little concern for ‘rules of engagement’. Their first and most desperate need was to survive. And that need became more urgent as the siege dragged on.
            When a false rumour that Gustavus Adolphus was advancing rapidly reached the besiegers, it panicked them into redoubling their efforts. They knew they had to take the city and commandeer all the food they could lay their hands on as soon as possible if they were to be in any shape to face the advancing Swedes. They had become little more than crazed animals who would do whatever was necessary to ensure their survival. On 17 May Tilly’s men began a fierce artillery bombardment. It went on, unsuccessfully, for more than two days. It was dawn on the 20th before a breach was, at last, made large enough for the desperate invaders to pour through.
            What followed was an orgy of killing, brutality, plunder and destruction on a scale that shocked the whole of Europe. Tilly’s troops swept through the city, completely out of control, mindlessly punishing a defenceless civilian population for their own sufferings. They broke into wine cellars and rapidly got drunk. Now they were not only savage beasts; they were insensible savage beasts, slaughtering every cowering man, woman or child they came across.
            Then came the fire. At the beginning of the onslaught, the imperialists had set fire to one of the city gates to stop it being closed again. Sparks were carried to the thatched roofs and timber-framed houses of the crammed streets. Within hours beautiful Magdeburg was in flames from one end to the other. The pile of smouldering ash took days to cool down and, when it did, the gaunt, blackened walls of the cathedral and a handful of other churches and public buildings stood like tombstones in a bleak, grey landscape. The city had to be rebuild almost from scratch. And the citizens? Their bodies lay piled in the streets. Survivors huddled together in groups for shelter, unwittingly spreading disease. There was no question of burying the dead. Eventually Tilly ordered all the remaining corpses to be thrown into the Elbe. For months afterwards the river was choked with putrid bodies.
            The siege of Magdeburg was one battle among many in this devastating war in which the Swedish army alone destroyed 1,500 German towns, 18,000 villages and 2,000 castles.
            2018 marks another anniversary. It is 80 years since one of the great historians of the twentieth century published the definitive and immensely readable history of the Thirty Years War. Dame Veronica Wedgewood’s verdict was unequivocal:
Morally subversive, economically destructive, socially degrading, confused in its causes, devious in its course, futile in its results, it is the outstanding example in European history of meaningless conflict.
            Only months after that was written, German troops marched into Poland. As we watch from the comfort of our armchairs the hideous events in Syria, we can comfort ourselves with the thought that we civilised Europeans would never do that sort of thing, can’t we?

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