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The Lessons of
Schiller's "Wallenstein" Trilogy
for Today

by Nancy Spannaus
December, 2001

This article first appeared in New Federalist newspaper. The author is the Editor in Chief of the New Federalist newspaper, as well as author of the book "The Political Economy of the American Revolution." Nancy Spannaus is a well known political figure; her campaigns for office in Virginia caused the defeat of Ollie North in 1994, and she is the head of the FDR-PAC, the LaRouche wing of the Democratic Party. She is a founding member of the Schiller Institute.

Coming into the Christmas period, with the Holy Land exploding in a religious conflict that threatens to spread imminently to global dimensions, one would be wise to turn to the poet/historian Friedrich Schiller for guidance. In the Prologue to his Wallenstein Trilogy, a set of plays devoted to exploring this central character in Europe's Thirty Years' War of religious mayhem, Schiller (who also produced an authoritative historical study of the Thirty Years' War) directly stated the purpose of his play:

"For only great affairs will have the power
To stimulate mankind's first principles;
Thus in a narrow sphere the mind contracts,
But man grows great along with greater goals."

We'll usefully take Schiller's advice, by looking at the current Middle East-centered crisis, outside that "narrow sphere." Let's look instead at the "first principles" as they were reflected in the Wallenstein case, and put forward by Schiller in the art form which highlights the lasting truths, and see their relevance for today.

The Dynamic of Religious War

The Thirty Years' War in Europe, which devastated the region of Germany and adjacent Southeastern Europe between 1618 and 1648, pitted the Hapsburg-dominated Holy Roman Empire against the Protestant nations, the Protestant principalities, and the nation of France. Like the religious conflict of "Jew" versus "Muslim" today, the ideological and highly emotional conflict was being manipulated for cynical geopolitical reasons by powers with little interest in religion. But on the ground, populations were riled up to fight, neighbor against neighbor, or be exiled, or slaughtered, on the basis of whether they were Lutheran, or Roman Catholic.

A similar "fundamentalist" mentality was evident in the Hapsburg Emperor Ferdinand II, who prosecuted the first 18 years of the war. He was quoted as saying about his domain: "Better a desert than a land full of heretics."

The conduct of the war itself hardly demonstrated any high-minded principles, however. Much of it was conducted by huge mercenary armies, put together by commanders with a great deal of personal wealth, supplemented by the local princes, or the Emperor. The additional incentive for those joining the army was the right to booty. Ultimately, the only source of "wealth" left in large swaths of Germany (then a mere grouping of principalities), was the right to loot agricultural produce, and other accumulations of wealth. "Honest toil," as in today's world of criminal speculative wealth, brought no reward at all.

Schiller dramatizes this reality in the first play of his Trilogy, "Wallenstein's Camp." Here he shows the various armed bands who have come together under the Thirty Years' War's most famous commander, Count Albrecht Wallenstein, a Bohemian Protestant who became a Catholic, and served Emperor Ferdinand with his own armed force from 1625 until his assassination in 1634. In the banter, you see the way in which the population itself, from peasant hangers-on, to well-trained cavalry forces, have been corrupted by the dynamic of constant war. The scramble for personal survival, momentary pleasure, loyalty to the paymaster, conflicts among competing groupings, and the dire condemnations from a monk alleging to represent the Emperor's view, are all depicted.

One cannot help but be reminded of the dehumanization which has characterized modern religious warfare, such as that between Muslims and Christians in the Balkans, and between Jews and Muslims in Israel and the Occupied Territories. Neighbors are all of a sudden raping each other, and slashing each other's throats—whether for money, or religion, it's all the same. The shooting of children in cold blood, which would have been abhorrent before, no matter what nationality the child, is all of a sudden acceptable. An IDF officer described the transformation caused by such a war to Israeli journalist Ze'ev Schiff: 'At first, I was shaken by every Arab death, especially if a child had been killed. But the more time passed and the more people died, the more I noticed that I wasn't reacting anymore, that I just didn't care.... I had become calloused, just like everyone else."

Wallenstein himself had led his troops into carrying out similar atrocities, including participation in the horrors committed at Magdeburg, where the siege by the Catholic Alliance, and subsequent rampage, led to the extermination of all but 5,000 of the original 30,000 inhabitants of the town. And Schiller makes it clear, from the Prologue on, that this kind of army life had captured and corrupted Wallenstein:

"It is his power that has seduced his heart,
It is his camp that can explain his crime."

The Prospects for Peace

Yet, Wallenstein's crime is not the actual subject of the dramas. What the Trilogy takes up is the crucial period in 1634 when Wallenstein was in negotiations with the Swedes, against the will of the Emperor, in the hopes of bringing at least part of the process of unending war and looting to an end. When we come into the play, the Emperor has already discovered Wallenstein's peace "treachery," and determined that he shall be eliminated on that account, so that the war against the "infidel" (meaning Protestant Christians) can go on.

As Lyndon LaRouche has pointed out, the decision of the Emperor to murder Wallenstein amounted to treason against all mankind—by ensuring for no reason, that a genocidal war proceed for another 14 years.

Wallenstein's move to establish a "separate peace" with the Swedes was not derived from unadulterated motives, of course, and his implementation of the plan involved playing on the baser elements of his army leadership, in ways that undermined his positive intent. Wallenstein was ambitious, and intended to use the fact that the Emperor had been dependent upon him, to assert his authority, and make himself king in a part of the Empire.

But, in Schiller's development of the conflict, there is also presented a glimmer of the vision which the Count had, of replacing the horrors of the religious war of each against all, with peace and security for all. In defending his role to the Emperor's emissary von Questenberg, Wallenstein refers to the fact that the Emperor was forced by necessity to reinstate Wallenstein in command, after having dismissed him two years before in humiliation, and then says:

"Of course, the Emperor gave me this staff,
But now I bear it as the general of
The Empire, use it for the common weal,
And not for the aggrandizement of one!"

Later, in his attempt to win over a section of his troops to his plan to make peace with the Swedes, Wallenstein describes why the troops should support him against the will of the Emperor:

"You'll never live to see the fighting end.
This war will swallow up each one of us.
Well, Austria desires no peace, so I
Must fall, because I go in quest of peace.
What's it to Austria if this long war
Destroys the armies and lays waste the world?
It only aims to grow and gain more land....
The Swedes have promised help, so let us seem
To use it until we are frightening
To both and can control the fate of Europe,
Then from this camp to a rejoicing world
We will present a peace already crowned....
My aim is for the whole. You see, I have
A heart, I have compassion for the
German people.
You are but common men, but still your thoughts
Are not so common, and more than the others
You rate a confidential word from me.
The torch of war has burned for fifteen years,
It never stops. The Swedes and Germans, Papists
And Lutherans! Not one of them will yield
To any other. Every hand is raised
Against the other. Each one has his side.
No one can judge. When will it end and who
Untie the knot that endlessly adds to
Itself? -- It must be cut in pieces now.
I feel I am a man of destiny
And hope with your help to accomplish it."

The Murder of Peace?

Wallenstein was not able to meet that destiny, it turned out, as the Emperor's emissaries are able to convince the small-minded, jealous, venal men around the General to carry out his assassination. He was an ambiguous figure, but the result of his murder was unambiguous—the grinding on of the devastating war.

That outcome, the loss of an extraordinary individual, brings us back to the situation of the Middle East today. There are clear parallels between the victorious General Wallenstein, and the late Israeli General, and Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and their fates. Rabin too, prosecuted war relentlessly against his enemy, the Palestinians, for decades, until he finally came to the conclusion that repression would never win the peace. At that point he had to change his approach, and begin negotiations with his former enemy, Yasser Arafat, for the sake of the survival of both Israel and Palestine—and many others.

Then, Rabin was assassinated—an act that has condemned Israel, as well as the Palestinians, to at least six more years of bloody war, and perhaps much more, if the leadership inside and outside Israel, does not change its course.

What is required today is the process which Wallenstein himself could not carry out, the Peace of Westphalia of 1648. In that treaty, the principle on the table was that of sovereign nation-states coming together around a commitment to forgiving each other's crimes, and building the basis for a lasting peace, which will be in both their interests. Today, that principle waits to be asserted, starting with the United States.

The alternative is worse than a new Thirty Years' War—it's a collapse of civilization for at least a century to come.

Related Pages:
Peace of Westphalia
Rabin Versus Sharon

See Also:
Schiller In America
Verdi and Schiller
Translations of Other Great Thinkers
Moses Mendelssohn on The Life of Socrates
Moses Mendelssohn and the Bach Tradition

Fidelio Magazine Table of Contents
BOOKS page

Works by Schiller Online:
Schiller's Poetry
Of the Sublime ~ Toward the Further Elaboration of Some Kantian Ideas
On the Sublime

The Philosophy of Physiology (1779) excerpts
Love, Virtue, Friendship
On Epic and Dramatic Poetry
Kallias, or on the Beautiful


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