The war is called the 30-year war and was generally a religious was with protestants pitted against catholics. The catholic, Habsburg emperor, wanted to take over the north German, protestant states, which they resisted. The protestant states lost their battles against the mighty emperor and asked the Swedish king for help. “The Lion from the North”, as he later was called, responded swiftly and landed with an army at the northern coast of Germany in 1630. A string of convincing victories followed, of which the battle of Breitenfeld, 1631, was the mightiest. Gustavus Adolphus crushed the emperor’s army and their commander, Tilly, had to flee, wounded, leaving all his baggage behind.
The Swedish army was at that time a highly modern war machine and introduced completely new techniques and tactics, developed and refined during recent wars in Russia, Poland and Denmark. The largest part of the army consisted of conscripted soldiers from Sweden and Finland (at that time Finland was a part of Sweden), which created a great spirit, more motivation and a moral higher ground. The Finnish cavalry, called the “Hakkapelits”, with its rugged peasant boys on small horses, was particularly feared by the catholics. But the protestant army also consisted of German soldiers from Barandenburg and Sachsen, Scots (the regiment of Macksay) and the usual mercenaries.
The Habsburg army relied on traditional values and tactics. The soldiers were largely mercenaries, without any loyalties than to their salary and came from all over Europe. The most feared unit were the Croats, led by their commander, Pappenheim. They took a heavy toll during the battle of Breitenfeld.
During the year that followed, Gustavus Adolphus liberated one protestant state after the other. Tilly finally fell during the siege of Lech.
Gustavus Adolphus became a hero and almost a saint in protestant Germany. Even to this day he is one of the most known Swedish figures in Germany, apart from Björn Borg and Queen Silvia.
The emperor feared that his own empire was in danger and decided to give the Swedish army a final blow. He called for Wallenstein who, though he was the best commander, earlier was dismissed. Wallenstein sat in the Royal Castle in Prague, looked at the stars and did alchemist experiments.
The two armies met again the 6th of November 1632 outside the little village of Lützen, just south of Leipzig. The catholics had time to organize their positions, while the protestants just slept in the fields. The Swedish king slept half lying in a wagon. The battlefield was covered with thick mist in the morning. The king led a morning mass and the whole army sang the traditional psalms. Soon the mist cleared and the two big armies attacked.
The protestant army was from the beginning hard pressed. The right wing began to crumble, so the king decided to send reinforcements, the Småland cavalry, which he led himself. But his big horse “Streiff” was faster than the farmer horses of the Småland cavalry, so he got separated from them. First he got shot in the arm, which hampered his ability to control the horse and fence at the same time. Suddenly he was surrounded by catholic soldiers and immediately got shot in the back. The king fell off his horse and got supported by Leubelfing, his footman, who in his turn also was wounded. The imperial soldiers demanded to know who this elegant man was, Leubelfing said nothing, but the king said he was the king of Sweden, which resulted in a swarm of pistol shots.
Meanwhile “Streiff”, wounded by a deep cut in the neck, ran back to the Swedish lines, where he felt at home. Seeing the very well known horse without his popular, royal rider, the soldiers and their commanders understood that the king was fallen. With a roar of revenge and frantic fighting the protestant army renewed their attacks and despite the arrival of the imperial general Pappenheim with reinforcements, the Catholics had to retreat.
The battle lasted all day and was a fierce and bloody affair, which was very costly for both sides. In the end of the day the catholic army was finally beaten and retreated from the battlefield. But the Swedes, however, had suffered the greatest loss. The king.
It is said that when the search parties looked for the body of the dead king in the night, lit by torches, they reached a place, which was dead silent. Bodies and dead horses lay in piles. A place where a terrible battle had taken place. Under a big pile of dead, they found the naked body of the king. The emperor’s soldiers had stripped him of everything. His bloodied clothes were later presented to the emperor Rudolph in Vienna, where they were kept until 1920, when they were returned to Sweden by Austria, as a thank for the humanitarian help after World War I. Leubelfing was found badly wounded, but lived a couple of days, to tell how the king fell.
The blood stained clothes and the stuffed “Streiff” can be seen today, in The Royal Armoury (Livrustkammaren) at the Royal Palace of Stockholm. There you also find the kings both pistols and epée.
This year I decided to stop in Lützen on the way from Munich to Sweden. My intention was to show this remarkable place to my wife and young sons. A history lesson on the spot.
Just south of Leipzig, there is a sign at the Autobahn, indicating Lützen. Coming from the south you have to pass the town of Lützen. The castle and the church are still there and the size of the town is pretty much the same as you see in the old etchings from the 17th century. The only difference is that in the pictures of the battle, the town is seen burning.
After a couple of kilometres you reach the memorial( Denkmal Gustaf II Adolf). The first thing you see is a big stone (Schwedenstein), indicating the place where Gustavus Adolphus fell, just at the side of the road. The same road existed in 1632, since it is the only connection to Leipzig from Lützen. And the two armies fought for the road
Over the stone, with the initials GA and 1632, a big iron baldachin, is erected. The great German artist and architect Schinkel designed the baldachin in 1837. Behind the stone is a fairly big memory chapel in Jugend style, erected 1907 by the foundation of Consul Oscar Ekman in Gothenburg.
Further back, as a Swede, you are suddenly transported back home. Two typical houses in traditional Dalecarlia style, painted red, with white corners and windowsills. In one house, which was put in place 1932 they, there is a little museum and the lodging of the caretaker. The big Swedish pulp company, Mo & Domsjö put the other house in place in 1984.
In January1991, nearly one year after the fall of the communist wall, I visited Lützen on my way to Munich. East Germany looked very poor and gloomy. Nobody smiled and it was an air of suspicion. It was in January, raining and a light mist over the fields. It was exactly the right mood, nearly like the day of the battle.
At that time the place was fairly simple. I did not see any road signs, which indicated the place and just got sight of the Schwedenstein by chance. The parking lot was just gravel and the museum was not much to see.
The caretaker was an old man who described the battle with vivid gestures and pointed out the directions, where the different regiments had come. It was quite moving. He also told me, how he during the latest war had to go out and wave the Swedish flag twice and say that the place was under Swedish protection. First to the Americans, and when they retreated, to the Russians. Both armies wanted to plunder the place.
Now the memorial was quite different. It was easy to find, thanks to new road signs. The parking lot was paved and a new board had come up, describing the different phases of the battle. The iron fence around the chapel, as well as Schinkels baldachin, was newly painted grey.
The museum was remade and very good, describing the 30-year war and the battle of Lützen in a nice and pedagogic way. The memorial had gotten a facelift in 1994, and had been re-inaugurated by the Swedish king, Carl XVI Gustaf.
The Chapel is wonderful, with its heavy, Jugend decoration. You see the Swedish and Finnish flags, as well as the flag of Gothenburg, the city that Gustavus Adolphus founded. Over the altar there is a painting, a triptych, with angels in the middle and Martin Luther and Gustavus Adolphus at each side. The windows are decorated with the arms of each Swedish general, who took part in the battle.
We were not allowed to go into the Chapel alone, as I did the first time I came. Instead a German guide heralded us round. Probably they are afraid of thieves or vandals.
There were quite a lot of tourists. The ladies in the reception told us that many Swedes came to see the place. What I missed was a café. Instead we had to eat our pick-nick at a table, not very well placed, in the parking lot. Perhaps the Ekman Foundation could find a nicer place? At the side of the memorial was a kind of little zoo for children, an awkward place for a zoo.
But the memorial of Lützen is really a place to see. I strongly recommend you to take an hour of your time, if you pass Leipzig. If you drive on the Autobahn, you have to take a brake anyhow.
Written by Erik Edelstam