History comes to life in this article from Der Spiegel. I’ve been researching the decades of the Thirty Years War for some time now, and I’m writing a chapter that takes place about 60 miles from Lutzen, Germany, as the crow flies. My novel has little to do with the war, but the conflict engulfed most of Northern Europe from 1618-1648, and no citizen was untouched by its horror.
The morning of November 16, 1632 was foggy, so the mass killing could only begin after some delay. It wasn’t until midday that the mist cleared, finally allowing the Protestant army of Sweden’s King Gustav II Adolf to attack the Roman Catholic Habsburg imperial army led by Albrecht von Wallenstein. The slaughter lasted for hours in the field at the Saxon town of Lützen.
“In this battle the only rule that applied was, ‘him or me,'” says Maik Reichel. “It was better to stab your opponent one extra time just to ensure there was no chance of him standing up again.” The historian and former German parliamentarian for the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) is standing at the edge of a field on the outskirts of Lützen. After the battles here, the ground was soaked with blood. “About 20,000 men fought on each side and between 6,000 and 9,000 were killed,” estimates Reichel, who heads the museum in the city castle.
The battle is important only because it resulted in the death of Sweden’s king. A hands-on leader, he fought with his men at the front. Known as the Lion of the North, it was said that “he thinks the ship cannot sink that carries him.” After his death, the war dragged on for another 16 years, the Swedish forces under various generals directed by Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna.
The Catholic forces in 1632 were led by Albrecht Wallenstein, who was assassinated in 1634, after being charged with treason by the Holy Roman Emperor.
The chapter in my novel occurs in 1639, after the first Battle of Frieburg was lost by Protestant forces under General Johan Baner.
Except for the frost, Uncle Heinrich’s face looked the same dead as it had alive.
“At least death has a sense of humor,” James said. The man’s body was grotesquely animated, much like his face had been during life. It was as if the laughing north wind had frozen him solid, pistol in upraised hand, legs churning toward victory, the moment the enemy musket ball pierced his chest. He’d known since last night that his uncle was dead. The corpse was mere proof.
“Do you want to bury him? It’ll take him awhile to thaw out,” said Conrad.
“Yes,” said James, shivering in the cold dawn air, “but don’t bother waiting. I think he’d rather be buried just as he is, going down fighting. Where are you digging the graves?”
“Grave. Over where we had the fire last night. The ground is too hard anywhere else. General Baner says to dig one big pit and throw them all in.”
“He’s a son of a bitch, but for once I agree with him.” James picked up the cold handles of the wheelbarrow and struggled to push it over the rugged earth.
Conrad grabbed Heinrich’s outstretched arm to steady the wheelbarrow, and laughed. “He always was one to lend a hand!”
James negotiated the rows of dead and their bearers. “Looks like about two hundred. How many more?”
“Five hundred total, or so they tell me. And we didn’t even take the town.”
“Son of a bitch.” He tipped his uncle into the dead regiment. Sweaty men swung picks and swore at the frozen earth. James used his sleeve to wipe the sweat from his own forehead. “Has anyone told Baner how stupid that was?”
“Probably as stupid as trying to dig this pit.”
“So you’d rather just leave these men to rot where they lay?”
“And you’d prefer to complain about orders when the general’s wife is sick? If you thought the attack was futile …”
“Baner just killed five hundred of our men, including my uncle.” James spit the words into the freezing air and pulled the collar of his coat closer.
“He killed five thousand last month. Don’t compound your problems. No good will come of it. Say a prayer for Heinrich and let’s get back to the tent.”
Down the line, men were stripping the bodies of useful gear. James bent over Heinrich and tugged on the sleeve of the dead man’s overcoat. “Give me a hand.”
Conrad giggled, squatted down, and together they wrangled the coat from the contorted body. “Do you want the boots?”
“Yeah. We wear the same size.” James pulled one of the boots, but it wouldn’t budge. “Hold him steady. Damn thing is frozen on.” He pulled again and the boot came free with a cracking sound. The sock remained. He pulled the other one off and stood with it in his hand. The idea of stripping Heinrich to his bare frozen flesh was repulsive.
“That’s it. Leave the rest. ”
“Aren’t you going to say a prayer?” Conrad waited, greatcoat over his arm, the bloody hole staring at the world in condemnation.
“Okay. I suppose it’s what Heinrich would have wanted.” James considered his uncle’s wounds, so bright in life, livid blue-gray in death. He looked up, desiring to see the sky but confronted only by the carnal fog that had followed them since Chemnitz.
“Lord.” The first consonant stuck on his tongue, repulsing the wave of sounds that came after, then collapsing in submission. A rage of angels blew trumpets in his head and a prayer arrived with the attack. “Babylon, you are doomed! I pray the Lord’s blessings on anyone who punishes you for what you did to us. May the Lord bless everyone who beats your children against the rocks!”
James turned abruptly away, hating his shameful tears. The dead regiment lay at attention as a mounted officer rode into the clearing. “Leave the dead! We’re moving out!”
A cry of protest rose from the men.
“The ground is too hard!” the officer shouted. “We’ll bury them after the thaw! Now move out!”