One of the most successful German Protestant generals, Bernhard was extremely influential during the middle part of the war, especially in the years following Gustav Adolf’s death in battle. He’s also an intriguing and somewhat controversial figure, and another one who made me feel the Thirty Years War had some excellent fodder for fiction. Also, his name isn’t Christian- Yay!
The 11th son of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, Bernhard showed an early aptitude for the military. Like many of his class, he received an excellent education, but by the age of eighteen, had joined the war effort on the Protestant side, along with his older brother, Wilhelm. He then fought under King Christian IV of Denmark, and was quick to join Gustav Adolf when he came on the scene.
After the big Swedish victory at Breitenfeld, Bernhard joined Gustav’s armies in his march to the Rhine. He was given numerous independent commands, and led operations all over western Germany, venturing as far south as Tyrol. Energetic and capable, he was a good fit for the Swedish meritocratic war machine. He distinguished himself at the failed attack on Wallenstein at the battle for Alte Veste, but his big moment came at the battle of Lützen.
Facing the formidable Wallenstein once more, and with word of Gustav Adolf’s death spreading through the ranks, things looked grim for the Swedish-German army. But Bernhard took over the whole operation, rallying the forces, and pulling out a victory anyway. This was unexpected. Still in his twenties, Bernhard was far from senior commander on the field, and had to shoot a colonel who refused to lead his men back into battle.
In spite of this, Bernhard remained subordinate to his brother Wilhelm, but only for a short time. He soon had an independent command, and later successfully invaded Bavaria together with Swedish General Gustav Horn. His personal fortunes increased greatly during this time as he received two wealthy bishoprics as spoils of war. A stalwart Protestant, Bernhard ruthlessly exacted heavy contributions from the Catholic territories he conquered. That, combined with his many victories soon gave him the reputations as defender of the Protestant faith.
Bernhard suffered a great setback at the Battle of Nördlingen, in which the imperial side nearly wiped out the combined forces of Bernhard and General Horn. By then however, France had openly entered the war, and Bernhard went to work for them. This created some difficulties. On the one hand, Bernhard was commander-in-chief of the Heilbronn League, a Protestant alliance, but on the other, he was a French military employee.
Bernhard then pursued a somewhat tricky dual policy, which called his loyalty into question on both sides. Regarded by many as a German patriot, that role was less convincing when Bernhard led campaigns clearly benefiting French interests. A wily negotiator, Bernhard was able to manage Cardinal Richelieu as well, always keeping the French from boxing him into a corner. As a much-younger son of a small German duchy, Bernhard had considerable territorial ambitions, and insisted on receiving Hagenau and Alsace as prizes for his many victories.
Generally treated as a close friend and ally by the French, Bernhard still caused them plenty of headaches. So when he died of a fever at age 34, there were plenty who suspected Richelieu’s hand in the matter. Historians don’t think so however, C.V. Wedgwood says that while Bernhard wasn’t docile, he was still an incredibly valuable French ally. It was also rather common for people to die young back then, so a man who’d pushed himself relentlessly his whole adult life being struck down by disease was neither suspicious nor unheard of.
His death caused a power vacuum on the Rhine, and his army, known as the Bernardines, was considered an important prize, with various German interests competing for it with the French. The French prevailed however, absorbing it into the French military and returning the territories he’d conquered to their control as well.
Though the the war continued another nine years, Bernhard was the last of the really big figures that dominated it. Numerous Swedish, French and imperial generals continued to distinguish themselves, building impressive careers, but by the time of Bernhard’s death, the war had taken on a more fragmented quality, and was never again influenced by one big personality in quite the same way.by