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The War Nerd / April 22, 2011

Seems like I ought to do something religious today, so I picked a battle from the the ultimate military expression of religious devotion: The Thirty Years War (1618-1648), Europe’s way of debating the Catholic vs. Protestant thing by counting corpses.

And since I’ve had a few requests to sing the glories of the Swedish Empire, such as it was, I picked the first great Swedish victory: Breitenfeld, September 17, 1631.

Breitenfeld apparently isn’t much now, a suburb of Leipzig in what used to be East Germany. They’ve even run an autobahn across the battle site, thought I guess in a cramped country like what’s left of Germany, you can’t exempt battle sites or you couldn’t build a driveway without zigzags. But for a few hours, about four centuries back, Breitenfeld was the center of the world.

First we have to set the scene a little, which is where religion comes in. Comes in with cannons blazing and civilians massacred, as usual. If you’re looking for a testimonial to the power of faith for your next sermon, preacher, stop right here. Those primitive bucketheads, using nothing more advanced than cannon that were like big rock-throwers, managed to do a job on Germany it took centuries to overcome (at which time the Germans did it to themselves all over again, for free). Faith can move mountains, we all know that, but did you know that faith also managed to exterminate three-fourths of the population in some German provinces, like Baden-Wurttemberg?

You can’t get a death rate like that without divine help.

The Thirty Years War disembowelled Germany, which covered most of Central Europe in the 17th century. I came across some German poem, surprisingly good for a poem, about the war, something like, “For three years running the river has been dammed with corpses.” (Anybody know that poem? I’d like to quote it properly but I can’t find it.)

30 Years War: Strange Fruit, Euro-Style

Most of the dead weren’t killed in battle. They died when the army their local princeling had put his bets down on lost. The soldiers on the losing side could flee—and they did, usually, with no delay at all, since they were mostly foreigners. But the villagers couldn’t flee or they’d starve—no Oxfam for those peasant refugees. They had to stay while mercenary scum, just utter scum, sadistic at a level that would make Liberia look like a Quaker Teachers’ College, poured into the farmlands and had themselves a good time in the name of whichever god and/or king they were paid by. Rape went without saying. Murder, standard practice. Famine, plague—guaranteed, once these filthy bastards swarmed through.

After a while the soldiers got bored with ordinary killing and started using their imaginations. Sometimes just to pass the time, sometimes to get the peasants to tell where they’d buried their grain or bacon. One of the new tortures that was a favorite of the scum who followed the Swedish army around during its victory march through southern Germany from 1630-35 gave a new word to the German language: “Schwedentrunk,” “Swedish drink,” the direct ancestor of the American-made “waterboarding.” Except waterboarding isn’t torture, at least not til Christopher Hitchens tries it, but if it was torture, it’d be the same torture as the Swedish Drink.

When the Swedish camp followers would catch a German peasant and suspect that he was holding out on them—or if they were just bored—they’d tie the poor misfortunate bastard to a table and mix up a cocktail of ditch water, shit and piss. Then they’d put a funnel in his mouth and pour the stinking mess down him til his belly swole up and he passed out. Then they’d hit his gut with sticks or just kick him while he rolled around trying to scream. You just don’t get Lutherans like that these days. Or Catholics like the ones who took the German Protestant city of Magdeburg on May 20, 1631, killing 25,000 out of 30,000 citizens in one day—again, not bad for the level of technology they had at the time.
The Catholic commander that day, Papenheim, was so proud he just had to boast:

“I consider it cost the city more than 20,000 souls, and most certainly no greater horrors and divine justice have been seen since the Destruction of Jerusalem. All our soldiers have become rich men.”

See? Stuff like this is why I have to laugh when Dixie whiners complain about Sherman. If only they knew what the real rough stuff is like, they’d have his picture in a little shrine as Kwan-Yin Sherman, God of Mercy.

To see what real harsh treatment of civilians means, check Papenheim’s cold-blooded segue to that last sentence, “All our soldiers have become rich men.” All part of God’s plan, and in case you didn’t know, God is a Cat’lic and goes to Mass, not Church.

Gustavus praying after Breitenfeld: Looka them killers on their knees!

In fact (here’s a smooth little segue of my own; Papenheim’ s not the only smooth writer type around here), it was the total horror of Magdeburg that helped the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus win at the battle of Breitenfeld. Relieving the siege of Magdeburg was the official reason Gustavus Adolphus had landed his army in Germany, but they arrived too late. It may have worked out better that way for the Swedes, though not for the poor ol’ Magdeburg-ites, because when the surviving German Protestants heard what had happened when the Catholic soldiers-of-God slaughtered and raped their way into Magdeburg, they finally realized they’d have to fight back. And when those same Imperial armies—meaning a hard core of mercenaries followed by all the two-legged plague-bearing rats in Europe—swarmed over Saxony, one of the few parts of Germany that hadn’t been destroyed yet, the Elector of Saxony, John George I, put his 10,000 men together with Gustavus’s 25,000 Swedes and 7000-odd assorted Germans.

The Imperial Army under Tilly (Wallenstein had been thanked and shoved offstage because he was getting too popular for the Emperor’s liking) had about 35,000, so the difference wasn’t much. Especially because the Saxon troops turned out to be totally worthless, breaking and running as soon as the battle started.

The Swedes were something else, something weird. Well, Swedes are weird anyway, but Swedish weirdness hit a glorious peak in the 17th century, when the Swedish “zombie” troops marched across Germany and the Baltics. That’s how opposing troops thought of them, “zombies,” because they didn’t flinch under musket fire, didn’t show any expression at all. Like I said: Typical Swedes. Until they appeared, the class of European armies was the Spanish infantry. Most European armies would just drop their weapons and flee when they heard Spanish infantry was the opposition. The Spanish fought in a sort of modern phalanx, the Tercio (“Thirds”), with a mix of three types of arms to deal with any combination of cavalry or infantry attack: Swordsmen to hack through massed pike formations, pikemen to fend off cavalry, and musketmen to deliver shock volleys to charging cavalry and opposing infantry.

At the time of the Battle of Breitenfeld, the tercio was still considered the last word in infantry formations. It was a big, slow, but unstoppable hunk of steel that was sometimes called “The Spanish Square,” meant to have 3000 men but usually advancing with about half that. European armies before the French Revolution were so loose about recruiting and desertion that every formation, including the tercio, had to have noncoms forming a line across the rear to whack deserters back into the line. Not the Swedes, though. They just scowled their way forward, just as happy to get it over with. Maybe they knew their descendants would have to watch Ingmar Bergman movies like the one they made us watch in Social Studies, which—and I swear to God I’m not making this up—consisted of about three hours of this woman dying of cancer and screaming every now and then, and in between the screaming fits just lying there in bed with this clock tick-tocking at about 200 decibels. Maybe Gustav’s pikemen could see that coming and were hoping for a musket ball in the forehead. At any rate, they freaked other European soldiers right out. The Spanish would charge you too, but they’d do it sweating and calling you a heretic hijo de puta, showing a little team spirit. Not the Swedes; mope, hack, sulk, hack, frown, hack, that was them. Creeped people right out.

They had a couple of other things going for them in this battle, things the Imperial forces weren’t expecting. First, the Swedes had been fighting on the Eastern Front against Polish/Lithuanian cavalry, some of the best around, and they’d perfected combined-arms tactics on the Polish plains. Second, they were organized in battalions of about 600 men instead of Tercios three times or four times that size. And they were more heavily armed than the infantry in the Imperial tercios, because one of the combined-arms lessons learned Gustav brought back from Poland was that if you used these new, light (relatively light) artillery pieces, you could wheel them along right with the infantry in the battalions, and when you stacked your musketeers four or five deep and added the firepower of cannon firing homemade grapeshot, you could stop any cavalry charge or infantry advance dead in its tracks. And the small size of the battalion, compared to the Tercio, made for a thinner, longer line, with more guns sprouting from it. Dangerous when edged weapons and cavalry ruled the battlefield but a good idea as firepower improved for the infantry.

17th-c. field piece: Long-barrelled Claymore

Gustavus was a true pioneer in the use of field artillery, mobile artillery. The guns he used look ridiculous; some were so crude they used leather to hold a copper barrel together, and let me tell you, if somebody was going to fire one of those anywhere near me I’d want to be sure he measured out the powder charge with a teaspoon. But they could be carried by a couple of horses, or a half-dozen Swedes if horses were scarce, so the Swedish had a lot more tubes, operating a lot closer to the front line, than their opponents. These pieces had no range or accuracy, but loaded with forks and spoons, they were Hell up close; think of them as early Claymore mines, more than artillery. (You can see some of those pieces at this recreation site.)

The Imperial officer corps still thought of artillery as fixed: Incredibly heavy, thick barrels (because metallurgy wasn’t up to much yet) that you planted on a good spot overlooking the battlefield and hoped to turn toward the action, wherever it went. They had it all figured out, they thought: You use your cavalry to attack, your infantry to defend, and your artillery to make a lot of noise. Gustavus had other ideas.

The battle didn’t go that well for the Swedes and their Saxon friends at first. The Imperial cavalry, under the same Papenheim who sang a joyful tune at the Sack of Magedburg, crushed the Swedes’ Saxon allies. They ran like cheap mascara.

That should’ve been the end of the battle. The horse hacks down the Swedish infantry flank, the Swedes run…it’s all over. Not this time. The smaller, more mobile battalion structure made it easier for the Swedes to refuse their line in the classic right-angle defense against a collapsed flank. By the time the Saxons had said, “Auf weidersein!” the Swedes were in a new line, holding off the cavalry. That was NOT supposed to happen, and it freaked the troopers out.
Then Gustavus led his own cavalry, toughened on the Eastern Front, against the Imperial flanks. They swarmed the huge artillery tubes and turned them on the Imperial Tercios, which were now advancing against the Swedish line. God, what a target that must have been: 2000 heavily armed men marching in close order, a huge mass of crunchy flesh, bone and metal.

Artillery in the early 17th century didn’t fire exploding shells, of course, and didn’t have the muzzle velocity that was possible later, when stronger metals went into the tubes. In fact, artillery generally aimed to hit infantry on the bounce, because a huge metal ball bouncing through massed soldiery killed far more than a single fly-by. When one of those asteroids hit a Tercio, everything turned into shrapnel: meat, bones, metal. In fact, late in the battle Tilly was wounded when a piece of one of his own men’s smashed pike, crunched by a cannonball, slammed into his face.

So all the Swedish cavalry had to do, once they overran the enemy tubes, was turn them a few degrees and start firing. Those huge metal marbles rolled right through the tercios, demonstrating the formation’s fatal flaw in a few bad seconds. Bowling fer Catholics!

The Tercios were now caught in a classic crossfire, with the Swedish line, thinned out to give firing room to as many men as possible, pouring musket balls and grape at them, and the Imperial artillery sending slow-lob metal maiming balls right through their ranks.

17th-c. view of Breitenfeld: If you can see it, you’ve got better eyes than me.

They broke and surrendered, or died. Four out of five were killed or captured and for a while, the Imperial forces had no army at all. And that’s how the glory days of the Schwedentrunk came to southern Germany in a epic battle betwixt two defunct religions. But you have to admit, the leather cannon were pretty cool.

Hey Nerdoids and Nerdettes! Note Gary Brecher’s functioning email: gary dot brecher at gmail dot com

Would you like to know more? Gary Brecher is the author of the War Nerd. Send your comments to gary dot brecher at gmail dot com. Read Gary Brecher’s first ever War Nerd column by clicking here.

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Add your own

  • 1. UNTRUE FINN  |  April 24th, 2011 at 1:21 am

    Awwww brecher, no mention of the Finnish troops that participated, the glorious HAKKAPELIITAT? The King remarked affectionally that he could make out the HAKKAPELIITAT among his men by their stink. The Germans did forgive us for our warcrimes thogh and teid to ‘help’ us out against the Soiviet during WW II but that didn’t go quite according to the plan. At the end of the mess the beaten Finns were forced by the victorioius soviets to kick out the loser Germans who didn’t appreciate that and thus burned down the whole of Lapland whilst exiting.

  • 2. Lord Marshall  |  April 24th, 2011 at 4:29 am

    If you fall here, now, you’ll never rise. But if you choose another way, the Necromonger way…

  • 3. Lurker  |  April 24th, 2011 at 6:05 am

    Two points I’d like to note. The Swedes were not unusual only for their tactics. They had also a very unusual pay-structure: most of the domestic troops were actually draftees, with very little pay. Of course, there were also ample numbers of mercenaries from Scotland and other countries, but the core of the Swedish army was formed out of drafted peasants.

    The other point I’d like to note: Swedes did have a very good logistics organization, for that time. They actually made rolls on the villages and farmhouses of the occupied area and plundered everything quite methodically. This is much more efficient than simply robbing things. (In the early 16th century, Sweden already had the most developed bureacracy of the Western world. The Prussians learned that from the Swedes.)

  • 4. myffie  |  April 24th, 2011 at 8:51 pm

    This is the most fun war nerd article in a while. And the comments are really good too. I’m having a good time!

  • 5. Ad  |  April 25th, 2011 at 3:29 am

    So they broke and ran leaving more troops dead or captured than the amount actually present at the battle? Seems very likely.

  • 6. Trevor  |  April 25th, 2011 at 6:26 am

    It is damn good to see the Thirty Years War getting propper attention. There were alot of firsts and lasts in this war — first mass use of firearms, last major religious war in western Europe — but you hardly ever hear about it! And it’s particularly relevant now because this also marked the transition from mercenaries to standing armies in the late 17th to early 18th centuries — something that’s going in reverse these days.

  • 7. Korman643  |  April 25th, 2011 at 7:22 am

    #55 Ad:

    Kahlenberg’s basically right with those numbers.

    Charles of Sweden had 24000 people fighting at Poltava (this includes Mazeppa’s cossacks) + an indefinite number in the rear. 9000 got killed in battle, and 3000 got captured immediately. Another 12000 (including a part of the Swedish Army who had not fought the actual battle) got captured when the Russian went in pursuit. The Swedish army collapsed in its entirety and was totally annihilated.

    The Russians lost only 1300 soldiers, quite a bargain.

  • 8. Korman643  |  April 25th, 2011 at 8:00 am

    Few additional comments here and there:

    First – I believe that more than for Ingmar Bergman, Sweden must be remembered and thanked for this

    one of today’s music last few lines of defence against irrelevancy

    (and I believe that the 30 Years War mercenaries connection makes more sense here)


    @14 KA74: The WN is right when he says that Liberia is a joke compared to 30YW. It’s very difficult to convey the scale of that “thing”, but just think about this – in Liberia technically you may jump on a low cost flight and (technically) get the fuck outta there – it’s a regional crisis after all. The 30 Years War was a continental catastrophe on every account – political, miltary, economical, medical and even climatological. It was literally like Mad Max II but with more atrocities, the plague and shitty climate on the top of that. And lasted almost 40 years (combat didn’t subside after Westphalia of course), which means basically two generation one after the other, considering the lifespan in continental Europe during XVII century. Everyone talks about the Black Plague in XIV century, but that was short (three years in Europe), and basically the result of a huge Malthusian crisis, which left the survivors with 10 times the food and resources they had before. After the Swedish campaign, Central Europe looked like Mars after a tsunami. The psychological thrauma was sooooo huge that even aristocracy and politicians began to notice, and the conduct of war after Rocroi changed immensely – if you check wars like Grand Alliance, Spanish or Austrian Succession etc, the battles and sieges were immensely bloody, but the amount of ass raping of local resouces fell considerably.

    Other sign that it was a BIG war – it secularized continental Europe for a long time after two centuries of religious based conflicts.

    #18. mario_croatia: Agreed. Crotian troops had a fearsome reputation that got on at least until the mid-XVIII century. Croatians got used for instance during the siege of Verrua Savoia in 1705 (War of the Spanish Succession) and very rapidly got such a fierce name among allied and foes (in this case the French) that even Vittorio Amedeo II (who was not exactly a peace-nik) apparently felt they had crossed some serious atrocity threshold. BTW it appears they used to castrate their prisoners quite regularly.

  • 9. Padilla  |  April 25th, 2011 at 4:46 pm


    Croatians… Little cowardly mercenaries, but very brave at butchering unarmed civilians.

    Nothing new here… Euromorons at their worst (Balkan-style, and this is saying plenty.)

  • 10. Kahlenberg  |  April 26th, 2011 at 1:12 am

    #55 Ad. I have checked more carefully: according to Englund and al. casualties and size of the opposing armies are more or less as Korman643 reports. Thanx to you both and sorry for the inaccuracies.

  • 11. John  |  April 27th, 2011 at 11:55 pm

    When is the War Nerd going to publish his second book? And third? :) Your columns are an essential part of my knowledge of world history.

  • 12. Carpenter  |  May 12th, 2011 at 10:18 am

    A few things to add:

    (1) No Swedes watch Ingmar Bergman. He is just someone the Marxists in universities love because he made state-funded movies that were Nothing Like Hollywood And Therefore More Real And Better. Don’t think that has anything to do with normal people in Sweden. Everybody hates that guy.

    (2) Gustavus Adolphus was the fancy Latinized name they used in foreign books. The king’s real name was Gustaf II Adolf. Yep, Adolf was a common Swedish name, among kings as well. Not too politically correct to mention in an un-demonized way these days.

    (3) The Spaniards planned to build a military port in the Baltic Sea, as part of their plan to crush Protestantism once and for all. Good thing the Swedish army came along and took hundreds of German cities from the Catholic invaders, because Catholicism is as batshit crazy as the Judaism is comes from. More relaxed, less bombastic, less centrally-controlled Protestantism suits the North European temperament better.

    (4) The Swedish army received funding from France. Although the French were so-so Catholic, and therefore couldn’t openly fight on the North’s side, they had no love for the Spanish Empire and didn’t wish to be surrounded by the Spaniards.

  • 13. Carpenter  |  May 12th, 2011 at 10:40 am

    DrunkDan says: “As someone with numerous Swedish relatives I can verily report that they still are total unemotive fucking zombies.” –Complete bullshit. I’m a Swede myself, and I recognize typical ignorant bullshit when I see it. I suppose all Americans walk around in cowboy hats with six-shooters in their belts, wheezing like Clint Eastwood? And all Russians are communists, all Germans are evil Nazis, all Japanese are fanatic samurais and geishas, and all French are ridiculous and wear black berets? My, how the dumbasses mouth off.

  • 14. Heiku  |  June 9th, 2011 at 7:55 am

    Carpenter: Maybe if you want your own comeback you should try and wipe it off your mothers chin. Pointing out the fact that Dan was generalizing is not very effective.

  • 15. DrunktankDan  |  August 13th, 2011 at 10:27 pm

    Wasn’t expecting to get flamed for speakin’ the truth, bud. Certainly didn’t base my assessment off of nothing. I go to Stockholm every summer, and it feels like I am in a city full of robots, until the boozing starts kicking in.
    You don’t earn cultural reputations for nothing. Settle down. It’s not like Americans don’t have to hear it constantly. If the worst shit people can say about you is that you are boring, count yourself lucky. The list of American stereotypes is pretty long, and we don’t have our dicks shrivel up and our faces contort with rage every time we hear ’em.
    Also, you are a faggot (this is the internet right?)

  • 16. DrunktankDan  |  August 15th, 2011 at 12:13 am

    Bah, there wasn’t any point in responding to that squarehead. I had no idea he was talking shit 50 comments later. Only ran across it today while rereading the WN. I really missed an opportunity to embarrass the holy shit out of an thinskinned little wiener. Anyways,
    Do you guys email people if there is a response to their comments? Cause, uh, that could really add some hilarity to the comments section if gentle folk like me knew they were getting crap. A lot of sites use the ‘respond’ button to facilitate ‘civil’ ‘debate’. Then again, HOLY LORD, you probably don’t feel like turning into 4chan.
    Also, I subscribed. Can y’all get rid of the damn donate pop up for subscribers?

  • 17. Robinson  |  September 29th, 2011 at 5:12 pm

    Please teach the rest of these ineretnt hooligans how to write and research!

  • 18. Hob Nob  |  August 29th, 2012 at 2:57 pm

    As others have already mentioned, the “Swedes” Brecher is talking about were in fact Finns. When Gustaf II Adolf died, at the battle of Lützen, the Finns were fighting the Croatians, but it was recorded as Swedes against Germans.

    Much later, in WW2, a nominally German general, but of Croatian origin, burned down an entire town in Finland. A sort of “we meet again”.

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