Maren Lorenz. Das Rad der Gewalt: Militär und Zivilbevölkerung in Norddeutschland nach dem Dreißigjährigen Krieg (1650-1700). Cologne: Böhlau Verlag, 2007. 484 pp. EUR 57.90 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-412-11606-4.
Reviewed by Brian G.H. Ditcham (Independent Scholar)
Published on H-German (April, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
A Hobbesian Society in Seventeenth-Century North Germany?
The Westphalian settlement left Sweden in possession of two significant North German territories--Pomerania and Bremen-Verden. The years after 1648, however, were hardly ones of peace in North Germany. Swedish rule over German lands was contested by regional rivals such as Brandenburg and Münster, and actively supported by Sweden's antagonist in the struggle for Baltic hegemony, Denmark. The government in Stockholm regarded these territories as places to recruit troops and as bases from which to project power in support of wider Swedish interests in the Reich. As a consequence, the entire North German region between the Elbe and the Oder remained unstable and wracked with war or preparations for war throughout the half-century that separated the major military conflagrations of the Thirty Years War and the Great Northern War. Swedish territories themselves changed hands more than once in this period and violence infected the whole region, which remained the sort of place which Hans von Grimmelshausen's protagonist, Simplicissmus, would have recognized all too well. On a more philosophical level, Thomas Hobbes might well have used it as an illustration of his argument that societies would invariably degenerate into a "war of all against all" unless they were subject to strong external control.
Maren Lorenz's book sets out to examine the relationship between the military and civilian components of North German society in this period, as viewed through the prism of the violent interactions that fill the pages of administrative and legal records. Due to source constraints, the focus of the book falls overwhelmingly on the Swedish territories. There was certainly no shortage of military presence; Lorenz shows that in certain towns, such as Stralsund, up to half the total population at any given time might be connected with the military in some form. In the Swedish service, "national" Swedish units made up of conscripts from Sweden or Finland rubbed shoulders with German units, with regiments raised for imperial service by the king of Sweden in his role as a prince of the Holy Roman Empire, with regiments raised on behalf of other powers, like the Dutch Republic, and with local defense militias.
After an overview of developments across the wider region and an examination of the workings of the Swedish military justice system, Lorenz embarks on an examination of the various circumstances in which civilians and soldiers might come into conflict. Here, she makes some important, all-too-often overlooked points. Seventeenth-century soldiers frequently came with wives and families; in consequence, billeting often involved inserting a whole additional family into a household. Lorenz perceptively outlines the tensions that two competing male heads of a household could create--and the related ones springing from the need to accommodate two or more women in the same cramped kitchen facilities. She also suggests that gender solidarity was often limited when it came to sexual violence by members of the soldiery, with soldiers' wives tending to back up the men of the regiment rather than their victims. The ease with which individual soldiers and even whole regiments might move from one service to another or even change sides in mid-conflict is another factor that visibly complicated relations with civilian society, if only because it made rigorous enforcement of discipline in wartime a tricky proposition.
The overall picture of civil-military relations in the Swedish territories that emerges from Lorenz's study is one all too familiar to anyone who has approached late medieval and early modern militaries via criminal records. Large numbers of underemployed young men with ready access to weapons and an exaggerated sense of the honor to which the profession of arms entitled them appear to have spent most of their waking hours in drinking establishments consuming excessive amounts of alcohol (for which they did not always pay), or intermittently engaging in brawls, either with other soldiers or with other male youth, such as apprentices. At a more socially elevated level, officers fought duels with their peers and with members of the local elites, threw their weight around in local society, and mistreated their subordinates. Somewhat less frequently, officers and men alike might engage in sexual harassment of women who crossed their path. In addition, all ranks were conspicuously reluctant to pay for goods and services consumed.
This wretched state of affairs does rather raise the question of what the Swedish authorities thought their soldiers ought to have been doing with their days when not on campaign--and how far violence was potentially woven into the very fabric of their lives, even when they were not in the tavern. The men loathed performing construction work on fortifications, and anyone with enough money paid for a substitute. Sentry duty was viewed as a form of punishment. Recruitment activities could all too easily degenerate into forcible impressment. One function of the army in times of relative peace was internal security and policing. "Military execution" might be applied to back up the claims of the state in matters ranging from the collection of taxes to the enforcement of urban bylaws (as in the case of Stettin, where local rules on the disposal of household wastes were subject to military enforcement in 1700). Such activity could easily shade into the quasi-private employment of soldiers as "muscle" to collect debts, enforce the power of local landowners over their tenants, or assert one village's claims against those of its neighbors. Even attempts by soldiers to earn a more peaceable living by exercising the trades they had practiced before they joined the army were liable to lead to violent clashes with local guildsmen.
Perhaps the most novel sections of Lorenz's book are those devoted to the development and operation of the Swedish military justice system. This system was to prove widely influential across Germany and beyond, not least because one of the earliest writers on military law in Germany, Caspar Matthias Schwartz, started his career in the Swedish service in Bremen-Verden and drew heavily on his Swedish experiences even after he had moved to the service of Celle. Lorenz depicts an increasingly centralized system, in which regimental level courts martial become more legalistic in operation (at least in formal terms--the legally trained Auditoren were always working at a slight remove, since they were not members of the regiments whose processes they were supposed to oversee) and subject to a hierarchy of appeals stretching all the way to the king in Stockholm (with resulting delays to justice as papers were shipped to and fro). Its operation was also riddled with conflicts with the civilian jurisdictions, which applied to the places where troops were based. Lorenz thus offers an interesting case study of a rather underexamined field. Its institutional focus does perhaps give the inadvertent impression that the system was tidier than it really was in practice, and creates a weighting towards urban environments where the guard house and provost marshal were active institutions. One suspects that matters were rather different in the countryside.
In the end, Lorenz takes a negative view of Swedish military justice, even going so far as to suggest that the long-term failure of Swedish rule to take root in North Germany may have been due to its shortcomings. She clearly believes that things would have gone better if the troops had simply been subject to normal civilian courts. This conclusion is debatable. A justice system whose basic unit of punishment was the Gassenlauf (in which the culprit was flogged through the ranks of the regiment one or more times) is unlikely to appeal to contemporary sensibilities. Little doubt can remain that the military justice system was less than transparent in its operation, tended to favor soldiers over civilians and upper ranks over lower ones, and was, in the ultimate analysis, reluctant to risk the lives of experienced solders--whatever their crimes. On the other hand, similar class biases were not exactly unknown in civil jurisdictions of the period, which were every bit as likely to regard damage to property as a more serious matter than physical injury or even murder. Evidence suggests that civilians were able to interact creatively with the military justice system, appealing to it when they thought its operation might achieve their ends in much the same way as they instrumentalized the institutions of civil jurisdictions. Lorenz's suggestion that better and more regular pay would have done more for discipline than any amount of flogging is perhaps better founded--though a cynic might wonder whether this tactic would simply have led to more soldiers getting more drunk more quickly. Ultimately, the attraction for both crown and local communities of putting troops into barracks out of temptation's way--a development visible in embryonic form in the Swedish territories but still very far from full implementation--emerges very clearly from this study, even if Lorenz herself does not directly address this issue.
The book is very handsomely produced, with an appendix of selected original sources, some interesting illustrations, and a series of maps illustrating the scale of military presence in the Swedish territories over time (though it lacks an index of names to go with those for places and themes). The text, however, could have benefited from a stronger editorial hand. It is not always easy to follow the thread of the argument. Some sections appear to have become separated from their logical place in the narrative (an important section on the military justice system, for instance, has been separated from the chapter dedicated to this topic). Lorenz notes that she had intended to cover the whole of North Germany, but ended up having to focus on the Swedish territories due to source constraints. The general overview chapter on North Germany in the period seems to have come from this wider research, raising issues that are not discussed subsequently; even if the resurgence of witchcraft allegations might have had little direct impact on military justice, it is surprising that the consequences of the large-scale forcible recruitment of what contemporaries referred to as Zigeuner into the Swedish forces, referred to initially, are not discussed later on. A stronger editor might also have challenged some of Lorenz's stranger statements, such as her comparison between the decision to engage in violence against civilians and that of traveling on public transport without paying the fare (the kind of cost/benefit analysis implied sits oddly with the impulsive, drink-fueled nature of much of the violence she describes), or her rather abrupt statement that it is unlikely that many rapes went unreported due to the violent reaction of the local population to that sort of crime (while she may be correct, the conclusion sits uncomfortably with the array of sexual crimes set out in the previous pages, few of which were severely punished). At times Lorenz seems to shift her ground: for example, were soldiers simply an extreme example of a young masculine group, or did their behavior really go beyond all social norms? Both positions are suggested in the book. Some of the claims to novelty made in the introductory sections seem a shade overdone. Contrary to what is implied, the second half of the seventeenth century is hardly an understudied period of military history--though it may be revealing that the lengthy bibliography does not contain any of the flourishing scholarship in French or English on the armies of Louis XIV.
The biggest problem with the book, however, relates to a factor that is almost absent from the interpretation--the origins of the soldiers themselves. Lorenz notes almost in passing that two-thirds of the men who served in the Swedish territories were recruited there or in the immediate vicinity. It is hard to believe that this predominantly local recruitment did not have some impact on how civilians and soldiers related to each other, for good or ill. Soldiers and civilians generally spoke the same language, whether the Hochdeutsch that Lorenz identifies as the lingua franca of the Swedish military or the Plattdeutsch that men of local origin presumably spoke in their billets or in the tavern. Locally recruited men must in many cases have retained links to their communities of origin--at least for some years after their recruitment. Close reading of the text suggests that local landowners might well combine military rank and civil administrative responsibilities in the Swedish regime and might make use of these powers in their own interests. Soldiers were clearly billeted on households headed by other soldiers (though not necessarily within the same regiment). While formidable source-related problems make exploring these issues difficult, it is disappointing that the book makes so little of this aspect.
The closely related issue of whether the national origins of regiments might have affected their relations with the local population is also largely glossed over. At one point, Lorenz dismisses the issue altogether; what matters, she argues, was whether one belonged to the military or not. Elsewhere, however, she suggests that units raised for imperial Swedish service posed more substantial disciplinary issues than those in direct national service precisely because they had no long-term connection with the places where they were raised, no regular winter quarters to return to after the campaigning season ended, were more likely to be composed of rootless professionals, and were completely outside the Swedish military justice system (p. 319). It is also clear that "national" Swedish soldiers ran greater risks on German battlefields than their German comrades, since they faced massacre if captured, while Germans would in all probability simply change sides in a similar situation. As young peasant conscripts they were probably less likely to have wives and children, at least initially. But how long did "national" Swedish regiments remain Swedish in composition? It is hard to believe that these factors made no difference in how relations with the wider population might have played out, but again very little effort is made to analyze them. It may be that the lack of sources makes such analysis impossible, but this is nowhere explicitly stated.
In sum, then, this book is somewhat frustrating. Much of interest and value is found in it, and the analysis of the institutions of Swedish military justice breaks new ground. Nonetheless, a series of issues is simply brushed to one side, even though addressing them would have sharpened and refined the picture the book presents of North Germany in the years 1650-1700. Examining a society primarily through its criminal records is always likely to produce a somewhat Hobbesian interpretation of human existence. Life in the Swedish territories of North Germany may have been "nasty, brutish, and short," but one cannot help thinking that Lorenz's interpretation misses some important dimensions of its texture.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Brian G.H. Ditcham. Review of Lorenz, Maren, Das Rad der Gewalt: Militär und Zivilbevölkerung in Norddeutschland nach dem Dreißigjährigen Krieg (1650-1700).
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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