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Mercenaries, Continued

The Thirty Years’ War is famous for the use of mercenaries; it has even been called “a war between the Scots and the Irish, fought in Germany.” (I love this quotation but I have been unable to locate its source.) We can look at mercenaries in the war on three levels: individual, unit, and army.

National armies did not exist in the 17th century. Although some localities had a concept of universal military service, at the state level, governments signed up whoever they could find to serve in the army. Even the late-war Bavarian army, which is noted for being relatively homogeneous, contained soldiers from a dozen or more different states. At this level, mercenaries are a relatively small problem. Units consisting of soldiers from different backgrounds are unlikely to exhibit characteristics particular to mercenaries, especially when the majority of troops are native to the state they are fighting for.

Armies were raised company by company, regiment by regiment. Each captain contracted to raise 100 soldiers, paid them bounties out of his own funds, and then attempted to recoup his investment by every means possible. This included pocketing a portion of the pay intended for the company (the legal method) but also hiding losses as soldiers were killed or deserted so he could pocket their pay as well. And, of course, taking advantage of anywhere the army quartered to extort additional money from the local populace. A successful siege, followed by a sack, provided the biggest windfall, but such occasions were rare. Colonels repeated this model on a larger scale, raising several companies to form a regiment. The fact that officers were in the war for money was obviously a problem for the government, which was primarily interested in winning the war. Governments ended up paying for more troops than they actually had under arms, and had to accommodate officers wishes to some extent because they depended on constantly recruiting new units.

At the highest level, a general could raise an army that was more loyal to him than to the government, at which point the general became a sort of independent actor. In practice, the two most noteworthy examples are Wallenstein and Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar. Wallenstein used his position to engage in diplomatic negotiations without the Emperor’s consent before he was killed. Bernhard actually changed sides, going over from Sweden to France. The fact that the two kingdoms were allied meant that this was not quite a betrayal; Bernhard’s army continued to fight basically the same opponent under different auspices. It did anger Sweden, however, and strained relations between the two countries for years after Bernhard had switched sides and, a few years later, died.

None of this seems to present much parallel with the Ukraine war. Russia has allegedly agreed to bring in 20,000 Syrians to fight for them, which is a lot of mercenaries in a relative sense but still a small fraction of Russia’s total army. A body of this size (even presuming they all fought together) would not be able to present a threat to Russian authority unless circumstances changes drastically, and it is not a concern at this time. They could presumably engage in looting in Ukrainian territory, but I’m guessing that the kinds of material goods your are likely to loot these days are drastically less valuable than movable wealth in the 17th century. At that time, a silver dish or a gold coin was small enough to carry and valuable enough to be worth keeping. While there may be an occasional Rolex watch or diamond ring that mercenaries could steal, it doesn’t seem likely that most valuable possessions (e.g. electronics) would be easily carried and kept in working order in a wartime setting. Also, these days most food is not produced locally, so stealing (or destroying) all the food in a town does not mean permanent starvation for the inhabitants.

The fact that armies remained in being for three decades during the war may have contributed to the developement of standing armies in Europe, but the Peace of Westphalia has almost nothing to say about them or about mercenaries (other than providing for a certain amount of restitution). The peace did touch on soldiery in one major point, however: the demobilization of the Swedish army. This had less to do with the use of mercenaries (although there were certainly many of that description in the Swedish army) than with the fact that the Swedish government, in company with almost all other governments of the time, was far in arrears in pay to its troops. Soldiers knew that the end of the war meant their last chance to collect back pay, and they refused to disband until their wages had been provided for. This led to a very long and complicated series of negotiations in which the bulk of the Swedish army did not finally disband or return to Sweden for two years after the peace was signed. It is remarkable that the army was allowed its own representative at the negotiations to advocate for their position, but it is also noteworthy that they began with the demand for 20 million Reichstalers and ended up accepting only 5 million — a sign that they were not exactly holding the peace hostage.

One could imagine something similar happening in Russia or the Ukraine, but only if the size of bodies of foreign troops grew substantially in relation to the standing armies. A Syrian force of 20,000 or 40,000 would exercise no credible threat to the Russian state if they refused to disband; instead, they would be quickly surrounded and annihilated. The potential is perhaps greater on the Ukrainian side, just because Ukraine is a smaller state and because they are the ones being invaded. A Syrian force that remained inside of Ukraine after a peace could potentially be a problem, but, again, not unless the Ukrainian army is wrecked during the war. That is a circumstance that we would have to revisit if the war ever changed dramatically, but it is not a serious concern at the moment.

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