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An Unlikely Leader: Friedrich Schiller’s Wallenstein

Der Reiter

'Der geharnischte Reiter' by Hans Ulrich Franck (1643).

In this historical drama, set midway through the religious conflicts that ravaged war-torn Europe in the 17th century, the 18th-century German dramatist Friedrich Schiller chronicles the final year and downfall of the celebrated Bohemian leader Albrecht Wallenstein, duke of Friedland (1583-1634), and explores the factors contributing to his demise. Having risen quickly in the Emperor’s military ranks due to his wealth, ambition, brashness and military successes, the duke of Friedland had garnered many loyal supporters, most notably the common soldiers among his troops, as evidenced in the play’s opening act. As later events in the play make clear, his success has also engendered powerful enemies, who have grown resentful of the power he has gained at their expense. Encouraged by his military success and blinded by his misguided faith in the stars, Wallenstein falls victim to a fate of his own making and is assassinated by his own trusted men.

The general historical details of Schiller’s play—first performed (1798) and published (1800) as a trilogy (Wallenstein’s Camp, The Piccolomini and Wallenstein’s Death)—follow historical fact. At the time of the Thirty Years’ War, Germany, as the nation state we know today, did not exist; instead, it consisted of a collection of kingdoms, duchies, imperial cities and the like known as the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation under the purview of the Emperor located in Vienna, Austria. General Wallenstein, a convert to Catholicism, not only became the Emperor’s trusted military leader but also negotiated his sovereignty, in that he was only beholden to the will of Emperor. On paper, he seemed the ideal leader to quell the uprisings and subdue the Emperor’s enemies. However, the very same character traits that made him a likely hero, as well his unhealthy penchant for astrology, lead to his treasonous alliance with Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden and his subsequent assassination.

Schiller was first drawn to the traitorous military general while researching and writing his historical treatment of the military conflict in “History of the Thirty Years’ War” (1792). Here the historical Wallenstein’s character flaws come to the fore. Schiller, as historian, concludes that the general’s tragic end was not only a result of his military ambition but more importantly due to his lack of “gentler virtues of man.” Indeed, Schiller claimed that Wallenstein “fell not because he was a rebel; instead, he rebelled because he fell.” In this sympathetic assessment of the general’s demise, we see traces of Schiller’s dramatic figure Wallenstein. Schiller’s intimate familiarity with and depiction of the historical details, served as a vehicle through which the dramatist could stage and explore the human condition as it related to questions of power and moral character: “For only great affairs will have the power / To stimulate mankind’s first principles; / Thus in a narrow sphere the mind contracts, / But man grows great along with greater goals” (Prologue, 57-60). (Note:  All translations of Wallenstein are from the English translation by Jeanne Willson, edited by Walter Hinderer. References to the prologue are cited by line number; references to Wallenstein’s Camp, The Piccolomini and Wallenstein’s Death are cited by act and scene.)

Examining the tragically flawed title character of Schiller’s Wallenstein, one might ask how the (in)famous 16th-century Bohemian general became the protagonist of one of the most well-known and influential German dramas? The answer can, perhaps, be found in a 1796 letter from Schiller to his contemporary Wilhelm von Humboldt in which Schiller acknowledges the general’s shortcomings: “[Wallenstein] possesses nothing noble, he does not appear grand in any single act of life; he has little dignity and the like; nevertheless, I hope to create in a realistic manner a dramatic, great character within him, who has a genuine life principle.” (Note: All translations are my own, unless otherwise noted.) Indeed, Schiller’s historical subject matter proved more challenging to reconcile with his dramatic theories and aesthetic principles than he had anticipated. As Schiller’s correspondence with contemporaries such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe reveal, Schiller struggled to raise the negative historical figure of Wallenstein to poetic, dramatic heights.

What resulted from Schiller’s treatment of the accomplished yet controversial military strategist and general of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) is considered still today to be one of the most celebrated feats of the German stage. Although the premiere of Schiller’s three-part drama in Weimar can be characterized as a success, certainly according to Schiller’s comments about the play’s reception, critics took the dramatist to task for the sheer unwieldiness of the trilogy: the length of the individual parts prevented it from being performed in one evening—a clear transgression of Aristotelian “rules” as understood by 18th and 19th-century German dramatists; there was a perceived lack of continuity within the individual parts in terms of action and resolution of events; and the multitude of characters—more than 50—paraded on stage made it difficult for the audience to keep track. Beyond the basic difficulties of staging the lengthy trilogy, other critics focused on the problematic figure of the play’s protagonist and found fault with Schiller for his depiction of a realistic instead of idealistic hero.

The Wallenstein trilogy is, perhaps, more a reflection of and critical engagement with the political context of
Schiller’s own time than that of his historical protagonist. At the time when the first act of Schiller’s trilogy
(Wallenstein’s Camp) premiered on stage in 1798, the Holy Roman Empire was, albeit weakened and in decline, still the political structure within which Schiller and his contemporaries composed their literary works. For this reason, Schiller’s historical drama is often read through the lens of the political and social upheaval wrought by the French Revolution, including the Napoleonic Wars and French occupation of German territories, which ultimately lead to the abdication of the Emperor and the dissolution of the Empire in 1806. Disillusioned by the excessive violence of the French Revolution, Schiller, like many of his contemporaries, rejected the possibility of social and political reform lead by the masses; instead, Schiller
cultivated the idea that social change could only be brought about through a form of enlightened absolutism and the moral education of the individual through aesthetic appreciation.

In numerous theoretical essays, most notably “Theater Considered as Moral Institution,” “On the Tragic Art” and “On Naive and Sentimental Poetry,” Schiller, alongside fellow classicist Goethe, articulated this aesthetic program, in which art, and specifically the dramatic arts, was charged with the moral edification of the individual in order to bring about social change. Central to Schiller’s theories is the tension between an individual’s disposition or inclination (Neigung) and his or her duty (Pflicht). This conflict can be clearly seen in Wallenstein’s contemplation to defy his Emperor, who he believes has betrayed him and his subjects by refusing peace. By allying with the enemy, Wallenstein views himself as the man to end the war and bring about peace (Wallenstein’s Death, 3.15). As Schiller noted in his 1799 response to the theater critic Karl August Böttinger, Wallenstein’s goal was noble, but his means were flawed. However, the question remains unanswered as to whether Wallenstein’s traitorous actions result truly from a noble inclination to establish peace for all or from a more self-serving desire to assume the throne as King of Bohemia or even that of Emperor. He does, after all, repeatedly liken his authority over his men, and Max Piccolomini in particular, to that of Emperor (3.18).

Beyond the obvious political gestures of Schiller’s play, we also find a distinct engagement with the philosophical impulses of Schiller’s life and times. In his 1784 essay “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” Immanuel Kant famously advocated for the individual’s ability to avail himself of rational thought in order to be liberated from his self-imposed immaturity. Reading Schiller against Kant, Wallenstein embodies the struggle of the individual to think for himself and to act rationally. After all, his death can be attributed, at least in part, to his trust in a pseudoscience. In addition to Wallenstein’s character flaws—ambition, over confidence, disproportionate treatment of his soldiers, to name but a few—he allows his decision making to be informed by his blind faith in the stars and, more importantly, his belief that he is capable of accurately reading these signs. In the final play of the trilogy, Wallenstein’s Death, Wallenstein’s decision to sign a peace treaty with the Swedes is based on his incorrect interpretation of his horoscope and assumption that his star is in ascension and that of his enemy in decline (1.1).

Schiller’s Wallenstein trilogy was revolutionary both in terms of form and content for its time. In its reworked and condensed version, the story of the highly decorated yet tragically flawed military leader has become more accessible and continues to resonate with today’s audiences.


Suggested Reading:

  • Martinson, Steven D. A Companion to the Works of Friedrich Schiller. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2005.
  • Schiller, Friedrich. Essays. Ed. Walter Hinderer and Daniel O. Dahlstrom. New York: Continuum, 1993.
  • “The History of the Thirty Years’ War.” Transl. A.J.W. Morrison. June 1996. Project Gutenberg. Web. 17 Oct. 2012.
  • Wallenstein and Mary Stuart. Transl. Jeanne Willson. Ed. Walter Hinderer. New York: Continuum, 1991.
  • Werke. Nationalausgabe. Ed. Julius Petersen, Gerhard Fricke, Lieselotte Blumenthal, Benno Wiese, et al. Weimar: H. Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1943-2012.
  • Wilson, Peter. The Thirty Years’ War: Europe’s Tragedy. Cambridge, M.A.: Belknap Press of Harvard U.P., 2009.


Julie Koser is Assistant Professor of German Literature and Culture at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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