History of Germany - H. E. Marshall

Leopold I

Ferdinand III reigned for twenty years. But, except for the Treaty of Westphalia, nothing of great importance happened in his reign. He died in 1657, and was succeeded by his son Leopold I.

Louis XIV was now reigning in France. The most gorgeous and arrogant ruler of the age, he had a tremendous idea of his own grandeur and importance, and he tried to bribe the Electors into choosing him as Emperor. Some of the Electors, however, refused to be bribed. Weak, good-natured eighteen-year-old Leopold was chosen to succeed to his father, and the wily arrogant Louis was ever after his enemy.

Both openly and in secret Louis was the enemy of the Empire. He fought against Germany himself, and he encouraged others to do so also.

Meanwhile, all the little German princes tried to copy the splendour of Louis's court, laying heavy taxes upon their poor subjects to pay for these new grandeurs. They spoke French, or mixed so many French words with the German that it sounded like a foreign language. They aped Louis in his elaborate etiquette and ceremony, in the smallest matters, and hotly debated whether lesser princes might sit on green velvet chairs like the Electors, or whether they might only be allowed purple velvet. They gravely discussed who might eat off gold plate and who only off silver, and many other like matters of as little importance. "Alas!" writes a German who lived in those days, "it is but too well known that ever since the French demon has possessed us Germans, our way of living, our manners, and our customs have changed sorely. Once we held the French cheap, now everything must needs be French—French speech, French clothes, French food, French furniture, French dances, French diseases, and I fear me following thereon French death."

But there was one German prince who refused to be led away by this foolish French fashion. That was Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg, who has come to be known as the Great Elector. Save for him the Empire might have fallen to pieces.

Louis XIV was greedy of land, greedy of conquest, and he invaded first the Spanish Netherlands which we now know as Belgium, and then the United Free Provinces, which we now call Holland. For the most part the German states looked coldly on, but some of them even joined with Louis against Holland. The Great Elector alone took the part of the gallant little Republic.

The Dutch fought gallantly, but they were not united amongst themselves, and they could do little against their great and powerful foe. But suddenly in Holland itself there came a revolution. The Dutch found a new and splendid leader in a German Prince, William of Orange. He turned the tide of war, and soon Louis's great generals were defeated again and yet again.

Then at length the Emperor and the King of Spain, Holland's oldest and most bitter enemy, also joined with Holland against France. And the war was carried into Germany, into the Rhine country.

The allies gained some victories, but on the whole the French had the best of it, and at length first Holland and Spain, and then Germany made peace with France. Louis XIV was able to make his own terms at this peace, and he won so much by it that it made him more insolent than ever, and more greedy of land than ever. So suddenly he announced that he was going to take possession of all the lands and cities which had ever at any time belonged to those parts of the Empire which he had conquered. He then set up what were called "Chambers of Reunion" or councils which were to decide what places lawfully belonged to him. After they had gone into the matter, and reported on it, Louis quietly took possession of lands and towns, abbeys and monasteries, to an enormous extent, caring little for the fact that some of them had been separated from the provinces he claimed for more than a thousand years.

The whole people of Germany were enraged at these bold robberies. But their anger ended in words, and while they talked Louis acted. More than any German town he longed to possess Strassburg, for it was a strongly fortified town, and the key to the whole of southern Germany. It was the centre of German trade and industry, and the seat of German learning, and for all these reasons, when the rest of Alsace had been given up at the Peace of Westphalia, it had been retained.

Ever since then the citizens of Strassburg had lived in terror of the French. They had done what they could to make their fortifications stronger, and day and night they kept watch and ward.

But there were traitors within the gates. Louis spread his golden net abroad, and found some only too ready to fall into it.

There is a story told of how Louvois, the great French General, one day called an officer to him. "Go," he said, "set out at once for Basle in Switzerland. It will take you three days to get there. On the fourth, exactly at two in the afternoon, you must stand on the bridge over the Rhine with paper, ink, and pen. You will examine and write down with great care and exactness everything you see during two hours. You will have your horses ready in your carriage, and at four o'clock exactly you will once more set out, and hasten as fast as you can back to me with your note-book. It matters not what time of night or day you arrive, come straight to me."

The young officer was very much astonished at being given such a childish mission to perform. But he set out without question. He arrived at Basle, and on the day and at the hour he had been told, he took his stand, note-book in hand, upon the bridge over the Rhine.

Carefully he noted all who passed. First it was a fruit-seller with his baskets of fruit, then a horseman in a blue coat, a peasant in rags, a porter. Every one the young officer noticed.

The clock struck three, and just at that minute a man in a yellow coat and trousers stopped in the middle of the bridge. He leaned over the side and looked down at the river, then, stepping back a pace, he took his stick and struck three distinct blows upon the parapet.

All this and a great many other things the officer noted very carefully. Horsemen and foot-passengers of all descriptions streamed over the bridge—every one going down in the note-book. At length four o'clock sounded. Quickly the officer left his post, jumped into his waiting carriage, and hurried back to his general.

Two days later, at midnight, he arrived, rather ashamed at having so little to report, but as he had been ordered, he went straight to Louvois's house.

He knocked, and was at once allowed to pass in. Eagerly the General seized upon the note-book, and read it carefully. When he came to the man in the yellow suit he jumped for joy. He ran to the King at once, insisted that he should be wakened, and talked for a quarter of an hour at his bedside. Then messengers were sent off post-haste in all directions.

French gold had done its work, and the three strokes of the stick given by the man in yellow was a signal that some of the magistrates of Strassburg were ready to yield their town to King Louis. And now, French troops slowly closed round the city.

But although there were traitors within the gates, all were not ready to yield, although indeed resistance seemed useless. Without the walls there was a mighty host of thirty-five thousand men, within a mere handful, hardly enough to man the walls. For the traitors had chosen their time well, and most of the men were away at country fairs, where in those days much of the trade was done.

The leaders now gathered to council, and the women and children crowded to the churches to pray.

Louvois sent a message demanding the surrender of the town. "Yield at once," he said, "and you will go free. Resist and you will be treated as rebellious subjects."

But the governor replied, "We owe all duty and obedience to the Emperor, and we cannot dispose of ourselves without breach of faith. If King Louis thinks that by right of the Peace of Westphalia or the Peace of Nimeguen Strassburg belongs to him, let him settle that with the Emperor. Strassburg will obey the Emperor."

This answer made Louvois very angry. "I will not have these evasions," he cried. "I want a clear plain answer. Will Strassburg own King Louis as its sovereign lord, and open its gates? Or will it wait to be made an ash-heap? I give you till to-morrow morning at seven o'clock to decide."

In mingled hope and fear the people of Strassburg awaited the return of their messengers. And when they heard the French General's answer a great cry of despair broke from them. Their last hope was gone, yet some would have fought to the death. With others, however, French gold had done its work, and so the city yielded.

A few days after Strassburg yielded, Louis entered in triumph. At once he set to work to make the town as French as possible. German costume was forbidden, French names were given to the streets, a French garrison took possession of the fortress, and the great French engineer, Vauban, planned the fortifications afresh, and made Strassburg one of the strongest cities in Europe. And no prince in all Europe dared to say a word to Louis, or to call in question his insolent robbery, and for nearly two hundred years Strassburg was a French city.