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The Ultimate Military Entrepreneur

Peter W. Singer

With profit his only aim, Count Albrecht von Wallenstein successfully combined the profession of business and the art of war during the early seventeenth century.

War is often viewed as an affair of men fighting for the political causes of their nations. History, however, is filled with examples of combatants who were instead motivated solely by economic profit. And as jarring as it sounds to us today, the conduct of violence used to be just another capitalist enterprise.

During the 1600s, war was the biggest industry in Europe, quite literally so in a capitalist corporate sense. Especially prominent in this commerce of mass violence was a class of unique leaders who combined the occupations of both businessman and general. They were the enterprising men who recruited and equipped military units at their own expense, then leased them out. A diverse group of capitalists, bourgeois merchants, and petty nobles, they saw war simply as a business, another highly specialized service to be sold. The side they fought on usually did not matter, as long as the gold was guaranteed, and they had no compunction about changing sides in the midst of a conflict, or even switching back and forth.

Among the more prominent of these entrepreneurs were Louis de Geer, an Amsterdam capitalist who provided the Swedish government with a complete navy, sailors and admirals included; Count Ernst von Mansfeld, who raised an army for Elector Frederick V of the Palatinate and then, after his employer had been defeated, put his sword at the hand of the highest bidder; and Bernard, duke of Saxe-Weimar, who raised armies first for Sweden and then for France. Most famous of all, though, was Count Albrecht von Wallenstein, who through the private military business became the wealthiest man in all of Europe.

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