This is the second of four related blogs (the others are about Torgau, Wittenberg and the Electors of Saxony) based on a visit to the area in 2017
Muhlberg lies in a rural setting on the east bank of the river Elbe, some 15 miles south-east of Torgau, on the border between Brandenburg and Saxony. It is a small, quiet town of 3,750 inhabitants, a population which has declined from a peak of nearly 9,000 in 1945. It is famous for the battle in which Emperor Charles V defeated the leading Protestant Elector John Frederick I of Saxony in 1547. During the Second World War there was a large prisoner of war camp nearby, Stalag IV-B, which became the NKVD (Soviet secret police) Special Camp No. 1 between 1945 and 1948. All these events are well presented at the excellent ‘Museum Muhlberg 1547’ opened in 2015.
The battle of Muhlberg was the culmination of the war between the Schmalkaldic League of German Protestant princes and the forces of Emperor Charles V and his allies, his brother Ferdinand and Duke Maurice of Saxony. After the failure to achieve church unity at the Diets of Augsburg in 1530 and Regensburg in 1541, Charles placed his hopes on a general church council which eventually met in Trent in late 1545. But few Protestants attended the early sessions and Pope Paul III insisted on dealing with doctrinal issues before considering other reforms. Little headway was made. Charles believed that ‘the risk to the faith is enormous’ and that it was his duty to resolve the issue.
When he arrived at Regensburg for the Diet of June-July 1546 the Protestant delegates had already left. The Schmalkaldic League, formed in 1531 by Protestant rulers in Germany, had a substantial army of 30,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry. But Charles had strengthened his position. He was at peace with France, a truce had been agreed with the Ottoman Empire, and dynastic marriages had been arranged to secure the support of William IV of Bavaria and Duke William of Julich-Cleves-Berg. Papal forces were on their way to Germany from Italy, as were reinforcements from the Low Countries. Nor were the Protestant forces united. Duke Maurice of Saxony, although a Protestant, was ambitious to replace his cousin John Frederick as elector and would not act against Charles. By the end of July the time was right for Charles to attempt a military solution.
Elector John Frederick I of Saxony and Landgrave Philip of Hesse, the leading protestant princes, were denounced as rebels and traitors. Their response, encouraged by Francis I of France though he provided little material assistance, was to mobilise their forces. In August and September 1546 the evenly matched sides manoeuvred along the Danube, with Charles’ camp near Ingolstadt coming under attack on the night of 31st August. Further minor clashes in October resulted in neither side gaining an advantage.
The game changer came in early November when Duke Maurice invaded John Frederick’s lands in Saxony. John Frederick took his troops north to launch a counter-attack against his cousin and Charles was left in control of southern Germany. By early 1547 it was not clear that Maurice would be successful and so in March Charles, who had maintained his army through the winter, moved north and joined his brother, Ferdinand, and Maurice. Now outnumbered, John Frederick abandoned Meissen and started to move to the well defended town of Wittenberg.
On Sunday 24th April, camped at Muhlberg on the right bank (east) of the river Elbe, believing that Charles’ army would be unable to cross the river and that he was therefore safe from immediate attack. He was mistaken. Charles’ scouts found a shallow crossing and as John Frederick and many of his commanders were attending church the elector’s troops were taken by surprise. It was too late to withdraw to Wittenberg and so John Frederick had no choice but to fight against overwhelming odds. His troops were soon in retreat and what followed was more a rout than a battle.
John Frederick was captured. Sentenced to death, he accepted the Capitulation of Wittenberg on 19th May by which he resigned his title as elector in favour of Maurice, in return for his life. He was to be permanently imprisoned, though he was permitted to retain some lands, mainly in Thuringia, for his heirs. His fellow Protestant leader, Philip of Hesse, threw himself upon the mercy of the emperor and was also imprisoned.
Although Charles had won a military victory at Muhlberg he was unable to achieve the religious unity under the Catholic Church that he so desired. By the early 1550s his erstwhile ally Maurice of Saxony had turned against him and, with French help, the Protestant German princes so threatened his position that he had to accept the Peace of Passau, agreeing to religious freedom for Lutherans and the release of John Frederick and Philip of Hesse.
From the start of the Second World War there was a large prisoner of war camp – Stalag IV-B – five miles north-east of Muhlberg. The first prisoners held there were 17,000 Poles captured during the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. These were followed by French soldiers taken prisoner during the conquest of France in 1940, British and Australian troops after the fall of Greece in 1941 and then Russians after the German invasion which started in June 1941. Later British, Australian, New Zealand, South African and other allied soldiers were transferred there from Italy. More Poles arrived in October 1944 after the Warsaw uprising was crushed. American troops captured during the Battle of the Bulge were taken there early in 1945.
The camp was of the usual design with rows of wooden huts, covering 30 hectares (74 acres), surrounded by barbed wire fences with guard towers at regular intervals. It was mainly used as a holding centre and most prisoners were transferred out to other POW and labour camps. An estimated total of 300,000 prisoners of 33 nationalities passed through the camp between 1939 and 1945. When liberated by the Soviet army in April 1945 it held about 30,000 inmates, of whom over 7,000 were British. Tuberculosis was widespread and many died.
Six miles south of Muhlberg was Stalag IV – B Zeithain, a sub camp of Muhlberg which initially dealt with the large numbers of Russian prisoners. The death rate here was high, particularly from malnutrition and typhus. Many were buried in mass graves. In February 1943 it became a hospital camp, housing mainly sick Russians and later Italian and then Polish prisoners together with doctors and their families.
At the end of the war the camp was taken over by Russian forces and until 1948 it was a NKVD (Soviet secret police) Special Camp. Here lower and middle ranking members of the Nazi Party, German soldiers and others considered to be a danger to the new regime were held. Conditions were poor and food supplies limited. Inmates were allowed no contact with the outside world. The camp held 21,800 prisoners in the three years of its existence (with at most 12,000 at any one time). Of these over 6,000 died and many more were deported to the Siberian Gulags. In 1948 the camp was closed and the remaining 3,000 prisoners were transferred to another NKVD camp. Of these some were later released and others handed over to the East German government in 1950. They were put on trial for war crimes and 32 were executed while others received long prison sentences.
It was only after the fall of the GDR in 1989 that any memorials were permitted. A memorial area now commemorates the victims of both camps.