In the 16th century, Europe was devastated by
wars of religion, a fact that gives that unhappy time some relevance to our
own. The foremost soldier and commander in 16th-century Europe was the duke
of Alba. An
excellent new biography of the duke by Henry Kamen offers some less than
the 1560s, Spain faced a minor revolt in the Netherlands, which were then controlled
by the Spanish crown. Hundreds of Catholic churches were sacked and desecrated
by mobs of Calvinists. Philip II of Spain decided to send an army, commanded
by the duke of Alba – despite the fact that by spring 1567, the Netherlands'
regent had put the rebellion down. In effect, Philip and Alba embarked on a
"war of choice," against the advice of both local authorities and many of Philip's
The duke of Alba's arrival in Brussels on Friday, Aug. 22, 1567, at the head
of an army of 10,000 men – it was the first to follow the famous "Spanish Road"
– created a problem where none existed. Henry Kamen writes,
"The duke of Alba, observers guessed, was there to restore order, arrest
dissidents and check the growth of heresy. But the situation, according to Margaret
of Parma (the Regent), was under control, so why was an army needed? It was
in any case the first time that heresy in another country had ever appeared
to be a concern of the Spanish crown. "
Once Alba got himself settled, he began arresting Flemish aristocrats, including
some of those who had helped Margaret suppress the previous year's rebellion.
King Phillip wrote to Alba in November 1567, "you have a free hand." He did
so despite some excellent advice from Friar Lorenzo de Villavicencio, who had
lived in the Netherlands.
"The situation, Villavicencio insisted to the king, could not be resolved
with an army. Nor must force be used against the Netherlanders, for that would
unite them all against Spain. … 'Don't let Your Majesty be persuaded that the
Flemings are beasts and drunks, for they are human beings and if not so now
they will be so one day, standing together and in their own land and with neighbors
who will help them; and even if they kill one of ours and we kill ten of theirs,
in the end they will finish us.' Spaniards could not be allowed to govern in
the country, 'for they neither know the language nor understand the laws and
Philip and Alba ignored this advice; Alba's motto was "Hombres muertos no hazen
guerra" – dead men make no war. His army did what armies do, kill people and
break things, and the result was a string of local victories. By the summer
of 1570, Kamen writes,
"Alba felt he could congratulate himself on having achieved what no other
general in history had ever achieved: the pacification of a whole province,
'and without losing a single man, because I can assure you that in the two campaigns
barely a hundred soldiers died.'"
But that wasn't the end of the story. The Dutch rebels adapted in a way the
Spanish had never imagined: they based themselves where no Spanish troops could
reach them, at sea. On April 1, 1572, the Sea Beggars, as the maritime rebels
called themselves, seized the offshore port of Brill. On April 14, the prince
of Orange called on the Dutch people to revolt against "cruel, bloodthirsty,
foreign oppressors," and they did. The resulting war would last for 80 years
and result in Dutch independence and Spanish ruin.
As to the duke of Alba himself and his policies in the Netherlands, the best
summary was offered by his successor there, Luis de Requesens. As Henry Kamen
"All I know is that when he came to this post he found the disturbances
in them settled and no territory lost, and everything so quiet and secure that
he could wield the knife as he wished. And by the time he left all Holland and
Zealand was in the power of the enemy, as well as a good port of Guelderland
and Brabant, and all the opinion of these provinces, with the finances wholly
Whether this epitaph will apply equally well to America's invasion of Iraq,
time will tell. But it is all too possible that the Middle East will end up
being America's Netherlands. In any event, I somehow doubt that history will
accept the Bush administration's Newspeak name for the invasion of Iraq, "Operation
Iraqi Freedom." Might "Operation Duke of Alba" be a more credible substitute?