Death's Head: The Career Of Francis Baron Von Trenck And The Meaning Of The Totenkopf
A deeper dive into a dire symbol
Born at the first hour of 1711, by his own telling, Franz Baron von der Trenck (above) was a son of a nobleman officer in the Hapsburg empire. Seeing his father wounded twice in battle did not deter Trenck from becoming a soldier himself. He is considered the father of guerilla warfare in the modern period, for his light infantry tactics in Silesia during the invasion of Frederick the Great are still studied in war colleges today.
At the time, a “colonel” was the recruiter of a regiment as well as its commander. Trenck recruited his troops from the Pandurs, a mounted border guard in the Kingdom of Slavonia. Taking their name from the Hungarian word Pandúr, these men were half-outlaw themselves, just like Trenck, one of many groups on the Austrian imperial frontier to which Vienna turned for policing duties in peacetime and recruits in wartime.
When Frederick attacked in 1741, the Pandurs were a first resort for the throne. They went to war for Maria Theresa. They wore the Totenkopf, or death’s head.
None of this information is mentioned on the Anti-Defamation League web page about the Totenkopf. Their organizational focus is the symbol’s appropriation, first by the Waffen SS, then by racist neo-Nazis. In this way it is like the swastika, an ancient near eastern symbol of good luck and fortune that had the misfortune to become the symbol of Hitler’s Nazi Party thanks to the influences of 19th century German pseudoscience and idiotic Weimar occultism. At HistoryNet, the Totenkopf is acknowledged as an older symbol than Hitler, one that Germans of the 20th Century inherited from the Prussian Hussars. Yet the writer still assigns the symbol to the “bad guys” of history with a too-sweeping dismissal, really.
Neither of these top search results mentions Trenck, and they ought to, for Pandur regiments were the first to wear the Totenkopf in battle and he was a noted leader of Pandurs. Prussians learned to fear their enemies, then imitated them by adopting the symbol: first a Brandenburg regiment, the “Black Hussars,” and then others. By the 19th century, when Germany became a country, the Totenkopf was in common use among Hussar regiments.
To be sure, swastikas are … not … going to make a comeback any time soon. (Sorry, certain Hindus.) Nor are Totenkopfs somehow ready for polite society, either. Rehabilitating these symbols would not be a worthwhile endeavor for any historian. On the contrary, a deeper understanding of their history, of what makes them not-normal, maintains their shock value without fetishizing them.
A Totenkopf speaks to deathlessness, the undaunted courage of warriors, a deep cultural value entirely outside of civilian understanding: the spirit of Alexander, standing at the edge of the next world to conquer; of berserkers braving battle on the promise of Valhalla. The French call it élan. That spirit is present throughout Trenck’s memoir.
From the moment Trenck became a soldier in 1727, “my life had no such thing as a medium, but was ever after a scene of the highest success or lowest adversity.” He lived on the edge: of life and death, of acceptability, of civilization. All very exciting, and his life was repurposed as opera for a reason. But you would hardly want to have Trenck come to your house for dinner. Not any more than a neo-Nazi adorned in swastikas. Nor any more than, say, mafia boss and mercenary entrepreneur Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Indeed, the Wagner Group “founder” should recognize something of himself in Trenck.
When he “fell into company with some Hungarian gentlemen, and happening to have some words with one of them, he drew out his sabre, and I whipped out my sword; then both falling to work, I cut off his arm cleanly above the elbow,” Trenck boasts. It is just one of the many duels he recounts in his memoir. He recalls the number of cuts to each combatant’s hand, the length of time spent recovering from wounds.
Prigozhin, recruiter of Russian prison inmates and practitioner of Russian prison hierarchies, might even admire Trenck’s career in Russian service.
Rebuffed in his offer to raise 4,000 Pandurs for the 1737 Turkish war, Trenck found a new spot as captain of Hussars in the Russian army, where he was imprisoned more than once, badly wounded more than once, and constantly dueled with other officers.
Russian chauvinism led to quarrels. Confronting a drunken colonel for ordering his arrest, “I added, that he had brought things to this pass, that either I must take away his life or he mine, for the world could not hold us both.” A tussle over pistols, and then “I tumbled him under my feet, and trampled upon him, till I made him all over as black as coal.” The colonel’s black eyes lasted two weeks, he says, earning him scorn from the general officers.
The 1737 Russo-Turkish War ended in an Austrian defeat, which is perhaps why they are not remembered in the name of the war. No longer needed, Trenck “eagerly” struck a deal to muster out, go home, and never return to Russia. At the border, three women he called “slaves” were confiscated “contrary to all right and law,” even though he had “promised them their liberty, upon my return to my estate.”
Although no evidence exists in English language historiography that Trenck personally picked out the baleful badge — rather, he probably wore it because the Pandurs already did — his career at the liminal edge of civilization perfectly describes the original spirit of the skull and crossed bones.
Pirates had already adopted various forms of the Totenkopf in the Caribbean during the late 17th century. A “death’s head” was merely a skull, a memento mori of the medieval world and its plagues that still resonated in the epidemics of the period. The symbol had been used to record onboard deaths in ships’ logs for centuries, and as flags are navigational tools, it was perhaps inevitable that pirates with a European navigational tradition, raiding on that lawless Atlantic crossroads, would adopt the symbol of “death on board” as their totem.
Trenck’s memoir is a defense against a charge of piracy, though on land. This “inquiry that has hitherto employed most of the political speculators of Europe,” reads the introduction, namely “the accusation of having appropriated the queen’s money, is refuted by several instances, where he shows his care in remitting the queen’s contribution-money to Vienna.”
Thus the charge of cruelty and barbarity brought against him, is answered by the many examples he produces of his moderation, as at Munich, where he was so careful as to restrain his men from sacking the town; and if in the affair of Cham there is an appearance of severity, he proves it to have been a necessary measure, to which he was absolutely forced by the perfidy and obstinacy of his enemies. Thus the objection of impiety aand sacrilege (which was the main charge against this great man, whereby he fell victim to bigotry and superstition) is removed by making it appear, that the plundering of the church utensils was done without his knowledge, was remedied by him as much as possible, when apprized of it, and this was a thing impossible in its nature to prevent irregular troops from committing.
Pandurs were not like regular troops. They were less disciplined, and had less equipment, but were also more capable of independent action and skirmishing. Life on Balkan frontiers made for hard fighters able to put up with great hardships, loyal to the man they respected, not some ideal or distant sovereign.
Trenck spent the interwar period leading Pandur squadrons against bands of highwaymen. Justice, such as it existed in untamed Slovonia, was brutal. On their second encounter with one group of 24 brigands, “we attacked them, and made nine of them prisoners, and brought the heads of the rest home with us. The nine whom we had taken prisoners were tried afterwards, and some of them were hanged, and others broke upon the wheel.”
During one struggle with a Serb, “he had laid hold of one of the pistols which was ready primed, and would have fired through my body, had I not been quick enough to put my right hand between the pan and flint, whereby I cut myself most severely.”
I then laid hold of my sword with my left hand, and stuck it cleverly in his body, till the blood spouted into my face. Whereupon I flung him from me, and as he fell, I cut his head from his body at one blow.
The grisly exploit was going too far. Trenck had come across the Sava River, into Turkish territory, to get his man. He went on the lam himself, riding through plague country in search of a refuge. He was still dodging justice for the affair when Frederick invaded Silesia and changed everything.
His problematic record did not matter to Maria Theresa. She needed such men willing to kill and die. Frederick had an army that remains legendary for combining speed and firepower to win the largest battles the European world had seen since Roman times. Flat-footed, the queen was eager to sign on anyone who would help. She did not ask about their politics or care about their past.
This was the environment in which Trenck’s unit “began its disreputable life in 1741,” as Christopher Duffy writes in The Army Of Maria Theresa: The Armed Forces Of Imperial Austria, 1740-1780. As the colonel, Trenck recruited and paid the regiment, deciding on its uniform and dressing its men to his own standards. His color sergeant was known to the regiment as der fuhrer.
Trenck assembled a regiment of 1000 Pandurs and marched them through Vienna, where “a vast number of spectators…admired the dress and fine appearance of my troops, which were taken very much notice of, even by her majesty and his royal highness.” The display inspired jealousy in others, even in the commander of the armies, Trenck says. His enemies were already gathering.
Meanwhile, “I marched two days successively, hiding myself by day in the woods, til I arrived and took post at Zotenburg, where I was well-situated for cutting off the enemy’s convoys.” Also, refugees. After seizing several supply wagons and confiscating the property of “above 300 people with wheelbarrows,” Trenck learned that a Prussian column was approaching to clear him out, sent the captured goods away to the Austrian army under an escort, and withdrew to high ground, “whither the enemy did not judge proper to follow me.”
Following this successful first mission, however, Trenck found himself under arrest and his regiment put under the command of a different man. A five week court martial found him innocent, whereupon he resumed leading the Pandur regiment. Three days later, “I fell in with the enemy’s rear guard, as they were on their march … and killed eleven curassiers of the king’s own regiment, without losing a man,” Trenck claims.
“Soon after,” he led a force of 300 Pandurs into “a little wood” when four Hussar regiments found them and attacked from all sides.
Here I defended myself so well, that although the Hussars had quite encompassed me, nevertheless they were obliged at length to sheer off, with the loss of a major, 18 men, and 13 horses killed on the spot, and several wounded; though I did not sustain the loss of one man myself during the whole action.
Trenck and his Pandurs were an asymmetric threat, able to attack the wagon train logistics of Frederick’s army, take unwary garrisons, seize river barges, throw up pontoon bridges, and even deploy batteries of light artillery to devastating effect in lightning raids.
Yet he was relieved of his command five years into the war, his fate becoming a political football until he died at Spielberg Castle in 1749. During those five years in command of Pandurs, Trenck had reinvented light tactics for the gunpowder age. During his last three years in prison, he would write a memoir extolling his violence as a virtue.
Army uniforms are a modern phenomenon. When Theresa reformed her army in 1754 after its unexpected defeats at Frederick’s hands, she mandated white uniforms for the infantry, a first for the central European state. Spanish and French armies had already worn white uniforms for decades. It took three years for the Hofkriegsrath, the fossilized Court Council of War founded two centuries earlier, to implement the order and catch up with the rest of Europe.
Despite important changes to the artillery and cavalry, Maria Theresa failed to create any sort of reserve army, a reform that would languish down the ages until the final ruin of the Hapsburgs in 1918, playing a role in every defeat. Lack of strategic manpower depth still seemed sensible in the 18th Century, though, for a ready regional market could fill the gap with mercenaries like Trenck. Men from France and the Spanish Netherlands, many in fact from the British Isles, served in foreign regiments under the Hapsburg banner.
Their loyalty to the crown lasted as long as their pay. Regular payroll was a severe challenge for armies of the period. For Trenck, the investment was a risk, one that could be resolved with booty, and so naturally his men became “freebooters.” Returning to the army camp with his men, “I found my enemies busy in undermining me with the general, who ordered me to appear before him, and make my defense to the complaints of several people, who charged me with having plundered them.”
But the chain of command was hardly innocent, either. One general accepted the surrender of a garrison at Reichenhall, where Trenck had successfully laid siege for five weeks, giving terms that not one Pandour should be allowed inside the town — in exchange for “a thousand florins discretion-money.”
By his own telling, Trenck made little profit from plunder. Seizing a rich suburb, “I took up my quarters in a very rich merchant’s house, who paid me for his part of the contributions every day ten florins, besides my board. But this money did not thrive with me,” he complains, “for this very merchant having a pretty girl as a daughter, who was quite deaf to my addresses, I was obliged to go and spend his money out of his house, in order to drown sorrow, insomuch that at the month’s end I had not a halfpenny left of my contribution-money.”
Which is not to say that Trenck was above extortion. Encountering the brother-in-law of an old enemy, “I was determined to make him…pay me principal and interest,” he writes. “At first he refused to comply, but upon my menacing him with 100 lashes, he went into his closet, and brought me 500 ducats.” Trenck had not broken any laws of war, he wrote, “things of that nature being permitted in the enemy’s country upon the least plausible pretenses.” He wanted vengeance, not profit.
As he languished in the hands of Hapsburg legal process, still apparently favored by the queen against those who would have his life, awaiting trial for unspecified "acts of violence," Trenck wrote about nearly getting burned to death in a gunpowder explosion during the surrender of Diesenstein Castle.
Bandaged up afterwards, he entered Passau “half-dead in my chaise, while one hundred ninety three prisoners and their guards filled up my retinue.” Trenck “lay thus, in the greatest of misery, without the least abatement of my pain for ten days; insomuch that everybody seemed to despair of my recovery.”
Acts of violence and narrow escapes abound in his account of growing up a nobleman’s son. His agony after being burned in service to Maria Theresa is the bookend to his opening account of accidentally falling on hot coals and being “half broiled alive” as a baby, so that “the marks therof may be seen upon me to this very day.” Trenck thus framed his own life as a tragedy of accidents, and his alleged crimes as accidental, before explaining why he burned the city of Cham.
Upset by the “contemptuous” treatment of a Prussian garrison commander, “I ordered three Pandurs to dress themselves in women’s clothes, and to set fire to the suburb, which was no more than one street, consisting of about twenty houses. The two companies of grenadiers … rushed out directly from their entrenchment, thinking to quench the flame … I attacked them straightaway in the blazing street, and drove them back into their redoubts; then falling on them with fresh vigor, I soon made myself master” of the position.
Now he turned the enemy’s cannons, as well as his own guns, on the hapless town, which “in a short space of time was all in a combustion.” The garrison fled the town and then surrendered to Trenck. He had taken thousands of prisoners and his troops claimed an enormous haul of booty.
Unfortunately, some of it had come out of churches. Trenck writes that he was “troubled at this piece of intelligence, and being desirous of not having the sacred utensils profaned,” he bought the stolen items from his own men and returned them to the cardinal of Passau. “This cardinal ordered my 150 ducats to be returned me, and wrote forthwith to the queen, complaining that my people and I had plundered and robbed the churches,” he complains.
He almost seems insulted. Baron Francis von Trenck was an aristocrat, educated and erudite, a marvelous dancer, reputedly spoke seven languages and specialized in English literature. He was also a hot-blooded killer, and a cold-blooded leader of killers, who tied severed heads to his saddle and tortured prisoners to reveal the names of confederates.
Compared sometimes to Vlad the Impaler, he was indeed a product of the tough, haunted region in which he operated for most of his career. Every officer in the Russian army had slave girls after sacking a city, for example. The Balkans were lawless, cutthroat country. Hapsburg dominions were still breaking convicts on wheels. And so on.
Trenck was a cultured, “civilized” European who operated on the fringes of “barbarism,” recruited among the half-barbarian locals, and then brought their way of war into the most advanced theatre of conflict of his time, against the most modernized enemy in the world. He did not win the war. However, Trenck made victory so costly for Frederick the Great that Prussia needed a peace just as badly as Austria did. Trenck had, in the end, saved his queen, though it cost him everything.
Death was the meaning of his life. Such men (they are still almost entirely men) are necessary to enforce the boundaries of a polite society, and it is also necessary to shun such men in order to maintain the politesse of that same society. Grinning death is exactly the right symbol for such a person to wear. We are exactly right to shy away from those who wear it.
Polemology Positions is a reader-supported publication. Subscribe to support my work