Sweden as a Major Power 1611–1721

Many countries in Europe have, at some stage, become major powers, enjoying a period of territorial expansion and military success after modest beginnings. For some the condition has been sustained over long periods—for example, France, Britain and, since 1700, Russia. Their resources and economic development ensured that their influence over European affairs should normally be considerable and that any retraction or decline should be a temporary departure from this norm. For others, being a great power was an exceptional phase in their historical growth, due, perhaps, to an unusually favourable international situation and to a highly effective leadership making the most of limited resources. Such powers included Burgundy and Switzerland in the late Middle Ages, and Sweden in the seventeenth century. This is, however, a strong feeling of inevitability about their eventual military eclipse. Having reached one peak, it seems impossible that they could ever share the experience of Britain, France and Russia in achieving others.

This chapter will examine the factors which made possible the period of Swedish ascendancy and those ultimately responsible for her decline. In many instances they were contemporaneous, but they can be separated for the purpose of analysis.

Swedish power would have been impossible without the military leadership of the Vasas, especially of Gustavus Adolphus (1611–32) and Charles XII (16971718), both of whom possessed exceptional abilities when compared with the majority of the commanders of their time. Gustavus Adolphus built the basis of the finest army in Europe by introducing a modified form of conscription and by ensuring that his troops used advanced weapons, notably shorter pikes and lighter firearms, both of which enhanced the manoeuvrability of Swedish columns in battle. Above all, he showed a thorough knowledge of the advanced military strategy of the Dutch school, as expounded and applied by Maurice of Nassau in the 1590s. He went further than any of his predecessors or contemporaries in experimentation, achieving greater co–ordination between pikemen and musketeers, and reintroducing the notion that the cavalry should be used to weaken the enemy by the impact of sabre charges rather than merely add to the firepower of the infantry. With the advanced degree of discipline instilled into his troops, Gustavus Adolphus was able to achieve notable victories in the Thirty Years’ War, particularly over Tilly at Breitenfeld (1631). The obviously superior quality of the Swedish troops, tactics and leadership compensated, for the time being, for their relatively small numbers. The Swedish ‘magic’ carried over into the eighteenth century as well, even when Sweden was no longer the unquestionable mistress of the Baltic. In a last great effort to preserve Sweden's status as a major power, Charles XII took on a formidable coalition consisting of Russia, Denmark, Saxony and Poland. He could not have done this without being supremely confident of inflicting swift defeats and achieving a series of decisive military results in true Swedish tradition. For a while, this expectation appeared to be justified, especially after his victory over a numerically superior force of Russians at Narva in 1700. But Charles was unable to cope with the subsequent change in the character of the Great Northern War from swift offensives to prolonged attrition.

The first half of the seventeenth century produced a confused situation in the Baltic and Central and Eastern Europe, which could only benefit a militarily sophisticated state. Denmark, the major Baltic power of the sixteenth century, was in gradual decline, weakened by a rebellious nobility and an elective monarchy. She was also becoming increasingly unpopular with other European powers because of her grip on the Sound, the entrance to the Baltic. Muscovy was in internal disarray before 1613, during the so–called Smutnoe Vremia (‘Time of Troubles’). Even when Michael Romanov ascended the throne in 1613, Muscovy remained preoccupied with the threat from Poland's final attempt at eastward expansion. The internal chaos in Germany and the diplomatic attempts of France to outflank the Habsburgs made Sweden a particularly important participant in the Thirty Years’ War and provided her with the opportunity to establish complete control over the north German coastline. In these circumstances a state with the discipline of Sweden, no matter how limited in its resources, could hardly fail to make an impact. Gradually, however, Sweden's rivals on the Baltic littoral, particularly Brandenburg and Russia, increased their relative military capacity and began to threaten Sweden's hold.

As Sweden became more deeply involved militarily in attempts to dominate Northern and Central Europe, more intensive exploitation of her resources was essential. Her main advantages included a plentiful supply of iron ore and Europe's only large copper deposits, at Falun. The latter gave Sweden a virtual monopoly in the European markets until copper production declined from the mid–seventeenth century onwards. Under Gustavus Adolphus Sweden produced enough iron to sustain her military growth; the Swedish brass cannon were famous on the battlefields of Germany. The Swedish economy remained unsophisticated and uncomplicated. Sweden was not one of Northern Europe's great commercial nations, although Gustavus Adolphus encouraged Dutch entrepreneurs like Louis De Geer to establish companies and develop trading links with the Netherlands. On the whole, Gustavus Adolphus concentrated on satisfying military requirements, and the main industries therefore geared themselves to warfare, thus prolonging the character of Sweden as a spartan and specialized military power.

One of Sweden's great advantages in the seventeenth century was her ability to achieve internal political stability in her search to remain a major power. This process occurred in two clearly defined periods: the reign of Gustavus Adolphus (1611–32) and the majority of Charles XI (1680–97). The former saw the smooth functioning of constitutional monarchy, as promised in the Accession Charter of 1611. Gustavus Adolphus achieved harmonious relations with the Riksdag (legislature) and the Riksrad (Council). He was served by one of the ablest ministers of the seventeenth century, Axel Oxenstierna, and he evolved a bureaucracy which was the most advanced in Europe, eventually to be imitated by Peter the Great of Russia. The final version, laid down by Oxenstierna in the 1634 Form of Government (two years after Gustavus's death), consisted of five administrative colleges: the Supreme Court, the War Council, the Admiralty, the Chancery and the Exchequer. Local administration was made up of 23 Districts, or Lan.Despite its efficiency, this system tended, at times, to work badly, particularly during the Regencies for Christina (1632–44) and Charles XI (166079). This was due largely to internal aristocratic wranglings in the Riksrad and conflicts with the Riksdag over the source of money for Sweden's aggressive foreign policy. Hence Sweden switched to the common Continental expedient of absolutism, and was able to see the seventeenth century out with revived efficiency and even a touch of glory. This transition was accomplished smoothly and with the full consent of the Riksdag, which actually conferred upon Charles XI greatly increased powers in 1682. In a Resolution of 1693 the Riksdag affirmed that ‘he and all his heirs have been set to rule over us as absolute sovereign Kings, whose will is binding on us all, and who are responsible for their actions to no man on earth’.1 The Crown did not, however, convert this into permanent prerogative rule, and constitutional monarchy was ultimately restored after the reign of Charles XII (1697–1718). Absolutism served to prolong Sweden's military power, but it could hardly be considered a natural condition.

When one examines her basic resources what really surprises is not that Sweden declined but that she clung to her supremacy for so long. As a major power Sweden, with a population of 1.5 m. (0.75 m. in Sweden proper) had to compete with France (21 m. by 1700) and England (5.2 m.).2Her economy was based firmly on agriculture and her commerce was less developed than that of almost any other western state. She possessed no great ports (except on the north German coastline) and was one of the few countries of Protestant Europe not to benefit materially from the influx of Huguenot refugees from France after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Nor did she participate in the general increase of trade in Europe that followed the dispersal of American gold and silver from Spain. She possessed few consumer or luxury industries, unlike England, France, the Netherlands, the German states and Italy, and consequently drew little bullion from the Iberian Peninsula. This meant that Sweden had a serious shortage of coinage for the maintenance of her armies, a problem which was aggravated by the limited possibilities of extracting revenue from trade and industry.

To raise funds to pay for a standing army, Swedish rulers, whether Kings or Regents, had frequently to resort to alienating Crown lands and revenues for cash. This caused several constitutional conflicts. The Riksdag demanded, on many occasions, the resumption of Crown lands (by ‘Reductions’); the Crown would forgo the advantages of large sums and, instead, draw a regular income from its restored estates. The main crises occurred between 1632 and 1680. After a period of Regency government the lower Estates of the 1650 Riksdag pressed Christina for a series of Reductions to lighten their own load, but she was more interested in other issues and refused to implement them. The second Regency, between 1660 and 1680, alienated further land, and it was only in 1680 that Reductions became effective. The whole story shows a serious dilemma: if the King or Council sold Crown lands and revenues for cash the result was the loss of more continuous supplies of cash. If, on the other hand, these lands and revenues were regained, the Riksdag showed every expectation that the King should finance his government and foreign policy without recourse to extra taxation. In 1680, for example, the Riksdag observed of the first major Reductions: ‘and the Estate of Nobility presume that when all this has been executed and properly carried out, the country will have thereby been given such powerful assistance that it will be possible hereafter for Your Majesty's subjects to be relieved of the necessity to make contributions.’3 This blithe optimism did not, however, answer the perennial question: who or what would guarantee a regular financial backing for Sweden's foreign military adventures?

Faced by a continual struggle for financial solvency, Sweden suffered what was, arguably, her greatest defect. She failed to back up her military power and success by strong and positive diplomacy. Such consolidation of military gains by diplomacy is essential for the success of a major power since it creates permanence from the transitory and provides an overall aim and sense of purpose. But the essential point about diplomacy is that it must be many–sided and flexible, capable of using different kinds of strength as occasion demands. In addition to being able to use force, it is somtimes essential to maintain a convincing appearance of military threat without actually reaching the point of war. This was precisely what Sweden could not do, and her great difficulty in holding the twilight zone between war and peace greatly weakened her position. The reason was entirely financial. Sweden at war was solvent; her armies lived off enemy territory and the government managed on subsidies paid by those states who used Sweden for a diversionary attack on their own enemies. During the Thirty Years’ War, for example, Sweden had exploited the revenues and resources of northern Germany and had been financed by Richelieu's subsidies from the Treaty of Barwalde (1631). Sweden at peace could adapt, although reluctantly, to different forms of supply. But Sweden at peace, maintaining a standing army for use in diplomacy, was an impossibility. As the Riksrad observed in 1654, once Sweden raised Régiments and refrained from actually going to war ‘it will be as good as making war upon ourselves: think how much will have been wasted on maintaining them’.4 The result was a cumulative lack of finesse in diplomacy. This, in itself, made Sweden a ready prey for more fortunate and devious courts, like that of Louis XIV.

There were attempts to enter the diplomatic scene, but these were largely unsuccessful. In 1661, for example, Bonde (the Treasurer) assessed Sweden's primary need as being one of security based on peaceful relations with other powers. But he soon discovered that neutrality and a show of power were incompatible, and therefore had to resort to accepting subsidies from other powers. Charles XI tried to elevate Sweden to the position of an arbiter in international relations but he succeeded only in making her a mediator between the two sides in the War of the League of Augsburg. A mediator sought by the powers because of its non–involvement rather than its strength: this was an indication of Sweden's future role rather than an affirmation of her past one. Meanwhile, there were two periods when Sweden stood in very great need of sustained diplomatic activity. In 1658 Charles X had successfully concluded a war against Denmark and embarked upon a complex design, involving Austria and Russia, aimed at attacking Poland and relieving her of a substantial part of her province of Prussia. The diplomacy required, however, meant a considerable time–lag. Since his army needed financing at enemy expense, he turned his back on this project and began another round of warfare with Denmark. For the rest of the century Sweden slipped from one war to another without consolidating intervening periods of peace. During the Great Northern War (1699–1721) Charles XII personified Sweden's diplomatic ignorance. He refused to consider any type of settlement after his defeat at Poltava by Russia in 1709, and even antagonized the western powers by ordering attacks on neutral shipping in the Baltic because they were maintaining normal commercial contacts with Russia. By 1715 all of Sweden's possession on the south shore of the Baltic had been lost; yet, even now, Charles refused all offers of mediation, convinced that a military solution could still be applied.

Commanders like Gustavus Adolphus and Charles XII had enormous confidence, based on the certain conviction that Sweden possessed advantages which other powers did not. Under Gustavus Adolphus this was certainly true; under Charles XII, however, confidence became arrogance and developed into an inability to recognize that conditions had changed. Sweden had, by now, lost her earlier advantages over other European powers. The advanced military tactics once used by Gustavus Adolphus became common property and were extensively applied by French commanders. Furthermore, the discipline of the Swedish troops was offset by the enormous increase in the size of the armies of other countries, with which Sweden could not compete. Gustavus Adolphus took 30,000 men into Germany in 1630, but Louis XIV raised the largest armies seen in Europe for a thousand years, and Peter the Great worked on the assumption that he would eventually wear Sweden down by outnumbering Swedish troops by at least 2 to 1. When the Continental states also developed their own bureaucracies to finance and supply these armies, Sweden lost her pre–eminence here as well. During the Great Northern War, for example, Russia's eventual success over Sweden was due partly to the extensive administrative reforms of Peter the Great, borrowed unashamedly from the Swedish model.

Sweden's decline has few, if any, tragic connotations. It was not accompanied by disintegration or internal chaos, nor by invasion from other powers. In the eighteenth century, Sweden achieved a more natural balance and harmony which was reflected by the further development of constitutional monarchy and the increasing diversification of the economy. The military tradition, however, has never been entirely eradicated as, even today, Swedish neutrality is based upon a strong standing army.

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