Sweden's Era as a Great Power

Jul 2009
9,836
#1
Sweden was not a super power as were Spain and France. It did not have the wealth of Germany or Poland. There was probably little reason to think Sweden could ever do more than defend herself at home (Let's come back to that later). From 1561 until the second decade of the 18th century Sweden was a trans-marine power in the economically important Baltic Sea and around its littoral. There have been two (possibly three) schools of historiography in regard to this interesting topic:

The 'old school,' from around 1900, sees Swedish history in the years from around 1560 to 1721 as a continual search for security against stronger rivals in the Baltic:

a) Denmark as an economic threat,

b) Poland as a Catholic/dynastic threat, and later the Habsburg counter reformation advance to north Germany,

c) Russia as a potential existential threat.

The 'new school(s),' from around 1940, sees Swedish intentions as gaining and keeping control of trade from the east (through Russia from the east) and of the Baltic grain trade from Poland and Livonia (Latvia; Estonia). An additional 'new school' thought has sometimes been that the Swedish drive for imposing its interests in and around the Baltic was a matter of wealth transfer among Crown and nobility.

WELL....:) The 'new school(s)' are mid-twentieth century approaches that are recognizable as fashionable "Marxist" approaches to historiography of the 1930s-40s.

I would argue for the "Old School" in that Sweden's neighbors, and their elites, were dangerous opponents, and were serious threats to Swedish interests.

Sweden was not a wealthy country, and was not made wealthy by territorial expansion across the Baltic. What advantage Sweden derived from control of ports and trade hardly covered the significant costs of armies, fortifications and hugely expensive naval forces that were necessary to attain and to keep gains around the Baltic. Because of the perception of threat, if Sweden made war it had to be as far from Sweden as possible, and the costs born - as much as possible - by others.

It is just a discussion so - What say you?
 
Dec 2011
4,717
Iowa USA
#2
Nice idea for a thread.

Between "new school" relative to "national story" viewpoints, I have read enough about earlier centuries in the Baltic to feel comfortable with either way of analyzing the chronology. For the later 16th and 17th centuries I have not read enough to understand both perspectives. What I have read tends to be the national story of Poland rather than Sweden.
 
Jul 2009
9,836
#3
@Kotromanic:

The national character of Sweden in the 16th and 17th centuries was much different than what we associate with Swedes today. I came across a couple of quotes that date from the 17th c. These could be sentiments that are seen to be in accord with a "new school" economic interpretation of Swedish expansion:

"Other nations make war because they are rich. Sweden makes war because it is poor, to improve its material condition." --Johan Salvius, Swedish diplomat (1652).

"The Swedes are a hungry people, and hence they are dangerous and hard-hearted." --Prince G.F. von Waldeck, Brandenburg minister and field marshal (during the 1655-1660 war).

On the other hand, Michael Roberts, the British historian who wrote mostly about Sweden, could not find any but passing and sparse references to accumulating wealth away from Sweden. There was little or none in the correspondence either of Gustav Adolf or of Axel Oxenstierna, or in the procedures of council and of the Swedish Estates.

In Roberts' opinion the drive for security against more powerful and wealthier adversaries was the main reason for expansion away from Sweden. The control of trading towns with tolls and licenses, and other duties and fees, was a way to help pay the costs of army and navy. Once Swedish or mercenary forces in Swedish pay were 'in the field' or in garrison, the surrounding territory had to bear the cost of subsistence and supply.

Sweden saw few years of peace from the late 1550s until 1595. From 1600 until 1660! Sweden was constantly in states of war with Poland or Russia, with Denmark and the Imperial armies in Germany after 1630. French subsidies were important, but much of the costs of war were transfered to the territories that were the theaters of war, and to their populations.

So there is a prominent historian's vote for the "Old School."

In an age of mercantile economy, if the Russian trade had to pass through towns controlled by Sweden, that was a favorable plus. The same was true of the grain trade coming from Poland and Livonia. As long as the most important towns were in Swedish hands, that was the most important consideration.
 
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Nov 2012
766
#5
With the defeat of the Carolus Rex (Charlex XII of Sweden)?
I think that signified the end of Imperial Swedish ambitions in the grander scheme of things.
He was either killed by an enemy or a "friendly-fire" during the siege of Norway fortress of Fredriksten.
I think that propagandic victory that Russians claimed over them during the war was probably the single most disheartening reason for latter abandonment of jingoistic policies - during the war Peter the Great decided to build a new state capital on AN OCCUPIED FOREIGN (Swedish) territory. So during the war a city was build on river Neva at the head of the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea that became Saint Petersburg.
Also, sound military losses (such as one at Poltava) really depleted Sweden of its fighting force.
 
Nov 2011
4,713
Ohio, USA
#6
With the defeat of the Carolus Rex (Charlex XII of Sweden)?
I think that signified the end of Imperial Swedish ambitions in the grander scheme of things.
He was either killed by an enemy or a "friendly-fire" during the siege of Norway fortress of Fredriksten.
I think that propagandic victory that Russians claimed over them during the war was probably the single most disheartening reason for latter abandonment of jingoistic policies - during the war Peter the Great decided to build a new state capital on AN OCCUPIED FOREIGN (Swedish) territory. So during the war a city was build on river Neva at the head of the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea that became Saint Petersburg.
Also, sound military losses (such as one at Poltava) really depleted Sweden of its fighting force.
Well, Sweden had a resurgence in the late 18th Century under Gustavus III, until he was assassinated in 1792. his successor was de-throned after a rather disastrous war with Russia, in Finland, from 1808-09. 5 years later, Bernadotte (the Swedish crown prince and former Napoleonic marshal) conquered Norway from Denmark. Sweden pretty much settled down in it's own benign internal affairs after that for the most part.
 
Jul 2009
9,836
#7
Why did the Swedes calm down, as it were, and roughly when did their national stereotype change to the one they have today?
What brought an end to the imperial period was exhaustion. Sweden and Finland probably did not have a population of more than 1,500,000 at most. The figure given for Gustav Adolf's reign was about 1,250,000. The army, although efficient and well administered, and reformed in the 1680s, was about 66,000 troops that could be mobilized in Sweden and about 25,000, mostly mercenaries, in the Baltic provinces. The large navy took more manpower.

The Great Northern War (1700-1721) was fought against Russia, Poland-Saxony, Denmark, Brandenburg-Prussia, Hanover and even Britain for two years. Sweden had very peripheral allies who were of minimal help around the Baltic (Turkey, several Khanates and the Cossack Host). France, a traditional ally of Sweden was engaged in its own huge war (Spanish Succession, 1701-1714) and was unable to assist the Swedes as in previous decades.

IMO it is remarkable that a war of this length, and intensity, could be sustained, and much of that was due to the king, Charles XII, a very unstable if brilliant soldier, and to several able field marshals. Over the course of the GNW Sweden lost 175-200,000 men - a huge proportion of population.

I am not that knowledgeable on the end of the Swedish "empire." I am more interested in the period 1600-1660, but what "calmed them down" was a realization that their resources were no longer sufficient to carry on with such a national sacrifice. I don't think the Swedes were as yet any less 'military,' but they resorted to that far less frequently.
 
Jul 2011
1,426
Sweden
#9
Sweden was of little value for countries such as Russia,HRE,PLC. Denmark however was hungry for Swedish lands, and even ruled over Sweden in the Kalmar union.

Anyway, i think one of the factors of the very aggressive policies caried out by the Swedish monarchs, was simply because they could.

What they almost always did before invading the European continent, was to get rid of the danish threat first. And then they moved on to Polish prussia the baltics etc. Untill the 18'th century Sweden mostly attacked countries which was already in war which could be seen as cowardly, but it was a useful tactic since sweden could not withstand a war for a longer period.

In the 18'th century Sweden was actually on the defence. So it reformed itself Allotment system - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Suddenly the Swedish military was one of the strongest in Europe. And almost won the great northen war. It lost because of the famine. Out of 200.000 Swedish soldiers, 175.000 died of famine.

After that Sweden became passive and lost most of its holdings.
 
Feb 2011
1,595
#10
17th century Sweden was a classical case of imperial overstretch. Its control of most of the Baltic countercoast meant taxing in on the Baltic sea trade but militarily committed the country against too many enemies at too many fronts.

In hindsight, it should have limited its aspirations to the contiguous land bridge from proper Sweden to the Baltic states and abstained from territorial expansion at the German coast.
 

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