The Rise and Fall of Sweden as a Military Superpower, 1611-1721
This book is an overview of the short period when the tiny nation of Sweden became the not only a superpower in Europe, but nearly the arbiter of Germany and the Baltic.
This period was punctuated by the short careers two famous warrior kings – Gustavus Adolphus and Charles XII. Gustavus is famed for his intervention in the Thirty Years War and major victories that stabilized the situation and kept Protestantism viable in Germany. Charles XII is noted more for his struggles against Poland and Russia in the Great Northern War.
Sweden early in this period gained a technology advantage over standard military practice which gave their armies more flexibility in battle and attached light artillery that could pound the unwieldy square pike formations then in vogue. This advantage and the ability of Gustavus Adolphus led to a crushing victory at Brietenfeld and moved he theater of war from the Baltic Coast to south Germany.
While the able general Wallenstein was able to fend off Gustavus for a time, a second victory at Lutzen confirmed the superiority of Swedish arms. Sadly for Sweden, the king Gustavus was killed at the battle and the war was put in the hands of a Chancellor while a young Queen waited to grow up.
The remainder of the Thirty Years War was a mixed bag for Sweden. Subsidies from Germany and France paid for the armies, but losses were heavy and continual. Without a leader like Gustavus Sweden’s political position weakened, and France took over the overall conduct of the war until its end in 1648.
After the Thirty Years War Sweden concentrated on solidifying its rule around the Baltic Coasts. Denmark, Norway, Poland and Russia unified to oppose this aim. At times the Swedish position was so dominant that at one point the Czarship was almost offered to the younger brother of the Swedish King. Instead, it went to the Romanovs.
Sweden held its upper hand until again, its king died young. Charles XI’s death emboldened Sweden’s enemies to start the Great Northern War to take advantage of Charles XII’s youth and inexperience. This turned out to be a nearly fatal mistake, as Charles XII was a military dynamo. Turning against first Denmark, then Poland and its ally Saxony, he managed to crush them one after another, using rapid marches and savage attacks to rout his opponents. With the passage of years, Sweden’s technical edge had passed, but the army was experienced, disciplined, and elite. Charles was nearly unbeatable in battle.
Finally, Poland had fallen and only Russia was left. Charles refused any peace, and the offer may well just have been to buy time. Russia had been frantically rebuilding its armed forces while Sweden had been crushing its allies. When Charles invaded, they burned the area to gain time and Charles turned south to the Ukraine to winter. The next year, a supply train to the army was cut off and destroyed, and the Russians offered battle at Poltava. This time, the Swedish attack failed and the army was destroyed. Charles had to flee to the Ottoman Empire and waited years to be able to return to Sweden while Russia took their provinces away. Finally, when Charles did return his luck was out, and he was killed by a bullet in the head.
It is hard to say how much longer Sweden might have been able to keep its primacy when faced by larger states. On the other hand, Prussia managed to grow from equally small origins to eventually dominate a unified Germany. But since Charles had no children, the resulting period of uncertainty meant that Sweden’s “Fifteen Minutes of Fame” was over for good.