What the Swedish Empire Tells Us About History

As long as humans have studied history, we have tried to simplify its broad sweep into theories.

Great man theory, first articulated by Thomas Carlyle in the 1840s, suggests that we should understand history as the actions of great men, whose natural ability enabled them to change the world. As Carlyle put it, “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” 

One of the many theories to have risen up in opposition to Great Man theory is Trends and Forces Theory, which proposes that mundane and gradual changes exert a far greater pull on history than the actions of any individual. While Great Man historical theorists have tended to focus on military history, trends and forces are most visible in economic and social history.

You don’t have to have a PhD in history to see that neither argument is entirely correct. It is difficult to argue that the decisions, personalities, and quirks of men (or women) like Catherine the Great, Napoleon, or Lincoln did not change the course of history. However, it is equally obvious that gradual forces make an enormous difference. It would be impossible to understand a global phenomenon like the Industrial Revolution if you limit yourself to a few important biographies. 

Historians, then, have to become better at describing where the two theories can build on and each other. Perhaps no historical moment captures the interactions between great individuals and mundane trends better than the Swedish Empire. 

The Swedish Empire

To modern readers, Sweden is a small country best known for the Nobel Prize, socialized health care, and Ikea. Yet during the 17th century, Sweden was one of the preeminent powers of Europe, controlling a vast empire stretching from Norway to Estonia, and repeatedly defeating far greater rivals such as Tsarist Russia and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. 

To those who study the trends and forces of history, Sweden’s rise seems borderline incomprehensible. Sweden was (and still is) a sparsely populated country, with only about a million inhabitants during the 17th century, perhaps a tenth that of its Russian rival during the same period. Sweden, moreover, was not a wealthy country. It boasted rich iron and copper deposits, but suffered from poor harvests and infrastructure. 

How then, did Sweden achieve such success? Its primary advantage lay in its remarkable rulers. From 1611 to 1718, a period encompassing the rise and fall of the empire, Sweden saw four great kings, Gustavus Adolphus, Charles X Gustav, Charles XI, and Charles XII, all of whom were immensely capable warriors and administrators. Added to the mix was Adolphus’ daughter, Christina, who expanded Sweden’s cultural and intellectual influence. 

Now, it would be an oversimplification to credit all of Sweden’s success to its rulers. But at the same time, the kings of Imperial Sweden were a remarkable bunch. Gustavus Adolphus, for instance, was an undisputed military genius, whose innovations of fast-moving cannons and exhaustively drilled troops revolutionized warfare. All Sweden’s rulers appointed capable subordinates. During the imperial years, Swedish generals consistently outperformed their opponents, and the military system created by the Swedish warrior kings used the most advanced tactics in Europe at the time. As a result, Swedish armies routinely defeated far greater forces.  

Gustavus Adolphus

The Fall of the Swedish Empire

The fall of the Swedish empire came about during the Great Northern War (1700-1721). In that war, a formidable coalition of states, including Russia, Saxony, Denmark, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, attacked Sweden in the hopes of reversing their earlier defeats. 

In the first nine years of the Great Northern War, Charles XII and the Swedes demonstrated why they had gained their empire in the first place. Charles and his subordinates won a string of crushing victories against superior armies. Perhaps the most impressive was the 1700 battle of Narva, in which Charles XII and 12,500 men attacked a fortified Russian army of 37,000, utterly smashing the Russians. Similarly impressive and improbable victories occurred at Kliszów (1702) and Fraustadt (1706), to name only two.

Infantry of the late Swedish Empire, known as Caroleans. A significant portion of the empire’s manpower came not from Sweden proper, but from Finland.

In the end, however, even the ability of Charles XII could not secure the Swedish Empire. Charles invaded Russia in 1708, blazing the trail followed by both Napoleon and Hitler. Charles would be defeated, and his entire army destroyed, at the Battle of Poltava in 1709. The fact that the Russians won the Battle of Poltava should not come as a surprise. In the battle, the Swedes were outnumbered two to one, and attacking uphill against Russian cannons. Yet the Swedes had won many battles in the previous years, including Narva, under similar circumstances.  

The defeat, often ranked among the most decisive battles in world history, destroyed Sweden’s main field army. Although the war dragged on for another eleven years (largely because of Charles’ refusal to come to terms), Poltava shattered the military strength of the Swedish empire. After the death of Charles XII in 1718, the Swedish government sued for peace. Sweden’s defeat in the Great Northern War marked the end of the Swedish Empire.

Historians have sometimes attributed Sweden’s defeat at Poltava to particular events or decisions, like the wound that prevented Charles XII from commanding on the day of battle, or Charles’ decision to invade Russia. Yet this misses the point. Regardless of the particular sequence of events, Sweden’s army did not have the resources to withstand defeat, and so the imperial project was doomed from the beginning.

The superb military system created by the Swedish kings had endured precious few defeats over the past century of Swedish imperialism. Yet this good fortune was a prerequisite for the Swedish Empire. Sweden simply did not have enough manpower to recover from the loss of tens of thousands of men during and immediately after the battle of Poltava. Sweden’s enemies had endured defeats of a similar scale, but because of its limited resources, Sweden proved less resilient than its foes. 

The Battle of Poltava. Charles XII’s defeat lingered long in the European imagination. Supposedly, Napoleon carried Voltaire’s account of Charles’ campaign during his own failed invasion of Russia. 

Frans Bengtsson, the great biographer of Charles XII, wrote that on the night Charles died, “A whole new age began, better suited to the stature of ordinary men than the era that was ended.” The trends and forces – manpower, resources, economic development – eventually overcame the efforts of the great individuals who had built the Swedish Empire. Yet the fact that the empire eventually fell does not discount the impact it had upon history. Gustavus Adolphus and his successors reshaped the economics, culture, and politics of Northern Europe. Few cases show the impact a few individuals can have upon history better than the Swedish Empire.

But in the end, it was the slow, mundane forces that had the last word. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s