The Struggle for the Baltic



HISTORY is a fragment of biology—the human moment in the pageant of species. It is also a child of geography—the operation of land and sea and air, and of their forms and products, upon human desire and destiny. See again the confrontation of countries around the Baltic in the seventeenth century: on its north, Sweden; on its east, Esthonia, Livonia, Lithuania, and, behind them, cold and hungry Russia; on its south, East Prussia, Poland, West Prussia, Germany; and on its west, Denmark, with its strategic place on the narrow outlets of the Baltic to the North Sea and the Atlantic. This was a geographical prison, whose inmates would struggle to control those waters and straits, those coasts and ports, those avenues of commerce and escape by land or sea. Here geography created history.

Denmark played now a minor role in the Baltic drama. Its freedom-monopolizing nobles had tied the hands and feet of its kings. It had surrendered control of the Skagerrak and the Kattegat (1645); it still held Norway, but in 1660 it lost the southern provinces of Sweden. Frederick III (1648–70) felt the need of a centralized authority to meet external challenges, and with the help of the clergy and the middle classes he compelled the nobles to yield him absolute and hereditary power. His son Christian V (1670–99) found in Peder Schumacher, Count Griffenfeld, an aide who won the praise of Louis XIV as one of the ablest ministers in that heyday of diplomacy. The finances were reformed, trade and industry were advanced, the army and navy were reorganized. The Count pursued a policy of peace, but the new King longed to recover the power and provinces that Denmark had once held. In 1675 he renewed the old conflict with Sweden. He was defeated, and the sovereignty of Sweden in Scandinavia was confirmed.

Sweden in this period had a remarkable succession of strong kings; for half a century (1654–1718) they were the wonder of the world, rivaled only by Louis XIV. Had they possessed a larger background of resources they might have equaled the power of France, and the Swedish people, inspired by the achievements of two Gustavs, three Karls, and their great ministers, might have financed a cultural flowering commensurate with their victories and aspirations. But the wars that exalted their power exhausted their wealth, and Sweden emerged from this age heroic but consumed. It is astonishing that a nation so weak should have accomplished so much abroad. She had a population of 1,500,000, divided into classes that had not yet learned to live with one another in peace. The nobles dominated the king, and voted themselves crown lands on easy terms. Industry was so bound and narrowed to the needs of war that it could not feed the commerce that war had freed. Foreign possessions were a proud liability. Only the statesmanship of devoted ministers staved off the bankruptcy that seemed to be the price of glory.

Charles X Gustavus was the cousin, playmate, lover, and successor of the redoubtable Christina, who had resigned the throne to him in 1654. He met the danger of bankruptcy by compelling the nobles to disgorge some of the royal estates that they had absorbed. By this “reduction” of seignorial holdings the state regained three thousands homesteads, and solvency. To supplement the coinage of silver and gold, Charles commissioned Johann Palmstruh to establish a national bank and issue paper money (1656)—the first such currency in Europe. For a while the increased circulation stimulated the economy, but the bank issued more paper than it could redeem on demand, and the experiment was discontinued. About the same time the enterprising monarch transplanted the iron and steel industry of Riga to Sweden, and so laid the foundations of a stronger industrial basis for his martial policy.

His aim was frankly expansionist. The principalities that Gustavus Adolphus had won on the mainland were threatening revolt. The Polish government had refused to recognize Charles X as King of Sweden, but Poland was weakened by the Cossack rebellion. Russia had come to the aid of the Cossacks, and was obviously hoping to cut a way to the Baltic. Sweden had a well-trained army, which it feared to demobilize and could best support by victorious war. All the conditions, in Charles’s view, favored an attack upon Poland. The peasants and the clergy objected; he won them over by calling his enterprise a holy war to protect and extend the Reformation (1655). 1

Poland proved easy to invade, difficult to subdue. Disordered and assailed in the east, it made little resistance in the west. Charles entered Warsaw, appeased the Polish nobles by promising to preserve their traditional privileges, received the homage of the Polish Protestants, and the offer of the Lithuanians to acknowledge his sovereignty. When Frederick William, the “Great Elector” of Brandenburg, tried to profit from Poland’s collapse by seizing West Prussia (then a Polish fief), Charles marched his army westward with Napoleonic celerity, besieged the Elector in his capital, and forced him to sign the Treaty of Königsberg (January, 1656). The Elector did homage to Charles for East Prussia as a Swedish fief, agreed to turn over to Sweden half of that province’s customs and dues, and promised to supply fifteen hundred soldiers to the Swedish army.

The religious issue which Charles had raised defeated him. Pope Alexander VII and the Emperor Ferdinand III used all their influence to raise up an anti-Swedish coalition; even the Protestant Danes and Dutch joined in the resolve to check the young conqueror lest he should next impinge upon their territory or trade. He rushed back to Poland, defeated a new Polish force, and reoccupied Warsaw (July, 1656). But now the country, religiously aroused, took up arms against him, and Charles, triumphant but friendless, found himself hemmed in by foes. The Elector of Brandenburg deserted him and pledged aid to Poland. Knowing only how to win battles, not how to consolidate his conquests in a practicable peace, Charles swept westward against Denmark, crossed the Kattegat over thirteen miles of ice (January, 1658), defeated the Danes, and compelled Frederick III to sign the Peace of Roskilde (February 27). Denmark withdrew completely from the Swedish peninsula, and agreed to close the Sound against Sweden’s enemies. When the Danes delayed to carry out these terms Charles renewed the war, and besieged Copenhagen. Now he resolved to dethrone Frederick III and reunite Denmark, Sweden, and Norway under one crown.

He was defeated by sea power. The two great naval nations of the age, England and the United Provinces, normally enemies, agreed that no country should hold the key to the Baltic by controlling the Sound between Denmark and Sweden. In October a Dutch squadron forced its way through the Sound, relieved Copenhagen, and drove the small Swedish fleet into its home ports. Charles vowed to fight to the last. But the rigors of his campaigns had told upon him. While he was addressing the Swedish Diet at Göteborg he was seized with fever. He died shortly thereafter (February 13, 1660), in the prime of his life.

As his son Charles XI (1660–97) was only five years old, a Regency of nobles took charge, and brought the war to a close with the Peace of Oliva and the Treaty of Copenhagen (May, June, 1660). The Polish monarchy surrendered its claim to the Swedish crown; Livonia was confirmed to Sweden; Brandenburg received full title to East Prussia; Sweden retained her southern counties (Skåne) and her mainland provinces (Bremen, Verden, and Pomerania), but she joined Denmark in guaranteeing the access of foreign vessels to the Baltic. A year later Sweden and Poland signed at Kardis a halfhearted peace with the Czar. For fifteen years the struggle for the Baltic proceeded by other means than war.

These treaties were a substantial victory for Sweden, but she was again verging on bankruptcy. Two members of the Regency, Gustav Bonde and Per Brahe, labored to check governmental expenditures, but Magnus de la Gardie, the Chancellor, added new debts to old ones, allowed the nobility, his friends, and himself to profit at the expense of the treasury, and, for a subsidy, allied Sweden with France (1672) only a few days before Louis XIV pounced upon Sweden’s ally, the United Provinces. Soon Sweden found herself at war with Denmark, Brandenburg, and Holland. She suffered defeat by the Great Elector at Fehrbellin (June 18, 1675), her mainland provinces were overrun by her enemies, a Danish army reconquered Skåne, and the Swedish navy met disaster off Öland (June 1, 1676).

The young Charles XI, taking control, rescued Sweden by a series of campaigns in which his personal bravery so inspired his troops that they routed the Danes at Lund and Landskrona. Through these victories, and support by Louis XIV, Sweden recovered all that she had lost. A new hero of Swedish diplomacy, Count Johan Gyllenstierna, co-operated with Count Griffenfeld to arrange at Lund (1679) not only peace but a military and commercial alliance between Sweden and Denmark. They agreed to a common coinage, and the union of all Scandinavia was close to complete when the death of Gyllenstierna at the age of forty-five (1680), interrupted this development. The two nations preserved the peace for twenty years.

Gyllenstierna had taught the young King that Sweden would be unable to maintain her status as a great power if her nobles continued to absorb crown lands, thereby depressing the monarchy to poverty and the state to impotence. In 1682 Charles XI took decisive action. Supported by the clergy, the peasants, and the burghers, he resumed with angry thoroughness the “reduction,” or restoration, of alienated royal estates. He investigated and punished official corruption, and brought the revenues of the government to a point where Sweden was again able to maintain her possessions and responsibilities. Charles XI was not a very lovable king, but he was a great one. Though he made an enviable record in war, he preferred the less noisy victories of peace. He established monarchical absolutism, but that was then the alternative to a chaotic and retrogressive feudalism.

In the calm of this lucid interval science, literature, and art flourished in Sweden. Swedish architecture reached its zenith in the erection of the massive and majestic royal palace at Stockholm, designed (1693–97) by Nicodemus Tessin. Lars Johansson was both the Leopardi and the Marlowe of Sweden, singing melodious misanthropy, and stabbed to death in a tavern brawl at the age of thirty-six. Gunno Dahlstierna composed in Dante’s meter an epic, Kunga-Skald (1697), in honor of Charles XI. The King died in that year, after saving and rebuilding a Sweden that his more famous son almost destroyed.

Charles XII was now fifteen. As the map of Europe was being remade by blood and iron, he had been trained above all for war. All his sports prepared him for martial deeds; he learned mathematics as a branch of military science; and he read enough Latin to derive from Qintus Curtius’ biography of Alexander the ambition to excel in arms, if not to conquer the world. Tall, handsome, strong, with no surplus ounce of flesh to burden him, he enjoyed a soldier’s life, bore its privations stoically, laughed at danger and death, and demanded the same hardihood of his troops. He cared little for women, and though often courted, he never married. He hunted bears with no other weapon than a heavy wooden fork; rode his horses at reckless speed, swam in waters that were half covered with ice, and relished sham battles in which, time and again, he and his friends were nearly killed. Along with fanatical bravery and physical stamina went certain qualities of character and intellect: a candor scorning the tricks of diplomacy; a sense of honor blemished by exceptional moments of wild cruelty; a mind clear to see the point of a matter at once, but impatient of indirect approaches in thought or strategy; a taciturn pride that never forgot his royal birth and never acknowledged defeat. At his coronation he crowned himself, Napoleonwise; he took no oath limiting his power; and when a clergyman questioned the wisdom of conferring absolute authority upon a youth of fifteen, Charles at first condemned him to death, then commuted the sentence to life imprisonment.

At his accession Sweden was a major Continental power, ruling Finland, Ingria, Esthonia, Livonia, Pomerania, and Bremen; she controlled the Baltic, and kept Russia from access to that sea. Russia, Poland, Brandenburg, and Denmark saw in the youthfulness of the Swedish King an opportunity to extend their boundaries to the advantage of their commerce and revenues. The catalytic agent in this geographical solution was a Livonian knight, Johann von Patkul. As a subject of Sweden he had entered its army and had risen to a captaincy. In 1689 and 1692 he protested so forcefully against Charles XI’s “reduction” of estates in Livonia that he was charged with treason. He escaped to Poland, asked Charles XII to pardon him, was refused, and in 1698 proposed to Augustus II of Poland and Saxony a coalition of Poland, Saxony, Brandenburg, Denmark and Russia against Sweden. Augustus thought the plan timely, and took the first step by entering into alliance with Denmark’s Frederick IV (September 25, 1699). Patkul proceeded to Moscow. On November 22 Peter the Great signed with the envoys of Saxony and Denmark an agreement for the dismemberment of Sweden.

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