The Swedish Great Power period
What made it possibleThe Swedish Great Power period in the 17th century was made possible because of both internal and external causes. In the middle of the 16th century, when the German Order State ceased to exist, Sweden, Denmark, Russia and Poland competed for influence over territories in the Baltic area; territories that earlier belonged to the German Order. Sweden managed to conquer the northern part of Estonia and this was the beginning of a very expansive Swedish foreign policy. The expansion was made easier by the Civil War that raged in Russia in the early years of the 17th century. Sweden took part in this war, trying to take advantage of the chaotic situation. The peace treaty added new territory to the Finnish part of Sweden.
The reason why the states surrounding the Baltic Sea were so eager to take control of the Baltic states, was their importance in being able to control the trade from Russia to western Europe. The collapse of the German Order State created a political vacuum that constituted a threat to trade relations. Because of the political turbulence in the Baltic area, the English established a new trade route north of Scandinavia, to Russia. When Sweden, because of this, tried to take control of the northern coastal regions of Scandinavia, it led to conflict with Russia and Denmark. When King Gustav II Adolf, who "inherited" the conflict, realised that it would be very difficult for Sweden to control the northern route, he concentrated the Swedish interest to the Baltic Sea. Sweden now strove to create a "dominium maris baltici", i.e. supremacy of the Baltic Sea.
The first problem was the trade from Russia to western Europe. Most of it went from Russia over "Livland", i.e. modern Latvia, to cities in western Europe. In the early 17th century "Livland", and the coastal areas in the south-west of the Baltic Sea, were controlled by Poland. This meant important customs revenues from the commerce relations with Russia. The Swedish king was, of course, interested in getting his hands on these revenues. The supremacy over "Livland" and other important harbour cities in polish Prussia, meant massively increased revenues for the Swedish state. The customs revenues alone, amounted to over 25 percent of the Swedish state income.
Internal factors that had an impact on the development towards a great power were, among other things, a fairly well managed economy, a growing domestic iron and weapons industry, a, for the time, very well-administrated state and a slightly increasing population. However, the external factors, a weak Russia and social and economic problems in other European countries that competed with Sweden, are regarded by most scholars as the main explanation as to why Sweden, with its limited resources, could become so powerful.
Constant warThe Swedish Great Power period was characterised by almost constant war. This became even more evident when Gustav II Adolf, in 1630, decided to enter the 30 Years war that raged in Europe. The direct cause to the Swedish intervention was the growing influence of the German Emperor and his forces in northern Germany. This was considered a threat to Swedish interests in the Baltic area.
Earlier, the Swedish intervention was characterised as a defence of Protestantism against the catholic armies in Europe. However, later reSearch (in Swedish) points to more profane causes, such as political and economic influences. The two most famous battles of the war were the Battle at Breitenfelt in 1631, where Gustav II Adolf, in spite of numerical inferiority, won a spectacular victory, and the Battle of Lützen in 1632, where the King was killed. The Battle of Lützen however, finally ended in a Swedish victory.
The war was very expensive for Sweden. Only a small part of the Swedish troops in Europe were Swedes or Finns. The use of mercenaries was extensive and very expensive, in fact quite devastating to the state finances. Because of this, King Karl XI initiated a complete reorganisation of the Swedish army in the late 17Th century. This led to an increasing use of domestically recruited soldiers, and is the forerunner to the system of compulsory military service of today.
At its peak in the middle of the 17th century, the Swedish Great Power period included Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and parts of northern Germany. The extended borders became more and more difficult and costly to defend and the growing strength of Russia constituted a constant threat to Sweden.
End of period
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The beginning of the end for the Swedish Great Power period was the outbreak of the Great Nordic War in 1700. When Karl XI died in 1697, he was succeeded by his 15 year-old son, Karl XII. This caused Russia, Denmark, Norway and Poland to form an alliance and try to conquer some of the Swedish territories. The alliance attacked in 1700.
Initially King Karl XII was very successful in defending the Swedish territories. The Danes were quickly defeated, and at Narva, in modern-day Estonia, Swedish troops defeated a much more powerful Russian enemy. The initial success perhaps led to a Swedish underestimation of the Russian strength, which later proved to be fateful. After Narva, the King and his army fought in Poland for five years before a peace-treaty was signed. During these five years, the Russian Tsar Peter reorganised the Russian army.
In 1708 King Karl XII attacked Russia, trying to accomplish a decisive military victory. The Russians used their ancient strategy and burned everything when they retreated. This strategy and an extremely cold winter in 1708-1709 took a heavy toll of the Swedish army. In 1709 at Poltava, a weak Swedish army met the well prepared Russians and was almost annihilated. After Poltava, Russia conquered the Baltic provinces and a great part of Finland. The Danes landed in southern Sweden but were thrown back. In northern Germany Swedish territories were also lost.
Back in Sweden, King Karl XII decided to attack Norway, which, at this time, was a part of Denmark, in trying to defeat the Danes. He attacked in 1718 and was killed in the trenches outside the fortress of Fredriksten in southern Norway. This was the end of the Swedish Great Power period. In the peace- treaty, signed in 1721, Sweden lost its Baltic provinces and a part of Finland. Sweden also lost most of its territories in northern Germany.
Although Sweden lost its position as a Great Power, there were positive consequences. Sweden still was the most powerful of the Nordic countries, and most importantly, the new Swedish borders were much easier to defend than earlier.
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