Walking around Stockholm on a recent sunny Sunday, I was struck again by a nagging question: When and why did the Swedes become the peace-loving exemplars we’ve come to know and sometimes envy?
They weren’t always like that. Far from it.
As far back as the Viking age (circa 793-1050), the Swedes were troublemakers of the first order. While Norwegian and Danish Vikings went west and south, the Swedish branch tended to look east, putting its main plunder and trade focus on the Baltic coast and the navigable rivers leading deep into what’s now Russia.
For several centuries after the close of the Viking age, Sweden’s conflicts were generally more localized and the Kalmar Union united the crowns of Denmark, Norway and Sweden in 1389. But that didn’t last, finally falling apart in 1523.
However, it was the 17th century that dramatically raised Sweden’s international profile. In an era that’s described as the period of the Swedish Empire, it was a northern European powerhouse.
Gustavus Adolphus was still a couple of months shy of his 17th birthday when he became king of Sweden in 1611. And as he inherited three ongoing wars – against Denmark, Poland and Russia – you could say that his accession circumstances weren’t particularly auspicious. But he was well up to the job.
Historians rate Gustavus highly in two regards. One is as an administrator and pioneer of modern government. The other is as a military innovator, especially with regard to the use of artillery. In an age riven by conflict, he was known as the Lion of the North.
After concluding the inherited hostilities on generally favourable terms, Gustavus intervened in Europe’s Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). Coming in on the Protestant side, he immediately had a major impact, driving deep into Germany. I remember coming across a castle in Bavaria some years ago and being told it had been sacked during the Thirty Years’ War. I inquired after the identity of the sacking army and was astonished to be told it was the Swedes.
Gustavus died relatively young, killed in action at the 1632 Battle of Lutzen. But Sweden’s military punch didn’t expire with him.
For example, the 1655 invasion of Poland generated the phenomenon known as the Swedish Deluge, whereby Swedish troops rampaged across western Poland. In events reminiscent of Viking days, territory was laid waste and treasures were appropriated as plunder.
At its zenith, the Swedish Empire embraced Finland, the present-day Baltics and chunks of northern Germany. But being a largely agrarian economy with a relatively small population, its position wasn’t sustainable. In the end, military aptitude wasn’t enough.
By 1721, only Finland was left and it was lost to Russia in 1809. And although Norway was awarded to Sweden as a Napoleonic War consolation prize, the Norwegians were never keen on the arrangement and the union was dissolved in 1905. And that was pretty much it as far as imperial aspirations were concerned.
While Sweden remained officially neutral in both the First and Second World Wars, its behaviour during the latter has attracted some controversy. German troops and supplies were allowed transit through the Swedish railway system and Swedish iron and machine parts were critical inputs to the Nazi war machine.
In the reckoning of Swedish journalist Ulf Nilson, Sweden functioned as “an extension of Germany’s war industry” up until at least 1943. And as English journalist Michael Booth puts it, “Sweden, the serene swan, sailed through the 1939-1945 conflict – during which its GNP rose by 20 per cent.”
In fairness, though, viewing Sweden as a German collaborator is something of a stretch. Yes, the Swedes were ruthlessly pragmatic. But they were also a small country navigating an extraordinarily turbulent and dangerous environment in which their practical choices were circumscribed.
Sweden isn’t the only country to have undergone a profound shift in attitude where militarism is concerned. For instance, both Japan and Germany were radically transformed by the Second World War.
However, there’s a major difference.
Japan and Germany had their militaristic inclinations literally beaten out of them, undergoing the trauma of unconditional surrender amid the overwhelming destruction of total war. Nothing comparable happened to Sweden.
Instead, perhaps what we have is a mutually reinforcing mixture of Nordic pragmatism and moral evolution. Maybe that’s the answer to my Swedish question.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps just a little bit.