Monday, November 18, 2013

Sweden in the Kabinettskriege Era

Bringing home the body of Karl XII-Gustaf Cederström
Dear Reader,

In the modern mind, Sweden is viewed as a sort of Scandinavian socialist paradise. The Swedes have given us great writers, like Henning Mankell (Wallander), and great actors, such as Max von Seydow. However, during the Kabinettskriege era, Sweden was known for something else: its empire. During this start period, the Swedes founded an overseas colony, New Sweden, in modern day Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. While the colony was taken over by the Dutch in 1655, small traces of Swedish culture still remain in the area. In addition, the Swedes possessed overseas colonies in Africa between 1650 and 1663. Interested in a timeline of the Kabinettskriege era? Click here. 

However, the Swedes never really possessed a large overseas empire, most of their imperial holdings were in Europe. At the height of Swedish power, the empire included  much of the North German Baltic sea coast, as well as portions of the current Baltic states, such as Latvia and Estonia, the whole of Finland, and a significant part of Norway.

The Swedish Empire (Sweden is Tan, Swedish conquests are in Orange)
While the Swedes were on the rise in the early Kabinettskriege era, by 1721, they had lost most of their overseas possessions in the Stora Nordiska Kriget: The Great Northern War.  Despite an excellent military, the Swedes had been defeated by an alliance of Russia, Denmark, Poland, and Prussia. What is surprising is not that they were defeated, but that they managed to hold out for twenty one years.

They were able to survive for so long as a result of one of the most controversial figures in Swedish history, Karl XII of Sweden, and his Karoliner. The Karoliner were some of the most effective soldiers of the Kabinettskriege era. The Swedish Karoliner used incredibly effective Gå-På (or "Head-On") tactics. These tactics meant that the soldiers would hold their fire until point-blank range, which caused massive causalities to the enemy. After a devastating point-blank volley, the Karoliner would charge fearlessly into close combat, and their panicked enemies would usually flee.

In modern times, many Swedes are atheists, but in the Kabinettskriege era, the Swedish army was held together by a strong belief in the Christian God. The Swedish in this period were Lutheran, and a mix of faith, and Gå-På tactics kept this small, but highly effective, army fighting against impossible odds.

However, this divine protection did not, contrary to Swedish belief, stop musket balls. At the battle of Poltava in 1709, the Swedes were defeated and Karl XII fled to the Ottoman Empire. Refusing to make peace, Karl XII continued the war beyond any hope of Swedish victory. He was eventually killed in Norway, while attempting to besiege a fortress. His death, and the tremendous losses absorbed by Sweden during this war, crushed the Swedish Empire. In addition, this defeat paved the way for the Russians to move into central Europe, with consequences leading up to the present day.

With that knowledge, let us return to the original painting which began this post.

This painting, by Swedish artist Gustaf Cederström, shows the Karoliner bringing home the body of Karl XII, during the so-called, "Karolinian death-march." A Swedish hunter, his son, and their dog, make way for these soldiers. On the hunters back, an enormous bird of prey hangs dead. This death of this majestic bird is intended to mirror the death of the great Swedish king. This epic painting shows the despair of Swedes at the end of the Great Northern War. 

After the death of Karl XII, Sweden's empire never fully recovered. The Swedish empire passed to his sister, Ulrika Eleonora, and her husband, Friedrich I of Hesse-Kassel. While the Swedes were able to defeat the Russians in the war of 1788, and take Norway in 1814, the Sweden's glory days were over. However, now, the Swedish have created a state which is the envy of other Europeans, and an economy which shows signs of strength. 

If we have any Swedish readers, what do you think of Karl XII? Was he responible for the loss of the Swedish Empire? What do you think about Sweden's history in the Kabinettskriege era?

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns 


  1. "During this start period, the Swedes founded an overseas colony, New Sweden, in modern day Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey."

    Sweden is now a socialist paradise, and those three states are arguably the worst in the union. What went wrong?

    "the colony was taken over by the Dutch in 1655..."

    Hm. It appears I have my answer. How did such a small country manage to ruin so much of the world?

    1. It should be noted, that while the Dutch took over these parts of the world in 1655, they only held them until 1667. Thus, perhaps it was the English who ruined these states... Unless of course, the Dutch were very busy for these twelve years...

  2. After Poltava, Charles XII fled to Ottoman territories. Do you know under what conditions he stayed there/ Was he a prisoner, was he interned? Was he held for ransom? What happened to his defeated army?

    1. Pierre- His defeated army surrendered shortly after the battle. May I recommend the book, "The Battle which Shook Europe," by Peter Englund. He has an excellent chapter on what happened to the defeated army at Poltava. Now, on the Charles XII. He was a guest of the Ottoman Empire, because both he and the Ottomans hated the Russians. He actually manage to goad the Ottomans into war against Peter the Great, in the River Pruth Campaign. Eventually, he overstayed his welcome, and actually got into a fight with the Turks who were guarding him. That led to him riding across Europe, back to Sweden. Does that answer the question?

  3. Thanks. I had an image of Charles XII being held to ransom, like Richard the First, Richard the Lionheart who was held to ransom by The Holy Roman Emporor whilst returning home from the Crusades.