The Rise And Fall Of A Superpower

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A (Very) Compressed History of Sweden, part 3

At it’s largest, in the 17th and 18th centuries, Sweden controlled Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Pomerania, Schlesvig-Holstein, parts of Norway, and parts of Russia. Swedish armies ventured into Germany, Austria, Russia, Ukraine and Turkey, and established colonies in the Americas and Africa. Three kings and one queen reigned during this period, but the last king reigned the country via mail for 14 years and lost it all because of his love for adventures.


Gustav Vasa.Portrait made by Jacob Binck, belonging to Uppsala University's art collection.(Picture from Wikipedia)
Gustav Vasa.
Portrait made by Jacob Binck, belonging to Uppsala University’s art collection.
(Picture from Wikipedia)

A new king divorces Denmark (and becomes the founder of the world’s longest cross country ski race)

The Union with Denmark lasted 126 years, until the Danes were thrown out of the country, 1523 AD.The battle was lead by Gustav Vasa, whose father had been among those executed in Stockholms blodbad 1520 AD. Hunted by Danish soldiers, believing that he had failed to start an uprising, he was fleeing on ski to Norway from the village of Mora in the province Dalarna. But the people in Dalarna had changed their minds and managed to catch up with him, begging him to return, asking him to lead an uprising.

Gustav’s flight and return is commemorated in the world’s longest cross-country ski race (90 km ~56 miles), Vasaloppet, which every year attracts some 16,000 skiers from all over the world.

The count of 16,000 contestants is just the main race, held on the first Sunday in March; the starting field doesn’t have room for more, why you must qualify in other races for a place in the field. But you can participate in a number of less qualified races in the same track; it is open and serviced the whole week – all and all, about 70,000 skiers run, walk and stumble those 90 km every year.

Crowned as Gustav I, he brought about the Swedish Reformation, ended feudalism, raised taxes and took away the rights from landowners, noblemen and clergy, replacing them with governors and bishops of his own choice. He is probably the most renown of all Swedish kings, sometimes hailed as the father of the nation and the founder of modern Sweden.


Gustav II Adolf in the battle at Stuhm. Oil on canvas by Carl Johan WahlbomNational Museum of Fine Arts
Gustav II Adolf in the battle at Stuhm.
Oil on canvas by Carl Johan Wahlbom
National Museum of Fine Arts

The Swedish “Empire” and the fog at Lützen

During the next century, Sweden emerged as a great power in Europe after a series of successful wars against Denmark, Poland and Russia. Under pretense of defending the Lutheran faith in the Thirty Years’ War, Sweden won great battles on the European continent led by Gustav II Adolf (Gustavus Adolphus the Great, reigned 1611-1632 AD). His innovative tactical integration of infantry, cavalry, logistics, and particularly his use of artillery, earned him the title of the “Father of Modern Warfare”.

During this time, Sweden took control of the entire Baltic area, thus controlling Europe’s main sources of iron, copper, timber, tar, fur, and grain, and became a serious competitor to the German Holy Roman Empire. Unfortunately, Gustav Adolf was killed a foggy day in 1632 AD, in the Battle at Lützen (in today’s Germany) against the armies of the “Catholic League”, after having been separated from his troops by the inpenetrable fog.

The Swedish expression “dimman vid Lützen” (the fog in Lützen) is still used about something that is inpenetrable or incomprehensible.

Among the government reforms made by Gustav II Adolf, the parish registration system for tax collection was one of the most important: most of the books are still available as a source for historic research as well as research for Swedish ancestors.

Gustav II Adolf was succeeded by Queen Kristina, his daughter. In 1638, during her reign, the colony New Sweden was established in currentday states of Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland. Today’s city of Wilmington was originally called Fort Christina. The colony was ceded to Holland in 1655. Sweden also had a small colony, Cabo Corso, in today’s country of Ghana, for a shorter period. Kristina abdicated 1655 after having converted back to the Roman Catholic faith; she spent her last days in the Vatican.

Later, during the reign of Gustav III, Sweden also had a colony on the island S:t Barthélemy (St. Barth) in the West Indies. Today an autonomous part of France, the 100 years of Swedish reign in St. Barth is commemorated by three crowns in the flag, as well as by Swedish names of villages and streets.



Karl XII in 1700 ADOil on canvas, by David von Krafft.National Museum of Fine Arts, Stockholm(Picture from
Karl XII in 1700 AD
Oil on canvas, by David von Krafft.
National Museum of Fine Arts, Stockholm
(Picture from

The Grey Cloak and the Warrior King

A period of relative peace followed, allowing king Karl XI (English: Charles XI, Latin: Carolus XI, reigned 1660-1697 AD) to consolidate the state finances, improve the legal system, and build maritime and land armaments. Having difficulties to read and write, he was probably dyslectic, but able and intelligent. Aiming to eradicate corruption, he travelled by horse across the country, alone and dressed in a grey cloak, not revealing his true identity. This gave him the nickname Gråkappan (the Grey Cloak).

He was followed by his 15 year old son, Karl XII (Charles XII / Carolus XII), who reigned 1697-1718 AD. The young kid had received an extensive education by specially recruited teachers: engineers, academics and bishops. In particular he was interested in mathematics and military topics, but he was also fluent in Swedish, German, French and Latin, and later also learned Finnish.

The new king’s youth was probably seen as an opportunity by Russia, Poland and Denmark, who pooled their armed forces and declared war on Sweden in 1700 AD. But Karl XII proved to be a military genius and won spectacular victories during the first years of his reign. First of all he landed with his troops close to Copenhagen, threatening the Danish capitol, thereby forcing peace with the Danish king. After that, concentrating on Poland and Russia, he was constantly on march with his army across eastern Europe. An attempted campaign to conquer Moscow had to be aborted because of the harsh winter (hmm… like a few others, later). Having been thoroughly defeated at Poltava in 1709 AD, he retreated to recuperate into the small town of Bender in Turkey, where he stayed for six years, negotiating with the Sultan, trying to persuade him to attack Russia.

Not having been in Sweden for 14 years (reigning the country by mail!), he finally returned to Sweden in 1715 AD, after a two weeks’ ride through Europe with only 24 guarding soldiers, just to find that his “empire” was crumbling. He engaged in several defensive campaigns, but was finally killed in 1718 AD by a bullet from a Norwegian soldier. The bullet, which is assumed to have been a button from a uniform, left a 26 mm hole in both sides of the king’s head. In the following peace treaties, Sweden lost its overseas provinces and its position as a dominant power in Europe.

The history of Karl XII is controversial: he has been hailed for his fabulous military genius and achievements (and still is, by right-wing activists). But modern historians are more critical, noticing that his flair for adventures made him neglect internal problems and finally lose what his predecessors had won.