Swedish reminiscences

My loveliest research placement in Sweden, enabled by the generous support of the Svenska Institutet foundation and the Faculty of History of Uppsala University, also coincided with the spread of the viral pandemic which made the rest of the world a strange place. I was truly lucky to benefit intellectually and aesthetically from visiting the splendid Swedish libraries and archives, as well as to enjoy the elegance of the older section of the Humanities campus of Uppsala University. Here in Uppsala is one of the richest libraries in Europe – Carolina Rediviva, where the old kings stored the books confiscated during their continental wars; the oldest university building Gustavianum, commissioned by the famous strategist and commander Gustav II Adolf; and magnificent Uppsala cathedral, crowned with the bell seized by Karl XII in Polish Toruń as part of a military contribution. Here is the combination of antiquity, beauty, and friendliness which made my work far from my study in Oxford so pleasant.

The difficulty with writing about Sweden in a blog about military history is the history of Sweden itself. The Swedes have taken pride in staying neutral for two hundred years, and yet the foundation of Sweden rests upon the radiant military achievements of the seventeenth century. But those familiar with the historical background might keep in mind during their strolls through Stockholm that this city used to be the arena where the most protracted and geographically extensive military campaigns of the seventeenth century were planned. The powerful gun-merchant houses of Tripp, De Geer, and Cronberg were all based in Sweden, and enjoyed considerable concessions granted by the Swedish crown. Not so far away from the central station in Norrmalm, a factory producing gun fuses was established, while the Uppland region contained a facility for production of saltpetre for the military. Differences between then and now can be exaggerated: even today Sweden remains one of the largest exporters of arms in the world, and the Swedish army relies almost entirely on deliveries from the domestic defence manufacturers.

statue of gustav iii skeppsbron stockholm

Statue of Gustav III, Skeppsbron, Stockholm (photo O.Turchyn)

At Skeppsbron in front of the royal palace and near the bronze statue of Gustav III – an area popular today amongst tourists – was the old harbour for transport vessels. Here ships were loaded with arms and munitions for continental stockpiles. From Skeppsbron in June 1655 the military hardware was dispatched to Stettin by Karl X Gustav, whose mechanisms for financing and supplying the army I research in my dissertation. “God give us good weather and winds” –wrote the king in a letter to the government of Pomerania upon the departure of the ships. Together with the cargo, the convoy transported a group of military engineers from the 940-strong artillery regiment –the tooth and nails of the Swedish assault forces, which had no equivalent in contemporary Europe. The dispatches of arms from Stockholm were much anticipated by the military leadership in the bridgehead of Pomerania, as the network of continental arsenals, artillery service depots, and factories supplying the Swedish armed forces during the late phase of the Thirty Years’ War had shrunk after the conclusion of the treaty of Westphalia. The reinforcements of spring-summer 1655 were followed by a sweeping advance across Poland and Royal Prussia, and occupation of the latter until summer 1660.

The Swedish army of the seventeenth century excelled at fighting in central Europe, which became Sweden’s primary battlefield following the invasion of Livonia and Riga in 1620s. In the foreign environments of the continent, Sweden´s military leadership faced a host of problems, carrying out operations in unfamiliar landscapes, challenging not only the way the combat was approached, but also the configuration of the auxiliary services. To meet the challenges of facing the unknown, the Swedish leadership required resilient resource support as much as brilliant military planning. My in-depth analyses of the Swedish operations in Prussia and Poland demonstrate the crucial role played by the auxiliary staff in solving the wartime challenges by accessing all available social, economic, and trade networks in the theatre to channel resources to the operating units, and to improve the reach of the campaigns. The military actions were primarily facilitated by the treasury staff embedded with the field armies. The treasurers were career bureaucrats, who reported directly to the deployed representatives of the treasury college (Sw. kammarkollegiet), whose headquarters were based in the north-western part of the royal palace in Stockholm. 

In a sense, any given Swedish deployment to the continent presented something distantly similar to what Clifford L. Jones describes as “more of a supply project rather than a tactical manoeuvre” in his scholarship about the D-Day landings. However, unlike certain long-range expeditions by other contemporary armies, the Swedish war-effort can be a subject of the most scrupulous analyses due to the perfectly preserved collections of primary documents from the National Archives of Sweden. The system of oversight of cash flows and army acquisitions in the theatres was one of the reasons why Sweden emerged as a great power, and produced an abundance of documents for historians to study. The founder of the Military Archives (Sw. krigsarkivet), Birger Steckzén, mentioned to Michael Roberts in a private conversation that “not only every gun and every pike, but every spade and every cannonball was carefully noted down and accounted for, in strong contrast to the waste and disorder of many of the German states.” Such diligence in overseeing the operations allowed not only for better financial management, but also shaped the system of the modern Swedish government, whose roots lie in the reforms of 1620-30s.

Glancing back at my trip to Sweden, I am still charmed by the density of references to the depths of her past that unfolds before visitors, and by the surprising semblance of her modern bureaucratized system with what it used to be back in the war-driven seventeenth century. The interest in the history of war in Sweden has, however, slowly moved away from intense academic discussions to the bookshelves of fiction and publicistik –a bizarre development considering the excellent quality and coverage of the primary documents from the Swedish archives, which can be so useful for the debates on the “Fiscal-Military State”… But modern scholars still recognize the outstanding utility of these sources.

Oleksandr Turchyn, New College Oxford